"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Common Ownership of God's Creative Goods

Sudden and dramatic changes to major geophysical elements of the Earth are inevitable if global temperatures continue to rise as corporations continue to emit greenhouse gases at higher and higher levels. These changes will be irreversible on a human timescale. A sliding damage scale derived from current scientific reports tells us that an increase of 2.5° will result in the extinction of 25-30% of species. If the average temperature rises to 3.5° 40-70% of all species on Earth will become extinct. Water shortages will affect up to 4.4 billion people and crop yields will drop precipitously as the water dries up. Sea levels will likely rise to 7 meters displacing hundreds of millions of people in the world’s cities.

The root of the problem is private ownership of the world's resources. The illusion promoted by our globalized economics is that property rights are absolute and that any infringement of them is a direct attack on freedom. We are encouraged to believe that in owning a resource we can do with it exactly as we please. There is no accountability other than to market forces which reward decisions which result in the greater concentration of resource control by private entities. This form of ownership insulates the owner from responsibility to the global community. Real and potential damage to the community is trumped by the need to protect private profit.

Particularly relevant to the rapidly growing embrace of creation care by Catholics and evangelicals are traditional Christian ideas about property. St. Ambrose, one of the Fathers of the Church, and mentor to St. Augustine, stated, "God has ordered all things to be produced so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for few." (St. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, 1. 132). The implications of this teaching which is echoed in the most recent Catholic Catechism are very rich. "The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise." Catechism of the Catholic Church 2403.

Property rights, far from being absolute, or the “guarantee of freedom” as contemporary propaganda pretends, are subject to more primal concerns. Among these is the common ownership of Earth’s resources such that all receive a just share of its goods and that areas of common concern such as the survival of our species should be addressed communally. In other words, each of us belong to a social organism and have responsibilities beyond our individual desires. This responsibility cannot be overturned by legislation. In fact, it could be argued that our current notions of absolute individual and corporate property rights are a moral fiction produced by the ecological exploitation that has led to the current catastrophe.

The expansion of rights devoid of responsibility to the community which guarantees them has reached its apogee when the planet which sustains all life is being degraded by unchecked corporate profit seeking. The unrestrained indulgence in material goods unleashed by globalized capital has atrophied our sense of social responsibility. Property that is being misused by corporations to destroy the basis for human and other life must be reallocated from those corporations and placed in collective ownership. This collective ownership must decide how to reorder the distribution of the world’s goods so as to place survival and social responsibility first and devise a fundamentally different set of economic priorities which reward solidarity, care for creation, and production for satisfaction of actual human needs rather than profit.

1 comment:

Ramsey said...


Your connection between global warming and corporations is indeed real and strong; corporations (G.E. & Westinghouse) have ruined large swaths of land and water in my home town and never paid a dime to fix it. However, you may be overlooking the biggest culprit in the case of CO2 emissions....public schools!

According to the U.S. Green Building Council,

"Buildings are the single largest contributor to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, accounting for 39% of emissions in the U.S. Of those buildings, school buildings represent the largest construction sector in the country."


So from this angle it's actually the "common/public" land that seems to be the biggest problem.

Furthermore, if we lived in a society where property rights were actually adhered to (and not just co-opted for political expediency) any form of pollution would be illegal, a crime. Rather, the U.S. has "cap and trade" systems and civil courts where pollution is treated as a necessary evil, a cost of doing business, rather than what it really is, a crime.

Please take some time to read Murray Rothbard's "Conservation, Ecology, & Growth" and consider the implications of a pure system of private property rights on pollution. Murray is a true anarchist with a consistent and principled approach.


Now I'm not saying that private property is the way to go, simply that what you're critiquing (the current system in the U.S.) is not a private property system at all.