Common Good vs. Individualism, one perspective

I rarely write opinion pieces, but I am drawn to do so because of a couple of controversies here in Big Sur, currently engendering much discussion and thought. In that vein, I offer the following:

There seems to be a current trend in Big Sur to view the individual or the individual community as a) incapable; b) unqualified; or c) uninformed when it comes to making decisions about its own sustainability and future. What is best for the common good, and how is that obtained? Who makes the decisions? Big Sur has two such controversial projects going on currently, and I see them as related, if one looks at the larger view of the common good. Whose decision is it, anyway? Both projects are discussed below.

The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are…equally to everyone’s advantage”. (The Common Good Developed by Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer.)

In Big Sur, we currently have two controversial projects which demonstrate this principle, and on which people are significantly divided, some being for one and not the other, however, they represent the same goal of what is for the “common good” and who is included in he “common?”

The first project is the Andrew Molera Proposed Wilderness Area. Tom Hopkins, President of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance recently posted on the advocacy page of the VWA website, in part:
“Our challenge now is to demonstrate to Assemblymember Monning that the majority of Californians in his district, and throughout the central coast, support permanent wilderness preservation of the wild backcountry of Andrew Molera State Park.” (Tom’s complete post here)

As I read Bill Monning’s letter regarding his decision to withdraw his proposal this year, he encouraged VWA to work “with” the local Big Sur Community to come to a consensus or compromise on this issue. (Original letter here.) Instead, if I understand Tom Hopkins’s position correctly, it appears he is seeking to make an “end-run” around the local community, where his support is controversial for this project, and inundate Bill Monning’s office with support from outside the Big Sur community for the wilderness project.

Personally, I am not against this project, I think both “sides” to this issue can come to an agreement. What I am against is the manner in which it is being pursued. I wondered about the project, and why it was even necessary, but it did not upset me, until I read the above. Rather than work with the notoriously difficult Big Sur Community, VWA prefers to work outside the community.

The second “project” is the purported sale of an unidentified piece of private property on Partington Ridge to TPL for eventual turn over to the USFS. Some Big Sur residents are upset and vocal about this prospect, and feel the local community has a right to say to whom and under what conditions a private property owner may sell their land, if the eventual owner is a public agency. The justification for the public input into a private decision is the oft-cited “common good.” Big Sur’s community thinking on this appears to stem from the “loss” of community supported by housing and employment that private property might provide for such necessary endeavors to keep “community” alive in Big Sur.

Big Sur, by its actions and words, is conveying to the private property owner that his or her decision is not just his or hers, that many others have an interest in such a sale. So, is it an individual decision or a community one?

VWA implies, by its actions and commentary that the Big Sur Community is incapable of taking care of its resources, specifically the wilderness, and the “common good” is best served by taking the decision out of the hands of the local community. So, is it an individual decision of the local community, or a decision by the larger Central Coast community?

Both problems present essentially the same question, just a matter of scale. When the Big Sur community is told by the larger community what is best for it, and rebels, is it any wonder that individual land owner may also feel put upon? It reminds me of VWA’s objection to creating a firebreak by taking flora down to bare dirt, but VWA when it restores trails does just that – it is just a matter of scale. (see here, for example: Ventana trail work photos

It might seem that since all citizens benefit from the common good, we would all willingly respond to urgings that we each cooperate to establish and maintain the common good, but there are a number of obstacles that hinder us, as a society, from successfully doing so.

In the face of pluralism, efforts to bring about the common good can only lead to adopting or promoting the views of some, while excluding others, violating the principle of treating people equally. Moreover, such efforts would force everyone to support some specific notion of the common good, violating the freedom of those who do not share in that goal, and inevitably leading to paternalism (imposing one group’s preference on others), tyranny, and oppression. (Common Good, supra.)

One problem encountered by attempts to promote the common good is that of individualism. Our country’s historical traditions have always placed a high value on individual freedom, on personal rights, and on allowing each person to “do his or her own thing” and no where is that more apparent than in Big Sur.

Whether “common good” can ever be achieved, or should be achieved in Big Sur is a huge question. This community was established by individualists, propagated with individualists, and has always drawn even more individualists to her bosom. It is who we are. It also challenges us to view ourselves as members of the same community and, while respecting and valuing the freedom of individuals to pursue their own goals, “. . . to [also] recognize and further those goals we share in common.” (The Common Good, supra.)

These two controversial examples provide us with the opportunity to examine how we respect the individual rights and opinions of others while promulgating our shared values and opinions into actions which provide for the “common good” of our community both small and large and present us with the further opportunity to creatively come together for solutions.

