February 11, 2008
From Liberty Street

Owning Land

John Turner

It’s clear to anyone who thinks about it that the ownership of land is a political condition. Only governments can decide how land is parceled out and protect those to whom land is awarded in the private use of their property.

There have, of course, been societies in which the ownership of land was considered crazy. For them it was as irrational to say that somebody owned the land as it would be for us to say that somebody owns the air.

I was thinking of all this last week while driving through the burgeoning urban complexes along the northeast coast of Florida and, then, westward, through the outskirts of Orlando and Kissimme. The entire area presents itself to me now as a horror. Yet, once I knew it as open, sprawling country, pretty much empty except for wild pigs, snakes, buzzards and their like. I experienced it as nature made it and not as developers have. No one can do that now. No child born in the last decade can feel what I knew Florida to be when I was young. Is that a loss anyone should care about?

Obviously, many people do. Here in Florida you hear repeated laments from older persons over what has happened to the land. Yet almost none of them regard the change as the result of a political decision that might have been different from what it was. Instead, they see transformation as inevitable. And they don’t grasp that this inevitability has been stuck into their heads by propagandists who push their own financial interests.

It’s not too much to say the American people have been dupes and blockheads with respect to their management of the land. They have regarded it simply as a commodity that somebody has to own. And once a commodity is owned, it can be used pretty much as the owner dictates. The danger of these attitudes has been pointed out for a long time now.  A century ago, during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, W. J. McGee, head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, convinced the conservationist Gifford Pinchot “that the monopoly of natural resources was only less dangerous to the public welfare than their actual destruction.”

Given the propensities of current developers, control of the land is pretty much the same thing as its destruction. As you make your way through Florida’s overbuilding, the acres of garish structures practically scream out at you, “I was created for one purpose only, to make rich guys richer.”

Why is it that we think making rich guys richer is more important than preserving the land for the enjoyment of all the people? It’s because we have been taught to think that way. There’s nothing natural or sensible in it.

I am not a radical. I have nothing against private property itself. It’s a good thing for people to own land, to live on it, to enjoy and cherish it. But private ownership of the land should not extend to all of it. We have grasped that principle to the extent that we have national and state parks where some portion of the natural endowment is preserved.  But not nearly enough land is set aside in that way.

The report of the Inland Waterways Commission in 1908, noted that “the immediate use of natural resources in the rapid development of the country is often allowed to stand in the way of more beneficent and permanent utilization. Steps should be taken without delay to apply practically the principle of conservation before it is too late.”

We’ve delayed now for a century, and it probably is too late for us ever to have the country we might have had, with a reasonable balance between public and private land, so that all of us could view the country as it has been for centuries and reflect on the value of always being able to experience it in that way. But unless we start now to take the steps the Commission called for, the remaining patches that teach us about our natural heritage will be gobbled up by greed.

And if we continue with the maniacal notion that everything ought to be owned privately, we could well reach the condition where the air itself will be sold for profit. If you’re looking forward to the time of air meters, when you can pay for the privilege of breathing fully, just keep on voting for the Republicans. They’re ingenious and may well find a way to make it happen. And when they do, they’ll teach you with unctuous sincerity that paying for air is the natural, God-given dispensation -- inevitable, you might say.


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