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My wife, Alice, and I hold a deed to twenty acres of land in Morgan County, West Virginia. To most people, there is nothing remarkable about this place. But to us, it is extraordinary. I have spent seventeen years exploring the botany of this land: photographing its wild flowers, learning the language of its avian citizens, and capturing its various moods on film and in pixels. Knowing it as I do, I could never think of this place as a resource. It is simply home: the source.
In a society that holds sacred the private ownership of property and economic self interest, it may seem strange that neither my wife nor I consider ourselves property owners. At best, we are squatters or temporary guardians of something that has inherent value; an evolving biological entity that exists far beyond the realm of economic self interest and monetary valuation systems.
Alice and I share this sacred space with numerous plants and animals—most of them wild, and some of them domesticated. Among the latter: five horses, three dogs, and numerous felines. We do not own these animals any more than they own us; they are not our pets. They are simply animal companions, members of the extended human family, and valued equally with human beings, mushrooms, and copperhead snakes.
Unlike my wife and me, none of these animals have to work for a living. They are not expected to perform tricks for us. They are simply free to be who they are. We do the best we can for them with our limited resources. What we get in return is priceless; something that defies quantification. Whatever it is, it is greater than the sum of its parts but as ethereal as the morning mist that rises from a brook. Yet, it is as real as the soil and sky.
It is impossible to commodify the sacred bonds that exist between the human animal, and the non-human animal—a bond that extents into the landscape that spawned them. To claim ownership of another living being, whether wild forest, or domesticated canine, is to break the sacred bonds and reduce them into commodities—mere objects for use. It is to make them our property and force them into slavery; objects for economic exploitation.
So it is with the land itself.
In an ownership society, the land is valued not as an evolved living biological entity with inherent value and rights, including the fulfillment of its own evolutionary destiny, but as a commodity—a natural resource.
In this unnatural schema, wild forests lose their structural and biological diversity to become pulp for paper mills, and are turned into toilet paper, or packaging for ipods. Diverse forests become tree farms and plantations, monocultures thirsting for toxic chemicals to keep them alive. They are no longer natural, no longer wholly real or authentic. This process of industrial forestry moves the land from the realm of the sacred into that of economic theory; and it is falsely called science. That which has inherent value is thus devolved into mere property, a commodity; divested of its sacredness, a severed part divorced from the whole.
Treated as private property, the wild earth, with its essential ecological processes, dies a death of a thousand cuts, as economic myth and Disneyesque plantations supplant the authentic natural landscape, and the artificial is freely substituted for the real.
Surrounded by the artificial, we live in a time when people can no longer tell the difference between the real and the synthetic; the natural and the unnatural. Sadly, they do not even know what has been lost or that it can never be replaced.
Thus we have a culture which holds that economic self interest is the highest expression of human freedom. It is a paradigm that asserts its superiority over all others, including the public welfare and the wellbeing of the earth. It is the foundation of Adam Smith's capitalism, as espoused in The Wealth of Nations, and modified many times since.
But freedom that subjugates others is not freedom at all.
Private ownership is a paradigm that values the economic parts of nature—those that can accrue wealth to the land owner, while assigning no value to the parts that are economically unimportant, or the greater public good, including the world's genetic libraries. Yet, in nature, it is often the non-economic parts that provide the essential ecological functions that make life itself possible. Not just human life—all life.
Here in Morgan County, wild forests provide shade on hot summer afternoons, and diverse habitat for multitudes of species, both plant and animal. Together, the interrelationship formed by these species constitute a dance of life that promotes the dynamic equilibrium of a complex ecosystem—the magnificent Central Appalachian Hardwood and Mixed Mesophytic Forest.
Aided by fungus and precipitation, insects residing in decaying trees move nutrients through the earth, building healthy soil. Forests purify the air and remove pollutants, while also trapping and holding greenhouse gases. Wild forests filter pollutants from streams and rivers, providing pure drinking water to foxes, beetles, and people. All of this, and much, much, more, is provided without cost to us; as a right of citizenship in this world.
Left alone, the wild earth—unlike human constructed systems, is a beautifully self-regulating arrangement in dynamic equilibrium; a system that runs on biological capital, rather than artificial economic arrangements. The management of such systems, which have evolved over billions of years, implies the superiority of man over nature, his dominion over the earth—a dangerous and foolish notion that requires unfathomable hubris, and equal parts stupidity.
Cultures that are based upon reductionism and monoculture fail to perceive the organic whole of life; the interconnectedness of all things, both living and non-living. Economic formulae, no matter how sophisticated and scientific they may appear, are a construct of the human mind—an artificial system of accounting. Nature does not recognize them. They have no validity in the real world. Yet we think they are of overriding importance, the basis of everything we do; man as center of the universe, as in the time of Ptolemy.
In truth, ecology and biology are the natural capital upon which nature works. They are the underpinning of all social and economic paradigms—bar none. Impair and denigrate them and everything in them, including us, is diminished. Damage them excessively, and everything falls, including our precious ownership society.
Ecological integrity is the foundation of planetary health. It is the organizing principle of life. Undermining that integrity for short term profits is to limit all future options in perpetuity, the ultimate incarnation of insensate greed and selfishness. It is the work of foolish and misguided men who are undoing the world; men who cannot conceive of anything larger than themselves, including the public welfare, or the planetary ecology; the world's only authentic economy.