For example, on the Proposed Wilderness Area, we could achieve the goals of most, if not all, parties by encouraging Assemblyperon Monning to introduce a different bill which assures that the eastern portion of the State Park be held in perpetuity as state park lands, that it have a different designation than others, but not wilderness, and that it never be included in any future listing of possible sales of state lands. (This just an example, not a proposal.)

I am convinced we can work together to protect community, wilderness, individuality, and property rights, without destroying any of that which makes us and our place on this planet so unique.

8 thoughts on “Common Good vs. Individualism, one perspective

  1. Spectacular analysis and rationale for same, Kate. I applaud your treatise. Thanks for taking your time to get this right. Scott

  2. It is interesting to me how many people are willing to write privately about this post, but only one is willing to post publicly, and Scott is running for Sheriff.

  3. Its been a very long time since i’ve left a note or coment, but this provokes such.

    Kudos to you Kate for taking the time to post this and your opinion.

    I am no longer a resident of Big Sur & reside in Pacific Grove. However this topic on both issues has me perplexed. Second issue first… Why does USFS want with that paticular property and for what use?

    The first issue i’m unsure of but when I hear ‘for the good of the community’ and ‘common good’ always make me feel suspect of project. The Andrew Molera Proposed Wilderness Area is important. My husband being a ‘direct decendant’ ought to have a say in what is going on along with the other remaining costal indians. Has anyone questioned them about how they feel about the project? (My husband’s never been contacted on the matter.)

    Call me stupid, but i’d love to know more. Also thanks for listing the links.

  4. andrew molera “belongs” to everybody…not just the people who happen to live by it. let the state make the decision and we can all enjoy it.

  5. Kate, my apologies — I saw your piece on 2010-04-17 but I’ve been too busy to reply until today. There are a couple of points that I think deserve comment.

    You say “VWA implies, by its actions and commentary that the Big Sur Community is incapable of taking care of its resources, specifically the wilderness, and the “common good” is best served by taking the decision out of the hands of the local community.” Allow me, please, to respectfully point out that the owners of the State Park lands in Big Sur are the people of California, not just the Big Sur community — just as the owners of the National Forest lands in Big Sur are the people of the United States, not just the Big Sur community. Surely, members of the community, being neighbors to the Park and Forest lands in Big Sur, deserve special consideration — but just as surely, the owners of that land deserve to have their say, too. The way they do that is by letting their elected representatives know what they think — and the way I see it, that’s just what Tom Hopkins is urging. For the record, I do support the Molera proposal. Wilderness protection for the undeveloped east side of the park would basically codify into law the status quo of no roads and no permanent structures there. The one substantive objection that I’ve seen — that it includes a small piece of the Big Box line — could be dealt with by excluding a small corner, and the proponents of the proposal have indicated willingness to do so (and I agree with that). Yet, some vocal members of the community continue to resist the proposal. In the face of that, what alternative do outside stakeholders such as myself have except to let our elected representatives know that we don’t agree?

    Not being familiar with TPL’s “project” I cannot comment on that in any substantive way, but I think I understand the community’s concerns and I sympathize with them. When I posted the news about the Willet property to the VWA Forum and e-mail lists I received comments from members of the community that made me aware of the concerns, which I had not previously understood, and I see that the same concerns would apply in this case too.

    Regarding your statement “[i]t reminds me of VWA’s objection to creating a firebreak by taking flora down to bare dirt, but VWA when it restores trails does just that – it is just a matter of scale,” please see the response that I posted here:

    In closing, I’d like to point out that it’s not just the members of the Big Sur community who love and cherish the place — many of us outsiders do, too. For my part, I’ve put in 2+ years of work as an unpaid volunteer to help restore the trails. I should hasten to add that while I think this benefits the common good, that’s not why I am doing it. Rather, I’ve been doing it for the very selfish and individualistic reason that there is no place I’d rather be and no work I’d rather be doing. Maybe the common good and individualism need not necessarily be in conflict.

    Thanks for the opportunity to make these comments.

    Mike Heard
    VWA Member and USFS Trail volunteer, speaking for himself

  6. Kate,

    For over a decade, the Ventana Wilderness Alliance has advocated for wilderness preservation of qualified public lands in the northern Santa Lucia. That should not surprise anyone who is familiar with our work and our mission statement. VWA advocacy for permanent wilderness protection of the Molera backcountry is consistent with our long standing mission.

