Since the NYSE recently introduced NACs as a new asset class, people have been speculating on what they actually are! The history of the commons, and nutrition, may give us some pointers about what lies ahead. After exploring the dark corners of history, of blood and soil, love may provide a beacon to bring us safely home . . .
For most of human history — perhaps all of human history — we have lived through a combination of private and public resources. We used to make our own tools; these tools were crafted specifically to fit our size and grip. They were private resources, and frequently were buried with us. Archaeologists believe this was because of an idea that the tools would be needed in the afterlife. One can take a more practical point of view; the tool had been crafted specifically for the use of that one person, and so why would someone else use it?
In this day of interchangeable wrenches and hammers, the idea of a hammer of the perfect weight, balance and length for you, and you only, is far from us; but the idea of clothing which is tailored to fit only you, is perhaps more accessible. Imagine that perhaps you did not make the clothing yourself, but you personally bartered for work for clothing — might it not seem odd for someone else — who had not worked for the clothing, to wear it, if not given it as a gift?
During much of human history, we had a small patch of personal ground around our huts, where we kept — vegetables, or pigs, or chickens, or our own fishing nets — and we also communally worked and shared in nearby natural resources — pasture land, or grain fields, fishing ground, woods. We know that most people were content with this arrangement, because of the documented resistance to changing it. Older evidence is less explicit about what is going on, however, we have detailed records from the reign of William the Conqueror. “Billy the Bully” made Saxon common land into his private hunting estate, causing tremendous privation and anger among those denied their ancestral land use; their agonies still ring clear in the dry histories we have of this event.
More recently, many in North America are direct descendants of the Highland Clearances; where Scottish Lairds cleared lands of their tenants — by which is meant families who had lived there since far beyond history — were evicted to make way for sheep. Less well known are the English clearances, where common land was seized by local landlords, and the Irish enclosures, where tribal lands were parcelled out into private property.
People of the Blood
What happened in each of these cases was a change in ideas. Previously, when thinking of a Nation, or a People, what was referred to were the actual people, who shared a culture and recognized the same authority. We see this clearly in the Bible, where the people of Israel are united, regardless of whether they are in Egypt, Jerusalem, or wandering in the desert.
The location is immaterial, what matters is the social fabric between them. This concept of nationhood could be called “Blood” as the people, often with blood relationships, are the basis of nationhood. In the same way that tools were indivisible from their owners, individuals were indivisible from their nations.
Materialism Changed Nations
As we moved into the materialist age — our tools became impersonal, and thus easy to transfer from one person to another — our relationship with the material world changed our concept of “nation”. Today, the word nation means a spot on the map. Today, where one’s feet land, determines what nation one is a member of, and which laws one follows. People are allocated to nations not based on social or cultural ties, or allegiance to a particular leader, but based only on geography.
The word Nation has fundamentally changed meaning, from the Blood of a people, to the Soil we stand on. Like tools, the Soil is considered interchangeable, and something that can now be transferred from one person to another.
We are familiar with nations composed of land, but look at them with the eyes of a stranger for a moment. Today, the welfare of the people is of less importance than the ability to secure the land itself against other nations. Sharing resources of the land is now impossible; we cannot have one group taking beaver and timber for trade, and another taking deer, wild rice, and other living materials. “Ownership” of the land becomes a material good, and can be transferred by the exchange of other material goods. Mortgages and debt are now possible, a necessary part of transferring exclusive use of land.
Blood or Soil?
One might say that the difference between Blood and Soil is the difference between apprenticing and working for the friend of one’s parents, with all the inter-connected personal relationships, expectations, and protections that involves, against sending out resumes to strangers. The differences are, of course, more profound, but if we focus on this one aspect, it illustrates something important that we have lost from the ancient world. By moving to a nation constituted of land, we have put all of our eggs into the Legal Basket — which means that we are all dependent on the idea that Justice will be blind to personal differences, will be incorruptible, and will be accessible to all — not only now, but for all of the future, too.
For the ancient world, this idea was daft. Pure, unalloyed crazy talk. In a Blood system, where personal relationships are paramount, the word for a person with a family, a tribe, nearby, is “freeman”. Someone far from family was a “slave”. As simple as that; the guarantor of rights was not the statue of a blindfolded lady, but the active presence of those who love you.
When we adjust for scale, is the world really so different now? Across democracies today, the boundaries of voting districts are massaged to give minority voters no voice in elections. Minority, in this context, of course means those of the less-popular political party; however, all the way down the social scale, the fewer blood relatives one has in the area on which one lives, the less rights one enjoys.
Enough history: back to the subject of food!
