Using properly what you’ve got: An analysis

One of the three ways of making a living, I have urged, involves ‘using properly what you’ve got.’ In other posts, I have called this Category I. Let me analyze each part of this formulation.

1.) Got. One can get something by (a) finding, (b) taking, or (c) making. One could find truffles in a field. One could forcibly take someone else’s territory. One could make a necklace out of found objects.

2.) What. There are three answers to the ‘what?’ question: (a) the commons, (b) collective property, and (c) private property. If property is concerned with spelling out who has access to and who can do something with the thing at hand (an idea, a parcel of land), then the answer is (a) everyone, provided that each uses the thing responsibly, (b) those who are members, and (c) only the one who owns the thing as well as anyone he permits to partake of it with him.

3.) Properly. ‘Properly’ to use something is neither to overuse nor underuse it. We are familiar with cases of overuse–clear cutting, pollution, soil erosion, mono-cropping, strip mining–but we may be less familiar with the Lockean view (or with the Parable of the Talents) that something that goes unused may, under certain conditions, no longer properly belong to the person who presently has it. Therefore, to speak of ‘propriety’ is to speak of using something within the bounds of its capabilities. Only so many trees can be cut down in a Finnish forest at a time; only so many salmon or tuna can be taken from the ocean over a certain duration of time. Recent talk of ‘complex systems,’ ‘permaculture,’ and a ‘blue economy’ are seeking to bring out how the commons can be used in such a way that it continues to flourish and replenish itself.

4.) Using. Nothing much can be said of use on its own, since I think it may be basic, except to note that what something is for immediately comes into focus. If the final aim of a house is to provide its inhabitants with shelter, then our use of the house must be directed at fulfilling this aim. Immediately, the ‘what for?’ question admits of a range of answers, depending on the example. A rock may be used for art, decoration, the floor of a house, the building of sidewalks, etc. Some objects admit of more intelligible answers. A public park is to be used for recreation, picnics, etc.

Perhaps I can say that using something is determined largely by the answers to other questions we commonly put to it: what it is, how it was acquired, what is legally permissible, how it is ‘bounded,’ what ends it could serve. Yes, ‘How can I use this?’ may now open itself up to inquiry and, bound by its particular context, to a good answer.