Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Buddhist Precept of Not Stealing in a Colonized World

*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.


Bob said...

The reason "Just do it" makes so much sense, is that as soon as you begin adding a story line to your actions, you become lost in the judging mind. "No mind" is free of hesitation. There is only action, without anticipation or regret.
So, what about proper discernment, etc.? Yes, we must utilize discretion in the objective world, which requires accepting and rejecting. So, how to meld these two seemingly disparate themes -- no-mind and differentiating in the objective world -- view and conduct? Well, there's a good koan, eh!
I love blackberries!

n. yeti said...

I'm not a very great philosopher, but I do appreciate Buddhist ethics. Perhaps the precept against _facilitating_ theft applies to _facilitating_ waste of resources which otherwise could be put to good and beneficial use.

By this understanding of the precept I can see why we would, for example, lock the door to the temple to avoid theft or descration of the common area, even though we might not consider it to be something to be "defended" and certainly not something to exclude others from taking part.

By the same token leaving one's camera lying around someplace might encourage theft, so we should take necessary precautions -- the same as we would if it belonged to someone else -- to make sure it does not get stolen. The intention then is not to "grasp" to material posessions but to observe the precepts of proper mindful care of people and things the preserve the greatest overall benefit.

Maybe I'm not getting anywhere here, but anyhow...

It seems that if your intention is to nourish yourself, and likewise not to allow good fruit to go to waste when it can nourish someone, then you commit no ethical lapse by plucking a raspberry from a bush on someone else's property.

If your intention is to steal into the watermelon patch at night to abscond with fruit because you do not wish to pay for it, then I would say this constitutes theft.

In the case of subsistence, food, water, air, shelter, my hope is that we as Buddhists can see these things as universal necessities for all living beings and not hoard them for ourselves; and to act to ensure that measures are in place that hoarding of these things does not occur in our society.

The real issue I think is the intention of the act. If the intention is guided by mindful observation of the precepts, I think it is morally acceptable to munch a windfall apple even though it may not technically "belong" to you. I also would turn a blind eye to a starving man stealing a loaf of bread, but that's just me.

Nathan said...

"In the case of subsistence, food, water, air, shelter, my hope is that we as Buddhists can see these things as universal necessities for all living beings and not hoard them for ourselves; and to act to ensure that measures are in place that hoarding of these things does not occur in our society."

I agree with this. And think much of our society, as it's currently arranged, goes directly against just this. Various forms of hording and controlling and wasting are upheld as fine, or even as goals for living. Which I see as destructive.

Your examples of not being careless about possessions like cameras also fit the precept in my view. It's another side of the coin. Caring for things and not encouraging theft.

Mumon K said...

If you're ever in the neighborhood, and my tree is in a year when it's making fruit, have at it.

If I can get to it, I get some fruit. But otherwise, it goes to the birds. The birds get a lot of fruit from my plum tree.

It's easy to see why - it's good fruit.

Anonymous said...

"In the case of subsistence, food, water, air, shelter, my hope is that we as Buddhists can see these things as universal necessities for all living beings and not hoard them for ourselves; and to act to ensure that measures are in place that hoarding of these things does not occur in our society."

Not too long ago, I heard some Congressman say that food is not a "right." The owner of Nestle company said that access to water is not a 'right." He was talking about the people whose water he is stealing in Africa.

If you ask me, people like those two are the thieves and they are justifying their behavior making up a load of crap that they hope people will believe. What really happens is that they come across as douchebags.

I drive so many orange trees that are bursting with fruit that never gets picked. It could be picked and brought to food banks.

Americans waste so much food... that should be considered a criminal offense!

California is in for a world of pain regarding the water shortage.

My prediction is that fingers will be pointed every-which-way as to whose fault it is, instead of working together to make sure water is given to those who need it... like for drinking -- not filling fancy swimming pools.

I say, if the fruit in question is not on the persons property, meaning you don't walk on their grass or driveway to get it, then its fair game.

Nathan said...

"if the fruit in question is not on the persons property, meaning you don't walk on their grass or driveway to get it, then its fair game."

On a basic level, most of us in North America live on stolen land. The indigenous groups have never really given it up, and many of them are in the process of slowly reclaiming some of it back.

Moving past that, there's the issue corporate "ownership." Which when in comes to food being grown, is a big deal. My post mostly focuses on loose fruit trees and bushes in urban areas. But the vast majority of waste of the kind you mention is happening on corporate farms and operations. Even small, independently owned ones are often highly wasteful in this regard. I have been to multiple local apple orchards in recent years, and witnessed this firsthand. There are numerous laws on the state books that essentially force waste, such as deeming apples that fall off trees not fit for consumption. In addition, the accepted "sale standards" for "quality" apples that most of us have now bought into means that hundreds of thousands of additional apples on any given orchard will go to waste, unless they're able to get to them in time to make juice or apple sauce (which isn't always a priority when bigger, juicer apples are abundant for making those products as well.)

The same process happens in our groceries stories. With another layer of produce going to waste for reasons that are often ridiculous.

I tend to think we need to redo the whole works when it comes to food. That ownership of land should not mean being able to waste large chunks of produce like this. That ownership of land also does not instantly deem food grown on it off limits to others. That food production should not be a profit industry, nor should those who grow or pick food be subject to poverty in order to do so.

I'm actually not very fond of private land ownership on the whole, but that's another discussion all together.

These are pretty giant changes. But in the meantime, I really want to inspire some kind of shifting. And I think when anyone really takes the time to reflect on the statements being made by people like the CEO of Nestle, they see that going that way is a disaster.