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Restoring the Sacred Land: An Inquiry Into the Origins and Implications of Land-Ownership

For those of us who are not landowners and don’t have the economic means to purchase and then free land, there are still many actions we can participate in to help the land-abolitionist movement along.

“The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!” – Jean Jacques-Rousseau

“Sold! To bidder number 70!” the large man in a white shirt jovially declared, as he successfully transferred the ownership of 22,500 acres of Southern Utah’s gorgeous Redrock wilderness to a young man whom he assumed was a representative of the oil and gas industry. The assumed course of action would be for the representative to then set about drilling and extracting oil from the area- doing irreparable damage to one of the most unique and beautiful pieces of land in the world. Bidder 70 was not an oil baron; however, he was Tim DeChristopher, a 32-year old economics student who was ” interfering with an illegitimate auction that threatened his future.”[i] Once the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) authorities realized what he was up to, they removed him from the auction immediately, but the damage had been done. The auction had to be rescheduled for the next month, which was just enough time for the U.S. Department of the Interior to investigate the auction and discover that Tim was right – the auction was being conducted with insufficient scientific and environmental review and, thus, all BLM parcels sold in that auction were cancelled.

Tim had successfully stopped an illegitimate auction and saved an incredible amount of land in Utah from destruction – actions which should have earned him a hero’s status. Instead, he was indicted by the Federal government, given a grossly unfair and lengthy trial, and sentenced to 21 months in a Federal Penitentiary[ii].

What logic would drive a government to punish an individual who had tried to protect land from environmental destruction? How did the actions of this young, idealistic activist necessitate almost two years in prison?

To answer these questions, we need to look into the origins of land-ownership and how humans have engaged with the earth throughout history. We need to explore the concepts and implications of land-ownership: how can we pretend to own a planet which has existed for billions of years before humans and will exist for billions more years after the frail and imperious species of homo-sapiens has perished?

I encountered the land ownership dilemma recently while my partner and I were considering buying some land with which to set up a sustainable, off-the-grid home and farm. I have long held the opinion that the very principle of land ownership is false and those who participate in such a system are contributing to a destructive and immoral task. This idealism, however, was quickly dashed against the rocks of reality – the reality that unless I purchase a piece of land, I will forever be a serf to a landowner, forever paying “rent” to another person who “owns” the land I am living on. And even if I do manage to acquire a parcel of land, I will be forced to pay taxes to the government in which ‘my’ land is located in, or I will have ‘my’ land forcibly taken from me. There is simply nowhere to live for free, no public areas, no “commons” with which one can live simply and quietly without having to participate in industrial society.

Why not? Where did all the wild places go? When did humans gain the audacity to lay claim to portions of the earth? How did the myth of private ownership of land emerge?

To answer this question we need to go back in time, way back – back to the Neolithic revolution, approximately 12,000 years ago. The Neolithic revolution marked the end of an approximately 200,000 year period in which homo-sapiens were organized in small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Up to this point, human development had been limited to simple tool-making, fire-making, and a very basic form of language. The dawn of the Neolithic age was perhaps the most decisive turning point in human history, as homo-sapiens moved away from their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles and began engaging in agricultural practices. This may not seem like much of a revolutionary shift until you understand the implications associated with the shift. Agriculture required people to abandon their nomadic lifestyles and settle down in one location, forming towns, cities, and nations. The vast amount of organization and labor required to feed a large, sedentary population necessitated the division of labor, which means that certain people now had specific “roles” or “jobs.” No longer could you spend a leisurely day doing whatever you wanted, you now had to take part in a certain aspect of the agricultural process. This ultimately led to class divisions and the concepts of hierarchy and inequality, as the more powerful members of the community were given roles of overseeing and organizing, whilst the weaker members were relegated to the heavy, dirty labor. Gender specializations and the concept of Patriarchy emerged during this era as well, as women now were given certain tasks such as child-rearing, textile manufacturing, and food preparation, as opposed to their earlier status as equal members and contributors to the community. [iii] [iv] [v]

Humans weren’t the only group affected by this transition, as the environment started to take a heavy hit with the intensive agricultural techniques that a sedentary population necessitated. This time period was marked with mass extinctions of plants and animals, as humans hunted animal populations to extinction and intensive agricultural practices eliminated many plant species. As intensive irrigation techniques were employed, water and top-soil depletion became a huge issue; as the land had never before been subjected to continuous, extensive usage without respite. [vi]

The most fundamental and decisive shift during this time period, however, had nothing to do with the physical landscape or human organization. It was an idea. It was the introduction of a concept which was completely foreign to humanity for over 200,000 years – a concept which predicated the formation of Empires, Burger King, War, Politics, Banks, Levi jeans, and Slavery. It was the concept of private property; the idea that a particular thing, whether it be a bone tool, another human, a house, a plant, or a piece of land, could be owned by a particular human.

