So for some strange reason this past year, I took on the role of Board President of our condominium association which, by all commonly accepted standards of our modern society, indicates that I either enjoy pain or I am slightly deranged or some combination of both. There have been some days in this role filled with experiences where I would not disagree with this assessment.
Seriously why would I voluntarily accept this non-financially compensated role of dealing with the multiple issues of a 2 building residential and commercial complex and the criticisms and complaints that arise from nearly 100 different and disconnected households? Well, quite frankly I did it simply because it’s our future or at least a microcosm example of our future.
What? We’re all going to live in Condo’s? Well yes & no. It’s rather obvious that our current American societal model of suburban McMansion living is unsustainable but that doesn’t mean that we all have to live in Condo’s. But then again in a sustainable future world -many more of us will. So we need to get it right. Hence my willingness to see if I can help grow a viable community.
If our future of humanity is ever to be sustainable then somehow we have to learn how to co-exist as a community of shared concerns rather than as isolated disconnected individuals focused solely on fulfilling our individual wants, needs & desires.
The Crisis Of The Commons:
Currently our society has embraced hyper-individualism as it’s core life value. We can see this played out in the media, in our political system, in our economic models and in our everyday life experiences. The intense focus of our society is on individual rights and on the immediacy of today’s needs/wants/fears & desires. But this approach to life fails to consider the future of the commons. It also flies in the face of the Gospel imperative to Love God & Neighbor but we will leave the discussion of that significant dimension to another day.
So what is the Crisis of the Commons? Simply put, its the uncomfortable fact that even though we are individuals, we share things in common. Some of things that we share are incredibly important and also ultimately limited. Somewhere along the range of possible actions in sharing the commons, our intense focus on individuality becomes a severe and ultimately fatal detriment to the whole. Perhaps a brief illustration from the Middle Ages will help to clarify our modern dilemma.
A few hundred years ago, the middle class was essentially non-existent. Our ancestors might have been serfs working on some Noble’s land. We could eat what scraps the Noble set aside for us to consume but if we wanted something more than scraps (or even not to starve when the Noble’s interests dictated a lack of concern for our plight) then we would need to pool our resources. Perhaps we might raise a few sheep in the town’s common area that could tide us over when times were tight. But if you or I decided to get ahead by raising some additional sheep for our own purposes at some point we would exceed the grass available in the common area and all the sheep would die out. It might be hard to determine whose additional sheep caused this “tipping point” to be exceeded but the result would be the same. All of the community would pay the price of our individual desire for more. Starvation would hit everyone, from those who tried for more and even those who were innocent. The only way to survive was to live in community that recognized the boundaries of what the commons could sustain.
If you look at the history of ancient civilizations, you will see this “crisis of the commons” played out in one form or another again and again and again. Civilizations that died out never could accept the limits of the commons. Perhaps they thought that they could invent new methods where natural limits wouldn’t apply to them or perhaps they simply thought that God would provide no matter what they did. But die out they did and all we have left from their walk in this life is some pottery remnants or perhaps some broken stone statues.
So what does the “crisis of the commons” have to do with a sustainable future? Perhaps because it directly affects everything that matters.
When I was a youth, as hard as it is to believe now, we used to practice how to survive nuclear annihilation by ducking under our school desks. I grew up in a time when humankind’s great technological achievement was to master the ability to destroy the world through nuclear war. Looking back, it is still is an amazement that somehow our leaders didn’t push those launch buttons but its scary to contemplate how close we got to this point at various crisis moments in the past 50 years. But that was then, we moved on to new capabilities now. We have managed to expand our technological capability in our insatiable desire for consuming more such that all that is required to destroy intelligent life on this Earth is simply to continue to follow our current life path.
That’s the “crisis of the commons” for our time.
