This article was published in the Hawke’s Bay Today following the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s (HBRC) decision to allow an overseas water bottling plant to take water from the high quality aquifer that lies beneath the cities of Hasting and Napier. Within New Zealand law there is no single ‘owner’ of this ‘resource’, in part because indigenous Maori are opposed to making something that is essential to our being into a mere economic ‘resource’. Ko au te whenua, Ko te whenua ko au (I am the land, and the land is me). This is not a view shared only by Maori. It is a view of most if not all indigenous thinking, including the thinking of the European tribes before the Scientific Revolution and the rise of a world where dis-integration and analysis of parts became the order of the day.
This wisdom is now alien to most of our policy makers and politicians. The world is much simpler when reduced to things outside ourselves. Simpler still when Cartesian dichotomies split people from place and a number then placed on each. Simpler still when the voice of economics ‘allocating resources’ is the dominant and dubious creed; the paradigm of the power elite. Yet it is these very philosophies of how we relate as people to our place that are arguably the most important and challenging thoughts for a future that is sustainable. When administrations think only within a ‘resource’ and ‘market’ view of those things that are integral to being and community, then they completely miss the point of what it is to be. All their technocratic measurements and allocations are about what it is to have, the irony being that it is that creed of possession for self that will eventually make paupers of us all, even those who starve last. We need a return to ‘commons’ thinking where land is integral to us, and we to land; and where accumulation of power and possession at the expense of community is no virtue.
There is a clumsy academic term termed ‘cognitive dissonance’. It describes a human trait of irrationality, of a continued fixation upon some treasured idea, perhaps taught at a university or similar seminary experience. This is the way it is. This is what we do. This is the way we do things. The underlying assumptions need never be sought out and acknowledged, never mind questioned. Obedience to current thinking is all. The humility to question and learn is not a desired trait.
When people with a more philosophical bent challenge the cherished worldview, or present evidence to show that the ideas upon which we have based our approach to life is wrong, then the only decent thing to do is to retreat into ignoring the challenge, or disdain, or defense and attack. Those attacked are treated as ‘outsiders’, being ‘against us’ because they are not ‘for us’.
These are also the classic phases of a paradigm shift … before the worldview shifts.
We need a change of worldview about so much of what we do in Hawke’s Bay: the way we frame ‘development’ as ‘resource-centred’ rather than ‘people-centred’; our ideas of land use as simple industrial production rather than the creation, enhancement and retention of diversity and value within our ‘bioregion’; our prehistoric views on irrigation as a mechanical construct rather than a wider landscape system.
And the way we look at the water that is under our feet, which we give away to outsiders because ‘no one owns it’, and ‘we work in this legislative environment’, and ‘this is simply the market at work’. All lines of spin we have heard over the last month or so.
Which is all complete nonsense.
Our water – yes, ‘our’ water – is a ‘common’, a ‘common pool resource’ by another clumsy name. It is like our air, our airwaves, the genetics of life. The privatisation of the commons is an historic trend whereby the powerful grab the common good for their gain and the peoples’ loss. It is characteristic of invasion, of feudalism and serfdom, of the many enclosures acts that forced people off their own lands into penury in the slums of Manchester (or Otara), of colonisation, and of privatisation to corporations. It is the same thing, called by many different names. It is a serious and highly significant current and historic issue, with negative legacies that are prevalent around the world. And those privatisations and dispossessions continue.
Economics 101 argues it is for the better of all to privatise the commons because all commons end in ‘tragedy’. The work of Elinor Ostrom, David Bollier, Peter Linebaugh and others have demolished that myth, but those learnings have yet to dent the faith and cognitive dissonance of neo-liberal economists.
Two billion people today still live within commons strongly governed by protocols. Commons are re-emerging as a system of governance in defiance of the privitisation agendas of the last 30 years.
A common is functional and workable when it is managed by a community with a set of social protocols. It is not workable as a free-for-all. We have the community, we have the representatives of that community in our elected councilors, and it is the responsibility of those representatives to ‘see’ our water as more than a first-come-first-served ‘resource’ for the taking, and to develop the necessary set of social protocols.
It is not the responsibility of officials to turn to legislation and act as blind functionaries, any more than they should if an alien species came in to claim our air. It is our air, not theirs. It is for us to govern that allocation and harvest in the interests of the community, not leave it to ‘the market’ or ‘there are no laws’ or function upon the inference that there is no basis to act other than laissez faire. We, the community, decide. If we cannot decide, then something is seriously wrong with our protocols and they need to be changed.
It is irrelevant that there may be enough water to share. What is relevant is that any sharing is a community and governance issue, before it becomes an issue for our administrators. It is highly disturbing when these officials claim the rhetoric of the market for a common pool resource.
Thinking of our water as a managed common gives a completely different model of human morality, behaviour and aspiration, going far beyond the benighted models taught in Economics 101.
What the Regional Council has done in giving access to water bottling by an outside party as a carte blanche illustrates a way of seeing and thinking about community and place that discounts what is important, for what is simply expedient. It has demonstrated, in the words of Robert Sullivan, the “striking characteristic of human civilization [in] its tendency to discount what is most essential to sustaining its long term existence.”
There really is need for more internal thinking and discussion within our government organisations. Robotic obedience may serve someone, but that someone is not our community.