With the evolution of the concept of private property came the evolution of civilization, and it now became humanity’s mission to ‘enclose’ or privatize every corner of the earth. Enclose we did. Empires rose, and empires fell, each giving birth to a new incarnation of civilization, and each expanding the reach of privatization to include more humans, animals, plants, natural resources, and land than the previous Empire. The social and environmental implications of this were extremely far-reaching and pervasive. Empires with lots of ‘property’ to protect necessitated armies to defend against ‘others’ who wanted more property as well, thus war was invented. Massive labor projects needed massive numbers of humans to carry out the labor, thus slavery became an integral part of expanding empires. Imperialistic culture was no place for women to be ruling or have any say in official matters, and large battles needed large numbers of young men to die for their nation, therefore women were further relegated and forced into the domestic roles of making babies and supporting the men in their conquests. As history progressed, the remaining indigenous peoples (those who had not tasted the forbidden fruit of civilization) quickly fell to the sword and slavers’ whip. The advent of the monotheistic, organized religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam solidified the role of property and land as sanctioned by not only the rule of the elite, but now with the word of God himself (as evidenced in “thou shalt not steal” of the Hebraic book of Exodus and ” as for the thief, amputate their hands in recompense for what they committed as a punishment from Allah” of the fifth chapter of the Qur’an). The formation of the nation-state and the rise of monarchy and feudalism in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East in the following centuries firmly placed land into the laps of Kings, Emperors, and Chieftains who all served the insatiable god of private property and militaristic expansion.

This was a fine and tidy system for those fortunate enough to have been born into the ruling class, and a system that flourished in Europe from the 9th to 17th centuries. For almost a thousand years, much of Europe was a Feudalistic society, an economic system in which individuals were loosely divided into two classes of people: Lords (landowners), and Serfs (non-landowners.) If you were a serf living on a lord’s land, you would essentially be a renter, paying for the privilege of living on the lord’s land with a percentage of your labor, the first form of rent. In return, you would receive a relative amount of protection from the lord’s army and access to the “commons” which was essentially everything that the land provided: water, land to grow crops on, animals to hunt, and forests rich with food and timber. When the Enlightenment swept Europe during the fifteenth century, the concepts of Monarchy and Feudalism collapsed, and many of the lords began squabbling for the scraps of the empire. This left vast areas of unclaimed land which officially belonged to no-one and was “there for the taking.” Mass populations of former serfs moved into these areas, attempting to create a simple, quiet lifestyle for themselves separate from war-hungry industrial machine which was beginning to dominate the European landscape. For the rising Mercantilist class, the predecessor of our modern Capitalist ruling class, this presented an enormous problem. How could you force people to work in a factory for twelve hours a day under miserable conditions when they could very easily move to the forests and live a much happier lifestyle away from the toxic factories and urban living conditions? The economic machine was losing its labor-base due to all this unclaimed land, so something had to be done. England passed a series of “land enclosure acts” between 1750 and 1860 which parceled out almost all of the public lands, which were known as the “commons,” to landowners and nobles. Now, with no land to live on without paying exorbitant taxes to private landowners, the serfs were forced to move into industrial, urban centers and to provide the labor base for industry.[vii] [viii]

This movement towards privatizing the land was quickly adopted by other European nations, and by the late 1800’s almost the entire continent was “owned” by the ruling class. This concept was popularized and legitimized by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, and most notably John Locke, who argued that land has no inherent value in itself, and should be owned and exploited by those most willing and capable of producing from it. This view of the land has remained very popular amongst the ruling class ever since Locke published his words, as it advocates for complete extortion of the earth with no responsibility to maintain or preserve anything for future generations and fails to recognize that the Earth has any inherent value outside of its immediate commodification and consumption to humans.

