RAIDING THE "COMMONS"
by
Chris Maser



Then I say the Earth belongs to each generation during its course, fully and in its own right; no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence. — Thomas Jefferson



Once upon a time, silence could be found throughout much of the world, especially in the high mountain snows of winter and in the great, still expanses of the world's deserts. Today, however, silence—from the highest mountain to the depths of the deepest ocean—is a rare and elusive part of the commons. In fact, the world has gotten so noisy, even beneath the ocean waves, that it's threatening the ability of many sea creatures to seek food, find mates, protect their young, and escape their predators. The effects of underwater noise can be liked to being trapped the center of an acoustics traffic jam, where the din comes simultaneously from all sides. In deep water, where marine animals rely on their sense of hearing, the noise is especially harmful.

Noise from supertankers and military sonar equipment, as well as the explosions of seismic exploration for offshore oil, scrambles the communication signals used by dolphins and whales, which causes them to abandon traditional feeding areas, breeding grounds, and change direction during migration, as well as alter their calls. They also blunder into fishing nets. In fact, the global, unintentional catch—"bycatch," in today's vernacular—of marine mammals is in the hundreds of thousands, and is likely to have significant demographic effects on many populations of marine mammals. In addition, dolphins and whales, can no longer avoid colliding with ships on the open seas, where international shipping produces the most underwater noise pollution, but has few regulations to control it—and the military acts as though it's immune to controls.¹

THE "COMMONS"

What, you might ask, is this "commons?" The commons is that part of the world and universe that is every person's "birthright." There are two kinds of commons. Some are gifts of Nature, such as clean air, pure water, fertile soil, a rainbow, northern lights, a beautiful sunset, or a tree growing in the middle of a village; others are the collective product of human creativity, such as the town well from which everyone draws water.

Scattered throughout various parts of the world there still exists a tree in the middle of the square around which village life revolves. It's a quaint meeting place in which neighbors form bonds with one another, children play games, women visit about the affairs of life, and men discuss work and politics. It's a place where old and young mingle in a way that bridges the generations in the flow and ebb of village life. It's a place where children still experience an unstructured and noncompetitive setting in which their parents are close at hand. As such, a village commons is far more than simply a public space around a tree. It's the center in which the life of true community blossoms because it has the scale of a human face.

With respect to socializing, nomadic Bedouins (which in Arabic means "desert dwellers") had, and have, specific meeting places. In the desert of Sinai, an acacia tree still serves as a landmark and meeting place that offers shelter and social contact to travelers. The "makhad" (which means "the meeting place around the acacia tree") is a traditional Bedouin meeting place, where, according to their customs of friendship and hospitality, all who pass through the desert are welcomed. In fact, there is a particular acacia tree in the Sinai desert at the oasis garden of Ein-Khudra (an oasis mentioned in the Bible) that has been cultivated continuously by the same Bedouin family for over a thousand years.²

These "oasis gardens" are remarkably fertility and filled with abundance, which reflects the Bedouin's love of and respect for their desert home. The makhads are a socially recognized commons that help to sustain the nomadic lifestyle—acting as a fixed point around which the nomadic journey revolves.²

Yet most Western economists would regard the village tree as a pathetic symbol of an "underdeveloped" country. The tree would therefore be cut down, the site where it grew would be "developed," and money would be charged in an attempt to provide what the tree did. In other words, the tree and all it freely offered to village life would be turned into commodities and sold for a price, which to economists is "growth" and "progress." (To understand the US notion of social progress, see:  What is Meant by "Development"?)

The commons is the "hidden economy, everywhere present but rarely noticed," writes author Jonathan Rowe.3 It provides the basic ecological and social support systems of life and well-being. It's the vast realm of our shared heritage, which we typically use free of toll or price. Air, water, and soil; sunlight and warmth; wind and stars; mountains and oceans; languages and cultures; knowledge and wisdom; peace and quiet; sharing and community; joy and sorrow; and the genetic building blocks of life—these are all aspects of the commons.

The commons has an intrinsic quality of just being there, without formal rules of conduct. People are free to breathe the air, drink the water, and share life's experiences without a contract, without paying a royalty, without needing to ask permission. It is simply waiting to be discovered and used.

If a good swimming hole exists, people will find it. If a good view exists along a trail, hikers will stop and enjoy it. There is no need to advertise a commons; it will be found.

A commons engages people in the wholeness of themselves and in community. It fosters the most genuine of human emotions and stimulates interpersonal relationships in order to share the experience, which enhances its enjoyment and archives its memory.

