Excerpts from Antonia Malchik’s “Who Owns the Earth?”:
For me, like my ancestors, the Montana landscape is part of who I am. It’s beyond price. Love is the one thing about land that cannot be measured by use, real estate markets, or commodity prices. It makes a deep sense of home possible. Once established through the surety of knowing that the land you live on cannot be taken, it then spills out beyond its borders to encompass the surrounding lands. Private property might be the birthplace of husbandry and true sustainability as well as of self-sufficiency and self-determination, but ownership of land also allows us to invest in a community, including public lands and resources owned by all, with a sense of interdependence and mutual cooperation.
The ranch my mother was born on was not built solely by her family’s labour. It relied on water aquifers deep beneath the surface, the health of soil on plains and hills beyond their borders, on hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years of care by the Blackfoot tribe whose land it should have remained, the weather over which they had no control, the sun, seeds, and a community who knew in their bones that nobody could do this alone. These things comprised an ecosystem that was vital to their survival, and the same holds true today. These are our shared natural resources, or what was once known as ‘the commons’.
We live on and in the commons, even if we don’t recognise it as such. Every time we take a breath, we’re drawing from the commons. Every time we walk down a road we’re using the commons. Every time we sit in the sunshine or shelter from the rain, listen to birdsong or shut our windows against the stench from a nearby oil refinery, we are engaging with the commons. But we have forgotten the critical role that the commons play in our existence. The commons make life possible. Beyond that, they make private property possible. When the commons become degraded or destroyed, enjoyment and use of private property become untenable. A Montana rancher could own ten thousand acres and still be dependent on the health of the commons. Neither a gated community nor high-rise penthouse apartments can close a human being from the wider world that we all rely on.
Preservation of the commons has not…been completely forgotten. But it has come close. The commons are, essentially, antithetical both to capitalism and to limitless private profit, and have therefore been denigrated and abandoned in many parts of the world for nearly two centuries.
There are more stories than I can count of the right to property use and profit destroying the lives, livelihoods, health, or homes of neighbours near and far. The common thread is in how they ignore, almost completely, the necessity of keeping the commons healthy and stable.
The damage we inflict on our own land has never stayed within surveyed property lines. But even as our ecological understanding has increased, our willingness to limit intensive use of private property has shrunk. A coal mine, a hog farm surrounded by extensive waste lagoons that seep into watersheds, a subdivision built on wetlands, an oil well on ground held sacred – whether it’s private land or public, if the use will make money, it must be for the public good. This view is defended even when it destroys everything we need both for physical wellbeing and any sense of deeper connection we might still maintain with the earth beneath our feet and the sky overhead. Even if it severs our roots to the land and discards any sense we might have of ‘home’. We have come, almost inevitably, to a situation where the pursuit of economic growth, enforced by a belief in expansive private property rights, has put in peril the very ecosystems, the very planet, that we rely on for survival.
If we’re to take environmental problems seriously, legal and societal understanding must reinstate the principle that a landowner’s freedom is restricted by the right of that owner’s neighbours to enjoy their own property undisturbed, and by a duty to leave the commons unharmed.
This understanding must necessarily include a more scientific knowledge of ecology. Earth is a sieve. Water flows not just visibly down rivers and streams but through bedrock and across aquifers. So do industrial chemicals. Overworked soil can drift and blow away, as can air pollution, settling on nearby or far-off people who are defenceless against its detrimental health effects. Carving up mountainsides for developments of affordable duplexes or multi-million-dollar vacation homes puts residents downhill at risk of mudslides, while destroying soul-restoring views and forests that could be the birthright of all. The commons saturate every part of our existence.
Decades of pollution and poison from mines, factories, automobiles, power plants, and industrial farms have barely moved the needle away from profit and private property as public benefits. Only the prospect – and now the reality – of global climate change has begun reframing the conversation in terms of society’s right to an undamaged commons.
Will we allow the rights of those commons, of the public trust, of the human being’s access to a simple, sustainable life, to pass out of memory? If we allow the answer to be ‘yes’, then we may find that we lose private property itself, along with the commons. Private property and the public trust coexist; there is no private realm without public, society-wide agreement that enforces rights and laws. Enjoyment of private property is not possible when the common resources that surround it are degraded. A well-ordered society needs both.