“Where does ownership take us? We need only investigate reality, based on recent trends, to see where we’re headed. And that place is to the edge of extinction. To the notion that might makes right, and only power is needed to justify the acquisition of more power. Because more is all there is. Because more is its own reward in a culture that values power over justice and more over better. When quantity becomes the only quality worth having, more is all we have. In a culture that values accomplishments over relationships and acquisitions over emotions, more is the only attribute worth pursuing. How could it be any different?”—Dr. Guy McPherson
By Dr. Guy McPherson
“A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members—among them the need to need one another. The answer to the present alignment of political power with wealth is the restoration of the identity of community and economy.”―Wendell Berry, from The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
BELLOWS FALLS Vermont—(Hubris)—September/October 2023—Occasionally, I see this question being asked: If you were to eliminate one thing, what would it be?
For me, there is no question: ownership. The living planet faces many predicaments. To me, most seem to be rooted in ownership.
As nearly as I can distinguish, ownership did not exist until civilization arose. Millions of years spent sharing and nurturing led to relatively benign human existence. A few thousand years into civilization, and everybody wants more. Ownership is a fundamental concept underlying the pathology of capitalism.
More of everything. More for me, not for you. As Gordon Gekko pointed out in the 1987 film Wall Street, it’s a zero-sum game. Every bit for me means less for you. I can’t have you taking any because you’re taking it away from me.
Contemporary neo-classical economists proclaim a contrary message. The rising tide of economic prosperity, they say, floats all boats. Blinded by the ridiculous assumptions of an experiment gone horribly awry, they continue to promote the pathological system that is leading to our extinction. Driven by the love of money and its underlying monetary system, they will continue to benefit from the system until, surprising to them, it no longer delivers power to them.
It wasn’t always this way, even after civilizations arose. The Greek Cynics were noted for the notion of using what was available even across the boundaries of ownership. They believed humans were motivated by selfishness, but they also believed that: 1) virtue is the only good; 2) the essence of virtue is self-control; and 3) surrendering to any external influence is beneath human dignity. Yes, they considered dignity a worthy pursuit. It was perhaps more important than the acquisition of personal power.
I’m not suggesting, as many will protest, that indigenous people or the Greek Cynics were faultless. Rather, I am indicating, for at least the hundredth time in this space, that there is more than one way to live. There are numerous examples, still, of societies filled with people who live beyond obsessions with possessions. There is more than the singular approach we take . . . to, well, take. But in this culture, takers vastly outnumber leavers (to use words popularized by Daniel Quinn).
Nor am I suggesting I haven’t benefited from the concept of ownership. As a heterosexual Caucasian man, I have lived at the apex of ownership for my entire life, so far.
Where does ownership come from? Where does it lead?
The word itself dates only to the 16th Century. Obviously, the roots go much deeper. As is often the case, I turn to the ancients for perspective.
The opinions of Plato and Aristotle differed significantly with respect to ownership. Plato believed the idea created divisive inequalities. Historical and contemporary events support Plato’s view, rather than the view of his student, Aristotle. In contrast to Plato, Aristotle believed private property enabled people to receive the full benefit of their labor . . . and also that of their slaves, of course. Aristotle’s ownership of slaves indicates an inherently strong personal motivation to support the idea of ownership.
Where does ownership take us? We need only investigate reality, based on recent trends, to see where we’re headed. And that place is to the edge of extinction. To the notion that might makes right, and only power is needed to justify the acquisition of more power. Because more is all there is. Because more is its own reward in a culture that values power over justice and more over better. When quantity becomes the only quality worth having, more is all we have. In a culture that values accomplishments over relationships and acquisitions over emotions, more is the only attribute worth pursuing. How could it be any different?
Culturally, it cannot be different now. It’s too late for different to overcome same, same, and same. It’s too late for this culture to correct its errors, and there’s no motivation in this culture to make the necessary corrections. This culture will never know justice because the values were transcribed onto proverbial tablets of stone many generations ago.
For individuals, it can be different, though.
As individuals, we can seek freedom from the straitjacket of culture. We can seek love over power, relationships over accomplishments, and better over more. A high price will be paid for such pursuits, however. There will be no reward beyond freedom from insanity, which comes with the prevailing sentiment that the sane are insane. As Indian-American philosopher, speaker, and writer Jiddu Krishnamurti pointed out, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
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