The Meaning of Property

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, ((For a consideration of the human adaptation and its powers see The Madness – Part Four)) 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.

James Keye is the nom de plume of a retired academic and small businessman living with an Ecological Footprint of 1.6 earths. He can be reached at Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

20 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on September 18th, 2010 at 8:29am #

    Inventions, as long one has in mind that is part of knowledge— and knowledge consisting of necessary truth, honesty, timocratic rule, pantisocracy, referendums, sharing, etc.,–cannot hurt a fly— people do that.
    People do that by applying false knowledge. And not all people. In case of many indigenous folks of buffaloland, no person used or imposed deliberate ignorance or false knowledge on anyone.

    Such societies did not poison water nor air. So, the “we” in “we poison our air, water” apears incorrect since even today some ethnoses do not poison air and water to the same degree that the West doess or if at all.
    But even some people in the West abuse nature to a much lesser degree than some others.

    In addition, some of us have near zero power in money management-ownership, arms-jets manufacture, commanding army, cia, fbi, transportation, etc.
    In short, we lost our planet good 10 k yrs ago; it’s not “ours” any longer it is “theirs”, the demons’!

  2. Don Hawkins said on September 18th, 2010 at 9:37am #

    The demons think it’s there’s and oh man are they in for a big surprise. Maybe a better way to put it is the demons know but the people who work for them are in for a big surprise. I see here in the States the talk is now could Palin become President and what James just wrote one of his best he’s getting good at this somewhat night and day one of reason what James wrote and one of in a mad world only the mad are sane in the world of sound bit’s and nonsense. Oh and when they are not in front of the pubic is when they use reason not exactly.

  3. Deadbeat said on September 18th, 2010 at 6:22pm #

    I don’t know if I would have started this article making a comparison of Western culture to a culture that the Western colonists destroyed. This is could be yet another example of western chauvinism on the part of Mr. Keyes. Here’s a link to an article that questions Mr. Keyes assumption …


    Again I still don’t understand Mr. Keyes power phobia but there never seems to be any examination of the imbalance of power in Mr. Keyes analysis.

  4. Don Hawkins said on September 18th, 2010 at 7:42pm #

    How could a civilization that mastered the planet suddenly Collapse? Inspired by the New York Times best-selling book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, NGC time travels 200 years into the future to see what the world would look like after civilization as we know it collapsed. Guided by author Jared Diamond, we’ll piece together the remarkable story of what on earth triggered our decline.

    I just watched a two hour program on National Geographic Channel and this was one of the best done so far. A few are trying to get the word out still time just not on the present path. After watching this program that connected the dot’s in a way that most will understand I turned to Fox New’s then CNN and after seeing Collapse could only watch the nonsense on those channels one in search of the truth the other fair and balanced for about five minutes.

    Drill baby drill, call call now, buy gold, Obama is a Socialist, fair and balanced, the truth, lies, I want my life back, the ice is not melting, Capitalism is the best path to prosperity, war is peace, ignorance is strength, stop the World and let me off, more is better, have and have more, the meek shall inherit the Earth,what happens to the wide-eyed observer when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly and just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you going through the motions all just for show and one is thirty go shopping.

  5. Don Hawkins said on September 19th, 2010 at 5:48am #

    Last night on National Geographic Channel, Collapse many things were said and one of the big ones was about two decades and hope you have some boot’s. At one part of the show a thinker standing in a oil powered power plant that has already been shutdown and then said we are the first civilization to already be living in the ruins of our destruction. They did a part on the fall of Rome and why and at the end it was said Rome had a few castles and a sea of slums. To have watched this and to understand the science, known knowledge then to turn on the tube and watch talking heads talk of these elections coming in November and the thinking so far is well nut’s. On the show last night it was said still time if we use our minds and easy no but boring it will not be as people of Earth we are at the crossroads our choice.

  6. Don Hawkins said on September 19th, 2010 at 7:03am #

    Some of the first fighting over water will probably be in the Mid East although here in the States and not to many years after that I hear the great lakes is nice this time of year and what plans for any of this?

    Moderates who have supported climate legislation in the past have not supported the climate bills this year because they are deeply flawed. The Democratic leadership and the environmental community have refused to compromise and so there’s been no opportunity for bipartisanship. I’m not saying Republicans don’t share in the blame, but no one seems willing to consider the possibility that the Dems overreached with legislation that went far beyond capping carbon and would have restructured the entire economy. Other ideas have been simply ignored. Sen. Lisa Murkowski

    Went far beyond capping carbon and would have restructured the entire economy such bullshit what needs to be done has not yet been thought of well maybe in private then time for lunch then a little TV time to talk about taking America back. The thinking so far will take America back alright.

