Human civilization is making a desert of the planet. As the population grows and the western “standard of living” itself balloons while also spreading to more people around the world, the ecology of the planet is being devastated. From mountain top removal coal mining, to deforestation, tar sands extraction, mega dam projects all the way down to suburban sprawl, lawn after lawn of Kentucky Blue Grass, and your local strip of parking lots and big box stores, the natural world is being killed. It is being ripped up, burned, and paved over. Scientists are declaring that right now, life on Earth is undergoing a period of mass extinction unlike anything seen since the Permian-Triassic mass extinction which killed upwards of ninety-five percent of all life.
Any sane, rational culture, would upon coming to a realization such as this – that their mode of being is self destructive – decide that their activities should be halted and rethought immediately. Of course, the dominant culture under which we are subjugated is neither sane nor rational. The dominant culture barely acknowledges the horrors it is leveling on the living beings of this world, and when it does acknowledge them, it both minimizes them and declares the solution to be more of its methodologies applied, not less. Examples of this are claims that “green capitalism” or technology or geo-engineering will save us. Somehow, more extraction, more consumption, and more domination are supposed to undo the damage done by extraction, consumption, and domination.
I agree with the thinkers who have laid the blame for this rapacious omnicide beyond the feet of capitalism, calling out the organizing structure of civilization itself which begat capitalism. I agree also with those who indict the modes of thinking and views of the human self that begat civilization. While these modes of thinking, which become cultures, and ultimately became the dominant culture have led to much to be woeful about, including patriarchy and racism, they also have manifested as a social, economic, and legal framework that is institutionalizing the desertification of the planet.
One of the manifestations of this flawed way of thinking and flawed understanding of ourselves, is the concept of private property. Private property is the idea that one human can deprive all other humans of access to a particular tract of the Earth, that this human can enforce this deprivation with lethal force — whether self applied or called down from the hierarchy in the form of police and courts — and that this particular human not only has sole access to this tract of land and what it contains, but that the land and all that lives upon it can be destroyed at the whim of this person.
There are no limits to private property accumulation under the dominant culture. The logic behind private property is merely that land can be purchased from a previous title holder with currency. Thus, a person’s “holdings” are limited only by their accumulated wealth, and desire to own. According to this logic, should one person accumulate enough currency to purchase all of the land everywhere, they would not be forbidden from doing so. While this seems unlikely due to the cost in currency involved in this example, it is still within the logical framework of private property, acceptable. Perhaps we’ll never see one person owning all of the land everywhere, but with a population of seven billion people on the Earth, would it be acceptable to have even one million people, or one billion people owning “everywhere?” Do we find it ethically acceptable that a minority of the human population should have a protected right to deprive the majority of access to land, as well as a protected right to destroy living ecosystems? Is it ethical — or sane — to allow the minority of the population this protected right because they have been skilled at playing the game of capitalism (or are the offspring of people who were?)
Land is often dubbed by those utilizing academic language as “natural capital,” as opposed to manufactured or physical capital (e.g. a factory or a tool.) Land is obviously the most important form of “capital,” as it is the source of all raw materials, and is the source of all things necessary for life. By allowing land to be owned, the culture allows owners to have controlling access to the resources all people and non-humans need to survive. This subjugates all non-owners into a state of dependence upon the owners. This dependence is then channeled into wage labor, rent, and other methods by which owners exploit non-owners, siphoning away any meager wealth the non-owner class ever comes to possess. Of course, this only further enriches the owner class, who then can acquire further land holdings, and escalate the rate at which they can exploit non-owners to create for themselves a comfortable life devoid of labor.
Again, land is the source of all the necessities of life, so further and further accumulation of land is in reality, an increasing rate at which the culture says one person has a right to deprive others of life. An “owner” holding claim to hundreds or thousands of acres of land while multitudes of people live in crowded slums who must labor for pittance, only to turn this pittance over to landlords and those who control the food supply, is a form of violence. It’s a hostage situation. Work for us, or starve. Work for us, or take your chances on the streets with the police. For surely, without the violence of the police or the owner, these huddled masses living in the mega slums of the world would span outwards. More accurately, many of these people wouldn’t be living in slums to begin with, as large portions of the global poor were subsistence farmers before their traditional lands were seized by transnational corporations and state governments.
Essentially, this all boils down to the rarely uttered truth that the rich are allowed to make a claim the poor or not. This makes the rich richer, and the poor poorer.
Of course, like any discussion of the need to radically adjust our social organizations, discussions about the exploitative nature of private property often cause “first world” people who have — or are working towards — meager holdings of property themselves to seize up. Cries — often contradictory — of fascism and communism quickly ring forth. People are so terrified that what’s being referenced is their property. They fear that what little they have worked hard for while “playing by the rules” will be sliced and diced and handed to five different families comprised of lazy people who want a handout. This generally renders the petty-owner rarely willing to explore the notion of private property and it’s global ramifications.
