Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Rigged System

QUESTION:...."Many of us working in environmentalism have come to feel that the only (or the best) way we have to protect wildlife is to buy up habitat and easements through organized efforts such as land trusts. At the same time, I am starting to worry that these efforts, because they still buy into the notion of a fair system, may find us down the road having all of the property rights and easements taken away from us (and from the wildlife we are trying to protect) the moment that monied power forces decide they need the land for their own use."

"What should we be prepared for in the future, as land trust members? What chance do you think land trusts have of actually being able to preserve habitat once monied interests begin to perceive it as useful for their own ends?"

Jensen: "I'm all for any tactics that work, and while I definitely see the benefit of buying land and setting it aside, I also see problems associated with it, problems I think are not often enough discussed.

The first is that within an industrial economy, more or less all economic activity is destructive, which means that in order to gain the money to purchase the land in one place you've probably had to harm some other place. For example, I make between $1.50 and $2.25 on every book I've written that sells in a bookstore. Let's call it
$2. There are some people here in Del Norte County in northern California who want to purchase some cutover parcels of 40 or 60 acres. I think the parcels cost something like $40,000. Purchasing and setting aside this land would be a very good thing. The parcels are on a coho-bearing stream, and they are in the midst of a larger parcel recently set aside. But for me to purchase this, twenty thousand of my books would have to sell. How much damage was caused by the manufacture and transportation of those books? It will not be insignificant. And my publisher is a small operation. What if my work were published by Random House? I would be helping a German conglomerate get richer.

My second problem with it is the knowledge that no matter how much I can work to set aside land, the system is rigged in favor of those who purchase land to put it to economic use. Let's say I put out $40,000 to purchase this land. Well, now I have to write more books to purchase more land. Meanwhile, Weyerhaeuser purchases another parcel for $40,000. The company does so in order to turn a profit. That means that by cutting the trees on the land and through government subsidy, Weyerhaeuser will make more than $40,000, and will use that money to purchase and deforest more land. It's inescapable. If you purchase land to set it aside, you can never compete with those who are purchasing it to kill those who live there and convert them to cash.

My third problem with it is that it doesn't challenge the notion that it is acceptable to buy and sell land. Most of us would consider it immoral to buy and sell human beings, and we consider that slaveholders in the nineteenth century were immoral people with whom we have nothing in common. "I, for one," we can say all-too-easily, "would never have done anything like that." But are you sure? Try this. What if instead of owning people we're talking about owning land. Someone tells you that no matter how much you paid to purchase title to some piece of land, the land itself does not belong to you. No longer may you do whatever you wish with it. You may not cut the trees on it. You may not build on it. You may not run a bulldozer over it to put in a driveway. All of those activities are immoral, because they*re based on your exploitation of a living thing: in this case the land. Did you ask the land if it wants you to build on it? Do you care what the land thinks? But the land can't think, you say. Ah, but that's just what you think. It is how you were taught to think. Let's say further that your livelihood and your way of life are based on working this land--the outsiders call it exploiting--and that if the outsiders have their way you'll be out of business. Again and again they tell you that you are a bad person, a stupid bigot, because you refuse to see that your way of life is based on the exploitation of something you don*t perceive as having any rights*or sentience* to begin with. Angry yet?

My point is not that slavery was (or is) moral. It is that our entire way of living has from the beginning been based on slavery, and continues to be. As I mentioned before, there are more human slaves now than came across on the Middle Passage. And what are factory farms, except slave and death camps for nonhumans (I say this, by the way, as someone who eats meat: I try to avoid factory-farmed meat; wild meat is the best of all, except to be honest (and I've never done this) the most ecologically-sound meat you could get would be to poach cows off of state or federal lands)? What are we effectively doing with land ownership? What is privatization? We
are effectively attempting to enslave all of the land (and water and air and genetic materials and all of life) to industrial production.

I want to tell you a parable of stupidity. It centers around a box. The box is full of salmon, and a man sits atop the box. Long ago this man hired armed guards to keep anyone from eating the fish. The many people who sit next to the empty river starve to death. But they do not die of starvation. They die of a belief. Everyone believes that the man atop the box owns the fish. The soldiers believe it, and they will kill to protect the illusion. The others believe it enough that they are willing to starve. But the truth is that there is a box, there is an emptied river, there is a man sitting atop the box, there are guns, and there are starving people.

All of our claims to land ownership are illusory. They are nothing more nor less than social convention. Unfortunately these illusions have real world effects. We allow imaginary institutions called corporations to pretend they own land, and then to destroy the actual living beings on that land because we believe that they own it (and in fact believe that they--corporations--actually exist). One of the most important things we can do is challenge these delusions.

I don't own the land I live on. I believe I own it. More or less all of the humans who live here in this county believe I own it. But the land itself doesn't believe that. If anything it owns me. We are neighbors, close neighbors, living literally on top of each other, and I need to figure out what I can do to help my neighbors live happy and fulfilling lives.

Another problem with purchasing land to set aside is that we all know that if this land were then found to have resources coveted by those in power, that our ownership would be meaningless. They would take the resources, and if we resisted, they would kill us. To convince ourselves of that, we need merely look at the trail of broken treaties, and ask ourselves how fairly Indian land claims have been resolved.

All that said, I consider purchasing land to set aside to be one tactic. I have no problem with the use of this tactic, and in fact if I had boatloads of money I would purchase land left and right to set aside. I just want for us to not unthinkingly use this tactic, any more than I would want for us to unthinkingly use any other

I've heard it said that unquestioned assumptions are the real authorities of any culture. The notion of owning land (or owning anything, where we define ownership as the right to control and destroy) is one of the fundamental unquestioned assumptions of our culture."

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