Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, June 27, 2011

All your private property . . .

Changes in the Land is about the ecological changes in New England following the invasion of English settlers, but the protagonist is actually a social construct: the concept of property rights peculiar to European capitalism, which was just emerging at the same time as the colonization of the Americas.

At the heart of the conservative philosophy which predominates in the United States today is this concept of property, somewhat further developed from the 17th and 18th Centuries but essentially similar. Conservatism elevates this concept of property from a social convention particular to time and culture, to a natural law, and more than that, a sacred principle.

New England as the English found it in the 1600s was already shaped greatly by human activity, although the English didn't realize this. But the Indians had a very different way of understanding their relationship to land and the biota than the English. They did not own land, nor did individuals have any particular rights pertaining to territory. Rather, communities negotiated for rights of particular uses of tracts of land, which were tied to seasons and which could change as the land and community needs changed over time.

The Indians also did not accumulate possessions or exploit land its resources to generate a growing commerce. They traded with their neighbors when each had a surplus of something that was scarce to the other, but maintained a steady state of wealth. People owned, in a sense recognizable to us, their personal tools and their mobile housing -- they moved constantly with the seasons -- but their attachment even to these was less than we are accustomed to.

Consequently, and to their ultimate destruction, when they sold land to the English they thought they were doing something very different from what the English understood to be happening. They thought they were exchanging limited rights of usufruct. Instead the land was ultimately cleared of forest, enclosed by fences, and everyone who did not "own" it excluded from trespass. Over three centuries, the forest, along with most of its wildlife and of course the Indians themselves, disappeared from most of New England. Ultimately, it was the European conception of property, of accumulation, and of gain from commerce, that brought this result.

Today we confront the fate of the Indians: the basis of our way of life will soon be exhausted. As Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation, of the political and economic crisis of the 1930s that led to the Great War and the new international system of the latter half of the 20th Century, "[T]he idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surrounding into a wilderness."

We have forgotten this already. There are other ways of living, and we must learn from them, to discover a new way forward.


roger said...

i have lived in 2 areas of calif where gold was extracted. it is amazing what humans can do to the land even without machinery more than a shovel.

"In California, from 1853 to 1884, "hydraulicking" of placers removed an enormous amount of material from the gold fields, material that was carried downstream and raised the level of the Central Valley by some seven feet in some areas and settled in long bars up to 20 feet thick in parts of San Francisco Bay." from wikipedia. the practice was made illegal in 1884.

oh yeah, and native humans were eliminated.

Cervantes said...

We had a similar result in NE from forest clearance -- silt washed down the rivers and filled up swamps and pools. Exterminating the beavers didn't help. Meanwhile the stream flow became erratic rather than steady -- the forest retained the water and released it more slowly -- so a lot of mills were out of business.

robin andrea said...

I am very pessimistic. I don't think our fellow humans will wake up in time to actually halt the destruction that will ultimately consume us. I have begun to embrace the notion that the planet would be better off without us anyway. Sadly, we'll take a lot of other living things with us on the way out. But I trust the planet will ultimately survive our brutal time here.