Ecological literacy, understanding how nature works, must necessarily supersede economic self interest in favor of the collective good, the organic whole. The world was not made to be exploited, to be divided into parcels and privatized. Contrary to popular belief, human beings are not masters of the earth. We are subject to the same immutable natural law as yeast cells. We were blessed with a few short years in paradise, and the gift of consciousness of our place in the cosmos.
If we are, indeed, rational beings, we have a moral obligation to defend our place from those who would defile and exploit it. Our allegiance is to the earth and to one another, not to monetary systems that exploit and cheapen life for profit.
Like all economic systems that are not based upon real science, or an appropriate land ethic, the concept of property rights and private ownership are misguided and ultimately self-destructive constructs. The public welfare and the ecological integrity of the earth exceed all economic self interests in importance. Economics are based upon self-serving, false premises, whereas ecology is real.
There are dire consequences to ignoring reality, for substituting the artificial for the natural. The earth will never conform to our views of her. The needs of the greater biological community outweigh the wants of the self-interested few, looking to make a fast buck.
It is a sad and foolish notion that nature must conform to man and his prideful economic constructs. The world operates on natural capital—biological processes from which humankind evolved. That understanding must be the guiding principle in all that we do. Unlike the mythos promoted by economics, ecological literacy encourages a healthy sense of belonging to something much larger than the sum of its parts, the greater biological community; it promotes a healthy sense of the sacred.
Conservationist David Brower once stated: "Economics is a form of brain damage." I could not agree more. We need to develop a holistic world view in place of that which was born of hubris and economic self interest. That view will not be born of capitalism, or any repressive religious theology. It can only come from healthful interaction with the organic world, in the big outside.
Henry Thoreau astutely observed, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Like the American Indian, Thoreau's world view was not anthropocentric (man-centered), it was biocentric (earth-centered); holistic and whole. That is a world view we can live with.
The most precious things in life are those that cannot be commodified, and hence, owned. Like twenty acres in a place we call West Virginia—beauty, grace, elegance, and tranquility cannot be bought and sold, or traded on Wall Street. These qualities are a gift unto the world provided without cost. We should freely enjoy them in ways that are non-consumptive, and therefore, non-destructive. We should give thanks for the natural wealth the world possesses and leave it for others to enjoy, long after we have departed this life.
As Edward Abbey, an anarchist, once lamented, "The earth belongs to everyone, and to no one." We are simply citizens of the greater biological community, distinguished only by our capacity for destruction and self deception.
Charles Sullivan is a nature photographer, free-lance writer, and community activist residing in the Ridge and Valley Province of geopolitical West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Uncommon Grace: Biology and Economic Theory," by Charles Sullivan. ICH. October 22, 2007.
There is so much that is right in this article. However, where does it mislead?
First of all, errors are relative in harmful impact. These people are not about to be out machine gunning people or torturing them in their basement. Nevertheless, even though their vision is much better than being mowed down by bullets or being hung from a wall until dead, we must still look to see if it is the right whole path.
We set in block quotes the points we address.
They are simply animal companions, members of the extended human family, and valued equally with human beings, mushrooms, and copperhead snakes.
Unnecessary death of the flesh is of the evil spirit, but these people eat. Perhaps they are vegetarians. But they eat that which was alive. They take life to continue their own. Life gives itself for life. Life self-sacrifices. All things are not of equal value. The viruses and bacteria that cause harm to the innocent are not of equal value with those innocent ones.
Economics is a form of brain damage
We know that the author is using the term "economics" in the sense used by shallow capitalistic minds. We want to make clear though that proper economics really includes ecology and environmentalism. Economics is about running a household. The planet is a house. We are the beings of that house with the most gifts for good or evil. When we are good, we are the most valuable results of this house. When we are evil, we are the least valuable. Regardless, our capacity for good is what matters. Those who gain the capacity of Jesus Christ, which necessarily includes doing what he said his followers are to do, will do the greatest good. They will be the best beings for the house.
repressive religious theology
We want to note that there is anti-repressive theology. The theology of Jesus is anti-repressive where repressive means repressing the good economy of giving and sharing all with all for all as the family of human beings, a kind that some life forms are sent to destroy on account of wickedness but that also harm the innocent.
Biocentrism is flesh centered. We see in this article what is termed nature worship. The result of this focus on sacredness absent God is that miracles on the order of the multiplication of the loaves go missing. The results of faith in God and credit to God and the total absence of hypocrisy are denied the people.
If Charles Sullivan and his wife want to live on the level of the creatures, without rising spiritually and still being good to the creatures, that is their choice. If they aren't given to know Jesus, they won't ever meet him or live with him on his level. They won't know that level of right, which will cure all the ills of the world and regenerate the whole of it just as Jesus's body was restored from complete clinical death. They won't see the wolf dwelling with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the kid, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and the little child leading them, all safe and sound, no devouring.
"The earth belongs to everyone, and to no one."
We say the earth belongs to everyone and to each person completely. We say the earth is wholly God's to give and to take away.
Lastly, they are sharing twenty acres of land with animals they feed that do nothing but exit off that provided feeding. It is a great deal of land for just two people while others are in such want. How did these animals come to be on this property? Were they purchased? Feeding five horses, three dogs, and numerous felines while children starve and those animals aren't wild but aren't working with the people for the sake of all, feels wrong. It feels spoiled and in need of reappraisal in terms of priorities.
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And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. (Matthew 17:24-26)