Part of the wall that gets thrown up by petty-owners and other defenders of private property is the false claim that private property leads to stewardship, where commonly held land leads to overuse and degradation. Of course, examples of both could be bandied about. Someone will scream, “tragedy of the commons,” despite that old myth having not only been thoroughly debunked, and even despite it being a complete fabrication. Then we’ll hear about starving pilgrims who didn’t put any effort into farming until they had their own land, or about the lot down the street that is full of trash and old tires. What is lost in the fray is the total calculation of what is lost and what is gained by society as a whole with either private land ownership, or communal access. Rarely acknowledged is the entire enforcement arm of the state that is necessary to make a system of private property even possible to being with, or the poverty generated by depriving people of access to land, or economic advantages gained by those to elect to strip mine their land as opposed to preserving it.
Let’s here acknowledge a basic truth; property is a convention. It’s an imagined status subject to the humans perceiving it. Property is a social agreement, and social agreements are tools, nothing more. They are designed to make life easier for humans within the society in which they live. Stop signs are a social agreement. Lines painted on parking lots, or the maze of nylon straps herding people like mice at airport security screening stations are social agreements, likewise. All of these are tools to make existing in large groups flow with a bit of organization, to prevent quarrels and gridlock. However, all of these are discarded at will when the situation calls for it. In the middle of the night, when there is no traffic and you can clearly see in all directions that you are the only person at an intersection, rolling through a stop sign — while still making you a target of the asinine police — has no social consequence. Parking in the middle of two spaces in an empty Post Office parking lot on Sunday when you quickly run in to drop a letter in the box has no social consequence. Neither does ducking beneath the nylon straps at the near vacant airport. The point, is that social arrangements are tools to be picked up and put down again as the situation dictates. Thoreau once wrote, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” I think it’s apt to meditate on this sentiment in this regard.
Private property is an agreement with your community, at least, on the surface. Ideally, private property demarcates which land is lived upon by which family, and who can decide how best to maintain that property or attain sustenance from it’s resources. This can work out for a small community, allowing various families a bit of privacy, and the ability to undertake labor efforts that produce results in the long term. People who plant fruit trees as seedlings, of course want to eat the fruit years down the line.
When does this tool, this social arrangement, lose efficacy? If a tool is designed to improve the lives of the people within a society, should it not be abandoned if it is no longer meeting those ends? If a tool is being used to exploit one group of people for the benefit of another group, what good reason does the exploited group have to respect the tool or its implications? Why should the poor respect the property of the rich?
We should also consider what role consent plays in the application of any social agreement. After all, if consent is not the binding factor in a social arrangement, then only force remains. If your society is bound by force, then your society is not only unethical, it is also doomed. The more people who come to find themselves on the losing end of a social arrangement, the more force it will take to keep them from overwhelming the social order through disobedience to its tenets. The more people a social arrangement impoverishes and starves, the more police it will take to keep these people from seizing private property and from stealing the necessities of life from the owner class. Is this not evident now even in the “wealthy” west? The police are more militarized more violent, and petty “crime” is on the rise. The Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrated this perfectly when participants were assaulted by law enforcers for acts which included attempts to exist in public space, attempts to occupy abandoned “private” space, attempts to prevent evictions of renters from homes, attempts to grow food in both public and private space, etc. Why should anyone respect their society if that society values property more than it does people? With twenty four empty houses for every homeless person in the United States, it is undeniable the rulers of this society are far more concerned with the sanctity of private property than the health and dignity of human beings.
This scenario takes us far beyond a family and their half acre lot in the suburbs, or their ten acre homestead in the country. As land is the source of all wealth and survival, the massive application of force to maintain private property as it is currently understood and distributed, is tantamount an attempt to either snuff out or enslave the poor and the middle class by the wealthy. They hold privileged access to the source of all wealth and life, they claim the right to destroy what they hold at will for short sighted gains, and they claim the right to destroy the life giving ecological systems of the planet. This is a mode of thinking that needs vast reworking now.
Fears of redistribution often find the petty bourgeoise allying themselves with the owner class. The holder of a small farm, fearing for their years of labor, sides with the corporation that claims ownership and control over hundreds of thousands if not millions of acres, and that predominantly uses that claim to destroy the land for profit. This odd pairing — the small scale permaculture farmer siding ideologically with the mountain top removing coal extraction corporation — needs severing. To accomplish this, I think we need to examine two prongs of the property concept; the chain of ownership and the responsibility of ownership.
