Like everyone in the rich world, I carry bottles of water with me everywhere I go. Were someone from the past to spot me, they’d be stunned by the sight of all the people, clearly headed on long treks into the uninhabited jungle, carrying water lest they die of dehydration. Because, after all, in historical terms, at least in the US, one carries a canteen or other source of water while camping or otherwise engaged in a trek to uncertain, undeveloped lands. In populated areas, folks 30 or 40 years ago, would have told a thirsty person – “wait until we get to the water fountain.”
You remember those water fountains, right? The things that meant you didn’t have to buy soda or haul a bottle around? You just waited until you passed the next one, and drank your fill. You remember playing the game of getting enough water up, or squirting your sister in the nose? I do.
They were in public parks and by public restrooms, in town centers and everywhere you went. They obviated the need to purchase anything when you had such a simple, basic human concern as ordinary thirst. You could trust them to be there – if you whined “Daddy, I’m thirsty” – waiting for the next water fountain was reasonable, achievable, because they were always there.
And, of course, it was this very public-ness that was dangerous. Dangerous once because one’s lips might touch metal that had touched the lips of a person of another skin color. Then dangerous because one might get germs from them. After all, they are PUBLIC, and public is scary, because anyone can use it. Even poor people. Even icky people. Even people we would normally never actually choose to share anything with.
Thus, we magnify our fears of other people to avoid having to find public solutions. Or we simply get in the habit of privatizing everything, leaving the public sphere only to those who can’t afford to leave it – and thus allowing us to call this “the tragedy of the commons.” In fact, it has little to do with “commons” and is the tragedy of privatization and wealth and our rejection of both commons – and common ground with other people.
When my youngest son was in the full throes of toddlerhood, and was required to accomodate his brothers in some way, he would shout, “I don’t! I don’t share!!” Most of us don’t share very much either – we have decidedly toddlerish relationships to sharing.
There are two very serious problems with this. The first is that it isn’t right to allow poor people to be screwed because we’re afraid to have to sit next to them on the bus. Despite the truth of this, we have already degraded the public sphere and public resources badly, without regard for the needs of the poor and for those with ethical considerations that prevent them from having one private one of everything.
The deeper problem, at least for the people who have most embraced private solutions is that when we’re unable to achieve and afford private for everyone – everyone with their own car and vacuum cleaner and washing machine and water bottle – we find that we’ve trashed our infrastructure. That is, as we began carrying our water bottles around, we closed up and stopped maintaining our water fountains. With cell phones, we lost the pay phones. With cars, the exurban and rural buses. And now that it turns out that the bottles are bad for us and the water in them contaminated, our options are a lot smaller.
The same is true of most peak oil and climate change preparations. I’ve been accused here of fatalism, because I don’t think we’re going to have money or resources to radically transform ourselves into a society powered of private households, each powered by alternative energies. I don’t think most of us are going to have the money to put tens of thousands of dollars into retrofitting our homes. What I do think we could do is dramatically reinforce and recreate our public infrastructure, and to create public solutions to problems we now typically examine as private. We can live in homes that are dramatically stripped down, with low energy infrastructure, if we have access to a few powered public resources that we share with others.
That is, while it is unlikely we will all have solar powered pumps to bring up water from our private wells, there is no reason your town cannot put solar or hand powered pumps in central, public places to provide water in the event of a major outage. While most people will not have a perfectly retrofitted canning kitchen, there’s no reason our church and school kitchens can’t be transformed into public use. While we won’t all have cars, there’s no reason those of us who do can’t put many more people in them for most trips, a la The Community Solution’s smart jitney program. I may not be able to afford a solar system for my home, but my neighbors and I may be able to afford to solar retrofit a garage on our street that could be used as a schoolroom, a clinic for our local nurse practitioner, as a place for band practice, a place to put the shared washer and freezer and neighborhood parties.
It is easier to plan for ourselves. It is easier in many ways to carry our water bottle. It is easier not to talk to other people, it is easier not to need other people, or have to share and accomodate them. It is easier to pick the people you want to share with, to be exclusive rather than inclusive. There are all sorts of reasons not to think in public terms, and only, I think, two major ones to do so.
First of all, if we are to break out of our isolation, we have to, and second, because we have no choice – privatized solutions are too costly, too exclusive, too limited. Anyone who goes into peak oil and climate change imagining you will be one of the rich and lucky who will always be able to afford your bottle of water is, I think, betting on winning the lottery.