Sunday, June 8, 2014

Not Zen 114: Property

A tribal leader took a visitor to the edge of the river. On a cloudy day, it was too far for them to see across to the other side but they could observe an island in the middle of the brown water, a rocky outcropping with mud and silt flowing downstream from it.

"That was our place for picnics," the chief said, pointing. "It was a forest. It had hills and meadows. People could farm there if they wished. On the south slope was a spring that our ancestors turned into a well. Now it is destroyed."

"The loggers cut down all of the trees, I see." His guest nodded.

"They stripped everything of value." The tribal leader jabbed his finger at it. "They destroyed the rookery. Now there are no more shorebirds They poisoned the well with the bodies of dead log men. No one can drink. They let all of the island's soil wash into the river. They made the place into a bare rock with a few stumps."

"How did they decide they could do this?" The visitor removed his hat for a moment, rubbed his balding head, and put the hat back on.

"I want you to tell me that."

"All I said was that the island had to belong to someone. If you declared it as no one's property, others would feel free to use it." He looked at his feet as he spoke.

"We made it property, as you instructed. It was common property before, according to our customs. But you said that bad things happen to common property so we made it the sole property of one man, my nephew. And it was registered with you."

"I don't understand."

"Your men got him drunk and paid him money for the island."

"So your nephew sold it?" The guest smiled with relief. An instant later, he tried to hide his emotion. He gave a solemn frown. "Then the men he sold it to can do what they want."

"That is a child's view of property. I thought your people were more sophisticated than that."

"We are very sophisticated," said the guest.

"A child is self-centered. He thinks, I will do what I please, destroy things that belong to my family, and not consider the consequences. A grown man or woman knows better. Adults consider the consequences for others."

"I think I see what you mean." He sighed at the greedy destruction of the island.

"Declaring that something is your property does not give you the right to destroy it for generations on end. Every adult knows this. You have friends, relatives, and neighbors to consider. If your concept of property lets grown men act like greedy children, then your culture's concept of property is flawed. It will lead to deaths. My nephew is ashamed. Already, he has killed one of the log men. He was wounded and has gone into hiding but next, they will kill him."

"That's wrong. But our society lives by a system of property protection. We can't simply do away with the idea."

"Then you must fix it. No one can be allowed to destroy resources that everyone needs. Every society but yours seems to know this. If your idea of property allows owners to create deserts out of gardens, it is time for that idea to grow up. It must become as sophisticated as the earth."


  1. I want to say something meaningful; but the words will not flow. In Minecraft when you cut down a tree you (hopefully) gain a sapling that you can replant. The forest does not replant itself if you clear cut an area it will not grow back; so the players know to plant saplings to create a new forest. It seems such a simple idea. Yet, in the real world, forests are destroyed every day and nothing is done to give back for all that has been taken. Instead, there are dead areas where a diverse ecosystem used to be. It is very sad.

  2. This is a cycle of environmental theft that we're still enduring around the globe. It's cheaper to clear cut and not replant, so that's what people do. But I think we could improve ourselves by adjusting our ideas of property to be something more cognizant of the consequences. For instance, buying the timber rights to a piece of land might only allow you to harvest a certain percentage of trees and only in a way that allows the area to retain its essential nature.

  3. That is, the land should be left with the ability to bounce back in reasonable time. We could implement on a global scale some of the lessons we've learned about harvesting with lower impacts.