Even Good Food Lacks Nutrition
Good nutrition is a personal benefit, obviously! Those who practice good nutrition are more intelligent, more energetic, and better looking than malnourished people! Less obviously, being well-nourished is a public good, too. Whether relying on other people when a fire strikes, or a car accident, or those we rely on in a non-emergencies, such as your child’s teacher, or those who make the decisions about what foods are in the grocery store, we all benefit from a well-nourished population.
Yet — when taking a tour of what people actually eat — we see white flour and white sugar, with a bit of beef, tomato, or whatever, as flavour, and many chemicals added to create the illusion of food. However, this is only one of the problems modern bodies face. How many readers know that our fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains; the “good” foods, have only about five percent (5%!) of the nutrition that they would have had one hundred years ago?
Those of us who eat wild foods have experienced taste in every molecule of one bite! Unfortunately, only the few who have eaten wild foods can imagine what tomatoes, lettuce, beans, peas, apples and pears once tasted like, before our great-grandparents were born. Can we blame those who seek the explosive (but fake) taste of junk food, when healthy food is only a watery ghost of what it ought to be?
Should Not Soil be a Public Good?
Of course weak food begins and ends with weak soil. Weak soil not only produces weak plants, but also weak people, and weak people form faltering and failing nations. During this writer’s life, oceans of ink have been spread over forests of pages, detailing the Decline of the West, End of Morality, Approach of Disaster, and so on. These are all fancy ways of describing the effects of the decline in soil fertility!
Name any social or economic problem, and the truth is, that better soil fertility will either help or cure it. For modern nations — dedicated to controlling and defending soil — this is surprising! Where are the public service announcements about how to improve soil health? Where are the task forces? Where are the schools and universities — which ought to be helping us all to know the greatest and perhaps most important public good, the one from which all other common good flow — our soil? At present, our food, the “commons” of national nutrition, is the same as if the bartender poured us a drink of 15ml of beer, when we had paid for 300ml.
Indeed, when we call soil a “public good”, the reason for neglect springs to the eye. We have all heard about the “Tragedy of the Commons”. Do we understand the history behind this idea?
As mentioned above, the idea of nations changed from people, to land. When the idea of what a nation is, changed, this also changed how we relate to land: “The Commons” changed from a resource managed by a village, to land in need of an owner.
Feudalism Was the Bridge to Soil
In the European arena, the local feudal lord’s role had been to manage his area for the resources of food, clothing — always — and healthy warriors — when needed — on behalf of his feudal lord. Feudalism, therefore, can be seen as a halfway house; both Blood and Soil.
As trade routes expanded to allow the movement of commodities, markets became a place where some could grow wealthy. The increase of population changed military recruitment from lords pressing local farmers into service, to the central government coercing excess population into “use”.
From where feudal lords sat — now freed of the historic role of middleman for distribution of wealth and manpower — dipping toes into the emerging global markets looked like an attractive new role. A feudal lord, if he dispensed with Blood, and leaned on Soil, could turn himself into a landowner; owner of the commodities produced on his land, and therefore a player in the new marketplaces.
Europe is still full of the stately buildings erected to celebrate the success of lords in their new roles as owners of land. So seductive was this new way of thinking, and the life that went with it — for the decision makers — that upon discovery of the New World, the common understanding of Europeans was that North America should be pulled from Blood to Soil; inducted into the world markets as junior partners.
Soil System Creates the Tragedy of the Commons
There is some evidence that those who negotiated with First Nations understood the Blood-based concept of property; the tragedy was that there were so many other settlers — like the feudal-lords-turned -landlords in earlier generations — who had much to gain in enforcing a Soil-based system on treaty land. In fact, European settlers did unto others, as had been done unto them in the Old Country.
Rather than recognize “the commons” as a resource managed by a tribe or village, the commons became conceptualized as a resource owned by no one, up for grabs. The fights over sovereignty of treaty lands which took place throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have been remembered — under the Soil system — as “cowboys and Indians” shooting each other for the right to personally own unclaimed land.
This is where the idea of Tragedy of the Commons comes from. Tragedy of the Commons is an idea used to describe the polluting of a stream by fish farming, the polluting of air by electricity generation, the burning of trees’ bark by cell towers, the destruction of marine life through sound. This concept takes structure from the Soil idea of nationhood, as a skeleton gives structure to our bodies.
It is only when we understand the historic context of the Blood system that we see that the Tragedy of the Commons is not a universal concept, it is only a result of our current idea of Soil, and directly related to our idea of global markets. In fact, one can trace this transition in thinking as one drives from east to west across the United States.
Property rights on the east coast tend to be uncomplicated, but as one goes west, increasingly, “the commons” are reserved to global markets, through mining laws and the resources in national parks. Further west, one can own the topsoil one’s house stands on, but the hydrocarbons underneath the house may belong to the owner of a well next door.