How does one come to “own” land? They buy it. As their labor afforded them the currency to do so, owners cling to their private property claim as a direct result of that toil. This is not unreasonable. But as to the logic of purchasing land, it must be asked, where does the seller get the right to sell it? Of course, usually the seller bought the land themselves from a previous seller, but extend this as far backwards as the chain of ownership goes. Who was the first owner? If ownership is valid today because current owners purchased from previous owners, then their ownership is an extension of the first claim to ownership, and is thus, only as valid. This takes us to primitive accumulation, on which Marx states:
“The whole purpose of primitive accumulation is to privatize the means of production, so that the exploiting owners can make money from the surplus labour of those who, lacking other means, must work for them.”
Essentially, primitive accumulation is the first taking of land from common accessibility and enclosing it in private hands. The application of this process in England from the mid seventeenth century up through the nineteenth is referred to as the “enclosure movement.” On this, George Orwell wrote:
“If giving the land of England back to the people of England is theft, I am quite happy to call it theft. In his zeal to defend private property, my correspondent does not stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the landgrabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.”
On the notion of private property, Orwell also once wrote that:
“In the stage of industrial development which we have now reached, the right to private property means the right to exploit and torture millions of one’s fellow creatures. The Socialist would argue, therefore, that one can only defend property if one is more or less indifferent to economic justice.”
Of course, we know all of this. We know that in the western hemisphere, claims to own the land go back only a few hundred years at most, and that this claim as a legal construct backed by the force of the state is founded upon the genocide of the natives of this continent. We know that the people who lived here were cheated, raped, and killed so that the value of the resources here could be appropriated by a handful of private individuals, whether monarchs or mercantilists. This process has not been limited to Europe or North America, but has fully spawned itself across the globe (and is in fact, still unfolding.) The titles the middle class hold in their hands are an extension of that ongoing genocide against the indigenous, as well as a founding plank in the genocide of the global poor and the web of non-human species who are driven to extinction daily.
Our titles and deeds are in reality, a bit of magic; they are pomp and circumstance designed to make the abominable respectable. They are, we can clearly elucidate, an invented justification of a historic and ongoing atrocity and also a contemporaneous deprivation of the masses of their birthright to survive on what the planet willingly gives. To be sure, inventing a social arrangement for the purpose of improving the quality of life for those who consensually enter into the arrangement, is acceptable. To uphold the arrangement with force and violence as a method of exploiting other humans for their labor as well as the natural world for it’s bounty, is disgraceful.
It is also stupid. It cannot last. The non-owners who are exploited by this social arrangement will grow in number, as not only is the population growing while available land is not, the price of land is increasing due to this supply versus demand equation while the value of an individual’s labor is shrinking for the same reason. This in effect, prices out more and more people from becoming even a petty part of the owning class. Inversely, it enriches the owning class, whose wealthiest members can acquire more and more private property. This self reinforcing loop portends the greater and greater impoverishment of the masses. The non-owner class will only grow as the owner class entrenches itself and hides behind an ever more militant and violent police force. The only apt description for such a scenario is a “powder keg.” The only outcomes before us are either a violent social upheaval, or massive repression of the poor the likes of which hasn’t been witnessed in the “first world” west in a century.
Within the dominant culture, the common understanding of ownership is that an owner has a right to dispense with whatever it is they own in whatever manner they see fit. This view clearly creates a hierarchy of owner over owned. When slavery was legal (NOTE: Slavery is technically still legal, as far as prisoners are concerned) slave owners were seen as having the right to dispense with their slaves as they desired, whether this meant raping them, beating them, killing them, or merely working them to the bone. Slaves ceased to be people with a sentience and will all their own, but instead were reduced to being “property.” Of course, many people saw this arrangement as repugnant, and worked tirelessly to see it done away with. But always there were “owners” claiming their “rights” to the “property” they had “purchased.”
This reasoning is applied to land and all that lives upon land as well. Owners believe they have a right to dispense with their land as they so desire, whether that involves something positive like clearing invasive plants and seeding native flora, or something negative like clear cutting all of the trees present and bulldozing the top soil in an effort to strip mine for bitumen. When the right of the benevolent owner is defended, so is the right of the malevolent owner.
To be granted a claim over a parcel of land meaning that one has a right to destroy it, is an absurd social construct. If land is the source of all that we need to live, does it not make more sense for societies to not grant “rights” of disposal, but rather responsibilities of upkeep? Would this not be a great leap towards achieving a social arrangement that is acceptable to the benevolent owner (now more of a steward) while preventing the malevolent owner from destroying what all of us needs, and what all future generations will rely upon?