We humans have jointly inherited the commons, which is more basic to our lives and well-being than either the market or the state. It is thus imperative, for the children's sake, that we understand, acknowledge, and remember that we, in the biosphere, live sandwiched between the atmosphere (air) and the litho-hydrosphere (rock and water). As a reminder, our lives depend on two great oceans:  one of air and one of water, both of which have currents that circumnavigate the globe. Because each sphere is inexorably integrated with the others, degrade one, and we degrade all three—and we are currently busy polluting them all, as if there were no tomorrow.

TRESPASSING ON THE COMMONS

Pollution is not only destroying the local and global commons worldwide but also is "trespassing" onto local commons and private property. I say trespassing advisedly because loud noises, unwanted glare of lights at night, property littered with human junk visible from one's home, the stench from a nearby factory, and water in a private well fouled by industrial chemicals are all examples of pollution caused by someone else, somewhere else that crosses the boundary onto such commons as the seven seas, national parks, city parks, as well as private property—all without the owner's permission.

Silence Please

Noise is unwanted sound, certain levels of which negatively affect our health, that of our pets, such as zebra finches, which forego fidelity to a mate as sound blares.4 Some of the other problems associated with noise pollution are:  loss of hearing; chronic stress; sleep deprivation; high blood pressure; mental distractions, with the resultant loss of enjoyment and productivity—all of which are part of a declining quality of life. Moreover, it may be unwanted because it is so loud one cannot hear a bird's song, the sigh of an autumn breeze in one's garden, the song of a waterfall.

When I first built my garden pond, one of the primary joys was the music of the water falling over the little rock wall I had made for it. The waterfall sang freely in those early days, and my wife, Zane, and I could hear its song from every corner of the garden in the back of our house. In fact, we would open our bedroom window at night and listen to the water sing. There are no words to describe the inner feeling of peace and well-being convey by the love song of the waterfall.

We humans live in the "invisible present," wherein things change so slowly that we don't notice the tiny, cumulative effects of their continual transformation. Although I knew this, and had written about it in other books, I did not realize that we were once again to experience the creeping invisibility of daily change.

The change of which I am speaking began with the background noise of increasing traffic as the town grew. With the prosperity of the 1990s, home-improvement projects seemed to spring up everywhere, adding to the din. Then came the insidious leaf blowers, lawnmowers, and then came a fleet of helicopters, which were headquartered at our local airport. As noise was added to noise, it became harder and harder to hear the waterfall.

We first noticed that the waterfall's song could not be heard when we opened the bedroom window and, listening, failed to detect the splashing water. Next, the outer corners of the garden became devoid of its song. Over time, we had to get closer and closer to the pond in order to hear the music. Then came the time we could barely hear it when we sat on our bench, a scant eight to ten feet away. Finally, the urban noises penetrating our garden became so intrusive that we could not hear the waterfall, even when we stood next to it.

When the voice of the waterfall was drowned out by the ever-increasing noise pollution, some of the spiritual essence disappeared from the pond. In the end, therefore, I removed the waterfall rather than have its inaudible presence be a constant reminder of the waning quality of life that daily besets us.

Noise pollution is one of society's growing concerns because it increasingly affects the quality of everyday living—especially if one lives in the flight path of an airport; within a few miles of a railroad crossing; next to an increasingly busy street; near an athletic field, a university fraternity, or ongoing construction. And there seem to be few places one can escape from it.

As urban sprawl claims more and more of a community's landscape, the collective noise of human activities increasing invades the once-quiet sanctuary of private homes—often to the discomfort and frustration of its inhabitants, both human and non-human. Trespassing noise can interrupt sleep, meditation, and conversations, distract students in class, entertainment, and the dignity of funerals, as well as diminish recreational experiences.

And today in Australia the noise of automobile traffic is disrupting the mating calls of urban frogs in Melbourne, the country's second largest city. Frogs have declined in number in more than 100 ponds since the year 2000. The city noise from cars and machines, such as air conditioners, is drastically curtailing the distance at which a female frog can hear a male's mating call, which reduces the success of breeding.

Although the southern brown treefrog has adapted to the din of traffic by increasing the pitch of its croaks, the call of the male popplebonk frog, which could normally be heard by females for about 875 yards, has been reduced to an audible range of only 46 feet near busy roads. The most disadvantaged species, however, are those with low-pitched croaks.5

Not only that, but roughly 400 goats grazing on Taiwan's wind-swept Penghu archipelago have died in recent years due to terminal insomnia following the installation of eight turbines on the archipelago, which is located just southwest of Taiwan's main island of Formosa.6

Let There Be Light

There was a time in the 1940s and 1950s when the night sky of the Willamette Valley in western Oregon winked with the light of a million stars. In those days, the Milky Way was visible from almost everywhere in the south end of the valley, but no more. Now, only the brightest stars can be seen, even on the darkest of nights, because of light pollution. Thus, we, in the United States, are losing the only portal to the wonder of nature that is open to virtually everyone as part of the global commons.

