Who owns what?
Property is the basis of capitalism. It is largely, though not entirely, a zero-sum game. That means that if I possess it, you don’t. We have been brought up to regard success as how big our collection of possessions is. I remember in the 1960’s a dear cousin of mine, on the American side of the family, looked out over his lake in Minnesota and told me, in fun, that whoever had the largest number of toys when he died had won. I don’t think he’d say that today, even in fun. But most people would, if they were being honest.
President Trump has brought the issue into focus by offering to buy Greenland. Why didn’t he suggest buying Britain? It would have been more logical – and probably relatively cheaper. If he’s smart and can get a bid in quickly, I think he will get the British Isles for a song, and add a couple more States to the United version of his Property Possession. He could probably sell off Scotland to recoup some of the price, too. Then he really would have a ‘hard-border’ problem.
More seriously, the wildfires in the Amazon rainforest have brought possession and climate into direct opposition. We rightly talk about the loss of oxygen-creating plants and the devastating consequences of that. Less mentioned is the impact of so much smoke in the atmosphere and the illness associated with it. When the planet’s population was small who owned what didn’t much matter. Anyway, it wasn’t widely known. Today we know every square inch our neighbour possesses, whether earthbound or sky-high.
My upbringing taught me that we are caretakers of the planet, with a duty to hand it on in at least as good shape as we found it. My friend Charles Letts used to recite the mantra ‘To each according to his needs, from each according to his means’. He lived it, too. Ladies will forgive the use of the masculine; in those days most people thought the world was populated only by men. The issue of ‘who owns what’ raises the question of sharing our rice bowl – uppermost in our minds today even if it mostly only stays there. The young seem to have a clearer idea of what it means.
Now Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian Minister of the Environment, has added his voice to the idea of ‘zoning’ the Amazon Rainforest so that it can be properly exploited in the interests of ‘those who live there’. Forgetting the fact that any such zoning would be unlikely to benefit the residents, the Minister’s view that global warming is not a priority is enough to make us all shudder. And yet, Brazil does own the Amazon Rainforest. Or perhaps the people who live in it do.
This illustrates the problem clearly. If I burn a bonfire of unwanted possessions in my backyard I am still responsible to see that its smoke and ash does not harm or inconvenience my neighbour. Well, we are all neighbours of the Amazon Rainforest as the climate problem vividly demonstrates. But possession is nine-tenths of the law and Brazil owns it. We are Brazil’s neighbours and a reckless neighbour can destroy your life, as we all know. Brazil may be going to destroy us all.
As we rethink democracy we need to also rethink ownership. It’s not just Brazil. Exploiting any of the earth’s resources without replacing them or making provision to do so is today totally unacceptable. Just as the United Nations has named World Heritage Sites – places of special historic interest or beauty – so we must identify World Resource Sites, places of special value to be preserved and used sparingly. If money has to change hands to ensure it, so be it. Nobody wants their money rendered valueless.
The question ‘who is my neighbour?’ was always a good one whether religiously based or not. In a crowded space it is answered by cooperation or fight. The world is now crowded, rapidly filling up with plastic waste, choking the oceans to extinction, denying us all space to breathe. There are two or three billion more to be accommodated by the time today’s five year olds get a pension.
I own things that affect you; you own things that affect me. We had better get together and decide how to manage them cooperatively.
If we don’t we will die in our competition to possess.