Tragedy of the Uncommons Part 2

How do you own a tree? What part of “tree” are you controlling? Where are the property boundaries? Do you own all the elements that contribute to your tree’s continuing existence? There are vast fungal networks feeding your tree, creating essential flows of nutrition and information between the visible tree and other organisms both above and below the soil’s surface over great distances. The tree is also in constant necessary communication with sunlight and air, taking in materials and energy and releasing waste gases and heat from leaf surfaces. Without these flows your tree would die. What part of the flow is under your legal rights?

Presumably your right to this property is dependent upon its continued existence, no? Do you have authority over everything essential to your tree’s life? Do you even know what that everything entails? What legal rights do you as tree owner have to ensure that your tree is not harmed by your neighbor’s rights as owner of another small surface segment of the flow?

And what of the future? Or the past? Do your rights extend back into the days of fallen leaves whose decayed remnants are today nourishing your tree? Do you control the future days of sunlight and water flows into your tree so that your tree will remain your property as long as you both are living? What of progeny, both yours and the tree’s? And who owns the tree when you are decaying into the soil around its roots? 

You are smiling at my questions. They are silly. There is no real debate upon these terms. We all know what is owned when we own a tree… except that we don’t.

What we own is not a tree, but the right to use what portion of the tree we desire. When we claim dominion over a tree, we do not also accept the responsibility to maintain that tree as a living being. We are severing the thing owned from the living being. We are unmaking the tree when we lay claim to the fractured parts that serve us. We kill the tree, quite often in actuality, when we take what we want from the whole system that is a tree without replenishing the flows that make up that whole tree system. We do not even ensure that our own rights to that tree property will persist into our own future. We deprive our future selves of our full property rights when we spread this present harm into our tree system. We also deprive our neighbor, whose own tree is in essential communication with ours, past, present and future. And we claim and destroy the rights to live for organisms that we can not even name in our patchy and insufficient knowledge of this interdependent web of beings.

Do those beings have a right to life? Or at least to acknowledgement?

We think we know what we mean when we claim a tree. It usually runs to owning the body of the tree that we can see. We might claim the fruit of a tree or its cool shade or its sweet sap. More often we claim the tree’s wood. We claim the right to end the tree’s life and use its dead woody tissues for fuel and shelter. We own the consummation of the tree. We own the right to kill it.

We do not own up to the obligation of care work necessary to maintain the tree. But worse we do not recognize that in exercising our rights to tree bodies we also deny the right to life for innumerable other things. We do not take on the care of the tree, never mind all the parts of the tree’s organism and web of mutual care. We are takers, not owners. We might even be named thieves, depriving even our own children when we take without taking care.

This is not an isolated conundrum. That is the main point. There is nothing in isolation. It is all flow and essential connection. We have created these silly laws of property that are utterly meaningless in application to living things. Property must be dead, cut off from the flows of time and matter. But in rendering living things into property we also break apart the relationship that is requisite to the actual existence of our property — and everything else. When we own a part of a flow, we own nothing. 

This is as true for water and soil and animal bodies as it is for a tree. It is even true now for our built environment. There are material flows into and out of our homes that are essential to the home’s existence. Where do we draw those property lines? At the ocean? Clouds? If I own the right to turn on a tap and have water flow from it, then do I not have some jurisdiction over the source of that flow? And what of the waste I generate? Surely I own that. Is there not a legal obligation entailed in the ownership to manage that flow so that it does not interfere with the property rights of others?

And if there is, then surely we should be demanding that those obligations are carried out by all owners… It would seem to me that my right to live — my right to this body as my personal property — is being impaired by the negligence of waste streams from other property owners. Compound my right to life by all the lives damaged just through carbon emissions and there is much owed from industry to the world, probably more compensatory debts than all the revenues ever taken.

Do you see now? This notion of severed property, of owning interesting bits and spurning all the tedious obligations, this is infantile nonsense. More toddlers waddling through life taking from mommy and never cleaning up the messes. But even in its own terms, it is nonsensical. It takes magical accounting to claim a right without claiming the inherent obligation in that right. It takes lies and theft. Exxon would not be able to operate if it compensated other property owners for the damages it has done in the course of doing its business.

But then, I tend to believe that there is no reconciliation between my right to live and Exxon’s continued polluting of the planet. I do not accept that their right to own and use their property is unbounded by the consequences of their actions. I don’t believe they have the right to allow harm to flow through this interconnected system to me. Or any other living being. I do not allow that private property takes precedence over life. (Especially the private property of a non-living thing!)

