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What We Must Own to Exist


If we divide the Earth into even parts for all of us, each of the six billion of us will have approximately one trillion tons of it.  At just one dollar per ton, it would take 1000 billionaires to buy just your portion or just mine.

But the Earth is only a small part of what we must have to continue our existence.  We know we need the Sun.  It’s mass is about 5 million trillion trillion tons.  Your portion?  About a billion trillion tons.  At just one penny per ton, all the money on this planet could not buy a millionth of your part of the Sun.

But the Sun and the Earth are only a small portion of our needs.  The Sun needs its galaxy for it to exist.  Perhaps the galaxy needs other galaxies for it to exist.  There is, for all practical purposes, no end to what is needed for you and I to exist.  What we consider to be our possessions here on Earth are such a small portion of what we “own” that it’s like a joke.  This is not to say that we don’t need our food and other necessities, but all the wealth we accumulate beyond our actual needs – and that we use to compare our wealth to the wealth of others – is a paltry sum compared with all we already own and must own even to continue living.

Consider some different styles of ownership.  We have the house.  If we’ve paid to the bank what’s owed, then we have a clear deed that says we own the house.  This ownership has the strength of whatever state supports it.  Anyone more powerful than that state can take it, and then it would be his.  (That’s the way we got a good part of California from Mexico – or from the Indians who did not have “deeds” that they could effectively enforce.)  This ownership is a defined ownership with only the strength we have to hold it.  This "ownership" is very much limited by the very state which supports it.  I "own" my house, but the state says I cannot build a grocery store there.  Someone in the energy business owns the mineral rights; I can't dig for oil.  I can't burn trash on it.  My "ownership" is simply a list of rights, and the state and deed tell me what those rights are.  I may live in it and sleep in it.  I may restrict others from entering.  I may sell the list of rights to another.  I cannot really sell the dirt to anyone.  If I owned that, I could dig to the center of the Earth, but surely as I dig, I will be stopped by the state less than a hundred feet down.  All we can own is a list of rights, and they can only be kept if the state is strong enough to keep them for us.

There’s an old story about a man in the south who camps out on someone’s estate.  The estate holder comes out to the man’s tent and asks the man what he thinks he’s doing there.  The man then says, “Oh – this is your land?  Where did you get it?”  “From my daddy, that’s where !”  “Oh, and where did your daddy get it?”  “From my grandpappy, that’s where !”  “Oh, and where did your grandpappy get it?”  “He fought Injuns fer it !”  “Ok,” says the camper, retrieving his rifle from the tent, “I’ll fight you fer it !”

Those have always been the rules of ownership.  The deeds and things came to organize and enforce, with the state behind us, our holding on our possessions.  The truth is, the rules are still the same, but it takes more than one rifle to take another’s land.

Another style of ownership is the condominium.  This is a style that usually includes independent ownership of some small portion of a property and social ownership of the whole property.  There may be a hundred dwellings (like apartments), each of which are occupied by an “owner,” but then that same owner also owns the whole complex together with the 99 other owners.  Even in one’s own unit, the two-by-fours within the walls are not his alone, but belong to the group. The universe is a condominium. We own it together. We must own it to exist. If someone somewhere were able to take it from us, we would be gone forever.  We do not own any particular piece of it exclusively.  Instead, we own all of it along with all the other owners.  The redwood tree owns it also, and could not exist without it.  Any living thing on any other planet must also own it all.  If, by some magic, most of the universe were to perish into nothing, what was left would still exist as matter in some form, but no life would survive.  Living things must own it the way it is, tolerating only slow and small change.  But we need no state to enforce our ownership of all this.  Indeed, it would take an extremely powerful force to take it from us, and we are not aware of any force at all with a purpose to do so.  We don't try to protect it and have no idea how we could.  This ownership is the most complete we may imagine, not just a list of rights, but actual ownership in need of no enforcement.  Think of it.  We own the Sun.  We don't lock it up or try to protect it in any way, and we know we have no need to do so.

We are wealthy beyond the ability of any of us to begin to imagine.  When we try to separate out some infinitesimal portion of this universe to call our very own and no one else’s, we play a silly game.  Each of us must own a trillion trillion trillion trillion times what the whole Earth is, just to stay alive.

The little lizard, who cocks his head a little looking at us in the garden, may not be able to develop a notion of the infinite, nonetheless, that little lizard must own the whole universe to exist.  The four “trillions” multiplied up there are just for effect.  The truth would take too much paper.  The little “8” on its side that we use for infinity is not very well understood even by us, and much less still by the little lizard.  Our ownership equality with the little lizard is hard to recognize.  We may come to think that we own more or less than our neighbor, but in truth, we own an infinite and indefinable amount, exactly the same as that little lizard, else neither of us could ever have come to exist. 

Our concept of value is amazing.  That little lizard would not, by choice, trade places with any of us, and one of us, as a mate, would appear terribly ugly to the little fellow.  So far as we know, only we humans have developed covetousness, wherein we might wish to be another, often because it is our perception that the other person owns more.  Not so.


Chuck Borough – July, 2000

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