Greed, corruption and ‘the tragedy of the commons’

One of the less understood concepts of our time is that of “the Commons”: Wikipedia defines the commons as “the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth.

Dec 19, 2016

By Anil Netto
One of the less understood concepts of our time is that of “the Commons”: Wikipedia defines the commons as “the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.”

So, it would seem, that this principle is closely tied to the concept of the common good in Catholic Social Teaching.

But there is a tragedy happening all around us. Everyday, bit by bit, our green spaces are swallowed up in the name of development. Whether it is the land, the sea, the hills, public land – much is being handed over to private interests, often at cheap prices.

Nothing seems sacred. Our primary forests are mowed down for plantations, unnecessary large dams, timber.

Land reclamation has become big business in Malaysia — and it is not because of public interest. More concrete structures seem to be sprouting on our open green spaces, even on our hills. Public assets, especially large tracts of land, are sometimes handed over to agencies and private interests on the cheap, for projects that do not necessarily benefit the ordinary people.

Even our public coffers have not been spared from grand theft and corruption. Money has been squirrelled away in offshore financial havens, through the use of proxies.

On a smaller-scale, even in our neighbourhoods, certain people tend to encroach onto public land, building all kinds of walls and concrete structures or illegal extensions.

For the one who exploits others, the Bishop of Rome says “his only God is money, and his way of acting is dominated by fraud and exploitation” at the expense of the poor and destitute.

But such exploitation can also be directed against the environment. Often it is the ordinary people who feel the brunt of such exploitation – whether it is the people in the kampungs who feel the impact of flash floods after forests are logged and hills degraded, whether it is the natives who are displaced from the land by illegal logging or mega dams, or the ordinary people who are denied the enjoyment of green spaces when these are degraded or transferred to private interests. .

In 1833, a Victorian-era economist wrote an essay called the Tragedy of the Commons about an economic theory in a system in which a certain resource is shared by many. He noted how the actions of certain individual users acting independently and in their own self interest may deplete that resource and thus be contrary to the common good of all users.

The commons may be “any shared and unregulated resource” such as the air, the sea, the rivers, the open green spaces and parks, or even the fish in the ocean. Certain individuals might encroach into these areas or make decisions that affect the common good of the larger community by denying the public the use or enjoyment of this shared resource.

Often, this seizure of what rightly belongs to the larger community arises from shady back-room deals, involving “under-table money”, kickbacks, or simply a nod-and-a wink to cronies, an unwritten understanding that you help me, I help you.

In short, we have a shared heritage called the commons. But the tragedy is that certain groups in society are grabbing this shared resource for their own use and taking more than their fair share. For example, in the case of some of the large scale land reclamation we are seeing today, the sea and coastal land is used mainly for property development — to build exclusive waterfront homes for the wealthy. Then we can see how a common asset is now expropriated away for the enjoyment of a certain wealthy class of homeowners which also result in huge profits for another group, the developers.

But there are losers too: the fisherfolk are denied their livelihood, a shared marine habitat that provides fish — food security for society — may be degraded or destroyed, while ordinary people may be deprived of access to a lovely beach.

We need to be stewards of Creation in a responsible way, protecting it for future generations, away from the hands of those who seek to destroy or usurp it for large but ultimately, fleeting profits.

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