Land ownership

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Growing up in modern civilisation, it would be very easy to believe that the Earth we live on has always been owned by somebody, and that to live you always had to have money. That’s the culture we were born into, so it is all we know. But private ownership is a human story, and a relatively modern one at that. Once the land was free for all to roam. More recently, our land was held in common, for the commoners. Now it is owned by the few – 1% own 70% of the land.(65)

The story of the commons and the enclosures is covered in detail by authors such as Simon Fairlie,(66) but as some of it is relevant to the subject of moneyless living, I will discuss it only to the extent to which it is relevant.

Up until the Tudor period, much land was still held in common. Commoners would subsist on it and maintain it for the benefit of themselves and all. Decisions to enclose this land effectively resulted in the displacement of many villagers and the conversion of arable land into pasture land. Humans, effectively, were replaced by sheep. These displaced humans – us – were, over a period of time, forced into becoming sheep themselves, having to go off to the larger towns and cities and give their bodies and lives to the forwarding of the industrial revolution.

Whilst the reasons behind the enclosures vary depending on the agenda of whichever historian you listen to, many argue that a large part of the move towards enclosure was to force people into the cities, into the industrial factories, and therefore into the wage and monetary economies that all of us take for granted today. A smart move on behalf of the nobility and industrialists who capitalised from it, but not so good for the majority, the subsistence peasants of the time, or the 99% of today’s population.

On a related aside, this move has more recently been compounded by the stealthiness of economists, politicians and journalists alike in conflating words related to economy with words related to finance. The former comes from a Greek word οἰκονομία, meaning household management, and it is little more than a logistical system for us to meet our needs and wants within the limits of what our home can sustain. This logistical system may or may not be a financial one, a word relating only to the management of money. This example shows the power of language, as when we hear the word ‘economic’ today we think of matters relating to money (finance), as opposed to methods of meeting our needs. The next time someone tells you that protecting a woodland is not economically viable, remind them that they really mean it’s not financially viable. In terms of managing a ‘household’ that has fewer trees by the minute, protecting them is probably economically crucial.

Such manipulative use of language has produced profitable results for those with vested interests: few of us can even imagine a non-monetary or non-wage economy, thinking it to be a utopian fantasy dreamt up by hippies and those with no sense of reality, even though we can readily see this utopia in its most glorious action on any occasion we wander to the woods, where we bear witness to every other species living in a totally localised manner.

The trend towards enclosure, the turning of commonly held land into privately owned land, has since been rapidly unfolding across the world. This, by no small means, was helped by a biologist called Garrett Hardin, who pencilled a very influential essay titled ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, which was published in journals such as Science magazine. Hardin claimed that when land was held in common, people acting in the rational self-interest that Adam Smith and Ayn Rand talk about would deplete it. His logic was this: for every extra agricultural unit (be it a cow or a crop) the commoner put on the land, he would gain one full extra unit, whilst it would be the entire community that would share the loss of soil fertility, vegetation and so on that the one extra unit caused.

As many commentators have noted, Hardin’s perspective on the situation caught on quickly, mostly because it strengthened the case of those who already wanted to slice the Earth into privately owned segments for their own purposes. This essay gave them a credible reason to carry out what they already wanted to, the result of which was to force the rest of us into monetary slavery.

Hardin’s essay was fundamentally flawed, and you only have to look at how community allotments and orchards are run to see why. As George Monbiot points out, Hardin is confusing commons with free-for-alls, citing the example of the oceans to prove this. The oceans are not collectively watched by anyone, hence they are stripped bare of fish as everyone acts in delusional self-interest towards them. Monbiot(67) argues that “in a true commons, everyone watches everyone else, for they know that anyone over-exploiting a resource is exploiting them”. When people are collectively dependent on a piece of Earth for their survival, they care for it well, and make decisions around it that work for them and the land itself, and not for the nobility or the industrialists who merely want to make money from it. Small scale is critical – for good stewardship, those using the commons need to know each other in order to fairly coordinate their usage.

But Hardin’s theory has another flaw. Let us suspend reality for a moment and pretend that the commoners did destroy the land they held in common by putting their own narrow self-interest above that of the collective. Even if such an eventuality was true, the necessary response would not be to put it into private ownership, which Hardin effectively advocated, but to challenge the cultural stories behind the idea of the skin-encapsulated ego. If humans fully understood the interconnectedness of all things, to destroy the land would not be in their holistic self-interest, nor even in their egocentric self-interest in the long-term.

What the enclosures did was force us all into cities and the monetary economy. You take away a human’s legal access to soil and a place to build a house out of the materials which that land provides (in the same way that a bird is allowed to build a nest), and you make a de facto slave out of her. This movement towards enclosure rose with other stories that were being created and advanced at the time, such as the myth that humanity is separate from Nature. Such beliefs mean that, today, the countryside is for Nature – the cows, the sheep, the birds and the bees – and not humanity, as if we were less natural than a blade of grass or a gust of wind.

The end result of all of this is an inherently unsustainable civilisation. Monbiot adds that:

… these changes in the ownership of land lie at the heart of our environmental crisis. Traditional rural communities use their commons to supply most of their needs: food, fuel, fabrics, medicine and housing. To keep themselves alive they have to maintain a diversity of habitats: woods, grazing lands, fields, ponds, marshes and scrub. Within these habitats they need to protect a wide range of species: different types of grazing, a mixture of crops, trees for fruit, fibres, medicine or building.
The land is all they possess, so they have to look after it well. But when the commons are privatised, they pass into the hands of people whose priority is to make money. The most efficient means of making it is to select the most profitable product and concentrate on producing that.

History and philosophy aside, the reality is that for all of us today, there is little access to land, either for food growing or for somewhere to build a nest. This is a very real and major obstacle to moneyless living, as I personally know only too well. As I am not the Prime Minister and don’t anticipate being any time soon, my ways around this are limited to some transitional strategies we can adopt for now, whilst simultaneously spreading some new cultural compost to create the fertile soil through which the seeds of moneyless societies could germinate in the not too distant future. With enough collective will and courage to stand up for our holistic selves, there is no reason I know of why this wouldn’t be possible. As always, it starts with the creation of new stories.

I will outline these transitional strategies towards land in chapter six, but if we are to get back to living truly sustainable lives in the long-term, then serious land reform is undoubtedly necessary.