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What can we do to take steps toward Purdy’s democratic Anthropocene? We need laws that will protect humans from displacement and a vision of state-directed land use capable of answering the scale of the problem.
Property law has long been in the service of kicking people out of the economy. By the seventeenth century, European states were passing laws to exclude Jews and Catholics from buying or inheriting property. As empire expanded around the globe, the Western model of individual proprietorship came to trump collective land rights; documents supporting the latter were routinely thrown out of court. This bias made it increasingly difficult for New Zealand’s Maori to defend their property in court once a white settler had laid claim to it. In Kenya, the coming of British land laws superimposed a new definition of rights; long-time residents suddenly became “squatters.” Around the world today, we need legal entitlements to land and water to protect native peoples and the global poor from mass displacement, genocide, and incarceration.
We need a vision of state-directed land use capable of answering the scale of today’s problems.
Law can be reformed. Indeed, it has been, again and again—to protect the poor from an industry of landlords who use their wages as an effortless source of profit while failing to improve habitations. In nineteenth-century Britain, anti-eviction laws extended from six nights to twelve months the length of time that a tenant had to find a new residence, while fair-rent courts negotiated down rents paid by the indebted poor. In the United States, the 1934 Frazier-Lemke Act restricted the power of banks to foreclose on farmers. Eviction and foreclosure are reemerging today as the primary tools for displacing poor people as farmland becomes more expensive and drought-stricken land becomes untenable. Reforming the law to provide access to shelter, food, and water in the tradition of Progressive-era anti-eviction measures is a fit challenge for human rights advocates.
Reforming rights to land won’t be enough, though. We also need to improve the way we use it. Purdy calls for a new New Deal, but what would such a plan look like? Few have dreamed on this scale for a long time, and reformers may profit from looking backward to the Progressive era—to see what might work, as well as what to avoid.
Progressive schemes included “land banks” intended to settle Europe’s poor on wastelands, such as those of western Ireland. In retrospect, these arrangements seem more like penal colonies or plantations where the poor would farm for the rich or subsist on land that previously had been offered rent-free. The outcomes were unjust.
Other nineteenth-century dreamers looked to the market—shareholder interest, in particular—as the basis for negotiating land ownership and land use, much like modern carbon trading in its aim of letting exchange remedy the economy. Property owners and their tenants would become shareholders; their land interests, represented by paper tickets, would fluctuate on an open market. The tenant who turned a parking space into a permaculture raised-bed paradise could make a profit by reselling his interest. The plan was never executed, but, in theory, the market would more efficiently reward innovation than the current system of slow-moving land sales.
At the other utopian pole were state-directed schemes. The government would buy out enormous pieces of property and oversee their conversion to noble uses. Eminent domain was used to turn over rental properties to the poor; in other cases, vacant land was turned into community gardens for urban residents. On local levels, these plans were often effective. On a national level, they were hampered by impossibly vague schemes or outright corruption.
Do we dare imagine today that the same law of eminent domain could back a nationwide plan to replace pesticide-laced agriculture with organic farming? Can we improve upon the corruptions and impediments that plagued these movements in the past? It will take a century’s collective acts of courage to shift the roadblocks on the path to repair our blasted planet.
Jo Guldi teaches the History of Britain and its Empire at Southern Methodist University. She is author of Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State and coauthor with David Armitage of The History Manifesto.
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