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What is Land: Part II

The Cataloochee Valley on the edge of Great Smokies National Park still draws reunions of the families forced to move out more than 75 years ago when the park was created.

The Cataloochee Valley on the edge of Great Smokies National Park still draws reunions of the families forced to move out more than 75 years ago when the park was created.

In the first part of this discussion of our relationship with land, particularly agricultural land, I suggested that the way in which we view land is indicative of our larger views of what the economy should be: either extractive or sustainable. With that understanding, the movement towards a more extractive form of agriculture is indicative of a conceptualization of land as just one of a number of resources whose value is to be extracted before it is abandoned in favor of untouched, still valuable, land.

Unfortunately, all indications are that the extractive view of land/resources remains the dominant view. The Yasuni rainforest project in Ecuador is a stark illustration of the dominance of the extractive view. A sustainable plan to help Ecuador develop without extracting their oil has been put forward; it only needs sufficient buy-in from the rest of the world, which has a stake in seeing the oil remain in the ground. But despite the lip-service paid in the developed world to the need to create a sustainable future, when asked to put up the money and resources to generate this world, they fall short.

This extractive view of land is incompatible with a sustainable economy in which resources are managed by more than the dictates of the market. In this second part of the discussion of our relationship with land, I suggest that a more sustainable view of land — as a flow of valuable outputs rather than a pool of value to be drained — can help to shape a more sustainable economy in general.

Two thinkers — Wendell Berry and Tim Jackson — have been particularly concerned with the question of how our relationship with land oscillates between extractive and conservative and, in turn, how a more conservative view can lead to a sustainable steady-state economy. In 2012 one produced a lecture and one produced an essay that explore how the preservation of our land can be an act of affection and how an economy that was built on affection, rather than a ruthless drive for efficiency, might in the long-run produce a more satisfied society.

For Wendell Berry the population is divided into two types of people: boomers or stickers. Stickers are exactly what they sound like — they stick in the same neighborhood or town, or in Berry’s case the same farm, where they were born and develop a close attachment to the land where they are from. As a sticker, it is perhaps not surprising that Berry feels a special connection to stickers. Boomers, on the other hand, are those for whom the place they were born is not enough. They leave for the wider world and they are the innovators, the drivers, and the dynamic force that pushes a growing economy. If not for the boomers, the United States would still be an agrarian economy populated by small, family farms. This, in Berry’s view, might not be such a bad thing.

Berry’s distinctions are coarse, and his dismissal of boomers too abrupt, but his attachment to stickers may not be misplaced. Substitution of the terms above for Berry’s terms leaves one with extractors (boomers) and conservationists (stickers). In the world that Berry imagines the differences between the two groups are driven by affection for the land or area from which they come. For the stickers (conservationists) this drives them to care for and preserve that inheritance in perpetuity. The lack of affection for their land is what allows boomers (extractors) to first leave and then mine, log, or otherwise destroy either theirs or someone else’s land to wring out the land’s value. The world undoubtedly needs boomers. Despite Berry’s view, the United States is unquestionably better off today than if it was still an agrarian nation. But, moving into the future, replacing some of the boomer mentality with the affection of the stickers will be necessary to generate a sustainable economy.

It is this point that Tim Jackson takes up in a commentary published by the New York Times Review. He envisions a world in which affection, rather than efficiency, is the measuring stick of the economy. In his world, the focus is on the improved provision of services that require personal attention: the medical fields, education and the arts. These are fields that are not necessarily amenable to constant productivity increases, where efficiency can mean decreased care because they rely on human-to-human interaction. Creating an economy that prioritized these affection based, fields is one that employs more people, helps correct the imbalance that many Americans, pressured to increase productivity at work, feel in their lives, and, ultimately, increases quality of life. As Jackson notes, shifting from a consumption based to a service based economy might also reduce the resource intensity of the economy to levels that are sustainable.

Letting the oil remain in Yasuni is not the most efficient or economically productive choice, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one. “Efficiency” as it is known today ignores the un-quantified harm that comes from destroying the biodiversity of Yasuni, of interfering with previously un-contacted native tribes, and of destroying a unique ecosystem. So, even if it is more “efficient” to extract the oil, burn it, and plant trees elsewhere to offset the resulting carbon emissions, that efficiency comes at a price. The world is presented with the choice of paying the price, in efficiency, to leave the oil in the ground today and begin to build a more sustainable economy or to extract the oil and pay the price of lost biodiversity and lost culture someday in the future.


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