This doorway to the heavens can feed a sense of wonder, which in turns opens the minds to possibilities rather than remaining in the confines of what we're certain we know. The ability to view the stars gives people another way of connecting with nature, so critical if we are to arrive at sustainable solutions.

Glare from lights can simply be uncomfortable or annoying, such as the increasing use of excessively bright security systems in residential areas. On the other hand, glare can prevent a person from seeing objects, such as a motorist who hits a pedestrian in dark clothing because the driver is blinded by the glare of bright lights from an oncoming vehicle.

The creeping influence of the ever-increasing output of lights from commercial and residential settings (such as parking lots and security systems), as well as interlinking roads, all affect our quality of life and our safety. The most pervasive form of light pollution, however, is "urban sky glow," which is caused by artificial light passing upward, where it reflects off of submicroscopic particles of dust and water in the atmosphere. First noted as a visual problem by astronomers, it is no longer just their issue. In fact, urban sky glow, which can be seen more than a hundred miles away from large cities, is beginning to seriously destroy the experience of the nighttime sky in some of our national parks.

In addition to the diminished wonder and enjoyment engendered by gazing at the twinkling stars, light pollution is a rapidly expanding form of human encroachment, particularly in coastal systems, where it alters the behavior of sea nesting turtles. It also affects the foraging behavior of Santa Rosa beach mice, which tend to avoid artificially lit areas. This artificial phenomenon actually appears to be driving some strictly nocturnal species toward extinction, such as the California glossy snake. According to zoologist Robert Fisher (of the U.S. Geological Survey in San Diego:  "It might be that you can protect the land, but unless you can control the light levels that are invading the land, you're not going to be able to protect some of the species."7

Visual Pollution

Historically, pollution has referred to human introduction of noxious substances into the environment that impaired a given ecosystem's ability to function by disrupting its biophysical processes. From a visual point of view, the things people introduce into the environment that are generally considered to be "eye sores" are termed a "blight," which is something that severely spoils or damages things and leaves them in a ruined state, especially in urban areas. I use the term "pollution," however, because it fits into the same category of disregard for the beauty and biophysical integrity of Planet Earth, as do the other kinds of pollution.

Visual Pollution includes such things as discarded garbage along roads; unkempt, junk-ridden properties; tangles of aboveground power, phone, and cable co. lines; cell-phone towers; and the ubiquitous signage—all of which progressively degrade the aesthetic quality of our life. In fact, the quizzical poet Ogden Nash once wrote:  "I think that I shall never see a billboard as lovely as a tree. Indeed, unless the billboards fall, I'll never see a tree at all."

RAIDING THE COMMONS

We humans have jointly inherited the commons, which is more basic to our lives and well-being than either the market or the state.8 We are "temporary possessors and life renters," wrote British economist and philosopher Edmund Burke, and we "should not think it amongst [our] rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance."9 (An entail is the restriction of the future ownership of real estate to a particular descendant, through instructions written into a will.)

Despite the wisdom of Burke's admonishment, the commons is today almost everywhere under assault, abuse, and degradation in the name of economic development as corporations are increasingly hijacking (euphemistically termed "privatizing") both nature's services and every creature's birthright to those services. For example, the greatest threats to the world's oceans are probably increasing temperature, destructive fishing in deep waters, and point-source organic pollution. Pollution also despoils the air, defiles the soil, and poisons the water. Noise has routed silence from its most protected sanctuaries. City lights hide the stars by night. Urban sprawl, the disintegration of community, and the attempts to control, engineer, and patent the very substance of life itself are all part or the economic raid on the commons for private monetary gain.

"Corporations," says author David Korten, "are pushing hard to establish property rights over ever more of the commons for their own exclusive ends, often claiming the right to pollute or destroy the regenerative systems of the Earth for quick gain, shrinking the resource base available for ordinary people to use in their pursuit of livelihoods, and limiting the prospects of future generations."10

This is not to say that all corporations are bad or that the market is inept. But it is to say that both corporations and the market must have boundaries to keep them within the realm of sustainable biophysical principles, human competence, and moral limits. "The market economy is not everything," asserted conservative economist Wilhelm Ropke in the 1950s. "The supporters of the market economy do it the worst service by not observing its limits," says author Jonathan Rowe.11 And it is by ignoring the moral limits of the market economy that we, the adults of the world, create poverty and increasingly mortgage all the generations of the future—beginning with our own children and grandchildren.

