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The Tragedy of the Privates

Some of you may recall that sometime last year we had a visiting scholar, Camote, Ph.D. He has been in the field since August 2014, but sent us this short essay reacting to the culling of approximately 60 trees by SM, in Baguio City.

Stock photo of Camote, PhD. Taken July 2014, towards the end of his fellowship in our kitchen.

News travels quickly through the underground networks of plants. Leaving aside the anguish that coursed through our roots as the trees on Luneta Hill fell Saturday night, I offer up this food for thought for the human communities of this city.
Image credit: Sherwin Cabunilas and Bringing 182 to the Supreme Court.
In 1968 Garrett Hardin wrote a seminal essay in Science Magazine entitled, The Tragedy of the Commons. His ideas will be familiar to many. Hardin used the metaphor of medieval European herders to argue that in a commons, a shared resource with open access, all rational individuals will seek to maximise his or her gain.
'Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.'

At the level of policy-making, Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons has been used to argue in favour of enclosure and privatisation. 
Image source: The Cordillera Sun. 
The forest on Cabuyao may appear to be a tragedy of the commons. It is a forest reserve systematically being thinned and polluted for commercial vegetation, human residence and now a soap opera. Portions of it were recently clearcut by your congressman. Athough this is public land, it is not a tragedy of the commons, because people encroaching on the forest reserve, including the congressman, claim that the land is in fact their property. Therefore, they are acting in their own interest, seeking to maximise gains in what they perceive to be their private property. In their opinion, the environmental eradication they bring about in their so-called property is not the business of the public. But perhaps it should be?

What we have here is the Tragedy of the Privates. Simply stated the prevailing logic is as follows, 'I can do what I want with my property because it is mine. When it comes to my property, the common good is irrelevant.' The resulting tragedy is widespread destruction happening in increments on both large and small parcels of private property. However, the total effect of this will be more dire than the sum of its parts, to paraphrase your philosopher, Aristotle. This will be especially devastating in a country such as yours, where the state is weak and public land and shared resources are appropriated for private misuse by entities on all levels of society. 

The case of Cabuyao and SM illustrate the Tragedy of the Privates. In the case of SM, your courts have pointed out that the Sy family/corporation can in fact do what it wants with its property. While it may well be that the real heart of the matter was completely missed in the legal confusion, the courts legitimised further a sense of entitlement and power that most big corporations already hold and abuse anyway.  It remains to be seen what your justices will decide in the case of the Cabuyao Writ of Kalikasan. 

The Tragedy of the Privates may not be so clear to human scholars just yet, but speaking from the field and hundreds of years of history encoded in the roots of sweet potatoes, I can say that ignoring the reality of this and its accompanying phenomena will be detrimental not just to humans directly, but to other species upon which human life is dependent. The Tragedy of the Privates. What can you do about this, humans of Baguio? How can you make the common good relevant to private interests? (One would think this is a matter of simple ethics.) And can you extend the common good to include other species with whom you are connected?

*I thought, as you probably did, that Mr. Camote had misused the word "privates" and that perhaps he meant "privatization". Before publishing his essay I sent him a note explaining that "privates" could also mean private parts, as in the penis or the vagina. His icy reply: "I know. Humans, despite being equipped with reason (an attribute they claim no other species has), think with their privates, of their private interests, much too often. You humans have a science called primatology. I should like to begin a new branch of anthropology called privatology, which will focus solely on Homo sapiens sapiens."


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