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Lions Roar : January 2019
there is someone to own it. The concept is inherently dualistic: the owner objecti- fies, in effect, that which is owned. In that case, what does property mean for a tradition that is devoted to realizing there can be no real owner, because there is no self? The issue isn’t whether I own my toothbrush. The question is whether wealthy people and corporations should be free to own as much property as they want, and whether they should be able to utilize that property (especially land) in any way they want—including ways that damage the earth. Today the bottom line, with few exceptions, is “hands off.” It’s theirs, so they can do more or less whatever they want with it. But if the earth is to sur- vive the onslaught of our species, this social agreement about property needs to be rethought. Instead of focusing only on what is of short-term benefit to one species, what about the well-being of the planet? If an instrumentalist view of the natural world is at the heart of our eco- logical predicament, perhaps we need to appreciate that the planet and its magnificent web of life are much more than just a resource for the benefit of one species. According to traditional juris- prudence, nature is property without any legal rights, so environmental laws have focused only on regulating exploitation. Recently, however, the inherent rights of the natural world have been recognized in Ecuador, New Zealand, and India, meaning that cases can be brought up on behalf of nature itself. According to the ecotheologian Thomas Berry, the universe is not a collection of objects but a community of subjects. Our own biosphere is a resplendent example of that community. Humans are not the ultimate end, the goal of the evolutionary process, because no species is—or, better, because every species is. Today we need to think seri- ously about what it would mean to live on the earth in such a way. ♦ Hunting and gathering societies that do not grow their food have a very different relationship to the land they live on and the other creatures they live with. The fact that all conceptions of prop- erty are culturally and historically con- ditioned reminds us that property is not inherently sacrosanct. Our social agree- ments about property can be changed, and today perhaps need to be changed, as part of our response to burgeoning social and ecological crises. According to the Pali canon, the Buddha did not critique the concept of private property. When merchants asked him for advice, he emphasized how one gains wealth and how one should use it. Accumulating wealth for its own sake was condemned, in favor of generosity (which may have something to do with the fact that the monastic community was dependent on lay support). Of course, there was also another side to the Buddha’s teachings, which empha- sized nonattachment to material goods and promoted the value of having fewer wants. Monastics, for example, should be content with the four requisites: enough food to alleviate hunger and maintain health, enough clothes to be modest and protect the body, enough shelter to focus on mental cultivation, and enough medical care to cure and prevent basic illnesses. This de-emphasis on personal prop- erty is consistent with Buddhist teach- ings about the self. The word “property” derives from the Latin proprius—“one’s own.” There is no property, whether ter- ritory or movable possessions, unless open us up to an alternative experience. We find nature healing, even when we don’t understand why or how, but clearly it has something to do with the fact that the natural world offers us a temporary escape from our instrumentalized lives. Two hundred years ago, little more than 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities; today well over half of us live in urban areas. According to eco- psychologists, many urbanites suffer not only from various types of overcrowding and pollution, but also from “nature defi- cit syndrome.” We live among machines and things produced by machines, whereas in a forest we are embedded in a world where the things we encounter are alive. In cities, almost everything we relate to is a utensil, including most people, whom we learn to see in terms of their functions: the shop clerk, the restaurant waiter, the bus driver, and so forth. In other words, urban areas are constructed in such a way that almost everything and everyone is a means for obtaining or achieving something. Surrounded by so many other people busy doing the same thing, it is difficult to see through or let go of this way of relating to the world, and to realize that there is another way to perceive it. Why are we so alienated from the nat- ural world, which is not just our home but also our mother? One of the pillars of the worldview we collectively take for granted is a principle that the ecological crisis exposes as problematic—property. It is a social construct that, like money, is both essential and, like money, has devel- oped in ways that need to be revaluated and reconstructed. The basic problem with property— particularly land—is that it is reduced to a means for the ends of the owner, whether that is a person or a corporation. Despite being indispensable to civiliza- tion as we know it, our modern concept of private property is not something nat- ural to human society in the way that, for example, language and material tools are. What does property mean for a tradition devoted to realizing there can be no real owner—because there is no self? LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2019 14 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE