Is it logical to state that the first inhabitants of a territory are the original, right-infused “owners”? Especially given that most of the societies that had their lands overrun did not have any such notions of private property and ownership? This position is exactly that of the “I saw or grabbed it first, It’s mine!” school of thought that kindergartens everywhere attempt to convince small children is not fair: “We share our toys.”
The utility of this argument exists only in so far as it stamps out the much worse (and frankly predominant) position statement: “Might makes right.” This is the actual position of every colonial government. Spain said, “South America is mine.” France said, “North America is mine,” England says to France, “We will whoop your asses and now it is ours.” And some colonists from the US object to taxation and the long distance relationship with the Motherland that has become dysfunctional and they say, “Fuck off you redcoats, it is ours.”
And then their is the recourse to legalities and contract. “We made a deal.” Except the English, the Americans, the Canadians (etc.) never lived up to those deals. And for the Native populations those deals were about how to share occupation of the land – not what the colonizers decided they would be: legal smokescreens for Might Making Right. Manipulations.Ways to placate the Native populations when they were still larger and stronger and potentially able to stop the occupation. “Law and contract”..does not make right. Especially when the side with all the guns is making the laws. Treaties make for endless obfuscating, abuse, manipulating, attempts at cultural and physical genocide, placating, pretending to negotiate in good faith, paternalism, and unjust, unethical, ceaseless legalese wrangling. For generations. Hoping the problem will go away eventually?
And what about the fundamental ecological catastrophe? Can land claims be used to slow that juggernaut down? To an extent, treaty rights and the right to consultation have somewhat slowed that down in Canada. Notably, the pipelines. Yet here we have a new Prime Minister, talking up consultation with the Native inhabitants as the best way to get those pipelines built. I think he means bribery.
From anthropological and archaelogical studies we know a few things about the relationships humans and human societies (past and present) develop with the land and ecosystems they inhabit. We know that some humans, especially those practicing traditional hunting and gathering, nomadic, grazing & horticulture lifestyles in particular tend to act as members of the ecosystems they inhabit. Their spiritual beliefs reflect and reinforce cooperation and respect – with the members of their own tribe and with the living and non-living around them. We also know that a form of food procurement and settled habitation arose in some isolated areas all over the world. First it mainly arose in river deltas and flood plains. This is generally called agriculture. Daniel Quinn calls it “totalitarian agriculture.” This is where the private ownership of land seems to start. This is where the draining of ecosystems and hoarding of wealth and building of walled cities seems too start. This may be a sustainable way of life in a few ecosystems – the ones in which rivers flood nutrients back into the soil nearly every year, for example. Along the Nile, in the Indus valley, etc.
An unfortunate outcome of agriculture in these regions is the way human populations expand to meet the growing supply of grains (the most storeable of all food crops – therefore the most controllable). This has tended to lead to the desire to expand territories and obtain more land – fence it – kill or drive off the other humans living there – and the wildlife and plants deemed dangerous or useful or “weedy.” Also, this has led to the specialization of labour and to hierarchies developing: priestly classes, kings and soldiers. To make matters worse, it has led to “development” – metal smithing, trading, mercantalism, colonialism, capitalism and even industrialized communism.
Sometimes the “barbarians” outside the empire look at all that gold and grain wealth and domesticated animal flesh and think…I gotta get me some of that. Many times civilisations have clashed with one another: Persians and Greeks, English and Indians…producing “winners and losers”…The violence spreads, as per the Parable of the Violent Tribe.
Might makes right. In Reality, whatever spin is put on it, this is agricultural civilisation’s main operating principle.
So…what is the radical “solution?” What gets to the root of the problem? To stop the spread of violence is impossible. As long as empires could expand, they would. Violence is the strongest meme in times of expanding energy supplies. But as contraction occurs another meme gains ground, inevitably…because it is amenable to survival under such conditions. The meme is sharing. Cooperation. Get along, help one another out, make peace or die.
The root of the problem is an excess of resources & totalitarian agriculture (which is self-exterminating in most locations), and the resulting settlement – “civilisation” – violence for defense and expansion – private property – hierarchy – specialisation of labour – cities and fences and walls. (Here is an in depth discussion of the origins of warfare which takes an atypical and opposing POV, by refusing to differentiate between inter-tribal conflict and warfare. And here is a refutation of Pinker. )
The root of the solution is an unavoidable contraction of resources – especially energy – a renewed commitment to ecological restoration (because maintenance is not sufficient when so much has been destroyed) and a forward-looking return to horticulture (permaculture) and, I suspect, eventually to nomadism.
Here is my proposal:
Who has a “right” to inhabit any given landscape?
Any community of people who can demonstrate a commitment to regenerating the local ecosystem cooperatively with other humans and with the wild local systems.
Care, commitment, and competence make “right” in an era of catastrophic ecological collapse.
*See David Holmgren for details of his approach to the ethics of sustainability.
It won’t defeat violence and “Might makes right-ism.” Nothing we can think or that we control can. However, it provides an ideal to rally around as the complexity of global civilization and the biosphere collapse around us, and as resources become scarce.
This meme has the advantage of accommodating Dire Reality: of decreasing energy, of resource scarcity, and of the necessity of giving to the Earth more than we take, and of helping one another through this for our mutual benefit. Doubtless, as we descend, the spiritual notions of an animated, cooperative Nature deserving of our respect and gratitude will become more popular again.
And when the last human standing falls (may she live and rest in peace), may her bones feed a fertile soil and a still-living world.