Thursday July 07, 2022

Right to the land

May 17, 2022

In 1881, Henry George, already famous for his most well-known work, ‘Progress and Poverty’, published ‘The Irish Land Question’. In the book, he argued that if all people have “the same equal right to life, it follows that they must all have the same equal right to the land.”

For George, the liberal notions of individual liberty and equal rights for all were worthless unless they meant the end of land theft and land monopoly, the return of the land to its proper status as the inheritance of all mankind. He observed a great disconnect: while we all need the land and its products to survive, only a small handful of landlords own it, thus allowing them to dictate the terms under which most of us live out our days.

That disconnect has defined the modern age, and while it remains with us, it has been notoriously difficult to quantify its social, economic, and environmental impacts. In particular, the causal relationship between land monopoly and present-day environmental conditions has not been sufficiently studied. Exploring this relationship reveals that a comprehensive critique of land monopoly entails a program for the more responsible and sustainable use of land and natural resources.

In order to make those who use the land accountable, planning strategically for the long term and internalizing their costs to the extent possible, it must be owned by small groups of people who live on it. When decisions are made by large, distant corporate bodies that are not answerable in any robust way to local communities, we cannot be surprised to find them depleting and draining the life from the land. The ability of the land to sustain life begins with the soil, which, when it is strong and healthy, is a world of irreducible beauty and complexity. This world is full of life forms and the relationships between them, from bacteria and fungi, to plants and animals, both living and dead, of various sizes and scales.

Soil is a living thing – an infinitely complex network of them, more precisely – and human civilization has been phenomenally good at killing it, at making dead, dry deserts of dynamic living networks. As observed from space, we might regard humans as a desert-making species. It is important to point out that the current environmental and ecological crisis is not entirely a product of the industrial age, but begins thousands of years ago, as human civilization’s agricultural endeavors became progressively (perhaps regressively) more widespread and intensive. It is not enough to point the way to organic farming, as such practices were all that was available to previous agricultural civilizations, which likewise pushed their natural environments beyond sustainable limits.

The introduction and successive redoublings of modern, industrial techniques, particularly the indiscriminate, irresponsible use of “fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and whatever other chemicals are at hand,” have aggravated the soil crisis to such a degree that many of the world’s formerly rich soils are now almost completely bereft of organic matter. This is a direct consequence of the fact that although our farms have grown larger, they are owned and operated by comparatively fewer and fewer people, through corporate operations with short-sighted business strategies and goals.

Excerpted: ‘The Enduring Land Question’.