On Ownership

Guy McPherson

“I am not suggesting that indigenous people or the Greek Cynics were faultless. Rather, I am indicating there is more than one way to live. There are numerous examples, still, of societies dominated by people who live beyond the obsession 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 American author Daniel Quinn). Nor am I suggesting that I have not benefited from the concept of ownership. As a heterosexual Caucasian man, I have lived at the apex of ownership—i.e., patriarchy—for my entire adult life.”—Dr. Guy McPherson

Going Dark

By Dr. Guy McPherson

Homage to Ishmael. Image derives from Antonimo

Homage to Ishmael. (Image derives from Antonimo.)

“The premise of the Taker story is ‘the world belongs to man’ . . . The premise of the Leaver story is ‘man belongs to the world.’”―Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

Guy McPherson

MAITLAND Florida—(Weekly Hubris)—1 December 2020—Occasionally I see this question, usually in a social-media forum: If you were to eliminate one thing from society, what would it be?

For me, ownership comes to mind. The living planet faces many problems. Many seem to be rooted in ownership.

As nearly as I can distinguish, ownership did not exist until civilizations arose. Humans spent millions of years sharing with and nurturing one another in ways that led to a relatively benign human existence. A few thousand years into civilization, and everybody wants more. Ownership is the 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 cannot have you taking any because you are taking it away from me.

Contemporary neoclassical economists proclaim a contrary message. The rising tide of economic prosperity, they say, floats all boats. Blinded by the ridiculous assumptions of a societal experiment gone horribly awry, they continue to promote the pathological system that has taken us to the edge of our own extinction. Driven by the love of money and its underlying monetary system, they will continue to benefit from the system until, surprisingly to them, it no longer delivers privilege and power to them.

It was not 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 1) virtue is the highest good, 2) the essence of virtue is self-control, and 3) surrender to any external influence is beneath human dignity. In other words, they considered dignity a worthy pursuit, perhaps more important than the acquisition of personal power.

I am not suggesting that indigenous people or the Greek Cynics were faultless. Rather, I am indicating there is more than one way to live. There are numerous examples, still, of societies dominated by people who live beyond the obsession 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 American author Daniel Quinn). 

Nor am I suggesting that I have not benefited from the concept of ownership. As a heterosexual Caucasian man, I have lived at the apex of ownership—i.e., patriarchy—for my entire adult life.

My own personal awakening to the disadvantages of ownership came shortly after I moved to an off-grid homestead in the wilds of New Mexico. I was surrounded by people who thought differently than is customary. I learned about and employed the gift economy. I followed the lead of others in sharing expensive items and inexpensive but hearty meals. After considerable quiet and deep reflection, I realized that there is more than one way to live. In response, my approach was graciously described in Truth-Out: “Make the most, imperatively, of what we have and can do now, with an emphasis on excellence in every endeavor, all while accepting that everything is telling us that we are on our way to extinction (soon rather than later), and prepare to take leave of the good earth without losing our humanity―graciously, with dignity.” In short, my lifelong pursuit of questioning the answers led me down a proverbial rabbit hole that exposed several undesirable aspects of the notion of ownership.

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. The latter 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 our species is headed. And that place is right to the edge of extinction. To the notion that might makes right, and that only power is needed to justify the acquisition of more power. More is all there is. 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 is too late for different. It is too late for this culture to correct its errors, and there is 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, though, it can be different. 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 speaker and writer Jiddu Krishnamurti[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiddu_Krishnamurti] pointed out, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Editor’s Note: Dr. McPherson, above, references one of his Ur-Mentors, author and cultural critic Daniel Quinn. Following McPherson’s brief meditation on ownership, I would like to include one of Quinn’s teaching-stories:

The ship was sinking—and sinking fast. The captain told the passengers and crew, ‘We’ve got to get the lifeboats in the water right away.’

But the crew said, ‘First we have to end capitalist oppression of the working class. Then we’ll take care of the lifeboats.’

Then the women said, ‘First we want equal pay for equal work. The lifeboats can wait.’

The racial minorities said, ‘First we need to end racial discrimination. Then seating in the lifeboats will be allotted fairly.’

The captain said, ‘These are all important issues, but they won’t matter a damn if we don’t survive. We’ve got to lower the lifeboats right away!’

But the religionists said, ‘First we need to bring prayer back into the classroom. This is more important than lifeboats.’

Then the pro-life contingent said, ‘First we must outlaw abortion. Fetuses have just as much right to be in those lifeboats as anyone else.’

The right-to-choose contingent said, ‘First acknowledge our right to abortion, then we’ll help with the lifeboats.’