  7. James Keye said on September 19th, 2010 at 10:10am #

    Mr. Deadbeat, serious Aztec scholarship is concerned with political, social and religious designs and consequences associated with human sacrifice, the categories of people chosen for the 18 primary sacrifice dates and whether the numbers were in the thousands and the tens of thousands; the self-reports by Aztec officials of 250 thousand at one time are considered impossible for many reasons. But this misses my point completely, which is: that popular notions of ownership underlie this use of human capital just as our unreflective notions of property underlie our actions; and that property is a product of imagination and thus open to and needful of a full examination for its consequences in the relationship of humans to each other and to the biosphere.

    As to your other concern: this essay is about ways of thinking about issues that are normally taken for granted by the serf and king alike – though I would agree if you argued that the king’s beliefs were often cynically held.

  8. teafoe2 said on September 19th, 2010 at 10:48am #

    well I think it’s unfortunate that Mr Keye chose to open a discussion of scholarship about Aztec history, which seems to be a matter about which there is considerable disagreement. Deadbeat posted one scholarly contribution to such a discussion, which I found very interesting and informative. The writer of it obviously had an intimate knowledge of Catholic sources and the context behind them.

    So it might be worthwile if Mr Keye could assemble materials supporting his statements about Aztec practices, maybe submit them as another article on DV?

    However I agree with Mr Keye that his argument about Property does not stand or fall with the veracity of his commments re the Aztecs.

    I myself find Mr Keye’s observations pretty much in accord with my own views arrived at earlier, and repeated in several exchanges with advocates of anti-Marxist economic theories, in which I stated that the one indispensable ingredient in any posited Socialist system was the abolition of private property in the means of production.

    To me, Mr Keye’s essay amounts to a restating of propositions previously expounded by Marx, Engels et al, with the addition of some analogies with the biologic sciences, which Mr Keye seems more comfortable with than he does with the language of Power:)

    BTW, it was Proudhon who said, pre-Das Kapital, that “Property is Theft”:)

  9. Don Hawkins said on September 19th, 2010 at 11:07am #

    Ok James yet no part of a biological system can take what it does not create without compensating in effective kind.

    I think I understand your thinking and if the White House reads this or the big cheeses at corporations or the military or the CIA or the Cato Institute one of my favorites would they also understand this and if so with understanding this there thinking. Do they understand this?

    Climatologists are all agreed that we’d be lucky to see the end of this century without the world being a totally different place, and being 8 or 9 degrees hotter on average. Lovelock

    Many scales of climate change are in fact natural, from the slow tectonic scale, to the fast changes embedded within glacial and interglacial times, to the even more dramatic changes that characterize a switch from glacial to interglacial. So why worry about global warming, which is just one more scale of climate change? The problem is that global warming is essentially off the scale of normal in two ways: the rate at which this climate change is taking place, and how different the “new” climate is compared to what came before.


    Do they understand that and there thinking is? Let’s see to do what is needed to try a real try where would the changes start first?

    The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. Einstein
    If the thinking is correct now at about 95 to 5% it is correct there are people doing something a few and just might need a little help granted a tuff one when 2% control the information. This is a tuff one………

  10. Don Hawkins said on September 19th, 2010 at 11:58am #

    Suppose we showed above thinking to Wall Street and asked them do you understand that? They would probably say yes and how do we make money on that? If you told them you don’t make money on that you would get the look. How about if I told above groups it’s been the warmest summer in Georgia according to records and my banana patch’s the plant’s are the tallest they have been in five years and now not much rain. They would probably say yes so what? If I told that to the CATO Institute oh don’t worry up’s and down’s all very normal here’s my card. Then I would give them back there card and give them a few suggestions on what to do with it while staying calm and at peace and never turning my back on them.

  11. JoeJ said on September 19th, 2010 at 10:45pm #

    It is more than obvious that biological life has evolved out of our physical earth.

    It is more than obvious that biological life has altered the physical Earth that created it.

    It is more than obvious that biological life has evolved human intellectual life.

    It is more than obvious that human intellectual life has altered our physical Earth and our biological essence.

    Aren’t things going along as they should – hasn’t nature worked its magic?

    Wouldn’t it be unnatural to stop this process?

