|August 19, 2005||Posted by Lindy Davies under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Land and Justice — Part 1
by Lindy Davies
Friends, I just had the great good fortune of being invited to give a speech on “Land and Justice” at the Chautauqua Institution, a wonderful place where liberating ideas have held sway for over a century. I thought that Progress Report readers might find it interesting. — L.D.
In heaven, there is no beer… And in heaven, one does not need to work for a living. Heaven is usually seen as an entirely spiritual place, where we are freed from earthly suffering, aches and pains, and in fact, from all material needs.
That’s why I’ve always thought Satan was a bit of a nut. I mean, why rebel in heaven? But, to each his own.
Here on earth, anyway, we have material needs. (That’s why we drink the beer here).
Our food, clothing and shelter have to come from somewhere and so the question of justice inevitably leads to the question of land.
Now, what do you mean by “land”? The land… it usually brings to mind scenes of nature’s bounty: fields of whispering wheat… the mighty river… the rainforest… the good earth… the unbounded savannah…
We tend to have a romantic conception of land, in this day and age. I’m not sure why, but I suspect it has to do with how seldom modern people actually come into contact with the stuff of the earth itself. We deal with hamburgers… papers… toilets… without thinking about the many layers of processing between hayfield and burger, between tree and paper, between flush and water table.
We think of dropping out of the plastic modern world to go “back to the land”. “The land” is where we go on camping trips.
This romantic conception of land can lead to some dangerously fuzzy thinking. It leads us to think, for example, that perhaps land used to be absolutely vital to human life, back in some halcyon, underpopulated past but modern technology has long since taken care of that.
Or has it? Let’s think about a question: what is our most valuable natural resource? Is it
- gold, diamonds, strategic or precious minerals? Nope, not even close.
- Oil? Well, it’s highly important to industrial civilization, of course, a matter of great political import but by no means the most valuable.
- Water? Now we’re getting closer: necessary for life, to be sure, and thus a potential object of wars but in terms of cost per cubic foot, not so terribly high, yet.
Our most valuable natural resource is land whose natural fertility is utterly depleted, it will yield no gems or minerals; often, its soil is full of toxins. Our most valuable natural resource by leaps and bounds, more valuable than all the others combined is urban land. There’s nothing worthwhile about it, except for one vital attribute: where it is.
Technology has continually reduced the amount of land that each person needs to survive. But, of course, we do more, economically, than merely survive and human society has continually demanded more land for all the stuff that people produce: all the knickknacks, gimcracks, widgets and thingamabobs…
It takes a whole bunch of land to produce and transport, and merchandise all that stuff. Nowadays we hear a lot about the concept of the ecological footprint: the overall area of land and resources needed to support a certain industry, say, or a certain region. The grossly huge ecological footprint of many communities (the United States, for example) leads to hand-wringing about overpopulation goodness gracious, what if all the people in China and India start wanting to consume as much as we do!
We can understand the ecological footprint a bit better, I think, if we separate it into its three distinct components:
- the subsistence footprint (resources we must have to stay alive which, as I said, tends to shrink with human progress)
- the wealth footprint (the resources needed to make the stuff we want, over and above what we actually need)
- the illth footprint (“illth” is a very useful term coined by ecologist and social philosopher Ralph Borsodi. It refers to the resources that are squandered on things we neither want nor need: pollution, waste, weapons, crime, preventable disease and malnutrition)
It is indeed possible to provide for the subsistence of more people, and to create more of the things we want while cutting back on the output of illth. Compare today’s London with the foul, unhealthy place it was in the nineteenth century. Or, consider the surprising re-emergence of the ivory-billed woodpecker one of many threatened species whose habitats have returned in the United States. Indeed, it appears that environmental protection does not come at the expense of development but rather gains strength as a society reaches a certain level of prosperity.
If we just look at the “ecological footprint”, it’s easy to be scared of the seemingly unavoidable damage we are doing to the earth. But seeing “the footprint” in terms of its components subsistence, wealth, and illth makes it clear that the fact of persistent global poverty is by no means inevitable. I believe it’s true that the world cannot long support current levels of pollution, waste and habitat destruction but these problems spring, not from production itself and certainly not from trade, itself but from privileges, granted by governments, to individuals and corporations things that we can correct, if we choose to.
To solve the problem of land and justice, we must remove unjust privilege, by instituting an economic system that rewards production and prohibits extortion.
It’s all about the land: not only is land necessary for all life land is also necessary for all production. So, as human population increases, and as the production of wealth gets more and more efficient, the demand for land goes up, and, of course, the land factories start cranking out more land!
Wait! They can’t DO that, can they? Wealth widgets, thingamabobs these things are made by human beings. If customers are willing to buy more of them, then manufacturers will make more of them. But human beings can’t make land. The supply of land cannot be increased. If the demand for land increases, only one thing can happen: its price will go up.
The owners of land see population and production go up, up, up and no more land. So, they will only put their land to use if they have an immediate need for the cash. If they can afford to wait, they will wait, because they expect the land’s value to increase with time.
That, in a nutshell, is the key to the problem of poverty.
That is why millions upon millions of people who are willing and able to work cannot find work, even while millions upon millions of acres of useable land (city land, industrial land, farm land, you name it) are held idle. It’s all about treating the land as an “asset”.
More next week!
Lindy Davies is the Program Director of the Henry George Institute.
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