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February 22, 2018

The Common Good

Hla Maung

The “common good” is an expression where “good” is a noun rather than an adjective. It is usually a good that most of us, if not all, use. The clean unpolluted air that we all breathe in and need for survival, for example, is a “common good,” and its availability has always been taken for granted. It is not something we have to buy. In fact, nobody can “own” this “common good” that we breathe in Similarly, clean unpolluted water in our streams and rivers is a “common good”. For people living beside or near rivers and streams, its free availability is also taken for granted. And because people take it for granted, it is forgotten that “the common good” is something that we all need to always value, cherish and preserve,
As populations grow, and pollution created by domestic and industrial human activity increases, it is becoming evident that we can no longer take the availability of free clean unpolluted air and water for granted. We were once sparsely populated, and formerly used natural bio-disposable packing material  such as paper, cardboard boxes or banana leaves. Now, we are densely packed in towns and villages and using non-degrading plastic or tin bottles, containers and wrappers.
The air we breathe is fouled with dust and car exhaust, and the water that most people drink is toxic with waste industrial products. The once fertile soil that our food crops depend on is now depleted of natural nutrients, and increasingly mixed with pesticides, plastic, and other debris that we carelessly and thoughtlessly throw everywhere. Mother Nature is no longer capable of restoring the environment, the air, water and Earth, to their clean original states.
The parks and gardens in our towns, and our forests where Nature’s wild creatures live and roam, are also “common goods”. Villagers depend on the forests for firewood and building material. The continued existence of forests protects the fragile ecosystem from breaking down. Parks and gardens provide town-dwellers with areas for recreation and relaxation. They give shade, cool and refresh the air, extract carbon dioxide, and produce oxygen on which all animal life depends. Parks and gardens are maintained by municipal departments, and our forests too are protected by government regulations to prevent over-exploitation.
Unfortunately, instead of cherishing our common goods, we continue to mistreat and misuse them for selfish short-term private gains. Excessive logging and overfishing have led to drastic reduction of resources for future generations. Destruction of forests and topsoil cover has led to natural disasters such as landslides and frequent flooding, and burning of vast forest areas for plantations has caused extensive and persistent haze, creating problems not only locally but in nearby countries. Smoke from coal-fired industries has similarly made air unsafe for breathing in many urban areas in India and China where industrial regulations are lax or not enforced. Our very lives are becoming threatened.
In our own country, Myanmar people are notorious for throwing litter and household rubbish wherever convenient. We have unfortunately developed a mindset that tolerates, and even seems to condone, such behaviour. Western tourists, some of whom cannot tolerate the sight of rubbish strewn around ancient pagodas, have been seen going around Bagan with large bags and picking up the waste plastic, paper and tin cans. One can only hope that the locals take notice and are shamed !
The urban and rural rubbish that is dumped into our rivers eventually finds its way into the world’s seas and oceans, where continent-size swirls of plastic debris circulate endlessly in the world’s oceans. The oceans are of course another “common good”, providing much of the world’s populations with essential fish for food.
As with other common goods like air, water, and Earth itself, the oceans continue to be mistreated. Industrial overfishing is depleting fish stocks for future generations, and some commercial species have been brought to near-extinction.
The Myanmar concept of “the common good” is influenced by Buddhist beliefs. In one sense, it is the “common good” as presented above. For Buddhists, it also involves the concept of “karma” and “vipaka”, or “kusala” (good deeds) and their result. The Burmese have a saying that may be translated as “Do good to all beings and do good to yourself” ( amyar akyoh,  ko akyoh ). Buddhists often donate money for the construction of wells, bridges and roads. Such good deeds to benefit others will ensure one’s health and happiness in this life and in later lives to come as we journey through Samsara, the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The writer hopes that this short article will awaken public awareness and appreciation of the “common goods” that we have been given by Nature, and that each of us will do our part by reducing consumption, and recycling and re-using whenever possible, by planting trees and by helping keep our environment clean.
The “common good” is a concept that does not require collective talk without individual action, but instead it requires individual action without collective talk. Nothing can succeed if everybody agrees but nobody acts as agreed, but progress will surely be made even if nobody talks but each individual does his or her little bit. We must all strive to become responsible citizens. Help save the Earth. Help save our future.


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