Photo credit: btklamf from morguefile.com
*Note: An earlier version of this post was originally published on DH in the summer of 2012.
I have been spending a lot of time contemplating, and talking with others about, how commodified our lives have become. It seems like nearly "owned" by someone, in need of being bought or payed for by others. It's insidious, and deeply problematic in my opinion.
Yesterday, I was picking raspberries with two friends of mine, and I remarked about how I often travel the alleys in our city during the summer, picking berries from the various bushes behind garages and back yards. As I said this to them, I immediately thought about the way in which I feel sort of anxious doing this quite natural activity. By mid-July, most of these bushes are literally loaded with raspberries and blackberries. A single, healthy bush produces enough berries for a family to snack on for several weeks. The abundance is sometimes mind blowing.
The reality is that while most of these bushes are unattended to, and even completely forgotten to some extent, they constitute "private property." When I stop and pick even a few berries, often there is an anxiety accompanying this act. I frequently look around and wonder about being perceived as stealing, never mind that the bulk of the berries end up dropping to the ground and are either eaten by animals or return to the soil untouched.
In the past, I have attempted to ask permission to harvest berries, as well as a few apples from the trees in a neighbor's yard (most of which, again, fall to the ground untouched). These requests for a small bit of sharing have tended to be met with puzzlement. Who is this guy and why should I give him my fruit?
So, for the most part, I don't ask anymore. If I come upon a berry bush or tree in an alley or on the edge of a yard, I stop and grab a handful of berries or an apple.
As a Buddhist, I have vowed to uphold the precept of not stealing. But in a society so colonized and commodified, to the point where even some simple counseling to support mental health has been turned into a product for sale, what is stealing?
How can the man I spoke to about those apple trees, who does next to nothing to aid the growth of the trees, and lets the lion's share of the produce go to waste, claim ownership over them? Frankly, how can anyone claim ownership over the life of a tree or a berry bush?
I can rarely afford to purchase organic fruit, especially berries. They are outrageously expensive, even in conventional, big box supermarkets. In fact, even much of the fruit that is covered in pesticides is expensive and to some degree out of reach for poor and low income folks.
However, even in many urban areas, there are an abundance of fruit trees - especially in middle and upper class neighborhoods. While poor folks struggle to pay for a small bag of pesticide-ridden oranges that were picked weeks ago in someplace far off, middle and upper class folks not only can afford to purchase the organic fruit in the stores, but also often have fresh fruit right in their backyards for part of the summer at least.
I am fortunate to have a garden behind my mother's place, where I have slowly planted a few berry bushes, including a raspberry bush that's beginning to produce fruit. Furthermore, some of my friends and are are starting to do neighborhood networking around planting community fruit trees and bushes, as well as cultivating the idea of fruit sharing from plants in private yards and gardens. All of this is in the beginning stages, and hasn't produced much "fruit" yet, but I do believe it will in the future.
And yet, I keep going back to this issue of stealing and not stealing. Something as natural a human activity as picking berries is probably considered theft by a large percentage of people in this country - and many others no doubt. It strikes me as a form of insanity, controlling access to something so basic. And I'm convinced that we will more collectively be faced with the deeper implications of this as things like water privatization impact wide swaths of the population - people used to having easy access to something which is of life and death importance.
Recently, I read a declaration written by indigenous peoples in response to the Rio+20 summit held in Brazil last week. It's a powerful document, one I find myself aligned with in so many ways. For those of us living in post-industrial nations like the U.S., it's a deep indictment of much of what we consider "normal." Odds are, a lot of American readers will simply dismiss it as utopian fluff, or "unrealistic." I can imagine plenty will find it an affront worthy of outrage. How dare these people blame me for their problems, and for the destruction of the Earth? Can't they see that we have some great solutions to the climate crisis?
Here is a selection from the document that demonstrates both the tenacity and also, in my opinion, the optimism of these people - whom I consider brothers and sisters:
We will continue to unite as Indigenous Peoples and build a strong solidarity and partnership among ourselves, local communities and non-indigenous genuine advocates of our issues. This solidarity will advance the global campaign for Indigenous Peoples rights to land, life and resources and in the achievement of our self-determination and liberation.
We will continue to challenge and resist colonialist and capitalist development models that promote the domination of nature, incessant economic growth, limitless profit-seeking resource extraction, unsustainable consumption and production and the unregulated commodities and financial markets. Humans are an integral part of the natural world and all human rights, including Indigenous Peoples’ rights, which must be respected and observed by development.
We invite all of civil society to protect and promote our rights and worldviews and respect natural law, our spiritualities and cultures and our values of reciprocity, harmony with nature, solidarity, and collectivity. Caring and sharing, among other values, are crucial in bringing about a more just, equitable and sustainable world. In this context, we call for the inclusion of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development.
I don't know what it's going to take to right the climate ship. It's a gigantic question that we all much sit with everyday. But I do know that something seems deeply flawed about the idea that picking berries, or apples, constitutes theft. Perhaps in a very narrow, literal way it is the case. But there is something life denying about that kind of view.
No one owns the berries, nor the bushes they grow on. Just ask the birds and animals that go snacking on them when you're not looking.
We need to cultivate a new relationship with the land. One that isn't built on separation, commodification, control and ultimately, destruction.