In Owning the Earth, Andro Linklater tells us, “The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can be carried or occupied, but of the immovable, near-eternal earth, has proved to be the most destructive and creative cultural force in written history.” He continues, “It has eliminated ancient civilizations wherever it has encountered them, and displaced entire peoples from their homelands, but it has also spread an undreamed-of degree of personal freedom and protected it with democratic institutions wherever it has taken hold”. He says “the very point of the revolution” was to “allow one person to profit from the land, regardless of the consequences to the community. The whole basis of land ownership up to that moment — mutual obligation, recognition of custom and tradition, and the encompassing sense of justice that tied all to the same values — became irrelevant”.

According to Linklater, when private property, ownership of the land, is created “mutual obligation” is destroyed. This is how we own a tree. We turn common sense into private artifice. We cut the tree and ourselves out of relationships of mutual obligation. We deny the justice of relationship. We make a fiction that we then use to take what we want from the world, no cumbersome strings (or flows) attached.

Linklater’s focus is on the effect of the new notion of private property — which he likens to a contagious disease — largely on humans rather than on the whole planet. Furthermore, as you might guess from his equitable balance of “displaced entire peoples” with “undreamed-of degree of personal freedom”, he does not spend a good deal of time with those who refused to allow the spread of this contagion. His narrative is of Europe, and particularly England, where the most virulent outbreaks of private property caused bloody revolutions for several hundred years. He spends most of his book showing that there are still lingering complications from this malady, infecting every aspect of life. And yet, he never quite manages to stress that the “personal freedoms” and “democratic institutions” that follow private property ownership are limited to the property owners — because the early adopters solidified their airy ideas into massive and largely opaque bodies of law that advantaged themselves enormously. With this substantial head start, the propertied class managed to spread their disease, their laws and their definition of rank all over the globe, while excluding all others from those freedoms and democracies. And rights.

Yet even with these self-serving laws, private property might not have succeeded, but for a twist of history. Just as these ideas and rules were being solidified in Europe, European property owners, armed with the ingenious and novel claim that an individual could possess the right to exclusive ownership of land, were traversing the planet, busily laying claim to vast pools of new resources as well as the slave labor of millions. (This was no coincidence…) It was this initial fuel that led to the wildfire success of this private ownership — which Linklater calls “a bizarre mutation alien to most of humanity”. Private property flowed cheek by jowl with colonialism and slavery, and with that surge in wealth came the entrenchment of one globally dominant class. Thus the success of both private ownership and this newly powerful property-owning group did not owe as much to the genius of homo economicus as to this explosion in available labor and resources. The laws, the freedoms, the democracies they built all served to allow them to keep what they stole.

Private property was such a foreign concept that I am quite sure it, combined with language, completely baffled the people whose lands and lives were stolen. I suspect this confusion was no small part of the success. There were no precedents that would allow most humans to see what these invaders were actually doing and anticipate the consequences. Several hundred years later, Chief Seattle still expresses a feeling of bewilderment when he says “How do you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? This idea is strange to us.”

I confess that I share his befuddlement — and I was raised within the dominant culture! No amount of explaining can show me why a few humans should be allowed to own anything that is more durable and more essential than themselves. No reason can make sense of claiming a part of a flow in time and space. No justification exists for taking the rights and leaving the responsibilities. How do you own a tree?

No, I don’t understand. Nor do I understand why some get to profit off of the land that supports all living beings equally, while most of us must pay these owners for the privilege of meeting our needs — with resources that the earth provides! Meanwhile much of the non-human world is simply destroyed. Destroyed, because the point of ownership is wealth generation, and more wealth may be derived from extracting resources and labor and then abandoning what has been exhausted than from caring for that land and those laboring bodies.

In a recent article for Open Democracy, Chandran Nair shows just how alien the idea of private property is — and how firmly wedded to violent colonialism.

But the truth is property rights are not universal: they are a social construct and cannot be viewed without historical nor socio-cultural context.

It is crucial to remember that modern conceptions of private property rights were constructed by white colonisers and settler communities during their conquest of the world, from the Americas to India and Australia. In order to legitimise the immoral (and now, illegal) act of land-grabbing, white Western colonisers and settlers instituted property rights in local and international laws and through the world’s first corporations (the infamous East India Trading Company, for example) to protect in perpetuity the ‘ill-gotten gains’ of plunder.

Furthermore, Helena Paul reminds us that colonization and enclosure are not historical; these are still active processes. She writes:

The last few decades have seen accelerated land grabbing, which constitutes modern enclosure of the lands and territories of Indigenous Peoples and local communities everywhere.  Now, the financialization project introduces another form of “enclosure” or privatisation: that of any “service” nature provides. Now almost all elements that enable life on this planet and that are essential for human life are being reframed as ecosystem services.   Because of the decline of the planetary environment – mainly due to the over-consumption, which is central to the economic growth model – such ecosystem services are declining quickly.