    Your claim that this advocacy is an effort to make an “end run around the local community” is not accurate. The VWA has met with leaders of several local groups and other local parties to advocate for the Molera Wilderness designation. At our invitation, some of those folks have hiked the Molera ridge with us to view the proposal first hand. We continue to schedule such hikes (the next is May 8th) and remain available to meet and discuss the proposal.

    It is also important to note that the statement in Assemblymember Monning’s April 6, 2010 letter to, “encourage members of the VWA to continue to work with all community members . . .” does not request or even suggest that our advocacy be limited to just the local community. He specifically asked that the VWA work with “all community members.” Thousands of Californians, from throughout the central coast and SF Bay area, regularly visit Big Sur and the Ventana backcountry. While in the area, they add much to the local economy and no doubt pay their share of the taxes that support our local public lands. Is reaching out to this larger community regarding the Molera Wilderness an “end run”? Don’t the members of this larger community have a right to have their voices heard regarding State Park lands?

    The VWA believes strongly that the Molera backcountry should be preserved as State Wilderness and is committed to pursuing that goal through engagement with both the local and regional communities and with our elected representatives. What more would be expected from an organization whose members volunteer, each year, many thousands of hours maintaining trails, cleaning up backcountry trash, caring for the public lands and advocating for the preservation of the incomparable wildlands of the northern Santa Lucia?

    Best wishes,
    Tom Hopkins

  7. I appreciate every one’s comments, and willingness to discuss this issue. As I said at the very beginning of this post, this is my opinion. I offered what I perceive to be some of the problems, from one perspective only. I do not advocate exclusivity, nor do I feel one voice should be “louder” than others, and yet, I do feel as if the voice of the people who live or work here, and who face the dangers of fire, need to be given just as much significance as any group that advocates for whatever goals they have set for themselves. And I do not feel as if VWA’s leadership is listening on any meaningful level.

    I, personally, who have always supported the VWA, its members, its goals, and its leadership, feel as if there is an unwillingness to listen, but rather a willingness to continue forcefully, regardless of any other voices, particularly, any local voices. Doesn’t “all community members” include local residents?

    Tellingly, I got an email from one VWA reader who wrote: “Sometimes we just have to politely agree to disagree. Hopefully that won’t stop us from working together on
    issues where we agree.” I replied: “And, I think it is even more important to work together on issues where we disagree to see if we can find common ground.” That is what I advocate. That is why I posted this opinion piece. There is always common ground. Let’s start from there.

    We have in common a love for this area, the land, its beauty and its very wildness. Do we also share a love for this community that calls Big Sur home? People who visit, live or work here soak up the wildness of this place day after day, and if they are lucky, year after year. The wildness of this place, and living in close proximity to it, is what creates the wildness of the Big Sur community. That needs to be honored and factored into every decision that affects Big Sur, because we are all part of it, and it a part of us.

  8. Big Sur is a place of constant evolution. Over the last 100 years parts of Big Sur have changed from: too remote to habitate, to paved acsess-anyone can live here. Beautiful, but so inconvienient, the land is cheap, to who can afford it?
    Post WWII we had the era of artists, poets, families, and other lunatics. The last 30 years have seen the rise of non-year round residents, buying their 2nd or 3rd home here for vacations. They are less likely to want a bunch of dirty hippies living here and there on their property, and the once abundant marginal housing dwindles. More and more the average full time resident is a temporary resident. The population of landowning fulltime residents shrinks. When a piece of land is up for sale, who can afford it?
    For the public good, we pool our money in non profits with mission statments of preservation. They buy the land, give it to the state or feds. The problem for those of us who see Big Sur as a place of people and community, is that, the parties who can afford to own land here, don’t see this as a place of npeople and community, a way of life. For them, the perfect Big Sur is an ever expanding wilderness, public parks and forests, a place to visit. The average resident of Big Sur can only buy land here if they won the lottery. We work in the visitor serving businesses on the coast. Twenty years from now we will be bussed in each day from who knows where, working for 3 months on a J visa, as they do in Aspen.
    I was listening to a speech made by the new GM of a resort. The GM kept refering to “the property” It was clear the GM did not think the resort was part of Big Sur, it happened to be near Big Sur, surrounded by it, but that was not the important thing. The important thing was it’s corporate identity. Liatening to the State and Fedral officials at the last meeting I heard the same thing. Their lands are not part of our community, they are part of the bigger whole of their organization. During the Basin fire, they took the opportunity, for our safety and theirs, to declare martial law, and evacuate us. I used to think of myself as someone who had reason to plant fruit trees here. I’m planting a vegetable garden instead. I know that many of you will object to my use of the term “martial law”. When a government agency moves in, suspending the rights of individuals and property owners, lets call it what it is.

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