Thursday, January 27, 2011

On ownership

One of the defining concepts of our society is the notion of ownership. This goes far beyond the territorialism that animals may display to mark and guard their places of habitat. Human notions of ownership stretch beyond the bounds of their habitat. We have a system in place which monetarily values places other than habitat in a way that drives humans to "own" or "buy the rights" to those places. For example, much of the land in the US is actually leased to oil and gas companies for drilling (and this has not stopped those companies from trying to drill offshore, in virgin waters). But we also want to stretch our influence to the habitats of other humans, too. Fracking for natural gas is a great example - people from elsewhere are trying to buy off people from elsewhere because those people are unfortunate enough to have natural gas bound up in geologic structures under their land. In fact, our knowledge revolves around how we can own what nature hides - physical laws, chemical reactions and photosynthesis. In this sense, ownership leads to another sort of exploitation - how might we use nature and modify how it works such that we can derive the most monetary gain? Our need for ownership stretches far beyond land on Earth. Here is a woman that claims to have bought the rights to the Sun (thanks for this, Sherri!), and she fully intends to charge all users of the Sun.

It is fascinating how humans, that live individually on time scales of decades, can "own" something that has existed long before they did, and will continue to exist long after they are gone. Notions of ownership have in fact produced just the opposite of what we would want - what we would want is for our nature to sustain us for as long as possible, but in our quest to own, we have degraded. Just the reverse of how we think is what might be more logical- we are owned by this land, this air and this water, and our fate is tied to our respect to those forces.

Ownership also plays a significant part in our daily lives, and its influence also leads to much waste and trash. My laptop computer is now seven years old; it hobbles along, and at times sounds like a jet aircraft at full throttle trying to take off. I have not yet bought a new computer. In fact, I have used the computer just a couple of times in the past four or five months. Many of you might say, "How have you been living so long without a computer?" My answer is simple - there are computers in my lab, and all around campus, and so I don't need one of my own. I guess it would be more "convenient" to have one of my own, so I would not  have to bug my housemates to look something up every now and then (although I think I may have asked them just a few times in the past few months). Had I felt the need to own a computer of my own, I would have had to acquiesce to all of the trash and violence associated with such a purchase. (I know there are tons of people who hoard used computers and sell them - that may be an option.) But in general, there are things that all of us don't need to have, and maybe we can make due with just one lawnmower for a row of five homes, or and older family may be able to hand toys down to a younger family. A refusal to have one's own may in fact lead to stronger, more resilient social bonds.

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