Years ago when I first heard John Lennon sing Imagine, I had an easier time “imagining” no religion than I did no possessions.  Humans owning things seems so ingrained into who we are that most of us cannot consider it being any other way.

But….is that true?  The reality is that it hasn’t always been like it is now. Odds are our current experience is not the way it will be in the future.  Are there inklings that change is already coming?

Our History of Ownership

Humans early on in their evolution developed a sense of “ownership” of things out in their world.  According to Robert Gilman, “Most animal life has a sense of territory – a place to be at home and to defend. Indeed, this territoriality seems to be associated with the oldest (reptilian) part the brain and forms a biological basis for our sense of property. It is closely associated with our sense of security and our instinctual “fight or flight” responses, all of which gives a powerful emotional dimension to our experience of ownership. Yet this biological basis does not determine the form that territoriality takes in different cultures.”

This makes sense if we think of it in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy.  After our basic physiological needs are met, we humans turn our attention next to those needs involving “safety and security”.  Having a secure place to live is a major part of meeting this need, leading us to wanting to defend our “territory”.

Early tribes roamed a broad swath of land as they hunted and gathered and through that developed a sense of it being “sacred land” that belonged to the group.  When humans settled down to farm, this changed our relationship with the land and we began to sense a greater degree of ownership and connection to one place.  In time, the rise of strong rulers evolved our sense of ownership once more. As Gilman writes, “Many of the first civilizations were centered around a supposedly godlike king, and it was a natural extension to go from the tribal idea that “the land belongs to the gods” to the idea that all of the kingdom belongs to the god-king.”

Further cultural changes led to further evolution towards our sense of personal ownership.  Some of those factors were the increasing size of our economies, the breakdown of village cohesiveness and changes in our forms of governance.  The rise of our systems of laws came in partnership with our changing sense of ownership leading to the development of a whole host of “rights” in relation to “owning” something such as being able to exclude others from the use of what is ours and the right to sell it to others.

But what can you own?  Just like our sense of what “ownership” means has been evolving, so has our sense of “what you can own”.  There was a time that one person could “own” another person.  Luckily, we have evolved beyond that. Yet, there are many things that used to be part of the “commons” that now we allow people and corporations to “own” (such as water).

The point here is that humans and their thinking and systems change as their cultures change.  What was true and advantageous for one set of circumstances may no longer be the best fit for the new world in which we find ourselves.  Is there a possibility that we are evolving towards changing social mores around the idea of ownership?

The Times They are A-changin’?

Now, to be real, I think we can all agree that we are still very much living in a world where maintaining and protecting ownership is critical for most people.  Countries, corporations and many people determine their value and worth by how much they own.  Many people truly believe that one of the goals of life is to accumulate as much wealth as possible (“the one who dies with the most toys wins” mentality).

Even if you are not driven by material wealth, it is hard not to feel that you are judged on how much money you make or how much stuff you own.  The ranking of people or groups of people on their possessions is fairly ingrained in our belief system.

Yet there are a number of things that we can point to as potential evidence that things may be shifting in our consciousness around ownership.

One shift may be tied to our growing sense of concern about the extremely high levels of income inequality in the world.  A recent report in Fortune indicates that the top one percent owns half the world’s wealth.  Beyond that are reports of the top .01 percent of people (or a handful of people) who own substantial amounts of the world. Reports such as these feed books and movies and political action groups directed at reducing the inequality.  As this is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for more people who feel that it is “not fair”, such discussions naturally lead to thinking about the whole concept of ownership.  In other words, our current challenge with income inequality may possibly lead us towards an evolution in our overall thinking on ownership in general.

Another piece of evidence regarding our potential changing in our viewpoints on owning things relates to the rise of digital products replacing physical products.  For example, what does it mean to “own music”.  On the one hand there is the copyright owner of a piece of music itself.  Yet for most of us, to “own music” meant at one time to “buy a record”.  But records have evolved into CDs followed by digital downloadable music.  We owned a physical CD not too long ago but for many of us, our ownership is now of some code stored on our hard drive or the cloud.  Yet, this evolution continues as we move towards music services such as Spotify, Itunes Music and other systems where we pay a fee to have access to the music.  Somewhere in this process, our ideas about “ownership” have been changing.

We can take a look at books and movies in this same light.  Physical book ownership may continue to hang on but more and more people are buying e-books or moving to services that allow you to read many books for a monthly fee (such as Amazon’s “kindle unlimited” program).  Movies have shifted from VHS tapes to DVDs to streaming movies via services such as Netflix.  In both cases, we are releasing a need to “own” some physical item and replace that with having access to a broader catalog of books and movies that we can tap into when we want them.

What Do We Really Need to Own?

I love having my own home and my own car.  There is a sense of security in having my safe place and guaranteed transportation.  But even in these areas, services such as AirBnB and Uber as well as other aspects of the “sharing economy” are shifting our sense of ownership.

I have always loved the library.  Lately, I have been visiting my local library more and more.  I am finding that borrowing books, music and  movies for free (that is, free beyond my payment of taxes to support the library) feeds my lessened sense of needing to “own” something.

TIP:  I cut down on impulse buying of books on Amazon by following this process — see a book I want?  I add to my Amazon wish list.  Periodically, I go to my library’s website and request several of the books in my wish list. If they don’t have the book, I check its availability on interlibrary loan or ask the library to consider purchasing.  Then, I forget about it until the library notifies me that the book is in.  Then I check it out and read it.  In most cases, I am glad I did not buy the book….in a very few cases I decide I want a copy for reference and go back and order it.  My impulse book purchases are way down!

Yet, there is a growing trend for libraries to expand their services and what you can borrow.  My library makes e-books available for immediate reading without leaving home.  As this article discusses, some libraries are now making available tools and other items that we only use irregularly.

Thoreau advised us to “simplify, simplify, simplify”.  He was right.  We don’t need to own as much stuff as we have been convinced to believe that we do.  When we stop to think about what is really important, it is not the “things we own”.  Instead what really matters is our personal character — how we show up in the world– and our relationships with others.  People on their death beds generally strip away the extraneous stuff from their lives and see what is critical.  And what is that? Love, friends, family.

Perhaps evolution is leading us towards a shift in our consciousness?  I am beginning to truly “imagine no possessions” and realizing that a more valuable and meaningful world is one where we release our obsession with ownership of stuff and focus upon our care and concern for one another.

Mark Gilbert


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