[ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN SUIDERNUUS, 4 FEBRUARY 2022]
It was exciting to have the newspaper back on the shelf last week. Mr. Raymond Brink, in the picture, bought the first newspaper at our offices on Church Street, still quite warm off the press. A great thank you for the many calls and letters of support from readers, advertisers and fellow journalists to welcome us back. We hope Southern Post will go from strength to strength.
This week our chief focus is the story of the neglect and decay of the vernacular-style Napier cottages and the urgent need to preserve this rare heritage of the Overberg.
Witnessing in the same week the felling of several sizeable trees on a private property in the old centre of Bredasdorp near the Shipwreck Museum, ostensibly for the purposes of private development, was therefore something of an unpleasant coincidence.
That is if you believe in coincidences, which we don’t.
A quaint side street where large trees abounded was stripped virtually overnight of its charm and cooling shade, hundreds of birds robbed of their nesting terrain – an unsettling sight. Our architectural heritage at least enjoys protection in the law. Nothing of the sort exists to keep urban greening – say trees older than 60 years! – safe from development.
Knowing what we know about the climatic changes in store for the region, the felling of any single tree seems perplexing. One would rather want to green your towns and villages more to create some shading as buffer for human and animal against the seering heat we're already experiencing.
The incident reminded us – very much in a roundabout way – of the old dilemma about the erosion of a public good because no one cares enough to take responsibility for it.
The ecologist Garett Hardin wrote a vivid parable in a 1968 essay entitled The Tragedy of the Commons. Yet, it was actually a British economist William Foster Lloyd who first described the problem back in 1833. Lloyd released a pamphlet about the overgrazing of public land (the common), which in sum happens because farmers who put their cattle on the common do not own the land, its preservation is therefore not their ultimate concern and thus they overuse it.
The parable of course still holds water, sometimes quite literally so in some instances. Think, for instance, about the overgrazing one sees around towns all over South Africa that exactly demonstrates Lloyd’s original point.
Interestingly, both Hardin and Lloyd framed their thinking about the overuse of public goods to warn against uncontrolled population expansion and the earth’s limited resources. However, the parable of the commons became the economic fraternity’s lynchpin to argue the case for privatisation.
However, our story and experience over the past week illustrate the flipside of this argument; that is, heritage and the common good also get destroyed when strategic resources are in private hands. Privatisation is by no means the panacea economists make it out to be. It cannot be a blanket solution to communal challenges.
And this brings us to the actual point: To preserve and develop the kind of societal values that take account of the interest of a larger community, cannot be achieved by means of economic principles.
An economist cannot make you value a tree or a cottage for its shade or its beauty. The love and joy one gets from things do not light up through an economic prism. To do that, a spiritual dimension comes into play.
And as long as we maintain the modern age’s obsession with commercial or economic value alone, tragedies both of the common and the private will persist.