Who owns the thunderstorm? Who owns the rainbow? Who owns the sunbeam? How can anyone really own a part of the earth?
Our system of laws and orderly society is built upon the right of individuals to own property. Specifically and very importantly this includes the land where we live, work, and even are buried.
Less than 250 years ago, no one owned any of the land between two rivers that we now call Iowa. Native Americans moved through the vast American heartland, leaving little permanent evidence of their passing and having little impact on the natural systems. Their culture did not embrace the concept of “owning” land.
Civilization brought settlement of the plains. Land is now a commodity, regularly bought and sold, including mineral resources on or below the land surface. Land ownership has become a measure of importance, wealth, and power.
Ownership of property has brought with it the ability to do with and to the land whatever is seen by the owner to be in his or her best interest. Any attempt to regulate or restrict what a landowner can do is met with sharp outcry about “individual rights” or is seen as an infringement on the ability to do whatever is necessary to maximize profits in a free market setting.
Thus, we see mountaintops totally scalped off to expose and rip out coal seams and landscapes prickled with oil wells so every possible drop of crude can be extracted. We see runoff from farm fields choking our waterways with silt and nutrients, creating health problems locally and a toxic environment as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.
Aldo Leopold, a conservationist with Iowa roots, is seen by many as one of the earliest spokesman for a sustainable land ethic. He wrote “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”. Leopold has been gone for nearly 70 years. His words continue to ring true and carry a more urgent message today than when he spoke them.
We will never retreat from our traditions and the legalities of land ownership. However, it is imperative we recognize that allowing the destruction of our land, just because we own it, leaves our children and grandchildren “owning” a planet that becomes less able to support life of any kind.
If we treat land as our community as Leopold suggests, we will begin to make different decisions. Land use, conservation, and preservation will take on a larger meaning.
We cannot own the land, the water, or the air. We must recognize we are part of the natural community and, as the Native Americans did for thousands of years, find ways to pass through sustainably.