  12. Don Hawkins said on September 20th, 2010 at 4:17am #

    World powers to tackle climate amid skepticism

    (AFP) – 7 hours ago
    NEW YORK — The 17 nations responsible for 80 percent of carbon emissions blamed for global warming will seek to unblock stalled climate negotiations this week but analysts expect little progress.
    The two-day Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate kicks off Monday and will include top government envoys, including US special envoy for climate change Todd Stern.
    US President Barack Obama launched the meetings to facilitate climate talks in the wake of last year’s disappointing United Nations conference in Copenhagen.
    The successor conference to the Copenhagen meet is set for this November in Cancun, Mexico.
    “I don’t think anyone is expecting any major announcement,” said Michael Levi, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.
    “This is a working meeting… a lot of important players are at the same place at the same time” during the United Nations General Assembly, he told AFP.
    Levi said the envoys would not seek to resolve the fierce debate over climate change but rather find ways to better define the issues, acknowledging the Cancun meeting would likely be another stalemate.
    “No one is going to crack a big deal at this,” he added.
    Environmentalist Bill Mekibben, co-founder of the environmental group, said the US Congress’s failure to pass a law to combat climate change made it “very difficult” to clinch a strong agreement in Cancun.
    “I think that the next two years will be a disappointing time in terms of actions and that we will have to use that time to build a powerful movement to get real action the next time there will be a political window that opens up,” he added.
    Levi warned that a period of uncertainty could follow the November mid-term legislative elections in which Republicans are poised to retake control of the House of Representatives from Obama’s fellow Democrats and to increase their numbers in the Senate. AFP

    A period of uncertainty could follow the November mid-term legislative elections is an interesting way to put it. Well golly gee let the freak show begin and the next two years will be a disappointing time in terms of actions and that we will have to use that time to build a powerful movement to get real action the next time there will be a political window that opens up. The rally to bring reason back Jon Stewart maybe that will stop the uncertainty and go shopping and let’s stop this whole class warfare thing not good for America listen to your leaders watch your parking meters and get out the vote. Over the next week’s many political ads to help with that pick one then vote for the leader of your choice. Remember these ads and the speech’s will be coming from the greatest minds in human history and if you wanted to get some boot’s and think about the far North that’s ok to. Oh send in a donation to the politician of your choice they need the help the money and buy one share of stock and have fun doing it be a have instead of a have not. Yes let the freak show begin and if you haven’t read the book how to win friends and influence people yet get a copy and have fun doing it. Well today let’s see if we see any new political ads then talking heads analyze them for us to help us make up our minds in the freak show it’s not a freak show, oh yes it is.

    Aren’t things going along as they should – hasn’t nature worked its magic?

    Wouldn’t it be unnatural to stop this process?

  13. Don Hawkins said on September 20th, 2010 at 11:12am #

    September 15, 2010
    Arctic sea ice reaches annual minimum extent
    Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its annual minimum extent on 10 September. The minimum ice extent was the third-lowest in the satellite record, after 2007 and 2008, and continues the trend of decreasing summer sea ice. NSIDC

    Oops they might have spoken to soon note the date on the chart below.

  14. Don Hawkins said on September 22nd, 2010 at 4:47am #

    Clinton noted how global warming is set to increase the frequency of natural disasters like floods, heatwaves, and hurricanes. He said that “the incidence of economically devastating natural disasters will accelerate around the world with the changing of the climate,” which is right on the mark.

    Noting the link between natural disasters and economic devastation is especially pertinent — after all one of the (who am I kidding, the) primary hesitation that governments continually have in acting to mitigate climate change is the purported cost. Every piece of climate policy that has ever been drafted in the US has faced criticism from opponents that it’s too expensive. We can’t afford to pay slightly more in energy bills. Those slight additional costs would derail the economy.

    This, along with mostly being nothing but talking points (climate legislation like that which passed the House of Reps last year would do little but raise energy costs very marginally — as in a few more bucks a month — for most households), ignores the fact that the impact of climate change will indeed be exceedingly expensive.

    And disaster relief is just the tip of the iceberg — considering the costs of relocating resources and communities as climes grow warmer, the impact on global agricultural operations (see how the heatwave in Russia decimated grain production for evidence), and the incoming need to cope with sea level rise on coastal cities (to name a few), it’s not difficult to fathom how expensive bearing the full brunt of climate change will be.

    The point is, the cost of enacting even strident climate policy, would almost certainly pale in comparison to the cost (which is wildly incalculable, but assumed to be vast) of failing to reduce carbon emissions on a significant scale. Fighting climate change is the bargain. Treehugger

    And so it goes almost certainly pale in comparison heck we can just; just do what the courage to do nothing that’s what. Well then again something’s will be done like a few castles in a sea of slums will be part of the something and have fun doing it. What’s the best party now day’s here in the States is there such a thing as the freak show party? Ladies and gentleman step right up for just one tenth of a dollar one thin dime you can be part of the greatest show on Earth and have fun doing it.

