A peaceful rebellion against extinction
The people joining the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protests are reviving an ancient indigenous sense of landownership. This views the land not in terms of exclusive private properties, but as an inclusive living being that can only be owned by itself.
The worldwide protests in October organised by Extinction Rebellion, a movement that was first launched in the UK in 2018, will have escaped few. However rebellious it might present itself, the organisation’s intentions are peaceful, focused on inspiring politicians to take climate change seriously and to take the necessary measures to ensure a human future for the younger generation. It was inspired by the Scottish ‘earth lawyer’ Polly Higgins, who from 2010 on put all her efforts into getting ‘ecocide’ recognised as a criminal offence. Sadly she died in April this year (I just found out), only 50 years old. All the more reason to pay some extra attention to the valuable work of this movement. In this blog I will try to put it into context.
The resistance against and criticism of protests like Extinction Rebellion are perhaps understandable when we realise how deeply ingrained the concept of private landownership still is in the Western mind. When we, as modern Western people, think of landownership, we tend to think in economic terms of private property: pieces of land that we can buy and sell. It is, of course, not new to criticise the concept of private landownership. In the 19th century it was already questioned and criticised by the communists, inspired by the ideas of Marx, Engels and others. In the decades after the collapse of state-organised communism this criticism and the interest in alternatives to private landownership moved to the background for a while. But now it is becoming clearer every day that capitalism, and the way corporations ‘rule the world’, are going to lead us towards an ecological disaster, the human mind seems to be opening up once again to alternatives. This is what, I believe, has also attracted, and is still attracting, people to a movement like Extinction Rebellion.
This movement fits well into the relatively new plea to extend human rights not only to animal rights but to nature or earth rights, which are given a legal basis in more and more countries across the planet. As I pointed out in previous blogs, these rights are not something new, but reconnect us to the worldview of indigenous cultures. An integral part of this is their different conception of landownership. To them the land is a living, animated being to which the inhabitants feel an intimate sense of connection and belonging: this much larger being, that always embeds us fully, can only be owned by itself and continually provides us with gifts of food – not only physical nourishment, but spiritual nourishment as well. It is good to realise that private landownership was preceded by what we may call primal landownership.
Animated land, inclusiveness and care
The wonderful thing about this primal landownership is that it is inclusive: the animated land, in which we are included like in a larger body, can be shared simultaneously by anyone. The land is sovereign and the way it supplies us with its gifts generates a deep sense of gratefulness, and a deep care for the land. In the Western world it survived in the conception of the commons – land that was not owned by anyone in particular and was considered communal property.
The land as a large living being is a subject that we as human beings not only communicate with, but that communicates with us as well. That reciprocal quality is a very important element. The American philosopher and ecologist David Abram argued in his very interesting book The Spell of the Sensuous that all perception is reciprocal in nature, and that in indigenous, oral cultures this was basic to the interaction between people and the land. Only after the rise of the written word – a few thousand years ago – did the Western world gradually lose touch with it, and this reciprocal perception was transferred to the interaction between the mind and the written word. According to Abram, during this process we increasingly lost the power to listen to, to read and understand the language of the landscape – the language of animals, plants, mountains, rivers, winds, etc.
Objects, exclusiveness and exploitation
Due to the loss of this reciprocal interaction between us and the land, the living land was gradually reduced to a collection of objects (in the words of Thomas Berry), which are considered passive and dead, unable to communicate with human beings. In other words, it became suitable for private landownership – for being turned into exclusive possessions. It legitimises private owners to not tolerate ‘trespassers’ on their property, or a police force to block streets or other areas to protesters. It should not surprise anyone that this idea generates conflicts, between people and on a larger scale between governments. As these possessions are governed from without – by abstract entities like ‘the state’, ‘the province’, ‘the city’, or even ‘the private owner’ –, there is also no good reason left to stop exploiting them for resources, to dump our waste in them, or even to destruct them completely through warfare.
If we realise that primal landownership, expressing our deeply-rooted sense of being embedded in the land, is also linked to our sense of peace, then we may wonder why it was never recognised or protected by law. As I argued in a previous blog, Native American tribes and indigenous people on other continents repeatedly experienced at first hand that the Western legal system only recognised the concept of private landownership of the European colonists. But now that more and more countries recognise nature rights and movements like Extinction Rebellion are growing, we might also come to see the relevance of recognising the ancestral and indigenous concept of primal landownership.
In a nutshell, the message of the protesters comes down to the question that we should all be asking ourselves: in what direction do we want go? I’m sure the work initiated by Polly Higgins and others has only just begun.
Photo on top: by David Holt, Extinction Rebel Protest Tower Hill, London, November 23, 2018