May 3, 2010
I awakened just before six this morning to a riot of birdsong.
Not a serenade. This was no solo performance by an early-rising phoebe. No special-effects-laden starling wake-up call. No. This was the sound of every bird in the neighborhood greeting the day. This was music with so many layering tracks I could only make out a few of the instruments. At once cacophonous and gorgeous, and almost unimaginably complex, it was the unfettered sound of life on Earth.
I thought of Dr. Suess’s Whos calling out from their speck of dust: We are here! We are here! We are here!
The birds, it seemed, were making that same announcement, not just on their own behalf, but on mine and yours as well. On behalf of every living organism on this spinning, hurtling speck of dust.
From their beaks to God’s ears: We are here!
What better representative of our common inheritance than a goldfinch, of our shared fate than a rose-breasted grosbeak, of our boundary-less interdependence than a white-eyed vireo? These birds don’t recognize borders—not between my yard and yours, nor this state and that one, nor our country and theirs.
Birds inhabit the planet.
We humans do, too, of course. But we’ve developed the bad habit of forgetting this fact.
Instead, we tell ourselves we live merely wherever it is we call home, as if every home within the closed-loop system of the biosphere weren’t inextricably linked.
And we live as if the air and water that sustains us weren’t the common inheritance of all the Earth’s inhabitants, but a personal entitlement, a birthright we’re free to squander. Pell-mell. Come-what-may.
We live as if “my” makes sense when placed in front of the words “air” and “water.”
The red-winged blackbirds and yellow-bellied sapsuckers and indigo buntings know better.
When “air” and “water” are concerned, the only proper adjective is “our.”
I think of “the commons” as a catch-all term for that which is “ours.”
The commons is comprised of those resources, societal or natural, indispensable to our well-being and to the well-being of future generations.
Evolutionary biologists, neurologists and geneticists confirm that the idea of the commons is certainly as old as the human species, which has always been rooted in communities of social trust and cooperation. The strongest societies are those in which market exchange has been an adjunct to, but not a replacement for a shared commitment to preserving and maximizing those resources necessary for group survival.
Perhaps the first formal use of the term occurred in Roman law. Ancient Romans distinguished between different categories of property: Res privatæ included those things that could be possessed by an individual or family, such as land, dwellings, and domestic animals. Res publicæ included things built and set aside for public use by the state, such as public buildings, roads and ports. Res communes, “the commons,” included those natural things owned by no one and used by all, such as air, water and wildlife.
Thus a man could own a hectare of farmland, but not the river that flowed over it, nor the air above it. A government could own an ocean port, but not the ocean itself nor the fish in it.
I don’t know whether the Roman designation of the commons came from their sense of the impossibility or impracticality of attempting to claim ownership of such essentially unquantifiable resources, or from an ethical sense that such resources should not be privatized and commodified.
Either way, what seems apparent to me is that our modern sense of the commons—our dependence on it and our duty to it—has changed significantly since ancient Rome.
Governments throughout the world are conspiring with industry to move the commons into private hands.
Failing markets have encouraged governments to forgo long-term leadership and planning in favor of short-term profits, and to deny, deflect, or defray the real world costs of those profits by, quite literally, debting them forward.
Remember the 2000 movie "Pay It Forward", starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt? Yeah, well, what we, and through us our leaders are acquiescing to reflects the polar opposite of that sentiment.
In such an atmosphere of cash-strapped desperation, and the unfettered focus on "me, my and mine" such context inspires, every place is open for business and everyone, including every leader, is, to one degree or another, for sale on the open market.
So far, the results don't seem so good.
More and more scarce, unique, local, or simply beautiful natural resources are being turned into commodities. The short-term profit motive has replaced any real appreciation of the commons as a necessary component of a sustainable society. This despite a preponderance of human historical evidence to the contrary.
As fewer and fewer of those resources necessary for our well-being are owned by all of us—as the socially-based concept of “our” is replaced by the market-driven concept of “my”—a once-mutually beneficial motivation to protect and maximize those resources is increasingly weakened. And with it, the foundation of society, culture, country.
As people watch their governments 1) acquiesce to the privatization of the commons, 2) aid industry in harvesting its cash value, and 3) look the other way when those same industries dump the costs—the environmental damage and social disruption—back into the commons, what are they learning? What’s the take-home message?
The message is this: The commons doesn’t exist, except as a place to dump the damages from profit-making. There is no such thing as “ours,” only “yours” and “mine.” And if I can get you to pay through the nose for mine, all the better for me!
The privatization of the commons tells us that every resource necessary to sustain life on Earth can and will be parceled up, packaged, and sold.
The privatization of the commons tells us there is no common inheritance—just individual entitlement. There is no common interest—just individual ambition. There is no need of yours that might have a tempering affect on any desire of mine.
The privatization of the commons tells us we are not in this, any of this, together. Quite the contrary, we are in this, all of this, very much alone.
The privatization process entices us, yes. It entices us with lies that serve the moment, but not the future.
Human history begs us heed a different truth, just as scarlet tanagers, towhees, and tufted titmice beg us hear a different song.
It required the voice of every Who to save their tiny speck of dust from doom in the boiling oil.
Not one of them shouted “I am here.”
They chose the pronoun “we.”