The socialists said, ‘First we must redistribute the wealth. Once that’s done, everyone will work equally hard at lowering the lifeboats.’

The animal-rights activists said, ‘First we must end the use of animals in medical experiments. We can’t let this be subordinated to lowering the lifeboats.’

Finally, the ship sank, and because none of the lifeboats had been lowered, everyone drowned.

The last thought of more than one of them was, ‘I never dreamed that solving humanity’s problems would take so long—or that the ship would sink so SUDDENLY.’

To order Dr. McPherson’s books, click the cover images here below:

Only Love Remains: Dancing at the Edge of Extinction by Guy R. McPherson

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Guy McPherson

About Guy McPherson

Dr. Guy McPherson is an internationally recognized speaker, award-winning scientist, and one of the world’s leading authorities on abrupt climate change leading to near-term human extinction. He is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. His published works include 16 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Dr. McPherson has been featured on television and radio and in several documentary films. He is a blogger and social critic who co-hosts his own radio show, “Nature Bats Last.” Dr. McPherson speaks to general audiences across the globe, and to scientists, students, educators, and not-for-profit and business leaders who seek their best available options when confronting Earth’s cataclysmic changes. Visit McPherson's Author Page at amazon.com.
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10 Responses to On Ownership

  1. Avatar Paul Chace says:

    I always said, I do not own the beautiful land where my home is,only that I am blessed to live out my life here.

    Provided I take good care of it and my family, I will enjoy it all, only to pass it on to the next. My daughter won’t own it, she too will enjoy it.
    Thank you doc. For all you do.
    Consider yourself and Pauline welcome here any time.
    Westport, Ma

  2. Avatar Guy R McPherson says:

    I could not agree more, Paul Chace. You are echoing indigenous cultures.

  3. Avatar Steve says:

    “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

    It is said people go mad in herds but regain sanity one by one, the above quote is a good place to start that lonely path….

    Fitting into society, attaining recognition and approval, is hardwired in childhood ‘education’ and continuously reinforced through media.

    Walking away is viewed as being a weirdo, an outlier, and most of all a threat. To try to awaken with questions that provoke introspection often leads to loss of friendships and punishment through rejection from the ‘system’.

    Thank you very much Doc.

  4. Avatar Guy R McPherson says:

    Thank you, Steve. I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

  5. Avatar Linda says:

    I have found your work and writing to be profoundly
    Illuminating and a result of finding you and doing
    Research my life has dramatically changed. I am
    sure l am not the only one you will probably never
    know how many people you have influenced. I thank
    you from the bottom of my heart and wish all the
    best to you and the lovely Pauline.

  6. Avatar judy pearce says:

    “Every bit for me means less for you. I cannot have you taking any because you are taking it away from me.”

    I see this daily in my poor, rural area, where a person on disability criticizes someone else for being on disability because that person is somehow “other.”

  7. Avatar Guy R McPherson says:

    Thank you, Linda. The lovely Pauline and I very much appreciate your comment.

  8. Avatar Guy R McPherson says:

    Your comment is sadly perceptive, judy pearce. It seems “other”-ing is one thing we do very well.

  9. Avatar Mike S says:

    First off let me just say I love all your work. I studied conservation biology and never encountered your work in my classes, having to find it on my own. I am glad I did. I appreciate your brand of eco-pessimism and think it is one of the only realistic approaches to the problems of today. Your work reminds me of Adorno but for ecology haha.

    I have to say, though, I don’t really see the social program of socialism as incompatible with ecology, or somehow prioritizing the superstructural (wealth) over the material base (of which the the earth and its resources are central). Marxists are the first to acknowledge the dependency of cultures on raw resources and the environment’s offerings and limitations. In fact, I think socialism is the only partial solution to the ecological catastrophe precisely because of its emphasis on the material conditions of the world as they relate to humans and the more than human. A proper Marxist approach would mean undoing ownership as a concept altogether and reenforcing the commons as commons.

    I also find the work of John Foster compelling in this regard, and his notion that capitalism as introduced a metabolic rift whereby the superstructural concerns of the market and increasing commodity value have become detached from the material conditions which sustain such enterprises. I wondered if you had any thoughts on Marxist ecology. Or perhaps you think this is improper because it is a form of “hope” and I am not being radical enough in understanding that the extinction of which you speak precedes capitalism.

  10. Avatar Guy R McPherson says:

    I have no comments about socialism, Mike S, because I am not qualified to write about the topic. However, civilization is a heat engine, as indicated by at least 5 peer-reviewed papers by Tim Garrett, professor at the University of Utah. Social arrangements matter not at all when viewed through this lens.

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