The colonization of North America was a textbook example of this mentality. Many of the early explorers and settlers were thoroughly indoctrinated in Lockeian political theory, and upon setting foot in the “New World,” immediately put his theory into action- pillaging, exploiting, and destroying the land as quickly as possible. Locke’s argument that, ” as much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property… the improvement of labor makes the far greater part of the value [ix] ” was the justification used to force indigenous peoples off of their land, as their low-impact, hunter-gatherer lifestyles did not constitute “improvement” in the eyes of the European settlers. The rapid economic expansion and industrialization of North America was largely due to the incredibly fertile and richly layered landscapes of this pristine continent untainted with notions of private ownership and industrialization, despite being inhabited with millions of Native Americans for thousands of years. Coupled with a large slave-labor base and the technological advances of the steam engine and industrialization, the land was thoroughly exploited at the highest level humanly possible, and continues to this day.

The cost of the North American land enclosure has been heavy. In less than 500 years, over four million square miles of land have been colonized, privatized, and commodified. Over 95% of the standing forests in the US are gone [x], the soils of the once-fertile breadbasket of the midwest are extremely depleted [xi], over 37% of the rivers in the US are declared “unusable” due to pollution and contamination [xii], over 1,000 species of plants and animals have become extinct since European colonization of North America [xiii], and the largest genocide in history took the lives over over 50 million indigenous people.[xiv] The rich and promising “land of opportunity” was apparently only an opportunity for a few, at the expense of many.

Given the vast amount of human suffering, inequality, and oppression that has been enacted on humanity since the concept of land-ownership was introduced to us and the continued social costs associated with it: famine caused by environmental degradation, wars, borders to protect, refugees, and economic disparity, it is not hard to see why many great thinkers in the past two centuries have looked back at the scope of history and rejected the human creation of private property. They hold that the concept of private property was a huge mistake, and that the survival of humanity will depend on our ability to cooperate and share, rather than the competition and greed that is indicative of our current capitalist culture.

Accepting that land ownership is immoral and illogical, what is one to do in a world where such a belief is not only commonplace, but heavily enforced with law and government? To answer this question, let’s look at a similar dilemma that abolitionists faced in the early 1800s. As with any social movement, there were many facets to the resistance and many different tactics to fight the system of slavery. One method, led by William Greenleaf Eliot, was to purchase slaves in the southern slave markets, transport them north, and then set them free in areas where they would have a relative degree of safety and liberty. Eliot’s purchasing of slaves was criticized by many other abolitionists as legitimizing and funding the institution of slavery – as with every human purchased, another human would inevitably be transported from Africa to the American slave markets to replace her. He argued that “in a society that trades flesh, one must pay the price to free men from the bonds which hold them.” [xv] Eliot and his followers freed over 300 humans from oppression through their controversial methods, and arguably saved many more lives when you realize that these freed men and women went on to start families and leave a legacy of freedom to their children and grandchildren. [xvi]

Whether or not you agree with his tactics, it is undeniable that many human lives were saved due to Eliot’s and his followers actions. Let us also be very clear that the institution of slavery is in no way comparable to land-ownership, as the value of a human life is incomparable to a piece of land, or any sum of money or property for that matter. This is not an attempt to equate the evils or land-ownership with the evils of human-ownership, but merely an attempt to challenge the way we see the world around us, as only 140 years ago we were actively engaged in the slave-trade and were quite comfortable with the notion of trading a human life for a sum of dollars or acres. Lest you savor a moment of moral indignation and think those days are far behind us, know that in many ways we continue this deplorable trade today, in the form of sex-slavery, mass incarceration, and deplorable sweatshop-style factory working conditions around the world.

While respecting the differences between land-ownership and human-ownership, it is also important to also understand the similarities. The two concepts emerged at the same time and are based on the same ideological assumptions of hierarchy and domination. They both require an implied ‘social contract’ and the participation of the rest of one’s community in the proliferation and implementation of the ownership, as it would be ridiculous and ineffective to attempt to take ownership of another human, object, or parcel of earth without your community’s participation. To test this theory, simply live your life as if these implied social contracts did not exist for a day. You would undoubtedly be placed in jail or a mental hospital within hours, if not shot dead by the police or an enthusiastic civilian believer, supporter, and defender of private property. Both concepts of ownership have been tested, tried, and found wanting in light of the amount of death, extinction, suffering, and destruction that has been produced at the practical application of these ideas.