Air Erodes Property Rights
In the modern era, air has been the wedge to open a new era of cowboys and Indians. One must understand air rights, in order to comprehend the new NACs (Natural Asset Company). Three hundred years ago, we, as travellers, would have required permission — under the Blood system — of the local tribe to cross its territory. Once this permission was granted, we could go anywhere, perhaps even into private houses. Under the Soil system, we can travel without permission, on roads only (excepting toll roads), and need permission from a patchwork of private owners to travel cross-country.
When airplanes first began zipping across the countryside, (at low heights, scaring horses and dogs), legal eagles began asking questions about how far up, (and how far down) our property rights extend. The airplane is so incredibly valuable for military purposes, that the discussion was quite short, and mostly forgotten by history. The decision was made in favour of war (we might say) — in that the air is free for travel — as water has historically been free for travel.
Like water, we need permission from nations to cross the air near a nation’s soil, so one might say, the air space is a common good of the nation. These laws were enacted within the last hundred years, so they follow the law pattern of western states, with later property rights. In western states, government land is typically rented out to private companies for resource extraction.
This is not usually done in the east, so those who live in the east may not have considered how ideas about the property rights of the air space above their land have changed. Similar to leasing land for resource extraction, the government has been renting out the common good of airspace, for not only radio, cell towers and phones, but also through licensing and regulating industry, for pollution.
Property owners have no ability to stop the progress of any of these waves or particles across their property, via property rights — as one might have done historically — even though they cross the air close to the ground, which is considered part of personal property, under airplane laws. Like air, property owners today whose water has been contaminated by nearby fracking, have had difficulty establishing historic property rights for the resources under ground they own, even in the east.
NAC — Natural Asset Class?
We have all had the experience of a friend or child or co-worker, who achieves some goal that he really should not, through constant nagging. Transfer this idea to corporate lobbying, and one can see how decades of nagging can change laws into something that no person would have agreed to, had it been presented all at once! One example; none of us would have agreed to denatured soil that grows weak veggies and anemic people.
Do most of us agree with what is being proposed to address the Tragedy of the Commons? Bankers have introduced a “new asset class” with much fanfare about how much money can be made, and equal silence on what precisely will be included, other than “everything”. Therefore, the previous survey of what is defined as commons, who controls it, and what that means for outcomes: one must know the map we have been using, in order to predict where we might be going.
A Water Crisis?
Your author predicts that when bankers say that NACs (Natural Asset Companies) will monetize “everything” in the world’s natural resources, they mean exactly that. We have only to look at the writings of this group, to find some potential answers.
Water, and water rights, have been a subject of much talk. Following the history of the commons, will private companies bid on the right to control not only the water in rivers, but also the water that falls on your property? Does this not follow the evolution of your ownership of the airspace above your property, to the government auctioning the rights to the air above your property? Perhaps you will get a bill, from the winner of the license for water in your area, for your soil soaking up its share of the “common good”?
Sunlight, a Common Good?
What else? Sunlight has been spoken of, often, as something that can be monetized. If sunlight is a common good, under the national rules like air and water, then governments can auction the right to place solar cells on your property, or charge you for selfishly using the sunlight that falls on your land.
Trees are commonly sold, as a resource on government land; why not designate them as a common good, benefiting as they do from the common good of sunlight?
This means that the government can auction rights to not only the trees along city streets, but also the trees on your private property; even the ones planted to celebrate the birth of a child or an important anniversary. It would be easy to justify, calculating the value of the sapling or seed planted, versus the value of the mature tree, having grown from the “public good” of the sunlight and rain.
People, a Different Kind of Resource —
What other resources might our homes have, which could be auctioned and monetized? Sewage contains valuable minerals. Human waste has a long and venerable history as a fertilizer for plants. We humans have such inefficient digestive systems that many minerals and nutrients are present in our waste. Historically, this recycling was done locally, through careful composting, (to reduce any transfer of disease). However, a low-tech composting toilet feeding the vegetable patch, does not give scope to governments and large corporations to own everything, so one doubts that this solution to the phosphorus and other mineral shortages will be promoted!
The government of Canada provides a hint of what is planned, in the policy paper, “Biodigital Convergence” https://horizons.gc.ca/en/2020/02/11/exploring-biodigital-convergence/ . Canada envisages smart toilets that monitor our output. If we misplaced some waste, through travel or visiting friends, and the sewage system recorded that we had eaten much more nutrients than we supplied back into the system, the corporation that won the minerals license could send us a bill.
Before dismissing this as a paranoid fantasy, consider how much of this is already done! For decades, perhaps a century, nutrients have been milled out of everyday foods, and sold for higher-margin products, such as vitamin pills. What is this, other than nutritionally favouring wealthier customers? We also know how to leach minerals from the human body, and have for some time. Common foods such as white flour, white sugar, and soda pop leach minerals from bones and teeth, where presumably they are excreted in our waste.
