December 11, 2006

Are we owners or custodians?

In the previous post, when I said that my generation had been poor custodians of the world, I used the word 'custodians' deliberately.

I think there is a big difference between those who see their relationship to things in terms of ownership and those who see it in terms of custodianship.

The ownership mentality sees things this way: "If I earn money, that money belongs to me and I am free to do what I want with it. Similarly, anything that I buy with the money is mine to do with whatever I like." In this view, if I am a millionaire, I should be able to buy five huge homes around the world, each of which uses vast amounts of resources to build and maintain but are empty for most of the time, fly around in my private planes, drive around in huge cars that I replace every year, buy lots of clothes that I discard soon after, and so forth. The feeling is that I have a right to do this because I 'own' these things and bought them with my own money.

This sense of ownership also extends to the Earth and its resources. Although no one, of course, owns the Earth, the fact that I feel I am entitled to use up whatever resources that go into enabling my lifestyle means that I essentially feel entitled to the ownership of those resources as well.

Contrasted with this attitude is the custodian mentality. This says that we never really 'own' anything. Everything we have we are custodians for, given the privilege of looking after and using until we pass them on to the next user. When I go to a store and buy something, I am essentially buying not the object itself but the right to be its custodian. I get the right to use it exclusively while it is in my care but I also have the responsibility to look after it well. The same applies to the Earth and its resources. We are custodians of it and charged with taking care of it, not its owners to do what we like with it.

I am fortunate enough to have paid off the mortgage on the house I live in. If I think of myself as the 'owner' of the house, then I am free to do what I like with it, consistent with the zoning laws of my community. If I like, I can trash it. If it thus loses value, that is my own business and no one else's. I can even raze it to the ground and build either a new house or leave it as open space. In the ownership mentality, it can be argued that the only considerations that should influence my decision is whether it is beneficial to me, since I am the 'owner'.

But surely I have a responsibility to the Earth and my neighbors and my descendants as well? Trashing the house or destroying it so as to put up a bigger new home, even though my children have gone away to college and my space needs are less, would not be a good decision for a custodian of the Earth to make since it would be a waste of resources, even if it led to an increase in my property values and made me personally richer.

The same questions apply to every purchase I make. When I pay for a car, I become a custodian of the vehicle as well as the resources that went in to making it. Hence I have a duty not to waste it but to take care of the car and make it last as long as I can. The same with clothes.

If we cannot shift our thinking away from thinking of ourselves as owners to thinking of ourselves as custodians, the fate the Jared Diamond describes (in his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed) happening to past collapsed societies could well happen to us. Those societies that collapsed did so because segments of those societies short-sightedly thought in terms of their own interests and not of the long-term viability of the entire community.

Since in this case it is the Earth itself that we are custodians for, we will have nowhere else to go to escape if we fail to act as good custodians.

POST SCRIPT: Russell's Teapot

Just a reminder that every Monday the website Russell's Teapot puts out a new cartoon. These cartoons are funny but are not just gags. They also contain a lot of interesting information. Last week's cartoon ("Who put the X in Xmas") dealing with Christmas myths ties in nicely with my series of posts on the dubiousness of much of Biblical history. To make the cartoon image larger, keep clicking on the cartoon image.


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The same questions apply to every purchase I make. When I pay for a car, I become a custodian of the vehicle as well as the resources that went in to making it. Hence I have a duty not to waste it but to take care of the car and make it last as long as I can. The same with clothes.

On the one hand, these are excellent ideals — we should both be careful with our things, and we should be mindful of the resources we consume. On the other hand, I’m not sure these things are a zero sum game:

Let’s say I buy a car: with care, it might last me 20 years. Should I keep the car for 20 years, or take good care of it for 10 years, but eventually sell it and/or trade it in for a newer model?

Buying a new car doesn’t mean the old car is lost — it’s usually resold, which can mean a number of things:

Someone else gets access to resources that they might not be able to afford new.
I get access to resources that weren’t available when I purchased the original car (new safety features, convenience features, fuel efficiency).
People who are responsible for the creation of the new car get access to resources that wouldn’t be available if that car hadn’t been built.
People responsible for selling the old car get access to resources that they wouldn’t get access to from the sale of the used car.

If we all bought only what we needed (with regards to very basic food, shelter, transportation), we would wipe out entire industries that people rely on to provide themselves with those very same basic needs.

For instance, what about scientific research? Do we, as a society, really need to be building things like the Large Hadron Collider? We could, perhaps, spend those resources elsewhere, to better effect. The scientists who are building it, though, feel that the knowledge we gain is worth the cost — it might result in discoveries that allow us to better spend our resources!

Or, what about the Olympics? It would be hard to imagine a greater waste of resources! Food, money, transportation, construction! But, there is some good from the olympics as well: a sense of global community and athletes who push the limits of what came before.

Posted by V on December 12, 2006 08:17 PM


I don't think we are at cross purposes, actually. In the case of the car, I am not saying that we should keep a car forever. I am saying that when I buy a car, I should look after it carefully so that when I sell it to someone else (after 3, 5, or 10 years), that person can also look after it carefully and pass it on, so that the total lifetime of the car is maximized, irrespective of the number of owners it has.

The same thing with group projects like the Olympics or the LHC. The collective good that ensues has value too and should be taken into account. What should be taken into account is the entire enviromental impact of the project. Building an Olympic village that has good usage for many, many years after the event is a good idea. Building something just for short-term prestige or to better the previous site is not desirable.

I am afraid that it is true that shifting our emphasis to reduced consumption will result in those people engaged in some areas of commerce to become reducndant. But what shoudl happen is to shift human effeort away from producing stuff we don't need to meet artificilally created needs, and to use them to help in the conservation efforts. It takes a lot of people to effectively promote efforts to reforest and replenish the Earth's resources. I think it would also be more rewarding work than making useless widgets.

Posted by Mano Singham on December 13, 2006 10:12 AM