Who Owns the Water?

I am intrigued by struggles over ownership of water – not so much the issue of whether or not Canada should sell its lakes, but whether or not they are Canada’s to sell. Similar struggles arise in our international deliberations over blame for air quality. What intrigues me is not that we are struggling with ownership of water and air, but that we are not struggling with ownership of land.

We accept the concept: someone owns the land and when you want some, you have to buy it from the owner, who bought it from the previous owner, and so on. But ‘and so on’ to what? To the first person who simply said, without any justification whatsoever (not even recourse to the irrelevant claim of being there first – certainly not recourse to the stronger claims of having maintained or improved the land), this land is mine and you have to give me money if you want to do anything with it.

Is this inconsistency due to our being ‘solids’ as Star Trek Voyager‘s Odo might note (solids who, nevertheless, need both gases and liquids to survive and, further, who are actually partly gas and mostly liquid)? Or is it an indication of our bias toward the visual – we can’t see air, nor can we draw lines in water? Whatever, it is certainly not the result of rational consideration.

How many specialists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Every now and then, perhaps with Hegelian predictability, there is a swing in academia toward the holistic approach, toward systems theory, if you will. In this anti-atomistic, anti-reductionist view, the essence is the process, not the structure; what’s important is not so much the thing, but the relationship between the thing and other things. I think of Fritjof Capra’s work of fifteen years ago, The Turning Point, and I wonder if perhaps quantum physics will provide the necessary weight once and for all for critical mass so the pendulum will stop, making the atomistic view history.

Given this, it’s too bad people think ‘jack of all, master of none’; Read the rest of this entry »

The Political is Personal

Back in the 60s or 70s, one of the insights feminism gave us was that the personal is political. It’s been a valuable insight. Many of us now routinely interpret personal interaction politically: we try to understand the influence of race, class, and gender; we try to determine the nature of the power differentials.

I suggest that the converse is an equally valuable insight: the political is personal. Read the rest of this entry »


Congratulations.  Now there’s a word we misuse a lot.

‘I’m getting married!’ ‘Congratulations!’  Why?  Why should this be cause for congratulations?  Is it a good thing?  Half of all married couples end up divorced.  (The other half just couldn’t be bothered.)  Is it an achievement?  There are no qualifications except being a certain age.  Which generally happens without any effort.  So you’re entering into a legal contract with another person.  Big deal.  Bet you haven’t even read the contract.  So you’re going to a church for some obscure sacrament.  What, Christmas and Easter wasn’t enough?

What’s getting married really about?  Proof you’re not gay after all.  Proof that you’re all grown up, gonna settle down, maybe start a family (like having a kid means you’re no longer a kid is the logic, I guess).  Proof that someone somewhere somehow found you loveable long enough to agree to marriage.  Yeah right, whatever.

‘I’m pregnant!’ ‘Congratulations!’  What?  Again, is this necessarily a good thing?  ‘Cause it can seldom be called an achievement.  I mean I’m sure you have succeeded at sexual intercourse before.  So now you got lucky.  Should we congratulate for luck?

‘I won the lottery!’  ‘ Congratulations!’   It sounds right.   But it sure takes the wind out of the congratulations we give to the person who wins a triathlon or a Beethoven competition.

On Demonstrations

Though I consider myself to be rather socially conscious, and while I have written many letters and cheques, I’ve never been part of a demonstration. For a number of reasons.

Let’s consider first to whom the demonstration is directed. Perhaps primarily, it’s meant for the people in power. It’s meant to send them a message. But what possible message could be sent by a mass of people, some carrying placards, many shouting their contents. What’s in a phrase, or even a complete sentence? If the goal is change, presenting claims without evidence, without argument, is surely insufficient. Do we really expect others to change their minds, their policies and practices, without evidence or argument? Do we really want them to be so stupid?

Perhaps the message is not in the placards but in the masses, in the show of numbers. Why are numbers important? Are we thus insisting the majority should rule? First, a demonstration, consisting of self-selected people, is hardly representative enough to justify claims of being any majority. Second, why should the majority rule? I know that our system of democracy is based on this principle, but consider it for a moment. ‘Majority rule’ is really an appeal to popularity, a bandwagon appeal. Should the opinion of the majority rule, no matter how ridiculous, immoral, or simply unsupported it is? Read the rest of this entry »

Free to be – Offensive (You are such an idiot.)

What does it mean to say you’re offended?

If it means merely that you disagree with what I have said, then surely we have a right to offend. Surely the freedom of speech allows the expression of dissent. Even if your disagreement includes any number of unpleasant emotions (embarrassment, shame, displeasure, irritation, annoyance, anger, distress, outrage, shock, fear, disappointment, frustration, envy, humiliation, guilt, sadness, anxiety, discomfort, disgust, a vague sense that my words are inappropriate or indecent, whatever the hell that means). Though often there is no awareness of disagreement; there is only the unpleasant emotion.