  15. Don Hawkins said on September 23rd, 2010 at 9:11am #

    Update: 21 September 2010

    Although ice extent appeared to reach a minimum on September 10, rising afterwards for three straight days, it has subsequently declined even further. NSIDC scientists are closely monitoring the ice extent and will provide another update on the data, as conditions develop.

    Our season-end announcement in October will provide the final numbers for the minimum extent, as well as the monthly data for September, which scientists use for establishing long-term trends.

  16. Don Hawkins said on September 23rd, 2010 at 2:59pm #

    Don’t read this!

  17. Don Hawkins said on September 23rd, 2010 at 6:56pm #

    Less than one third of one per cent. Go shopping and get some boot’s.

  18. Don Hawkins said on September 24th, 2010 at 4:49am #

    ” Speaking the Truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act. ” Orwell

    Amazing to watch this a few day’s ago on Fox New’s the talk was climate change is a hoax and the American people now know this. Would that be the truth or universal deceit and here in the States well George Monbiot said it well.

    which, given the strength of industrial lobbies and the weakness of government resolve

    The weakness of government resolve there is no resolve and heck let’s pick just one the forest fires in Russia the temperatures there’s a few more but that’s a big one and will it get better in the coming years no just more of the same. With more extreme event’s on the way it appears one will have to win out the truth or universal deceit well sense we don’t hear much truth being a revolutionary act and not good for the bottom line I guess universal deceit will be the way forward. I think it’s already here live and in color. If you read what Monbiot wrote above he’s pissed as some find stupidity and universal deceit by well dressed fool’s just wrong very wrong. I watched Donald Trump on TV a few night’s ago and he said rich people here in the States the wealthy are mobile and many will just leave and go to another Country or maybe Texas such arrogance. The interviewer then asked him if he was leaving and he said well not yet I mean that would be big new’s if I was to leave New York such arrogance. How about such F-ing word arrogance. This is going to get ugly as many will not just give up the problem of course is working together is key and so far that’s not going to happen and no winners strange game.

  19. Don Hawkins said on September 24th, 2010 at 5:21am #

    Let’s say the truth is James Hansen and a few more are correct it’s the truth kind of a nobrainer in old twenty ten.

    It becomes clear that needed actions will happen only if the public, somehow, becomes forcefully involved. One way that citizens can help is by blocking coal plants, tar sands, and mining the last drops of fossil fuels from public and pristine lands and the deep ocean.
    However, fossil fuel addiction can be solved only when we recognize an economic law as certain as the law of gravity: as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy they will be used. Solution therefore requires a rising fee on oil, gas and coal – a carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies at the domestic mine or port of entry. All funds collected should be distributed to the public on a per capita basis to allow lifestyle adjustments and spur clean energy innovations. As the fee rises, fossil fuels will be phased out, replaced by carbon-free energy and efficiency.
    A carbon fee is the only realistic path to global action. China and India will not accept caps, but they need a carbon fee to spur clean energy and avoid fossil fuel addiction.
    Governments today, instead, talk of “cap-and-trade-with-offsets”, a system rigged by big banks and fossil fuel interests. Cap-and-trade invites corruption. Worse, it is ineffectual, assuring continued fossil fuel addiction to the last drop and environmental catastrophe.
    Stabilizing climate is a moral issue, a matter of intergenerational justice. Young people, and older people who support the young and the other species on the planet, must unite in demanding an effective approach that preserves our planet. James Hansen

    So in a few more years as extreme event’s keep happen as they will then what? Well Universal deceit as deceit is the name of the game. Ok this look’s real and so cap and trade never mind about the law of gravity is what we will do and send the red cross when needed. What Hansen wrote seems to be the best kept secret of all time along with climate change itself so far. Solution therefore requires a rising fee on oil, gas and coal – a carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies at the domestic mine or port of entry. Gore said it to start to begin with this will also begin to solve a few other minor problems we face and these f-ing word arrogant well dressed fool’s seem to feel Universal deceit is a much better way forward. Do you ever hear about a rising fee on oil, gas and coal – a carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies at the domestic mine or port of entry on the MSM and all funds collected should be distributed to the public on a per capita basis to allow lifestyle adjustments and spur clean energy innovations ever and no we don’t and why because it will work. Strange game no winners.

  20. Don Hawkins said on September 24th, 2010 at 6:43am #

    And yes Gore thinks cap and trade will work of course he has a few marbles bet that it will happen cap and trade and you would think he understands the law of gravity. Well there’s a marble called Earth that may have other ideas and this morning on MSNBC a story was on a plane crash at an air show I forget the Country and it was said there were kid’s at the show and had to watch this well how about kid’s watching the destruction of a planet and I guess these talking heads don’t get that part and or somebody is being controlled. Speaking the Truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act, wimps.