We live at a time, as we’ve noted before, when we pride ourselves as having outlived myths. We’ve grown out of believing in fairytales, we’re big people, grownups and don’t believe in the Santa Claus stuff anymore. At least that’s the story we tell ourselves. Which of course is a myth. If it were true, we wouldn’t fall for the story that the economy can grow – money grows on trees? You must be dreaming. But that’s what we believe if we subscribe to economic growth not being at the expense of nature’s capital contribution to our way of life. As Herman Daly reminds us: “You can’t grow a finite planet.”
If you can’t get something for nothing (the law of thermodynamics), but we act as if we can, then we believe in pixies at the bottom of the garden.
By extension we have also been fed the myth of possession. It has never been fact, but we live as if it is. All we can ever do is have in our ‘possession’ for supposedly safe keeping, a product or idea for a period of time within our lifetimes, before we have to relinquish this ‘possession’ and pass it on to the next baton carrier. It is for this reason that some people think that intergeneration equity is compromised when one generation of ‘possessors’ mistreats ‘their possession’ such that it is not fit for purpose come the next generation.
It becomes more complicated when we attach emotional, sentimental value to items that are manufactured and in some ways non-essentials. These are – in the great scheme of things – not commons. The commons include air, water, soil, forests, native birds and mammals. There are no substitutes for these. They are beyond pricing and yet when we give them no value we consider them up for grabs – especially in the case of mammals and the habitat they depend on for survival.
This notion of possession hit home in an article by David Astle: Yours to use, not own, individual ownership is the new luxury, or the old norm (SMH 29 Dec 2019). “Ownership is a different animal in this digital age,” says Astle. So much of what we think we own we in fact lease or buy time on or buy units of – take phone calls and data downloads as an example, we don’t own the telecommunications infrastructure, we buy time or megabytes to enable us to have a conversation or read a report.
“Buying therefore is not the same as buying in bygone days. The verb derives from Old English, bycgan – to acquire the possession of, in exchange for something of equivalent value. Sounds almost quaint, doesn’t it? Economists dub the traditional sense of buying as pre-purchasing future usage, gaining control over an item in perpetuity. Before the web intervened, owning an item meant you could lend the item out. That’s less the case anymore.”
We have to ask ourselves if we are happy about what we are creating. Is the society in service to the economy or the other way around?
“Call them purchases, if that lends solace, but the majority of things we own, we use by arrangement. We tick the box to play the song, the episode, operate the firmware, take the ride, the holiday. Ten years back, this truth was underlined when Amazon deleted copies of 1984, the e-version download, alarming customers under the delusion they’d owned Orwell’s nightmare for multiple visits. While remunerations were enacted, the sense of evanescence (a) was retained.”
Take the case of grave sites. Once upon a time (how romantic it sounds) we would buy a plot of land in perpetuity. These days we lease or rent a plot for 25 years and if the relatives don’t want to fork out the price of buying it again, well it goes back into the pool so to speak to get on-sold to the next family looking for a plot to bury their beloved. Of course when we stop and think about it, the perpetuity was never forever. If forever is for 10,000 years (or in the case of indigenous culture 65,000 years) then it was never going to be for that long.
So let’s talk about forever with our eyes wide open. Forever in terms of possession and ownership is a myth. When we start to consider deep time and deep history we need to start thinking as our Aboriginal cousins think – not as being separate and apart from the rivers and the trees and the millions of non-human species we share this amazing earth with, but one of them. I am not in possession of my life separate from those plants and animals that nourish and enrich my life.
It should come as a great relief to not have to work ourselves into the ground (no pun intended) so that we can be in possession of all this stuff that in the grand scheme of things we can’t possibly possess for longer than our fleeting life-times.
Philosophers have grappled with this over the centuries, cautioning against placing too much emphasis on the material aspects of our lives – acquiring stuff at the expense of building social and community connections and having a deep appreciation of the natural world. It was Einstein who said: “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.” Inspiration for his writings, came from his long regular walks in the forest – these were his thinking walks.
I guess the take home lesson from this story is that the best and most profound discoveries such as those made by Einstein were not for possessing. He didn’t keep them to himself but shared them with us all. They were not intellectual property as we know it today. They existed well before Einstein came along. They were universal truths that became known to us as a result of thinking walks.
Most able bodied people possess the ability to take one of these thinking walks. Who knows what might come of this time walking in the footsteps of those who have walked this way before.