Due to this perspective and understanding, the old motto of the slave-abolitionists to “abolish the ownership of humans by other humans” has been taken a step further by the modern land-abolitionists as they boldly declare to ” abolish the ownership of humans, land, animals, and every other facet of the environment by humans.” Maybe the first practical step towards creating a new world is undoing the very ideological assumptions that created this one and reversing the power of private property, especially land ownership.

“Noble idea!” one might reply, “But what is one to do in a world where land-ownership and all of the associated social ills are normalized, and seen by many as integral to our identities as humans? In a world of normalized land-slavery, how does one go about its abolition?” Let’s go back to the tactics of the early abolitionists, who saw that one of the safest and sustainable methods of freeing slaves was to purchase them. Doesn’t that make one a complicit participant in slavery? Yes, it does. Yet in a society where almost no other options were presented, where many slaves who ran away were found, caught, and brutally murdered, it was a convincing option. Likewise, in our current society where the entire land-base has been parceled out and privatized, and those who attempt to ‘liberate it’ will most likely be institutionalized or murdered (remember our earlier test of this theory), purchasing and holding land, though an intrinsically immoral task, may indeed be the most effective method of land-abolition.

What does it mean to be a ‘land-abolitionist’ as a land-owner? How can one use their economic power to free land and restore it to the commons? For those who are interested in these concepts and exploring what might be a code of responsible land ethics for those who reject the legitimacy of land-ownership, I believe a conversation is needed. In the spirit of Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Paul B. Thompson, and Barbara Kingsolver, we need to have a conversation that outlines what ‘restoring the sacred land’ looks like and how concerned land-owners can participate in this voluntary agrarian revolution that not only seeks to preserve land, plants, and animals, but also allows humans to participate in their own liberation from the capitalist machine by living simply and frugally off of the land.

For those of us who are not landowners and don’t have the economic means to purchase and then free land, there are still many actions we can participate in to help the land-abolitionist movement along. Squatting, eviction-resisting, and communal housing are some actions that people are engaging in that disrupt the slave-trade. Education is critical to this movement, as the more people are aware of this movement, the more sympathizers and supporters will emerge and begin reclaiming the earth for human, animal, and plant conservation purposes. Participating in or starting a land conservancy is a great way to preserve and reclaim land. Engaging in direct-action to protect land-grabs by government and corporate powers is another way that you can participate in this movement, as Tim DeChristopher so eloquently and nobly demonstrated in Utah a few years ago. Anytime you refuse to participate in the land-ownership system, by either not paying rent, by not leaving an eviction site, by educating yourself or others on the issues surrounding land-ownership, by stopping land-grabs through direct-action, or by sharing living spaces, you are throwing a small wrench into the machinery of capitalism.

Is the cry for land-abolition an unrealistic, utopian plea? Maybe, but not any more so than the plea of the slave-abolitionists who were fighting for and arguing against a system which had been an established truth for thousands of years and which was legitimized by both God and the State. Does the modern cry for land-freedom really seem that crazy when compared to the current logic of the Capitalistic class who ” intend that one day everything will be owned by somebody, and we’re not just talking goods here. We’re talking human rights, human services, essential services for life. Education, public health, social assistance, pensions, housing. We’re also talking about the survival of the planet…air and water…we want the whole universe, the whole of earth owned. [xvii] “? I seriously hope not, for our survival as a species may depend on our answer to that question.

To participate in a discussion regarding a new set of land ethics regarding the principles of deep ecology and a rejection of the principle of land ownership, follow this link:


[i] Quote from DeChristopher in “Bidder 70“, a 2012 film

[ii]Bidder 70” – 2012 film

[iii]First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies” – Peter Bellwood (2004)

[iv]Guns, germs and steel. A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years” – Jared Diamond (1997)

[v]“Evolution, Consequences and Future of Plant and Animal Domestication ” – Jared Diamond (2002)

[vi]The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture” – Mark Nathan Cohen (1977)

[ix]Second Treatise of Government” – John Locke (1690)

[xiv]American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World” – David Stannard (1992)

[xvi]William Greenleaf Eliot-Conservative Radical” – Earl K. Holt III (1985)

[xvii] Michael Walker in an interview in “The Corporation“, a 2003 film

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