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An End to the Age of Entitlement: Land Ownership, Use, and Community Reconsidered

This is the first post in a three-part series by John Bloom challenging the modern economic approach to land. Here, Bloom proposes a new approach that views land as resource rather than commodity and focuses on stewardship rather than consumption.

Ask the question: What is my purpose in this lifetime? What resounds is a picture of culture and consciousness at work in forming me. That each of us has the privilege of asking him or herself such a question reveals an important aspect of what it means to be human. However, when I look about me in the world, I realize all this inquiry is meaningless without paying particular attention to the earth we all stand on and cohabit. While each of us wrestles, if we choose, with the question of purpose, we rarely ask the deeper questions about the meaning of land, our connection to it, and the reality that it is our shared commons—even though we have been conditioned not to think of it this way in Western culture.

Modern economics has parsed land in a way quite destructive and unimaginable to many indigenous cultures—certainly to America’s first peoples. This market-centered methodology is founded upon a materialistic worldview that values things, commodities, and quantification above all else. Ownership of land and its attendant control has become an end in itself that has been used to justify some extraordinary means including rendering the land infertile in the pursuit of profit from it, or distorting its value by using it as a kind of root cellar for capital and generator of appreciated development value. This may seem harsh judgment, but both conditions have rendered much productive land unusable and inaccessible, either through industrial farming or overdevelopment. Both are anathema to anything like a regenerative economy. Superfund sites and real estate speculation are more a commons of economic distress in the sense that we all share the costs of their consequences. The long-standing imperative to own and control land as property has its parallel in the competitive drive for control of markets and economic life in general. This age of entitlement must to come to an end along with its destructive practices. From the perspective of the land, we are all commoners, even if we would prefer not to think of it this way.

As a counter imagination, wise stewardship of the land and natural resources upon which humanity depends might render a more mutual and compassionate interdependent community—a true commonwealth. Farmers working with high integrity sustainable practices understand this. Their ultimate purpose is building soil fertility. Land trusts are founded on the principle of protecting and stewarding land on behalf of the commons. Neither the farmer nor the land trustees treat the land as a commodity. To do so would be an abrogation of their missions and the high purpose of their service. And thankfully there are many private landowners who operate in solidarity with these principles—but not currently enough to rescue the earth from commercial abuse.

I am proposing here to recast the question of land ownership in light of two other critically important but less attended to elements, namely, use and community. Imagine these three—ownership, use, and community—as the primary elements of the human relationship to land, and, from a different perspective, the aspects of consciousness and praxis that the land is calling forth from us. Each of these elements has its particular qualities, practices, and ethic, and yet they are inseparable. Use and community are often subsumed within our concept of ownership, a situation that no longer serves the economic future in which ecological limits and the diminished capacity of land (and all natural resources) to support human needs are becoming painfully evident.

Change will require a new consciousness, one that transcends conventional polarity and dualistic thinking that are the hallmarks of the bicameral mind. Instead we will need to cultivate what was called in ancient Greece and Buddhist practice the middle way, a path that recognizes the both-and, holds the extremes of the polarity and that which mediates them. This requires a certainly flexibility of mind, and I would say feeling. In this threefold picture, each of the three elements are of equal importance and serve as tension holder and balance to the others. Collectively they are a unified system; each with its unique character completes the others. Like the three primary colors from which all other colors emerge, ownership, use, and community are the primary elements of a whole relational system. While this may seem a highly theoretical approach, my hope here is demonstrate quite the opposite—it is both directly practical, a bearer of collaboration rather than competition, and a possible tool for healing our centuries long violent relationship with the earth and each other. This last hope may seem arrogant and overreaching, and it is with all humility that I propose it. But I do not know how else to frame a counter imagination to the dominant paradigm of land ownership.

Continue to read Part II

John Bloom is Senior Director, Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

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