However, this increasing scarcity is seen as an economic asset within financialization models that seek to privatise ecosystem services – functions that were previously part of the commons – and turn them into a for-profit business model.  As a consequence of this commodification, people have to pay for ecosystem services, ranging from land and water to soil, seed and food, to the experience of nature itself. Meanwhile those who do not have the means to pay for them will be increasingly barred from accessing the land, water, seed and all that they need for life.

The two-fold motivation of enclosure was and is to force people to work to the enrichment of others, largely industrialists, and to force them to meet their needs through market mechanisms. The harshest criticisms leveled at the reluctant peasantry and Indigenous peoples were that they refused to give up their livelihoods, no matter how meagre, to go off to labor in urban factories and use wages to buy their food and shelter from others. I can’t help but think that any human would choose to stay at home with their needs met and their time their own over joining the ranks of the impoverished proletariat, laboring long to obtain less of a life than they already had. I don’t know why this is seen as irrational behavior, except that the ruling classes have invested a great deal into their own praise campaigns — and we’ve internalized the message despite our common sense. Through the centuries, we’ve invested these iniquitous and inequitable property rights with the truth of our mute acceptance.

So we are cut off from our common rights. We can no longer meet our needs except through market mechanisms. This forces most people into horrifying “jobs” where life and health are in constant jeopardy. Their lives are imperiled so that they can earn pittance wages so that they can buy the minimum of what their bodies need to stay alive — that which they formerly had by common right. We have internalized this project so deeply that we now think it is necessary to work for the enrichment of others just so we can obtain the needs of our bodies. This is a tragedy in itself, but the damages do not stop with humanity — because no effect can be limited in scope to one part of a system. The damages are global and intrinsic to this entire project. After all, the whole point of private property is to take value, take livelihoods, take life from everything it touches. We are damaging everything when we acquiesce to the primacy of property.

So why do we do this? Why bow to property? Why don’t we listen to our own common sense? I believe it is mostly the message of property owners, constantly shouting down the evidence of our eyes. Then they add a seductive hint of hope that everyone might wear their expensive shoes. Through hard labor and merit, we might all be capitalists…Though there is no evidence of that happening… This is a huge amount of cognitive dissonance, and it takes a huge amount of messaging to overcome — or just one huge, but really simple lie.

Using spurious science, Garrett Hardin sought to justify this theft of common property by claiming that where there are no private rights there is no curtailment to resource exhaustion. Calling this the “tragedy of the commons”, he gave the greed of the neoliberal project a veneer of responsibility. Those privatizing the commons were protecting these resources from rapacious overuse, he claimed. 

How a claim so divorced from evidence came to be published in a peer-reviewed journal is a sad commentary on science, but that half a century later the free market set is still throwing this empty aphorism around shows just how bankrupt their ideology is. They can say nothing in defense of their pet project other than this thoroughly debunked bit of pseudo-sociology. Hardin, himself, backed away from his initial assertion, saying that perhaps the title should have been the “tragedy of the unmanaged commons”. And yes, perhaps… if humans were all as greedy and isolated as that mythical homo economicus, there might be resource exhaustion. But Simon Fairlie, in his history of enclosure (put out by The Land Magazine), reminds us of our common sense. Nobody lives in isolation, and few humans are so greedy and blinded by the short-term as to harm their neighbors or their own future selves. Fairlie says that there are few if any unmanaged commons. He even goes a bit further to show that this dystopian state is really quite difficult to achieve. 

But the private property group is not notably bound by reality, and they have kept this zombie idea going through sheer repetition. For they have discovered that it is the perfect camouflage! This false tragedy is so very simplistic, it can easily be repeated until it becomes part of the air we breathe, assuming a sort of truthiness. However, like all the best gaslighting techniques, it is the exact inverse of the truth. Commoning isn’t destructive; it’s the uncommoning of private property that is the tragedy. This whole project is dedicated to exhausting resources. The commons can run on perpetually because humans take care of the places they inhabit and share, but private property will churn through and destroy an entire planet — within the lifetime of the oak tree growing outside the window. 

This is the tragedy of the uncommons. Where property rights supersede living rights, our common sense is maimed. Where private property is claimed, common wealth and well-being are undermined. Where there is private ownership, there is common destruction. Nothing is contained; this destruction flows to everything. The uncommons is a global tragedy.

So how do we own a tree? Only when we have destroyed all the common wisdom of living.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022