Owning property provides an incentive for innovation. Society benefits from inventions. People can get rich, but society gets richer. It’s innovation that raises the standard of living in a society. That’s the story of the rise of the west. Then there’s a contrasting story. When you don’t get to keep what you create, the incentive to create is lost.
— Austin J. Jaffe, Ph.D.
There will come a time in the not too distant future when these words or words like these will be read with the same disbelief and horror that we feel when perusing an account of Aztec attitudes toward the ‘obvious necessity’ of human sacrifice: ‘for the rain to fall, for the kingdom to sustain and thrive, living hearts must be cut from living bodies.’
That Professor Jaffe’s and similar views are taken as an unquestioned and unquestionable good is the underlying basis of our present, and long developing, difficulties. No biological system can function with unregulated growth; in fact, biological systems seldom actually grow, they repair and replace; innovation is slow, invention is far more often harmful than beneficial. No biological system can function with the parts that create keeping what they create, yet no part of a biological system can take what it does not create without compensating in effective kind.
Humans are animals, biological entities living in ecosystem relationships with the rest of life on the earth – even as we do violence to the relationships, we are still in them. We have an adaptation that, because of its newness and power, 1 distorts both our relationships with the rest of life and our understandings of those relationships.
And we have reached the end of the line for those distorted relationships. The thin biospheric space, sufficiently stable to support life, is about ready to ratchet back a notch or two to a somewhat simpler order – this is what it does when severely stressed. And our maniacal obsession with our independence from the rest of life will be shown to be the dangerous illusion that it is. Even a small loss of environmental ‘free’ services will cut through human civilization like a reaper’s scythe.
Our biology is the basis of our life and all the stuff, all the power, all the wealth of knowledge and wealth of material is nothing without biological life. The conditions for sustaining life are well known and yet in the face of such clear understanding we poison our air and water, offer toxic materials as beauty aids, damage our food supply, live with stresses that damage our hormonal systems and digestive systems, eat poorly, treat our bodies like an enemy, believe in the most outrageous palliatives and generally devote our actions to “raising our standard of living in society” while having no comprehension of what it even means to live fully as a member of our biological species.
The source of our dilemmas is deep in the design and structure of our social/economic/political/religious world. So deep, in fact, that these sources seem like the natural and necessary bases of our existence – just as Aztec culture seemed the natural and necessary bases of their world.
The human species exists in numbers and with powers of manipulation orders of magnitude beyond our ability to comprehend, much less measure with accuracy. We are quite literally bursting the seams of this world. A tiny few have seen this coming for hundreds of years, but now that it is upon us that number is exponentially increasing – increasing in number but not increasing in comprehension, just in a simple recognition of danger driving doubt and fear.
An unfocused sense of danger is itself extremely dangerous. We will see this like the displaying rashes and buboes of a systemic disease breaking out (and cynically used), as we have seen, in the fear of a ‘black’ president, a manic oscillation of acceptance and rejection of social and economic palliatives, and a pathological entrenchment in our oldest palliative, religion. That, of course, is when the temple steps become a cascading river of blood!
I began with a quote about property; this was not without intention. Much of our present difficulty has been driven by way humans have come to relate to the space, objects and consistent imaginings we have about the world: we have come to think of these things as property.
There is no natural reason for this. Property is purely a construct of the imagination and has no basis in the physical or living order. If I hold a object in my hand and am using it, the living world has every expectation that I will protect the object and my use of it with symbols of force and eventually real force if necessary. That I should put that object down and leave it alone at a distance from me and maintain the notion that it is still mine and therefore not available for use by anyone or anything else is new to our part of the universe; and as Professor Jaffe points out, filled with consequences.
Since the idea of property is just that, an idea, it has no more than a history in thought and human function. There is a religious component to the argument that I will talk about in another number in this group of essays, but for the moment oblige me the conceit that property is an imaginary relationship unsupported by substance beyond the fact that this is how we have been acting for some time.
But even that last statement needs correction. Property is not treated the same everywhere by everyone; in fact, as one would expect for an imaginary relationship, the idea of property in highly variable from place to place, culture to culture and person to person. There is no one notion of what property is or should be.
But it is popularly held notions of property that decide whether a priest can cut your heart out, whether poisonous chemicals can be poured into a stream, whether I will strive for knowledge/spiritual wealth or material wealth, whether a dangerous innovation will become the newest form of human sacrifice.
Western conceptions of property have not changed much since John Locke articulated the local wisdom of the middle and late 1600s. Karl Marx had a run at these conceptions, but had the bad luck of his ideas being taken up by revolutionaries in the most improbable country in Eurasia. The great power of present property notions and resulting laws, as per Professor Jaffe, to create change and to concentrate material wealth, have driven us to both deify property ideas – and to the brink of the abyss. It is not a conception that we should or can leave alone.