Two concepts that make human life comfortable yet unsustainable

Observing animal behaviour (and plants and other organisms for that matter) one encounters some fundamental differences in their organisations compared to human societies. No other species demonstrates comparable social systems on a global scale. They all tend to be locally organised and have virtually no dealings with organisms they don’t encounter physically. That makes you wonder: how come that organisms in nature have a tendency to find a balanced existence with other species within their environment, and humans appear to have so much trouble to do the same?

It has been argued that our consciousness, morality and ability for abstraction set us apart from animals (at least until we discover that those traits as well can be found in animals). But when we look at humans as an interacting group, it is our social concepts that set us apart from fellow earthlings. Let us consider two related ideas that make our life so much more comfortable and our ability to exist in balance with other organisms so much more difficult.


Democracy – in its many shades – has emerged as the dominant governance model of states after communism, dictatorships and monarchies fell into ruin in all but a few places. Yet, when looking at nature, there is no system that resembles a democracy with its voting system, laws and separation of power. No animal species elects spokesmen; no bacteria wilfully alters its behaviour to fit in with new taxation laws.

Democracy is hailed as the most ethically advanced form of state and has become an export product – very much in conjunction with market economy, whose natural habitat is the democracy. Yet, we witness in situations where social systems become increasingly complex like in Europe or the Middle East, that democracy is either grinding slowly to a halt or making way for more archaic forms of social disarray. Looking around in the world, centralized democracy does not appear to be the social model of a bright future. And it is absolutely not modelled on natural concepts.

If societies were to mimic forms of cooperation and organisation that appear to be successful in nature, they might also prove more robust as an organisational strategy for humanity. As said above, locality might play an important role in that.


Another dominant concept of our time is (the right of) ownership. Let me explain how I come to say that ownership as a concept might not be the best idea to survive in the long run. In all its private and public forms like territorial domains, intellectual property or objects of any kind, it is totally alien to anything non-human. The idea of ownership was instrumental in building societies, true. But throughout history, it has never been so virtual than today. With the change of a view bits and bytes, people and organisations can become owner of anything that can be traded, including land and space. The sophistication of the concept appears to be reaching a peak, and we all know what happens on the other side of a peak – it goes down again.

The biggest trouble with ownership is its exclusiveness. There can be only one party that owns something. And everything that is not owned by somebody is part of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Societies, especially democratic societies, display a very problematic relationship with anything that is not owned. Illustrative examples are rivers that cross territorial borders. Whether it concerns upstream pollution, damming of water or alterations of catchment areas; wherever ownership is unclear or absent, humans tend to get into trouble with one another.

barnacles on the rock (c) Tobias Stöcker 2005
barnacles don’t own their piece of rock, they occupy it.

In all other domains of nature, ownership as such does not exist. In nature, everything is available for use by those that are fittest to do so. Consider: a male lion has the females of the pride at his disposal but he certainly has no title of ownership over them. And no bird owns its nest, rather occupies it as long as needed and as long as they are not evicted by predators or competition. A barnacle does not own its piece of rock, it hangs on to it as long as it may. There is no possibility to sue the beaver that dams up a river, keeping away the drinking water downstream. However, returning to the survival of the fittest might also not be a viable, morally defendable way forward for humantiy.

So can humanity keep developing without exclusive ownership? Learning from earlier societies, like Native Americans for example, it might just be possible. The idea of ownership knew quite a few forms where it did not end up in the ‘tragedy of the commons’ but a ‘sustained, communal use of the commons’. An illustrative quote from a Native American Chief reads:

“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” (attributed to Massasoit of the Wampanaog)

(Yet, if you really want to get acquainted with complex forms perspectives on ownership, try the aboriginal way of thinking about land ownership. There is a brain teaser…)

There is enough evidence that different forms of ownership are viable in human societies. That should be enough to develop the next generation of this concept, finding a better fit between the societal need for governance and the integral survival of species that are currently roaming the planet.

As societies grow and the domination of the human race over the planet covers almost all of its surface, our misfit with natural concepts becomes an ever more pressing problem. If some of our fundamental ideas of the proper working of a society would be more in line with natural concepts, it is quite conceivable that we would have less troubles getting along with each other and the rest of the planet.



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