If ‘offend’ is the verb form of ‘offence’ as in ‘offences’, then to offend (also) is to do wrong. But, why, how is it wrong for me to express a view with which you disagree? Are you hurt by dissent? Harmed in any way? Disagreement aside, can words harm? Well, yes. Insults, in part, can cause psychological injury, which in turn may or may not cause physical distress. If I call Dick an idiot, and you disagree, do you feel hurt? Probably not. (Though I suppose it depends on whether Dick is your boss or your son.) But if I call you an idiot, you may feel hurt. Your blood pressure may rise. (Though that may depend on whether I’m your boss.) (Or your son.) So the real questions are do you have a right not to hurt in such a way, do I have a duty not to call you an idiot, is it wrong for me to do so? Read the rest of this entry »

Freakonomics’ Big Revelation

So I just read Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, in which they present the astounding connection between access to abortion and crime: twenty years after Roe v. Wade, the U.S. crime rate dropped.

Astounding indeed. That men are so surprised by that! I mean, just how clueless are you guys? —about the power, the influence, of parenting, about the effect of being forced to be pregnant, to be saddled with a squalling baby you do not want, on an income you do not have, because you’ve got a squalling baby you do not want… What did you guys think would happen in situations like that? The women would get “Mother of the Year” awards for raising psychologically healthy adults?

What I find surprising is that access to abortion isn’t related to infanticide. Pity. Given the Freakonomics boys.

The Arithmetic of Morality

I limit my fuel consumption—I ration myself to one trip into town a week and I haven’t taken a ‘joy ride’ since the ‘70s. For what? My neighbour thinks nothing of going into town three times in one day, half the male population drives gas-guzzling pick-ups and never pick up anything, and the other half drive mini-vans because they’re big. I keep myself colder than I’d like and I live in a dark house, while the lights and computers stay on 24/7 in some guy’s place of business and his advertisements light up the world.

Still, it’s the principle that counts. Really? Unless there’s a god, it’s the consequence that counts. ‘Using only what you need’ is right because it’s wrong to take more than you need if that means others will have less than they need. If, however, you take more apples than you need because otherwise they’ll just rot on the ground, what’s wrong with that?

Of course, if enough people decrease their fuel consumption (and a corresponding number don’t increase their consumption), there would be a consequence. Possibly even a moral consequence. (Though that’s arguable: less fossil fuel leads to less carbon emission, which leads to less global warming, which leads to less climate change—tell me when I get to the moral good…)

Land Ownership

I’ve somewhat unthinkingly agreed with indigenous claims that they got ripped off with regard to their land, didn’t get paid a fair price. But suddenly it occurred to me: what gave them the right to ask a price in the first place? That is, on what basis was the land theirs to sell? On what basis did they own it?

Typically, we own, and therefore can sell, what we make—what we add our labor to (leaving aside, for the moment, the question of how we came to own the raw materials we added our labor to—because it’s really the same as the main question here). But no one made land.

So, occupancy? But a person can technically occupy no more than, say, two cubic meters at a time. So how are we defining ‘occupancy’? By a broader definition of spatial occupancy? Or by some temporal occupancy? Surely anything we come up with in this regard will be relatively arbitrary.

So, improvement? When one improves the land, one gains ownership over it? ‘Course, then one has to define ‘improvement’. My neighbour thinks cutting down trees and putting buildings on the land is an improvement. ‘Improvement for who’ is but one question that needs an answer here. ‘Improvement to do what’ is another.

Maybe the matter is better solved not by focusing on how one comes to own land, but by focusing on how one comes to own land. That is, if we look not at individuals, but, instead, at groups, maybe we can define ‘occupy’ more effectively. ‘Course, then we have to define the sort of groups we consider legitimate for this purpose. And, I’ll anticipate here, why should genetic heritage count more than any other criterion of group membership?


I was walking down the lane the other day and I noticed this piece of litter, looked like the melted bottom of a plastic bottle. I fumed for a bit, angry at whoever had just tossed it there, and planned to pick it up on my way back. To carry it all the way home, where I’d throw it in the garbage, and three weeks later take to the dump. And it suddenly occurred to me: why go to all that trouble just so it could be buried in some arbitrary place six miles away from here, when I could just as easily bury it here?

But it’s not so arbitrary, is it. It’s ‘away from here’, it’s not on the lane I walk on every day, it’s not in my backyard. And I realized then that when city planners started including dumps in their blueprints, we took a seriously wrong turn: with such a word, such a concept, we legitimized NIMBY. So too with words like ‘litter’ and ‘garbage’. What is that but stuff that doesn’t belong here, stuff we don’t want here, here in our back yard. We ‘throw it away’.

And where is ‘away’? Read the rest of this entry »