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September 16, 2014 | 21st Elul 5774

The Commons

April 27, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

I have been cleaning the public bathrooms of our dining room for ten years now, and have not yet solved the riddle of how so much paper ends up on the floor, both toilet paper and paper towels. There are trashcans at every sink. Do so many people have bad aim? Do their houses look like this? Is a misdirected paper towel that ends up on the floor in a public place somehow “somebody else’s problem?”

There is no smoking allowed in our dining room, but it is important to many people to have a cigarette after a meal, so they take their coffee out to the shaded patio and sit at the picnic tables and throw their butts on the cement floor, where the filters will, if left alone, probably biodegrade in another five years or so.

This year, as they do every year, the newspapers ran features after Passover, highlighting the vast quantities of garbage left in national parks and unofficial picnic sites all over the country. There is an unfathomably large number of people -- families, not just preadolescent slobs -- who simply get up and walk away from their leavings: paper plates, chicken bones, empty cans and bottles, plastic bags, and that wonder of modern technology, used disposable diapers...

Why, in some cultures, is “the commons,” the public space, considered everyone’s responsibility, and in others, does it seem to be no one’s responsibility? Is it a function of perception of space (inside-outside, my courtyard vs. the chaotic world outside)? of solidarity or lack thereof? of autonomy vs. acceptance of authority? of premodern vs. modern? of socio-economic level? of education? I am not talking about supererogatory acts like picking up other people’s trash, like being an environmental activist; rather, I refer to the simple awareness of any responsibility for shared space.

Visitors to Arab villages always comment that the insides of the homes tend to be spotless, esthetically pleasing, and carefully tended, while the public spaces are often trash-filled and ugly. It’s hard to believe that this dissonance is due only to lack of budgets for infrastructure and public works. An Arab ecologist once explained to me that the cultural base of this phenomenon is the tradition of the courtyard: the extended family lives in a kind of compound, a number of houses facing a common courtyard. This is the space for which I am responsible, this is the commons. What is outside the outer wall is no-man’s-land, hefker -- it doesn’t exist for me.

Perhaps, in a world view that sees the world as infinitely vast compared to our tiny, vulnerable, human habitation, it makes sense to toss the trash outside the fence, where it will disappear into the infinite void -- like flushing into the ocean. And indeed, there was a time when all our trash was pretty quickly biodegradable, and infinitesimally small compared to the forces of nature around us. The problem is that now, it turns out that the earth is not infinite, and that our trash accumulates and lasts -- so there is no hefker -- nothing just “goes away.” The whole world is a commons. If this is true in the world at large, and in the vast space of North America, how much the more so in tiny, crowded Israel. However, understanding of this reality must overcome cultural traditions whose roots are in a different time. Cultural change is complex and slow, and always poses difficult questions like who has the right to determine its direction and who knows where it will lead. The question for us here is, will the cultural change process happen in time to prevent us from destroying ourselves in the mismatch between premodern culture and modern patterns of development, packaging, and consumption?

A sign of hope: thirty years ago, if you asked someone sitting next to you on a crowded bus not to smoke (please), you would get a hostile response. Within fifteen years, the norm changed completely: the juicy altercations between insolent young smokers and self-righteous middle-aged non-smokers are a distant memory; no one smokes on buses any more.

Both the Zionists and the Palestinians profess to love this land. Do we love it enough to take responsibility for it?

 

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