If the people who comprise a clan, tribe, commune, what-have-you, decide that they would like to subdivide their landbase amongst themselves for the betterment of all their members, would it not make the most sense for these people — whom we assume have come to a consensus on this particular proposal — to enter into an agreement concerning responsibility for the tract on which they live so that the quality of the landbase isn’t degraded? Assuming that agreements such as these are not permanently fixed, and that as conditions change, be they due to increasing or decreasing population, alteration in climate patterns, etc, how these people utilize their land and live together upon it has the potential to vastly change over the years. Why then would anyone in such a community want to grant people a “right” to destroy a parcel that may not be stewarded by that same person years on?
One of the great tragedies of civilization’s forceful domination of the North American continent (among others) is that many of the peoples already inhabiting what is now the U.S. and Canada had very wise and astute philosophies and practices concerning respect for the land, and how to live with each other and nature harmoniously. The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations contained this language:
“In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”
We commonly understand this thinking today as “seventh generation sustainability,” which is a reference to the insistence that many indigenous peoples had that their ways and deeds must not negatively affect their children to come seven generations out. It’s no wonder then, that the natives of North America did not believe in land ownership. Of course, they had homes, they had tribal territories, but they did not believe that the land that gave them life was owed by them, or even, ownable. It takes a particular cultural way of thinking to believe that owning land is an objective reality. The dominant culture is striving to allow the private ownership of more and more, from public space, to public utilities, to ideas, to computer data, to DNA, to genes, and now even sunlight and rainfall. All of this is part of a cultural drive to dominate. The more that can be “owned” the more that the population can be controlled, as they will be dependent upon the owners for not only a place to sleep at night or food to eat, but water to drink and air to breath.
Defenders of private property who admit that yes, private ownership can go too far in cases like the state claiming to own the rain or the sunshine, will still defend (their) ownership of land by claiming that the best way to encourage stewardship, is to allot parcels to private individuals. Their thinking is that a person will have no interest in bettering a place if they will not be able to claim the spoils of that betterment at some future time. While this is a reasonable perspective, it is presumptuous to assume that the only incentive to improve land is to own it. Plenty of people clean and improve their public parks because it’s a space they enjoy spending time. Others clean the sides of highways of litter merely because it’s unsightly on their commute. More significantly, is it not ownership of land that drives stewardship, but dependence upon land? This is key.
How many homeowners in the US have a deed or title to a parcel of land in a suburb, small town, or city? How many of these people actually derive their sustenance from this land? What does their stewardship look like? I think it is fair to say that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people preserve the look of the property, especially of the dwelling that sits upon it, so they can preserve its economic value. This means that people plant non-native lawn grass, they coat it in chemicals to keep it green, they kill weeds with glyphosate, they destroy the insect and bird population through the elimination of wild local plants, they cut down trees for sunlight, they build constructions out of non-natural and often toxic materials, etc, ad nauseam. Even negating corporate holdings, ownership is not bringing us mass stewardship, it is bringing us a desert of lawns.
The current paradigm has the necessities of life coming from vast private land holdings globally which are then then shipped into population centers. Meanwhile the majority of petty-land owners are actually rendering their land sterile, which in turn keeps them dependent upon those who comprise the wealthy owner class. What we should strive for is a paradigm in which people depend upon their land, and come up with consensual social arrangements within their small societies as to how they feel best suited to live upon it..
This may only be possible with a cultural shift that first, or possibly simultaneously, reawakens people to the notion that humans cannot own the Earth because they are of the Earth. Humans are born of the Earth and sustained by the Earth’s systems. We owe the Earth deference and respect. How we perceive the land under our feet, the beings who coexist here with us, the water that is the essence of life, will affect our actions. Modes of thinking that lead to destruction, exploitation, domination, and ecocide are flawed at the core. If your ideas and constructs have the potential to bring about mass extinction and desertification, then what possible sane explanation could you give for clinging to those ideas?
Whether we believe we can buy and sell and dispose of land as we please, or believe that we are a part of a living and sentient world with which we can enter into mutually beneficial relationships, these beliefs are not objective realities. What is objective, are the results of the actions we take. If our beliefs are rapidly disposing of other life forms into the dust bin of extinction, while bringing us ever closer to our own apocalypse, then our beliefs are psychopathic and suicidal. If our beliefs have us concerned for the least among us, concerned for the unborn and the non-human, and ultimately result in our being able to live on this planet for generation upon generation to come, then there is no reason to abandon them for modernity, productivity, visions of accumulation, or myths of progress.
The cascading collapse of both civilization and the ecology of the planet are not likely to be stopped. As conditions worsen and become more stressful, there will be no shortage of false answers, again, usually claiming that we haven’t dominated enough, or controlled enough. What survival looks like will depend on our ability to adapt, and our ability to adapt will depend on our ability to shed vestigial ideas and modes of organization that have long grown malignant in our minds. I don’t expect this process to be anything other than horrifying, but if there is any hope it starts with us realizing which tools we need to put down.