The world is not your oyster

When I was a young journalist of 25, the art director of the magazine I was a junior editor for expressed her fondness and optimism for me by telling me repeatedly, “The world is your oyster.”

I liked that. It made me feel like the future was mine for the taking and it was as rich as pearls. But that’s not what she actually said. She didn’t say, “Your future is an oyster.” She said, “The world is your oyster.”

Dear Shauna, thank you for your kindness. But the world is not mine and it’s not an oyster (literally or figuratively). In fact, our environmental crises are a result of far too many of us treating the world as if it were our oyster.

The world is not an oyster.Treating the world like it simply needs to be pried open to take its treasures has led to the plundering of creation.

In my textbooks as a kid, I remember maps of countries with various icons scattered over them, representing different natural “resources.” Yes, we use forests for timber and plains for wheat and mountains for ore. But the world is not a game of Settlers of Catan, simply there for us to extract from it what we want. (The truth is, we shouldn’t treat oysters like oysters, like a source of pearls.)

Also, the world is not ours. For those of us who read the Bible, we turn to Psalm 24:1, which says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; the world and all who live in it.” It’s God’s world, not ours and we are only using it with his permission. If you’ve ever been angry with someone for borrowing something of yours and mistreating it, well, I wouldn’t want to mess with God’s things ….

And for those who don’t read the Bible, we know that we all share this world and that the closest planets really aren’t very good alternative homes for us.

There is an old Roman practice called usus fructus. We get the rarely employed word usufruct from it. It describes a basic tenant relationship, where the tenants are allowed to use the fruit of the land, knowing that the land itself doesn’t belong to them and that they’ll be held responsible for any damage done to it while using it. It’s a basic concept that was once woven into many of our practice but which has been lost through laziness and/or greed.

On one hand, we have greedy business practices that maximize profit by minimizing the expense of caring for the creation they’re pulling those profits from. On the other hand, we have lazy consumers who choose what is easy and cheap, instead of what is considerate and lasting.

I was taught that when someone loaned you their car, you were to return it with a full tank of gas. If someone let you stay at their home, you made sure the room you stayed in was at least as tidy when you left as when you arrived. That’s just the polite thing to do.

We’d treat this world a lot more politely if we realized that it’s not our oyster.