An uncommonly common problem
We all like to own things but Murray argues it’s sharing things that will help us be sustainable long-term.
We could say that once upon a time, no individual owned anything and that everybody owned everything. But we’d be wrong.
I’d never thought about common ownership or ‘the commons’ until I interviewed poet Brian Turner and artist Grahame Sydney back in 2010. They were fighting a wind farm proposal, arguing that visual amenity was a ‘common’ which we all own, and that the wind farm proponents were effectively privatising it.
Since then I’ve given it a lot of thought. Where did the trend of owning what was previously ‘the commons’ start? Where is it headed? What are the ramifications?
As soon as life got more complex than algae, there have been fights for rights to the commons. Perhaps it was even happening by then, one piece of lichen covering a particular rock no other lichen could unless that other lichen wiped it out first. Many animals compete for physical territory, some for ecological territory; all compete for food. Early man, recently out of Africa and colonising along the banks of the Danube, had only farming tools. Later generations had weapons, a clear indication that they’d come to the point where too many wanted too little. That was the point where there were not enough commons left and clearly the price had gone up.
History gives us a myriad of examples. Some folk tend to hang on to ownership, particularly of territory, at the expense of others (the term ‘real estate’ comes from ‘royal estate’). Indeed, we all do it when we exclude others from our patch by calling it ‘private’.
Until recently, scarcity of both territory and resources could be easily offset by just going further afield, further away – as far away as the other side of the planet in the case of European settlers to NZ – or deeper down, further up, somewhere else or, as a last resort resource-wise, by substitution.
At an ever-quickening rate, we mapped everywhere, divvied it all up, and started haggling. When there were too many of us in one small area we built upward. Donald Trump was an early dealer in the yet-to-be privatised common that is elevated air space.
Our apparently insatiable demand for self-improvement via acquisition, coupled with our apparent inability to control population in a socially acceptable manner has seen us running into the limits of what is available in a physical sense. If we want more urban land, it has to be at the expense of surrounding (existing) farmland. If we then want more farmland to replace what was lost to the urban incursion and to feed the extra mouths being housed, it has to be at the expense of something else like forests, conservation land, aquifer draw-down or whatever. A classic example would be Auckland sprawling outwards. Follow it through and the pressure to produce food from the remaining land has resulted in the importation of palm kernel from other land which until recently supported important rain forests.
The physical commons are limited, and in many cases heading for exhaustion at an exponentially-increasing pace. This has led to increased questing for non-physical ‘commons’ to ‘own’ like intellectual property, visual amenity, artistic merit. All intangibles, all wishful potential profit-makers.
I suggest that if we trace it all back, the ownership of non-physical items is a great game we can play until we actually want something physical. It gets more confusing when we are contemplating something essentially physical but which has a non-physical attribution, like a painting where we are bidding up the ‘price’ of some dried oil on a piece of canvas. The value of a Rembrandt can go from tens to hundreds to thousands to millions to billions, but the moment the owner is into their third day without food, it’s worth a meal. Maybe – if the supplier of that meal is in search of a spade or an axe – not even that.
Non-physical commons have no apparent limits. You can presumably imagine something, give it a name, convince just one other person it is worth something, and flog it off. This poses two interesting questions: how will the future ownership of finite stuff play out, and what happens if we keep pumping money into the system when there is a reduction in
the amount of real stuff available? For example, not the smart phones you see on a retailer’s shelf, but the copper, gold and rare earths needed to make them.
It has to be obvious that if you double your population, you halve the possible acreage-per-head, halve the amount of copper available per head, indeed halve everything per-head. Can someone please explain then, how having more people makes us richer? No? Clearly having more people means less chance for an individual to own anything, in a physical sense.
Some of the ways we obtain access to the commons are a little uncomfortable to deal with. The US’S military power has a lot to do with what we get, how we get it, and at what price and we seem to prefer not to have that discussion. The fact is that there is not enough left in the way of planetary resources for the Third World to raise its consumption level to ours but we seem to avoid that one by thinking in terms of raising them out of poverty while studiously avoiding the point that piles of money are nothing real and guarantee access to precisely nothing.
Meantime, there are a few – there’s only room for a few – who are attempting to mop-up the remaining resources and opportunities. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the TPPA is quite analogous to the demolition of Earth being posted on a basement noticeboard four light years away for all to see. In the TPPA case, it’s an overseas court situation with no legal aid or Friend of the Court service available for small players. The only place that process ends is with a small number of people or corporations owning everything. In some places, corporations already own the rain which falls on people’s private property. Pay up or die of thirst; poorest lose first. Some game.
We seem incapable as a society of having that debate and seem to need to avoid it at all costs. I see war(s) ahead, increasing in desperation with time. How else have we ever divvied up too-little into too-many? The ‘loaves and fishes’ parable might sound warm and fuzzy, but loaves are industrial agriculture and – globally at least – fishing has shot its smolt. Both consume fossil oils by the barrel too and