THE UPSHOT

As long as humanity is motivated by fear, of which "greed" is a part, every market economy will be destructive. Although money, which is seen as personal security, is the true object of competition, the ultimate battlefield is the global environment. The only possible solution for human survival with any sense of dignity and well-being is a conscious reduction of and cap on the human population. Even then, the flawed economic principles that drive the current market economy would remain destructive, but at least the biophysical carrying capacity for human life would be in better balance with the long-term availability of natural resources.

The supreme reality of our time is … the vulnerability of our planet.
President John F. Kennedy, 1963


ENDNOTES

  1. This paragraph is based on: (1) Bryant, P.J., C.M. Lafferty, and S.K. Lafferty. 1984. Reoccupation of Laguna Guerrero Negro Baja California, Mexico, by gray whales. Pp. 375-386. In:  M.L. Jones, S.L. Swartz, and S. Leatherwood (eds.). The Gray Whale Eschrictius robustus. Academic Press, Orlando, Florida. 600 pp; (2) Andre, M, Kamminga, C., and Ketten, D. 1997. Are low-frequency sounds a marine hazard:  a case study in the Canary Islands. Underwater Bio-sonar and Bioacoustics Symposium, Loughborough University, UK. December 16-17; (3) Morton, A.B. and H.K. Symonds. 2002. Displacement of Orcinus orca (L.) by high amplitude sound in British Columbia. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 59:71-80; (4) Miller, P.J.O., N. Biasson, A. Samuels, and P.L. Tyack. 2000. Whale songs lengthen in response to sonar. Nature, 405:903; (5) Balcomb, K.C. and Claridge. D.E. 2001. A mass stranding of cetaceans caused by naval sonar in the Bahamas. Bahamas Journal of Science, 8:1-12; (6) McCauley, R.D., Fewtrell, J., and Popper, A.N. 2003. High intensity anthropogenic sound damages fish ears. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 113:638-642; (7) Andrew J. Read, Phebe Drinker, and Simon Northridge. 2006. Bycatch of Marine Mammals in U.S. and Global Fisheries. Conservation Biology, 20:163-169; and (8) Lars Bejder, Amy Samuels, Hal Whitehead, Nick Gales, and others. 2006. Decline in Relative Abundance of Bottlenose Dolphins Exposed to Long-Term Disturbance. Conservation Biology, 20:1791-1798.

  2. Will Cretney. 2000. A Nomadic Journey. Resurgence 203:24-25.

  3. Jonathan Rowe. The Hidden Commons. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, (Summer 2001):12-17.

  4. John P. Swaddle and Laura C. Page. 2007. High levels of environmental noise erode pair preferences in zebra finches: implications for noise pollution. Animal Behaviour, 74:363-368.

  5. Rod McGuirk. Traffic May Kill Frog's Sex Lives. Associated Press In: Albany Democrat-Herald, Corvallis (0R) Gazette-Times. August 23, 2009.

  6. Steve Newman. Restless Goats Die of Insomnia in Taiwan. Earthweek: A Diary of the Planet. http://www.earthweek.com/index.html May 29, 2009.(accessed on June 2, 2009).

  7. (1) Brittany L. Bird, Lyn C. Branch, Deborah L. Miller. 2004. Effects of Coastal Lighting on Foraging Behavior of Beach Mice. Conservation Biology, 18:1435-1439; (2) Ben Harder. 2006. Light All Night. Science News, 169:170-172; and (3) Robert F. Baldwin and Stephen C. Trombulak. 2007. Losing the Dark:  a Case for a National Policy on Land Conservation. Conservation Biology, 21:1133-1134.

  8. Jonathan Rowe. The Hidden Commons. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, (Summer 2001):12-17.

  9. Edmund Burke, quoted in David W. Orr. Conservatives against Conservation. Resurgence, 172 (1995):15-17.

  10. David Korten. What to Do When Corporations Rule the World. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, (Summer 2001):148-151.

  11. Jonathan Rowe. The Hidden Commons. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, (Summer 2001):12-17.

COMMON AND SCIENTIFIC NAMES

California glossy snake = Arizona elegans

Gray whale = Eschrichtius robustus

Santa Rosa beach mouse = Peromyscus polionotus leucocephalus

Zebra finch = Poephila guttata


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