Private Fires, Public Pain

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Globalization: Globalization is here, for better and worse. The problems that plague us cross over national boundaries, and into gated communities. The era of individuals escaping from common problems by buying privacy and isolation is over. What’s called for is nothing short of the re-imagining of private property. 

Climate change, which is primarily driven by 7-10 advanced industrial economies, and private businesses, is impacting us all, creating high temperatures and drought conditions globally. Lightning has ignited major fires from Australia to the West Coast of the U.S., resulting in the loss of trailer parks, as well as multi-million dollar homes and a staggering number of lives. None of the costs of damage known as negative externalities are reflected on corporate balance sheets of perpetrators. 

Humans, luckily, are wired differently now. We can experience our collective problems over social media and mobile phones. We can see whole areas of the globe burning up and empathize with the loss of habitat, people, and animals. Our cognition and nervous systems are being framed by global connections and events. We are able to feel across vast stretches of land.

Private Property: Private property is the backbone of Western economies. The laws of private property have protected individual business and wealth over the last 300 years. Half of England is currently owned by 1 percent of the population, for instance, and the U.S. is not far behind. The Royal Families of Europe would find this situation quite agreeable, and our founding fathers, after a moment of piety, would be quite comfortable, as women, slaves, and indigenous peoples were originally denied rights to own land. 

Based on the laws of private property, and patriarchal control over assets, one could cogently argue that the Colonies exercised an economic revolt against Britain, not a revolution. All private property laws and forces of patriarchy were kept intact post revolt.

The Westward movement accompanied by significant military force declared war on indigenous tribes to capture and privatize their lands; later forcing them onto “reservations”.

The U.S. government, under the Homestead Acts which began in 1862, gave away over 160 million acres of land, approximately 10 percent of the total area of the U.S., to 1.6 million settlers. The land was expropriated from Native populations over the centuries and redistributed to settlers as private property, free for making an application. 

Karl Marx provided the most trenchant criticism of private property. He opined that private property actually represented a social relationship between classes of people; a power relationship disguised and attenuated by law. Private property, from this perspective, allows an owner exclusive rights to do what they want with their property. Any questions about this primary right, for instance, government concern over the right of an owner to pollute their land, drives capitalists nuts and invokes screams of socialism.

Private property rights hold appeal because they establish clear boundary conditions and control, no matter if you are a corporation or individual landowner. “No Trespassing” signs are an indication of boundary lines and enforceable rules. They appeared all over the U.S. in a relatively short period of time and are also found today at corporate business facilities throughout the world. Courts have generally ruled that owners may use force to protect their property against trespass.

Woody Guthrie, an American truth teller through his music, captured this dilemma in his song; This Land is Your Land.  “As I went walking, I saw a sign there and on the sign it said “No Trespassing”; but on the other side it didn’t say nothing, this land was made for you and me”.

Ownership rights and boundaries can be quite onerous. Years ago, I surfed in Malibu, California. At one time, artists, movie stuntmen, and individuals of limited means populated Malibu. The Pacific Coast highway consisted of one lane in either direction limiting traffic and access. The road was frequently subject to rockslides as well. 

As time passed, super-wealthy people bought up the coastline and tried to privatize access to the beach and the beach itself. Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney, for example, purchased three homes and land for roughly $4 million each, tore them down, and privatized the road to the beach, installing a guard station to control access. One day, I returned to try to get access to a place that I had surfed since youth; the guard approached me, “This is a private street. Do you have an appointment to see Mr. Eisner?”

Beyond Private Property:
The rich in Malibu, like much of the world, thought they bought privacy and protection.
Climate change, however, doesn’t recognize private property signs. Malibu has been evacuated several times due to fires that threatened or burned homes; red tides caused by pollution plague the West Coast of California and their backyards, and high levels of mercury found in local fish make them dangerous to eat. The same can be said of the East Coast.

Many of the West Coast areas of the U.S. are on fire now and the air quality is toxic to humans. The dream that private property and an insulated lifestyle will stop exposure to harm is more akin to fantasy than reality. Wealthy individuals and those that identify with them can run to gated communities, private beaches, and protected compounds, but they can’t hide from the realities of climate change.

Social classes are not uniform in their support of political or social changes. Many of these same people, however, oppose political and social changes necessary to fix the problems at hand. They tend to oppose government intervention of any kind leaving solutions to the market economy; the same market economy that caused them in the first place. A Green New Deal to reduce climate impact, including new additional environmental laws, and policies to reduce polluting industries is framed as socialism.

The re-imagining of private property itself is required by the environmental conditions—climate change— generated by private business, and the global economy. The problems that plague us are overwhelmingly private in their cause, and communal in their impact. Protecting private property—whether it’s the ownership of a corporation or property itself—-is a costly mistake, not in keeping with the nature of the problem itself, or the opportunity to address it head-on.

Private ownership of property—companies and landowners—does not grant the right to destroy the quality of our lives, or the lives of other species, no matter how profitable that destruction may be. This includes leaders of corporations who need to be held responsible for their failures; their failures are problems for us all.

Perhaps it’s a good time to make all beach access on the Coasts of the U.S. public, with inherent rights to protect lands and oceans shared in common with communities across all waterways. After all, we share the same problems.

Surf where you want to, and realize that the only beaches available to walk on or clean up are not pre-defined as public. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie’s song, on the other side of the no trespassing sign was nothing.

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