Here lie so many interesting questions – the idea of land ‘ownership’. Is it a modern social construct?
We used to live in tribal common lands – in much of Europe as well as in Aotearoa; in land referred to by the pronoun ‘thou’ not ‘it’, as mother, as a sentient being to which we belong and which requires reciprocal care as she cares for us – Papatūānuku.
That personal relationship, reverence and belonging lies in such stark contrast with the framing we grow up with in so-called Western thought today. We are expected to think in terms of personal ‘ownership’ of a mere thing – a ‘resource’ – diminished even further by economics to mere capital, numbers and calculations on a spreadsheet.
I have done that often myself, without thinking. That is what I was taught. That was my naïve and unconsidered worldview of youth. I know how to calculate Internal Rates of Return and Net Present Values. And I know how to change the variables to get the answer I want. But as you grow older you realise more and more what is missing, and how you can be lead down a garden path to some bleak future by not examining the conceptual frameworks – the deeply buried paradigms of belief – the metaphors by which we live, which in most cases lie unexamined in our own minds.
It is why we ought to cherish different cultures. Hearing a Māori Kaumatua talking about land as something which we cannot own but which owns us, rocked me two decades ago. Then you read Hone Tuwhare writing about the love for, and from, Papatūānuku.
It is interesting that there is currently such a resurgence away from the extremes that a particularly anti-real economic dogma imposed. Many of us marinated in the presumed objectivity of technocratic disciplines are dissatisfied. We look for deeper meaning. We challenge the underlying assumptions beneath the façades of what we are told are facts.
The literature is burgeoning. Not just in a re-examination of commons as a form of relationship between people and land, but also in looking at land and people as a whole – ‘a socio-ecological complex adaptive system’, irreducible with any meaning – reducible only with considerable risk because that is not the path to understanding.
Land is knowable much more in the sense of a relationship between a parent and child – unpredictable change and changer both, having to be viewed from within – than some thing reducible to engine parts viewed ‘objectively’ from without.
All the work on uncertainty, Resilience Theory, transdisciplinary knowledge systems, Traditional Ecological Knowledge and ‘ecology and society’ that do not place reductionist science with numbers on some undeserved pedestal. A challenge to the metaphysics, the epistemology and even the cosmology of how we see people and the land. New forms of socially-engaged and locally-based interaction between values, practice and learning – action research, adaptive management, learning-by-doing, Integrated Catchment Management. There is a lot happening in this space.
Aristotle wrote that in order to make the right decision you have to have a concept of virtue and vice, and the practical wisdom (Phronesis) that gives you the broader perspective of this particular challenge, in this particular time and place. He was essentially arguing for a knowledge system similar to these above. Wisdom does not come from exact and narrow thinking.
I’m a strong believer that we are on the cusp of another Weltanschauung – a comprehensive world view – one that rejects the analytical reductionist determinism of Modernity, the machine metaphors of our Industrial Age. We are not going back to a Pre-Industrial Age as so many presume when we critique the status quo, “you want us to go back to the cave!” The future will be different than the past, and there will be features of the Modern that will flow through, and we will pick up many things we discarded in our pursuit of a mechanical ideal.
Mahatma Gandhi challenged the Modern view, suggesting we need to move from ownership of a land as a thing to a reciprocal relationship with something that cannot be reduced in meaning to a number, however grand. Albert Schweitzer wrote from a Weltanschauung of Reverence for Life.
And then there are the prospects of a re-embracing of the Commons where the engagement between land and community is re-emphasised. Elinor Ostrom, David Bollier, Peter Linebaugh, Gar Alperovitz, Alistair McIntosh all examine this potential re-emergence. And there is another dimension that keeps being mentioned in this emerging comprehensive world view – the cosmological dimension of spirit. Can we have reverence without it?
Let Heather Menzies have the last word from her Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good …..
“In the rugged glens of the Tay River Valley, I discovered a legacy of which I had known nothing: a people, my people, living in direct relationships with the land in self-governing commons and commons communities, small villages or hamlets called fermtouns or townships. They set stints, or limits, on the number of sheep and cows to be sent to the upland common pasture, and decided how often field strips should be left to rest, to lie fallow and recover their fertility. The legacy I discovered included great loss as well: a loss that goes well beyond the dislocation of people from the land itself through the Highland clearances. My ancestors weren’t just displaced. They were dispossessed. They were stripped of their traditional knowledge vested in the land, their ways of knowing through the experience of working that land, their ways of sharing this in a commons of knowledge and, in their spiritual practices, honouring their place in Creation. They were disenfranchised too because they lost the legitimacy of self-governance, the local interpretation of justice, fairness and the common good. The so-called tragedy of the common, I learned as I explored this lost history, turns out to have been based not on the facts of how people like my ancestors lived on the land but on assumptions useful to those trying to clear them off it.” p1-2
Menzies could be writing about the actions of colonisation, privatisations (enclosures) of commons, manufactured famines, the imposition of private ownership of tribal lands, and clearances, from around the world.
What is the right thing to do? To answer that you first have to have Aristotle’s moral compass. That depends on relationships between people, and between people and land. Ethics matter.
Our ethics depends on the framing of our world as either something to care for and treat with reverence because we are one with it …. or merely as a ‘resource’ to exploit. I don’t think the latter view – our current Modern view and very much the view of objectifying, alienating, ‘othering’ framing of utilitarian economics – has any future at all. It will kill us because it kills the land, frankly.
You cannot do the right thing if you reduce life to weights and measures, including the life of the land. That is wrong. That is vice. Start from that premise in our new world view.
We need to replace ownership with relationship.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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