Friday, August 14, 2009

Ownership or Stewardship

Human beings, more than any other creature on Earth, have been gifted with the power to create or destroy. By virtue of our brains and hands we can either build cathedrals or massacre millions with weapons of mass destruction. Which acts we choose seem in large part to be dependent upon our personal beliefs. Change our beliefs then, and our behaviors will naturally shift.

Ownership, which is a purely man-made concept, confers upon us the right to exploit this world for our personal ends. That was certainly true of slavery, which is why we've abandoned the practice. It may have taken us thousands of years, but eventually our values matured beyond the belief that any human being has the right to possess and exploit any other. Where once the ownership of people was commonplace, today it's considered shockingly immoral.

What then, of the right to own private property? Might that too be a practice humanity one day looks back upon with feelings of revulsion? While it may seem an impossible change given where we are at present, there are reasons for us to hope this may be the case.

The difference between land ownership and land stewardship is a profound one. Where property ownership conveys rights, property stewardship conveys responsibilities. Ownership declares this land is "mine" to do with as I choose, regardless of whether my choices do damage to my surrounding community. Stewardship, on the other hand, declares this land to be "ours." Therefore it must be tended with love for the benefit of all who share that space with us, including all other species. Stewardship means preserving and protecting the land for future generations, as well as maintaining awareness of our environmental impact beyond any man-made borders we may have drawn. It also means knowing how to gracefully let go of our hold on the land when we die, trusting in those still alive to decide the best usage for the space we once occupied.

A mere hundred years ago there still existed vast tracts of land to which the poor and downtrodden could freely migrate. People with nothing but hopes, dreams and a dash of courage could put down roots and provide for themselves and their families. Today, there isn't anywhere human beings can go that hasn't been sold or deeded over to someone already. A person who can't afford to buy land has no choice anymore but to become a vagabond, marginalized by society and forced to live in fear and perpetual lack. What does that say about us, and about our so-called spiritual values?

Take, for example, the inhabitants of the island nation of Tuvalu, whose very existence is now being threatened by rising ocean levels. These people are living in a waking nightmare, watching their country disappear more every day. Their peaceful fishing and farming lifestyles are not the cause of the climate change that threatens to sink their world, but theirs is a land that is suffering the most. Since they own nothing else will we allow them to sink beneath the sea?

It remains to be seen.

Despite America's fervent proclamations about the importance of the "right to life," there's nothing in our social system that guarantees anyone the right to space. That's a bizarre situation which pits our deeply held conceptual beliefs against an unforgiving reality; for without the right to actual space, of what value is our conceptual right to life?

For thousands of years property ownership has sliced and diced our world in a piecemeal fashion. It's created generations of a wealthy few and a far larger number of poor. It separates neighbor from neighbor, tribe from tribe and ultimately nation from nation. While the rules for human behavior differ widely from place to place, what happens in one locale has the power to cause lasting harm to others. One country's industrial productivity is another nation's acid rain.

The false separation of man-made boundaries and limited piecemeal thinking will no longer work in our global reality. Nor will the false belief that I can do whatever I want with "my" piece of land, despite the cost to our planet. Land isn't a toaster or car or television to be used and thrown away once we've sucked it dry; it's a complex living reality, replete with its natural rhythms and cooperative interspecies living arrangements. It doesn't recognize borders, dams, fences or walls; it doesn't acknowledge humanity's ownership rights. It breathes, grows, shifts, bends and folds according to its own geological pace and timescale, impervious to our selfish, self-serving beliefs.

To acknowledge that truth, to elevate the rights of land itself on par with the rights of humans, would empower us to be stewards instead of exploiters. It would free us to generously share our space with those less fortunate, granting them their divine rights as planetary citizens to occupy Earth's lands and to participate in her bounty. It would further encourage us to set aside our short-term interests for the sake of our higher collective and long term interests. Last but surely not least, it would render us thoughtful and moral ancestors for future generations to revere rather than abhor.

The choice is ours to make; the minds ours to change.

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