It Begins With the Land

Land use has been a tool of oppression, but it can also be a tool of our liberation.

Photo by  Ivars Krutainis .

Photo by Ivars Krutainis.

Land use is the first tool of oppression in the arsenal of capitalism: from Jamestown to the Enclosure Movement, land grabs have always been its opening shot. How we use the land determines the inequalities we feel and experience, whether we live in the city or the countryside. Our current misuse of land that prioritizes private development for profit over the public good, therefore, can offer a glimpse of why climate action needs to go beyond the current vision of a Green New Deal to reimagine how we interact with the land around us. While land use has been a tool of oppression, it can also be a tool of our liberation.

In order to understand why land use is so central to our politics, we need to settle first on a definition. What is land use? It boils down to control. Who owns the land, controls access, and decides how it’s used. How we use the land says a lot about the kinds of activity and social structures we prioritize and want to encourage and the ones we don’t. The American system of private property ownership commodifies land and alienates us from nature and each other. The practices derived from this system promote colonialism, imperialism, and high levels of carbon emissions. Land use in urban areas, for example, often acts as a means of population control by the state working in tandem with market interests. This is done by implementing elaborate and discriminatory control over land use: in fact, the primary responsibility of many municipal councils is to approve zoning, development, and land sales that encourage rich people to move in and poor people to move (and stay) out.

Attacking gentrification is only the beginning of a socialist response. We need to reorient our perspective to embrace land not as an extractive resource to exploit, but a part of our community to nurture, a neighbor to live with in harmony. A Green New Deal gives us the opportunity to push for democratic control of the land through policies such as land banks, community land trusts, and the restoration of Native stewardship.

Before we get to how a GND must confront land-use, let’s talk about the origin of land-use policy in the U.S. The United States is a settler colonial state, meaning that it was created by occupying land taken through genocide and broken treaties. Land use policies today are descendents of settlements that destroyed and actively suppressed Native land use practices which fostered truly sustainable and healthy ecosystems. The idea that the North American continent was “wild” or “unmanaged” and needed European intervention to save it is easily debunked by historical record and current Native practices; one example is the use of controlled fires to manage forest and soil health. Native and Indigenous practices worked within these natural relationships to manage land and resources in ways that were sustainable and maintained the health of the environment. In contrast, the practice of private land ownership has historically seen the environment as a wild nuisance to tame, eradicate, or exploit, leading to the ecological catastrophe we find ourselves in today. If we are to get ourselves out of this mess, we need not only to address past injustices against Native peoples, but also ensure that their methods are centered in our future.

The need to return to land management practices based on Native knowledge is worryingly absent in the Green New Deal debate. While the GND resolution put forth by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey does use environmental justice language in naming Indigenous and vulnerable populations, one word that does not appear is “decolonize.” The resolution calls for “obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples for all decisions that affect indigenous peoples and their traditional territories,” which ignores the reality that the entire continent is traditional Native territory. As the Indigenous Environmental Network calls for, Green New Deal policy must recognize that Tribes are the legitimate rights-holders to the land, and not just one of a group of stakeholders to be asked to sit at the table. This would look like a society centered away from Eurocentric supremacy that repatriates the land to Native control while recognizing their right to self-determination as touched on by The Indigenous Environmental Network in their response to the Green New Deal.

Today, most people across the globe live in cities, so how we use land to organize urban mobility is crucial to reducing emissions. New land use patterns developed after World War II resulted in the expansion of the suburbs and white flight from city centers. Aided by the Federal Highway Act of 1956 which built a network of interstate highways, a new white middle class dispersed outward into sprawling new low-density towns that sold a lifestyle with big houses, big lawns, and—most of all—big cars. The resulting festishization of car culture continues today, with companies such as Ford eschewing production of most sedan models to focus on a  “winning portfolio” of trucks and SUVs in response to popular demand. Cities like Houston and LA are designed to accommodate cars, replacing greenspace and pedestrian walkways with concrete parking lots. In the case of Houston, we saw the devastating impacts of this poor planning and use of land with the extreme flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

When we talk about ways to reduce emissions from transportation, people often think of Elon Musk’s hyperloops and electric cars, but this is not the answer. While we do need a total overhaul of our transportation system, this does not mean replacing all the petroleum-powered vehicles on the road with electric ones, nor does it mean expanding the network of roads and highways. Plenty of data shows that building more roads or wider lanes doesn’t decrease traffic congestion but instead leads to more cars on the roads and thus, more emissions. We need a transformative vision of public transportation that makes it equitable and accessible, connects cities to suburbs, and most importantly reimagines our cities in ways that center dense, localized, community spaces.