In my lifetime, the world’s human population has tripled and our pollution rate has increased six-fold. Those are staggering statistics to comprehend. But it’s not simply the head count of humans that matters. It’s also how much each human consumes. Scientists tell us that we passed the point of where the Earth was able to sustain our level of consumption sometime in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. Right now the scientific consensus is that we are consuming at a level which requires 1.5 worlds. If all 7.6 billion current human inhabitants consumed what the average American consumes then we would need more than 4 worlds. The problem of course is that we only have the one. I can tell you from my world travels that our commercial global advertising outreach has got everyone wanting to consume at the level Americans take for granted. The natural laws of the universe will not permit this much longer. We are over heating the Climate, depleting the biosphere, destroying the oceans & the soils that sustain life and in doing so we are also hitting so many more natural limits that we can’t even predict which tipping point will come first.
In short we are facing on a global basis for the first time in our history the “Crisis Of The Commons”. Life as we know it will simply cease to exist if we continue on our current life path. To be sure, I and my fellow grey hairs currently residing in western modern society are probably immune to this crisis. I am not so confident that my kids will be immune from this crisis and I am fairly sure that my grandkids and their peers around the globe will end up cursing our legacy with their dying breathes.
So what do we do in response to this modern day global “Crisis Of The Commons”?
Perhaps, we start on a personal basis by choosing the road less traveled. The seldom used road where our life path embraces the value of the rights of future communities to live over my perceived right as an individual to consume without limits in the here and now.
Perhaps we take the first initial even hesitant steps down this fork in our road of life by informing our daily decisions by the consideration of what is the best decision that I can make to the benefit of my grandchildren and their grandchildren. Perhaps we change from the concept that a “good life is measured by what I have accumulated” to the legacy of life that we enable future generations to experience.
Perhaps we start small: we reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we burn, change our diets in small and meaningful ways and restrain our urges to consume. Perhaps we step further on this new life path to insist that laws are enacted which put a price on carbon and reign in the wanton excesses of Global Vulture Capitalism. Perhaps we even risk criticism by inviting others to join us on this new life path also such that a tipping point might be reached where the “Road Less Traveled” of caring for the future of God’s Good Creation becomes the norm.
I know for sure that “tipping points” are coming.
Whether they are the “tipping points” which carry us over the cliff into the total destruction of life or instead they are the “tipping points” of sufficient people demanding a different life path remains to be seen.
As a Public Theologian, I know which path is the one God calls us to take. (“Jesus looked upon him with love and said that you lack one thing, go sell…give.. and come follow me.”)
All this blog’s discussion to this point is to lead us to the need to envision the need to change human society on a global scale. To envision a radical concept that I have dubbed the “Uncommon Commons“.
The Uncommon Commons as proposed this day is perhaps best being debated in our society as the current “hot topic” known as the Green New Deal. It is the singular current aspiration of the scale necessary to solve our deep seated problems by tackling both economic injustice & environmental injustice via solving the Climate Crisis.
It arises from the basic understanding that Physics doesn’t compromise which makes the Climate Crisis with its recent tip over into being an “acute threat” unable to be successfully resolved using conventional political approaches. Some 30-40 years ago while it was still a “chronic threat”, the issue of Global Warming might have possible for our typical political approaches to have worked if all parties had bargained in good faith. But nothing was done then other than pretending that the problem didn’t exist.
That conscious intentional decision on the part of Fossil Fuel interests to deny that we needed to stop our polluting ways has caused this global crisis to escalate to the point where only a WWII level of response will prove sufficient. The level of investment of time, talent & resources necessary are staggering to comprehend. If not appropriately controlled, greed based interests will steal from these necessary global scale efforts. If done appropriately, the right expenditures of these resources can lift billions out of poverty.
Hence the need for the movement towards aspirational Green New Deal. Which would be a major step in human evolution to sustaining Creation rather than destroying it.
The Green New Deal could become a path leading us towards the Uncommon Commons that we first read about in the book of Acts 2:43
– And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
As I ponder each day anew the many terrible things happening across the globe on our mad march towards extinction, I have come to the radical conclusion that Billionaires ain’t going to Heaven because to obtain “their” billions they are making our Earth into Hell. That’s the radical truth of the Gospel reduced to a single sentence. If humans ever evolve to living in a sustainable relationship with Earth’s life systems then the concept of billionaires will have ceased to exist.
That’s what scares the “bejesus” out of the billionaires.