Our Well-Being Depends on It
Updated: Sep 1
The pandemic is prompting many conversations about the common good versus individual rights. The tension between these two is ages old. In the ancient Greek text, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle considers the two perspectives, as he reflects on the virtue of individual flourishing versus the flourishing of a nation or city-state (Book I, Part 2). Later, in Book IX, Part 6, he comments on what happens to community when people focus too little on the common endeavor: “they aim at getting more than their share of advantages, while in labour [sic] and public they fall short of their share; and each man wishing for advantage to himself criticizes his neighbor and stands in his way; for if people do not watch it carefully the common weal [sic] is soon destroyed (emphasis mine).”
Commonweal is an old term we don’t hear much of these days. It can refer to a politically defined community such as a Greek city-state, or the modern U.S. state of Virginia, whose official name is the Commonwealth of Virginia. Commonweal also refers to the general welfare or well-being of all within the community. The idea of commonweal has been nagging me for days, as I watch the struggle between common good and individual rights at play in the pandemic.
Like our country’s response to the pandemic, my eco-justice ministry is situated in the place of tension between the common good and individual rights. It seeks the commonweal, or well-being, of all who depend on the commons for life. Wikipedia describes the commons as “the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth.”
Expressed in another way, the discussion about wearing a mask comes down to a matter of commons. The air we breathe is part of the commons. It can make us squeamish to think about it, but we regularly inhale air that others have exhaled. Do I have a right to breathe air uncontaminated by the virus? Do I have authority over my own body, and what I wear (i.e., a mask), even if it means I unknowingly may exhale virus-laden droplets into the air?
These types of questions are at the heart of today’s eco-justice issues in the U.S. What is my right to discharge pollutants into air others may need to breathe? What is my right to use, alter the course, or pollute water others may need to drink? What is my right to emit carbon from my air conditioning and vehicle into an atmosphere that others may depend on for a stable climate to grow crops or replenish water resources? What is my right to graze animals or farm in a way that may diminish the fertility of the land for others?
The U.S. constitution says little about common resources. Instead, it reflects the land tenure perspective of Great Britain, from where most of the country’s founders, or their forebearers, came. In this system, the right to control resources belongs to those who own the land to which the resources are connected. The constitution emphasizes the individual rights of these landowners. Through the redistribution of land taken from Native Americans, resources and the associated wealth and power were amassed by people who had limited opportunity to do so in Europe. I’d be remiss if I did not note that women and people of color were not allowed to own land during most of the land distribution.
As population densities increased across the continent, conflicts arose when landowners exercised individual rights on a common resource in a way that affected the ability of others to use it, such as during the sheep and cattle wars in the western U.S. As is often the case in conflicts involving a commons, the land suffered. Its potential future use and value were greatly diminished as first come, first served rules led to overgrazing, soil erosion, loss of grassland habitat, and destruction of waterways. The Arizona Strip is one example of the result. Originally described as a sea of grass as high as a horse’s belly, it’s now mostly sage-saltbrush desert scrub.
The exercise of individual rights on a common resource to the detriment of all is known as the tragedy of the commons. It’s an economic theory that reflects the damage done when a commons is used based on self-interest. The demise of the passenger pigeon in the U.S. is a poignant example of the tragedy of the commons. In the 19th century, these birds literally darkened the skies in flocks so large Aldo Leopold called them a “biological storm.” However, they were a commons that anyone could hunt to any extent, and they did. The last passenger pigeon died as a zoo exhibit in 1914. The species is now extinct.
Tragedies like these gave rise to a legal principle called the public trust doctrine, which established the U.S. government as the owner and manager of some natural and cultural resources, primarily those for which there is an economic or interstate commerce basis. It’s why resource extraction is part of the mission of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. This doctrine was the basis of one of the assertions in the Juliana v. United States lawsuit, in which a group of young citizens tried to hold the U.S. government accountable for protecting the common resource of climate, on which their future well-being depends.
Within the public trust doctrine, the emphasis is on use of the common resource, with use being tied to economic activity. No inherent value is given to the commons itself. The economic focus is apparent when looking at the major environmental laws enacted in the second half of the 20th century. They all are rooted in the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. It’s why debates about regulations under the Clean Water Act often focus on the definition and interpretation of navigable waters. The Clean Water Act only applies to surface water with a connection to interstate commerce.
Talking about commerce and the economy brings us full circle, back to the pandemic. The tension between common good and individual rights is frequently expressed as an economic argument. I’m dismayed as I see how difficult it is for us to set aside self-interest and work together for the commonweal during the pandemic. If we are unable to do so, even when we literally are seeing our neighbor die, how are we ever going to do so to the extent necessary to care for the air, water, climate, land, and other commons upon which all life on planet Earth, both human and non-human creatures, depend?
For those of us who claim to be people of faith, I suggest it’s time we start choosing faith over politics. All the Abrahamic religions have teachings on the importance of community and the common good. We profess a belief in the commons as being the creation and gift of God for the well-being of all. Walter Brueggemann calls this well-being of all shalom in his book, Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom. He says, “absence of shalom and lack of harmony are expressed in social disorder as evidenced in economic inequality, judicial perversion, and political oppression and exclusivism (p. 18).” In contrast, he describes another way, “the shalom sense of well-being, experienced by the person who lives a caring, sharing, joyous life in community (p. 20).”
Randy S. Woodley, in his book Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, builds on Brueggemann’s work and adds the indigenous concept of the Harmony Way. He reminds us of two teachings from Hebrew scripture that we need for this time, both the time of pandemic and the time of climate and ecological crisis.
(1) My well-being is ultimately dependent on the well-being of all. “Shalom is communal, holistic, and tangible. There is no private or partial shalom. The whole community must have shalom or no one has shalom (p. 21).”
(2) The well-being will not automatically happen or be given to me without my effort. “Shalom is not a utopian destination; it is a constant journey. One does not wait on shalom; one actually sets about the task of shalom (pp. 21-22).”
As people of faith, it’s time for us to speak up for the commonweal, the well-being of all life, shalom. We can do this by considering the whole community of life in our personal conduct each day and by advocating for governance that places value on the commonweal. Whether it’s the pandemic or care of our common home called Earth, I call upon you to set about the task of shalom. I hope we have the courage to do so, because our own well-being, possibly our existence, depends on it.