Dissociation and the norm

Those of us in the urban world, in a developed country or part thereof, tend to think of commercial and consumption-based transactions very much in business terms, we talk of doing ‘business’ with one another, or providing a service or ‘good’, or being a ‘resource’ for your business. For many, the earth is something the pavement is built on – when they think of the earth they think of the flat surface upon which they walk. Who could blame them? We are dissociated from all of the earth’s provisions: our water comes out from our tap and is not collected from the stream, our food is bought in a shop and not plucked from the tree or field by us, after a season of growing and nurturing it. We do not see the limestone from which comes cement, the clay from which ceramic tiles are made, the coal which is burned to give us light. The mining of metal, from deep in the ground, is off our radars. We simply do not think in these terms because there has been no need for it. Steel comes from a hardware shop and before that a steel supplier, and before that? Hmmm, I forgot, it doesn’t really matter to me, goes the logic. SO we do not make steps, logical conclusions, as to how we get each and every product, material, thing that sustains us each day. We do not see beyond the product to link up cause and effect.

Well, it all comes from the earth, and some of it may be abundant and some very much finite and exhaustible. Some of it may have minimal environmental effect while some of it may cause disastrous harm for planet and people. And we generally do not live in an economy which acknowledges the importance of this. Sustainability for generations to come is not a mandate of our culture, which bases human success and health on high levels of consumption of materials and goods. We have a tacit agreement to plunder in this generation, because it causes the most immediate and obvious good and in doing so, allows the winners in short-term political cycles to be re-elected. There has been no collective approach to say “look, we cannot just divide it up like this, we cannot take something that is meant to last indefinitely into the future, and in doing so wipe out species with all the accompanying threats.

To my mind, the only way we can get there is if we have a security net for all of us – to grant us enough without fear of us being unable to provide for ourselves and our families. And this requires that those in search of profit do not infringe upon that grant, that right. So in essence one could not ‘own’ something through the accumulation of wealth, as ownership is a concept dependent on the consequences of that ownership. One could be granted user rights so long as infringement does not take place, as long as the use of a resource does not take away from the livelihoods of others and lifeforms, both now and in the future. A corporation may claim to be benefitting everyone else in the process of making profit, but by how much more could people be benefitted, under fair terms? I do not say do not profit, but I say profit sensibly and equitably, not grossly. Because it is this gross profit which is denying the large majority of people essential goods, services and livelihoods, and in the process causing so much environmental harm.

If money is supposed to represent something, perhaps it should represent human livelihood without infringement (perhaps I can call it the infringement limit)- the pursuit of profit should not involve the oppression of others or the erosion of our natural resource base. Our economic goods should have a certain scope and there should be inherent rules as to what cannot be bought or sold or mined or farmed. To illustrate, it is no longer legal to buy another human being as a slave, it is not legal to own oxygen, or a language, or to copyright a circle, or to own a plant species (though this is on its way to being changed). There are some things that are a common good, and should never be owned.

I feel we have made and are making that mistake already with certain goods – one of them I believe is land. Owning land came about to provide security of tenure, but with it came social exclusion and environmental destruction – the land owner had all of the benefits (given they worked hard enough to ensure their enterprise stay competitive) with few of the responsibilities. I believe wholeheartedly in a scenario where companies should not be able to buy and own land exclusively, but rather buy security of tenure along with inheritance of responsibilities. People should all be entitled to land from government should they require it to live on – I believe in that basic right. If they are rural dwellers, they should be entitled land for small-scale farming, or if urban, for conducting a small artisinal business. But if they require extra land for a larger, more ambitious business, they should then buy security of tenure.

When our corporations are called to account as they must do by law, they should also account for use of natural resources, and there should be limits into how much any individual can profit from a certain amount of natural resources, in line with the infringement limit.

A perfect example would be water – if there is excess rainfall and all humans have a sufficient amount to drink and use, and all ecosystems have enough, and groundwater tables are replenished, then the infringement limit has not been reached and no regulation need be imposed.

Until such time as we frame our responsibilities to others, to nature, now and in the future in a solid legal framework which impacts upon our entire trade and socio-political system, we face a situation where our user-rights have been over-extended and greed will creep in to cause irreparable damage.


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