Reimagining our cities as dense, localized communities also means rethinking how we view housing. In private real estate markets, new housing is built by profit-seeking developers for the gentrifying class. This system ignores housing insecurity, as well as the fact that dense public housing is part of the solution towards decarbonizing our cities. But we also can’t be lured into thinking that dense cities are necessarily more sustainable. Higher rates of carbon consumption are tied to income, meaning that energy efficiency benefits from increased density are often offset by the lifestyle choices of rich city-dwellers, such as air travel. This is where the importance of land use comes into play: policies can be implemented that promote carbon-free public housing that allow people to afford to stay in cities instead of being pushed out by affluent, high-carbon-consuming gentrifiers. Mixed-use zoning that encourages housing and commercial uses in the same buildings or the same blocks reduces the need for cars by promoting a lifestyle where needs and amenities are centrally located and accessible by foot. Los Angeles is already enacting policies that increases public and affordable housing along public transit stops. These are all examples of proactive policy that centers creating low-carbon, diverse, and working class communities. A federal Green New Deal can incentivize these policies through grants to spur action on a national scale.

Some of the low-hanging fruit is starting to be picked: Philadelphia, for example, has made “green infrastructure” central to its stormwater management program. However, the scale of climate change means that we need to do more than give out rain barrels. We need expansive policy that seeks to restore natural wetlands, forests, and prairies where possible as these are natural carbon sinks that absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This does mean offering financial support for frontline communities, those communities who will feel climate impacts first and the worst. Financial support comes in the form of grants to assist communities. Instead of building dams and levees, restoring natural spaces heals both the environment and our communities. This is already happening in places such as Staten Island, where a community-led campaign pushed the state to buy back houses destroyed by Sandy and begin a rewilding of the area to better prepare for the changing climate.

Land use policy can also undo degradation from industrial agriculture while simultaneously addressing food insecurity. Land banks and community land trusts should be set up to manage control of vacant lots, turning them into community gardens and farms. This will address many inequalities felt by the urban poor including access to fresh, locally-grown food, access to green spaces, and neighborhood development. Another exciting idea is food forests, in which seemingly wild forest is actually a cultivated collection of fruit and nut trees, herbs, and vegetables.

While these are ways in which a Green New Deal could be transformative for land use, we must also understand its limitations. Though a shift towards social democracy, the Green New Deal still operates within the framework of global capitalism. Despite the fear-mongering of right-wing critics, the resolution as it stands is not socialism: it does nothing to challenge either the profit motive or private ownership of the means of production. In fact, without those on the Left to keep it in check, the Green New Deal could easily become a plan for Green Capitalism that perpetuates the economic and social systems which created our current predicament.

Land use policy comes directly into play again here, helping us push our vision further. We have to see land use as an integral part of any ecosocialist policy. All socialists understand that the privatization of land is an enabling condition of capitalism. Socializing the land, not the suspect technological wizardry promised by ecomodernism, is the key to solving our problems. How the Green New Deal addresses land use is a good metric for whether its policies will perpetuate ecomodernism and green capitalism versus the ecosocialist future that we know is necessary for a just world.

So how can we tell that our land use proposals under the GND are not just the same old capitalism dressed up in socialist garb?

It is public, democratic control of the commons that serves these needs, not private land ownership that sits on vacant lots waiting for them to be profitable for development. The introduction of the Green New Deal is the forward-thinking legislation many of us have been waiting for, and it’s been exciting to see climate change finally gaining public attention. Yet as long as the GND proposal neglects land policy, it is woefully incomplete. Ecosocialism is deeply connected to the land and so must any Green New Deal be, too. Control of the land is an age old fight for power: the environmental justice movement was born from land fights by Indigenous, Black, and other communities of color for control of their land. It is time that we take control from those seek only to profit and return the power of the land to the people.

Susan Sunhee Volz is a Philadelphia based ecosocialist on the steering committee of the National Ecosocialist Working Group of DSA. She tweets at @_plumrain

Guess what didn’t fund this article…advertisements! Big corporations! Billionaires! What did fund this article? Just donations from our readers and the odd grant. You could be one of those people funding new essays on the most important issue of our time. And if you already are, thank you!