Thursday, February 28, 2019

not the but our

The park near my home has a dramatic incline ideal for many uses. Dog owners lob tennis balls for eager pups; golfers practice their aim; Independence Day revelers shoot off fireworks. And when there’s snow, it is perfect for sledding; hence its gruesome nickname, ‘Suicide Hill.’

Days after our last snow, sprinkled all over the slicked slope were remains: stray mittens, scarves and large bits of brightly colored plastic.

I wondered at the debris. If parents bring children and sleds break, did they say, just leave 'em? Or if a child trudges back uphill missing a hat or toy truck, why wasn’t it retrieved? How are things left behind? 

It brought to mind the definition of the commons: pertaining or belonging equally to an entire community, nation or culture; public.

Why do we feel entitled to use the commons but not entitled to their upkeep? Leaving behind my busted sled is a microcosm of what we do to the ultimate shared commons, earth.

This is referred to as the Tragedy of the Commons: individual users act independently according to their own self-interest and behave contrary to the common good of all users. But this is a passive paradigm; as though these mishaps or this way of being is a given, like gravity.  

Instead, we should call the Tragedy of the Commons what it is: environmental privilege.

Like other forms of privilege, environmental privilege is predicated on commodification. We narrow our perspective to a specific intention turning the commons, including who or what reside there, into a commodity to be used then disregarded as we move on to the next thing. 

Consider Mount Everest. Climbers discard unwanted materials and leave human waste, which endangers water during monsoon season. That meticulous planning and training goes into preparation for the climb without consideration of one’s impact on the actual terrain and its inhabitants, shouts privilege: class, race, species, environmental.


To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with sledding or mountain climbing. But in both instances we function out of entitlement to silo our interaction with the commons. 

This blinkered paradigm is killing us physically and spiritually. As Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, points out, ‘instead of commons, we have sacrifice zones: public areas-forests, mountains, oceans and rivers choking on the debris we leave behind.” Good grief, we even ditch wreckage in outer space.

Since words shape ideation, environmental privilege plays out in the language we use.

Recall the definition: pertaining or belonging equally to an entire community. The park by my house to Mount Everest to the ocean is not really the commons. It is our commons.

By no means does belong  here imply license to exploit according to one's whim as when ownership is wielded by the ignorant, arrogant hands of entitlement. No. If something belongs to us, then we belong to and are responsible for it. Belonging equally. 

Take the word commons. Ever received a postcard from there? Yea, no me neither.  Because there is no such place. The commons is always a specific convergence of longitude and latitude. It is where a host of beings, human or otherwise, live. 

What do you imagine when I say the beef industry utilizes the commons for grazing? If we have a notion cows graze in a vague somewhere (the commons) we need not think of it. Ambiguous language creates distance, a privileged position. What do you picture when I say the beef industry utilizes the Amazon for grazing?  Once ruminants requiring pasture are placed in the Amazonian rain forest, we can imagine ramifications.

And given that we have a dozen or so years to address our climate catastrophe, this is exactly what we are called to: imagine ramifications.

To do so we must throw off our opportunistic language and siloed ideation. Throw off commodified engagement that fosters distance. 

We are called to a deeper, farther reaching belonging; to and with one another, to and with everywhere latitude and longitude converge. 

If you think it's impossible to have relationship with 'everywhere,' I invite you to take inventory of your food, clothing, furniture, vehicles and technology which come from all over our planetary commons.

But we are not called to the commons. We are called to communion. 

Imagine the possibilities.