Seeing the Earth

It’s interesting that some people remember the 1960s nostalgically. Others look back on that decade as a bad trip, a time of chaos. I’m showing my age, of course; most people these days see the sixties through a purple-historical haze: the days of Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock, Vietnam, assassinations, love-ins and marches. There is, probably, a “sixties” for every persuasion — but nobody will argue that the decade wasn’t pivotal. Whatever came to a head during those years, blew up, enveloped society in a bewildering fog of ch-ch-ch-changes… it seems that everyone left the 1960s feeling a little different about the world, and one’s place in it. We are still processing what we saw and learned then.

In the classic book Progress and Poverty, Henry George described how Western society came to accept the idea of land being private property. It’s a matter of course now, but it took centuries to reach that point, and it came about in fits and starts. As an institution, it began with the Romans — and as such, it took a blow when the Roman empire was overthrown. (And, according to the wisdom of Pliny the Elder, it had much to do with the empire’s decline: Pliny wrote that “the great estates destroyed Italy.”) The feudal system, forms of which were long extant in many parts of the world, maintained institutions that recognized land as common property. Even now the legal tradition of eminent domain recognizes that the community (in the form of the sovereign government) ultimately controls the land, maintaining the power to seize it for public use (though its “owners” usually must be compensated — a courtesy that the United States did not extend to former “owners” of human beings). The perception of indigenous people around the world, throughout history, still stirs the heart. They have told us in many ways that land is the gift of the Creator, that “owning” it is as absurd as trying to own the air or water. That still “feels right” to many of us — perhaps to all of us.

Yet we are taught to believe that this “ancient wisdom” is naïve — an old romantic notion that is (perhaps unfortunately) incompatible with the realities of a modern economy. We must have free markets, if we’re ever to get close to that theoretical ideal that economists call “the best of all possible worlds.” We’re told that we must trust the market. What’s the alternative? Placing society on some point on a spectrum of haplessness, between the “nanny state” and Soviet totalitarianism!

We’re told that for economic freedom to succeed and thrive, land has to be private property. Land is a powerful asset; if we don’t commodify it, collateralize it, securitize it, how shall we ever compete with all the others who do?

It seems to me that Henry George’s true genius — and he was by no means the only one to have this insight; he was just the one who expressed it with the most poetic force — was in crafting a practicable means by which to reconcile the ancient wisdom that the Earth must be shared by all with the exigencies of a modern market economy.

And that is what connects us — we here at Earthsharing — with the 1960s. For although it took people a long time to come to grips with the institution of private property in land, it took practically no time at all to apprehend that it simply, ultimately, cannot work and cannot be right. It happened when earthlings looked at one famous photograph. In the words of Joni Mitchell:

In a highway service station, over the month of June
Was a photograph of the Earth, taken coming back from the Moon.
And you couldn’t see a city on that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest, or a highway, or me here least of all.

A lot of bills came due in the 1960s: for racism, imperialism, cold-war rivalry, misogyny, environmental destruction… we have been processing those big truth-smacks ever since. Yet I believe that ultimately the most significant 60s epiphany came in the form of that picture of the whole earth. It’s where we live, and we had never really seen it before. It suddenly dawned on millions and millions of people how silly it is to think that we can own a piece of it, exclusive of everyone else, and collect rent on it, in perpetuity. To be sure, business-as-usual went on after we saw the picture, but we could never unsee it.


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