George Monbiot delivered the 40th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture on October 25th. Titled Private Sufficiency, Public Luxury: Land is the Key to the Transformation of Society, the talk was followed by a question period hosted by Jodie Evans and joined by Greg Watson.
In his talk, Monbiot pointed to the dominant narrative about land, which assumes private ownership and control of land may be secured by purchase and that there is no limit to the amount of land so held. However, the purchase of land in the pursuit of private luxury means excluding use by others for basic sufficiency. There is simply not enough land to allocate a surplus for all.
Greg Watson’s first question to Monbiot was to ask, “how are we to change that narrative?” Monbiot was grateful for the question, saying that narrative is at the heart of all political change, but is often ignored. He pointed specifically to the power of the Restoration Narrative.
In its simplest form the Restoration Narrative describes how dark and nefarious forces wreak havoc in society and a hero emerges to restore order and light. That hero may be an individual, a group of individuals, a community, or even a country. But the important thing is that those that hear the narrative identify with the hero and see a path forward. It is the story of the Bible, of Harry Potter, of the Narnia stories, and of the Lord of the Rings. An old story and a new one as well. In economics, the Restoration Narrative was used by both John Maynard Keynes to promote state intervention in monetary policy to regulate the amount of money in circulation and then later by F. A. Hayek who argued that the money supply should be regulated by the market itself.
The 2008 financial collapse, Monbiot contends, proved the undoing of a Hayek free-market narrative – but no new narrative emerged to take its place. In such a vacuum demagogues arose, creating divisiveness, unraveling social norms, widening inequities, and further degrading the environment.
What is the new narrative called for in this moment?
The reactive response is to seek private security by purchasing extensive sites for retreat and escape. But therein lies the fallacy at the heart of capitalism – not all can aspire to own in excess of what is sufficient to meet their needs. The luxury of a few inevitably means the precarity of others. Large tracts of land, multiple homes, and a disproportionate accumulation of consumer goods cannot create a buffer against chaos and unrest. Private security can only be realized when there is common security.
Monbiot argues that we have to address fundamental unfairness in land access or we will remain unable to address our shared social crises, economic crises, and ecological crises. Land ownership is key to determining who has power. That power is best delegated to local community control rather than to the market. A new narrative will place land in regional Commons where it can be allocated equitably. Private Sufficiency and security can then be achieved alongside a Public Luxury of vast parks and open spaces, public transportation systems, public recreation facilities, public museums and cultural centers, and public gathering places.
We are at a tipping point between an old system and a new. It is a moment of great volatility. Our duty is to be prepared to step into that moment with a new story – to develop the examples, arguments, networks, and organizations to meet that moment. Our challenge and our joy is to steep those ideas in affection for people, land, and community. Our resolve must be to be resilient and strong and not to give up.
In the question period, Jodie Evans asked about racism, sexism, and reparations in the context of land redistribution. Monbiot responded that as soon as one suggests changing the terms of land ownership, racism and sexism raise their heads – demonstrating the inordinate power held by those who control the land. Ferocious, frightened reactions come to the fore.
Evans pointed to the example of John Lewis daring to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to secure voting rights for a disenfranchised people. She asked how we are to walk the bridge between an old narrative about land and a new one if we are still tweaking the conditions of the new. It is a scary prospect that could deter change.
Monbiot responded that even scarier to him is the prospect of more and more people becoming marginalized for lack of secure access to land. We need to confidently focus on guaranteeing community wealth and not just private wealth.
Greg Watson concluded that the conversation had made him optimistic because he sees options — options like that shown by Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). Dudley Neighbors, Inc., the community land trust that grew out of DSNI, acquired ownership and control of the land in its neighborhood. That control began a process of community development of homes, shops, offices, greenhouses, and open spaces that has given security, stability, and dignity to those living there – Black, Hispanic, White, and Cape Verdean community members deliberating together about how their land should be used and in the process creating a new narrative about land.
Wishing all good health,
Staff of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics