“Having things” in the modern world is one of the primary ways that society measures whether we are successful or not. The more, bigger – or smaller sometimes -, louder, fancier, high-tech, brighter, more rare the things that we own, apparently the more valuable we are as human beings.
At least, that’s what every advert, marketing executive, food store, clothing company, mobile phone maker and vehicle manufacturer is telling us. They tell us these things because they’ve been told that money makes the world go round – despite pretty solid scientific evidence that it’s got a lot to do with physics, not finance. And in order to be REALLY successful, not only must money be moving all the time – in other words, people buying and buying and buying – it also has to be accumulating through stupefying financial mechanisms and instruments that not even their creators understand. And if we keep doing this – buying, investing, buying more and investing more – we’ll solve all the worlds’ problems. Owning – whether goods, land or money – is good!
To a huge extent, we believe them, and quite literally, buy into this story. Because that’s all it is – a story, which through repetition, accumulation of power, and few challenges, has become the current “reality”.
Ownership implies exclusive use rights for a period of time. That’s my definition. Whether it is a painting, a house, or an investment portfolio, if I own it, I can use it. And I can choose who else can use it – my friends, my banker, a few charities maybe. So, in the tiny picture that is my life, I can own things. In the bigger picture of Life, all I can do is temporarily make use of something over which I have some modicum of access control, whether painting, property or money.
Ownership is merely a legal construct, the boundaries of which change constantly in the short- and long-term (remember Feudalism?). We choose frequently to relinquish ownership: we throw out empty sauce bottles; we give unwanted clothes away; we buy the latest mobile phone and toss our old one to the kids, or trash it; we sell our house and land; or – and this is the inevitable clanger – we die. Then the lawyers have a field day with who now owns what that was ‘ours’.
Realistically, many people never ‘own’ their house or car, or many other goods these days anyway: if we have a mortgage, or a car allowance, or a car loan, or a credit card, the bank owns the goods – it’s in the T&C’s if you read the tiny print. But the concept of ownership brings with it images of certainty, security, and peace of mind: things that we all need to feel safe. That image of safety is however built on a thread from a spider’s web that spans Cape Town to Johannesburg: fragile, to grossly understate the case. 2008 said it all.
Suspend disbelief, abandon cynicism, and play a game with me for a moment. Imagine that we accepted that ownership is temporary; land, mobile phones, cars, books, computers, water even. Imagine too that success is measured in two ways: firstly, by how long we make use of the goods – longer mostly being better – and secondly, by the condition in which we pass on goods to the next user! Suddenly, consumption is not our driving force: a conservation worldview might develop rather. Care also becomes important, for the goods that we’re using, and for those on to whom we might be passing them, including future generations. Consciousness becomes almost automatic: no longer thoughtlessly buying, using, throwing away; trips to the mall become a rare necessity rather than the weekly (often daily!) entertainment spot it currently occupies. Money takes on a whole new value: merely that of exchange, not the sole end of life.
Finish playing the game with me now. Can we make these needed practical systemic changes immediately on a gross scale in the dominating capitalist socio-economic system? No. Can we change our own worldview – to one that includes conservation, care and consciousness – and then let the financial chips fall where they might? Yes.
Isn’t the power and freedom of personal choice wonderful?