Whenever we shower off sweat, minerals are entering the sewage system. Sewage is already monitored. The only thing missing is the final link, the system to attribute each person’s output to him, personally, in a central database. If our “smart toilets” instructed us to eat more white flour and work up a sweat, how many of us would wonder if this was for the benefit of the company buying sewage, as it farmed us for profit?
Aren’t NAC About Taking Developing Countries Assets?
Other writers have framed NACs as a strategy to take mineral assets from developing countries, forgetting that a sophisticated system of debt, enhanced by military and political pressure, has been quite successful at this, already. The multinational companies which write the contracts for developing countries have influence at home, too. There is no current threat to this power at home or abroad, so one notices that an expensive new solution is not needed to take third world assets.
In our discussion about the sale of air, as a common good, your writer forgot to mention that what gives value to the sale of the airwaves is primarily proximity to consumers. As all who have investigated buying radio ads know, the cost is related to both the number of people one can reach “through the air”, and the amount each has in his wallet. By referring to monetizing cultural and spiritual values in the NAC, one is triggered to think this applies to other people, but there is no reason to exclude the wallets the developed world. To get to an asset value of $4,000 trillion, as estimated by promoters, (versus a world asset total of $512 trillion outside “nature’s economy”), one must be including monopoly pricing over wealthy country consumers.
Can Love Show Us the Way?
In this way, we circle back to the idea of our nutrition, as a nation, being a common good. There are two possible directions this could go: there could be a renaissance of interest in good nutrition, or there could be a tendency to “farm” the lower-margin people for nutrients for higher-margin uses, or people. Corporations are filled with good, kind, well-educated people, but there is one limitation to corporations, which leads one to fear that the result of corporate mineral-cycling through living beings will end badly. Corporations may be people, in a legal sense, but in an emotional sense, they cannot, and never will, express love.
Love notices when we are fighting off an illness and need extra nutrition, easy to digest food, and extra warmth in our meals. Love sees when we need comfort food, when we want challenging new tastes, and when we simply want something, anything, quickly. In corporate terms, love is very effective at allocating scarce resources for the best possible outcome!
When we think about it, this should not surprise us — a problem caught early needs far less resources to remedy it — and only the eye of love can see such detail.
Too often, love is portrayed as sloppy and unreliable, totally incapable of allocating resources or making other executive-level decisions. Could this be because the only love that is celebrated in our culture is actually lust? The ancients may have had a better grasp on this than we, portraying lust as a naughty baby with darts, and love as a grown, somewhat unattainable woman.
Mature love delights in giving, knows when to deny self — and when to indulge, in a way that benefits everyone else — which is a standard even the kindest of us strive to attain. This author has no problem imagining Cupid accepting the kind of food and waste-analysing toilet as discussed in Biodigital Convergence; and equally hard time imagining Venus approving it. One pictures Venus leaving too quickly to slam the door, were such a thing proposed to her!
The concept of nationhood which puts Soil at centre, has degraded the very substance it depend on. The reason must be that we cannot love soil as we do our friends and family. If we want more of what Venus has to offer to us as people, what better way than to cultivate surroundings in which she would feel welcome? God has given us free will, which means that we will never save the world; doing so would deny the free will of those who want to be bad, but that same free will gives us the power to chose what we will encourage and participate in.
Solutions, The Power of Knowledge —
There is a fallacy most of us are taught as children, which we forget to discard as we grow older; which is the idea that our change depends on other people. When we change ourselves, we have the power to create change that goes all the way through ourselves; front to back, top to bottom, change all the way through!
Those of us who have done this, have often been surprised at how this will change not only ourselves, but sometimes catalyses a larger change in people around us than any other action we could make. Some of us have seen this in a negative way — that the change of drug or alcohol addiction, by going right through a person — also changes the lives of those around him. Negative events are so emotionally impactful that often it is easier to understand — having seen this in a negative way — we can also see the power of this tool for good, too.
We don’t have to start from scratch, knowledge shows us some of the ways our ancestors solved these same problems. Rather than distant corporations buying the rights for the trees and water in our area, what if we place people first by planting beautiful nut and fruit trees on city streets, maybe even the corners of our lots, with the explicit community agreement that residents own both the timber and the fruits? There is no guarantee that this will stop the NACs, but it is a much better position to negotiate from than a single land owner with no community voice.
Solutions, It Never Hurts to Call on Venus —
Speaking personally, this writer feels grown up enough to deserve a visit from Venus herself, instead of only Cupid! The apple is sacred to Venus, as are cherries and strawberries. Through her red fruits — through planting them in the best quality soil, bursting with minerals — could we tap into some of Venus’ sacred energy — the sustenance of personal relationships nurtured in fertile soil — that sustained mankind for so long?
Chapter selection from the upcoming book, Everything That Matters: A Year of Recipes, Philosophy and History