Owning The Earth

Nicole Graham asks, in ‘Owning The Earth’ [ewl, 259-269], What is owned? and What does ownership mean? In modern Western property ownership law, rights are ‘dephysicalised’ meaning, like money which is no longer tied to the gold standard, property rights aren’t connected to any real land or water. They are connected to ‘persons’ (which I guess includes corporations).

Property ownership rights mean: your rights to a property exclude all others, giving rise to the idea of private property; you can sell or ‘alienate’ property; ownership means you can do anything you want with it.

Property use rights (environmental law) are different from property ownership rights (property law). Ownership ‘facilitates’ use. In Western jurisprudence, these laws allow humans to own and use the Earth. However, Graham points out that humans, and thus their rights, depend on the Earth (the Earth, life, land, humans are nested, like Russian Dolls), not the other way around. And there’s a mutual responsibility. But Western property and environmental laws have no legal notion of responsibility to the land.

Graham writes that ‘rather than reinventing the wheel,’ we can reform existing property law with jurisprudence from indigenous cultures such as Australian aborigines. However, be prepared to have to change not only your legal views, but your worldview too. She notes that not aligning your view can lead to dissonance and alienation. Rights themselves are the problem; rights promote an anthropomorphic worldview. Many indigenous cultures don’t have property rights, for you can’t own what owns you.

What if in jurisprudence, Graham wonders, ownership and responsibility paralleled psychology, where ownership and responsibility dance together?

In Western law, the source of knowledge of land is science, but science fails ‘to recognize, validate, and perhaps accommodate a range of human interests.’ This ‘displacement of knowledge of place is a key feature of “rights” in modern property law.’ Graham points out that poor knowledge of place can cause great hardship. Ownership and responsibility and knowledge go hand in hand in indigenous cultures.

After my haircut, I went to Grounded Coffee, where a map of North Simcoe near the roaster was mostly yellow, some brown, some green, showing who owns the land and how it is used. Yellow means mostly human rurality, green means national and provincial parks (like Beausoleil or Awenda), and brown means either urban areas (like Midland or Barrie) or reserves (like Christian Island or Rama). Yellow’s the colour of piss and brown’s the colour of….

Meanwhile, back outside, butts on the ground by the back door remind me people don’t care either about themselves or where they live. Sure, after a night playing bass in the local pub, I no longer went home smelling like a cigarette butt, but laws aren’t going to change this, not as long as we see land as something for humans to own and use.

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