Progress, under whose feet the grass mourns and the forest turns into paper from which newspaper plants grow, has subordinated the purpose of life to the means of subsistence and turned us into the nuts and bolts for our tools. (Karl Kraus, "In These Great Times")1
We have created an industrial monster, which, being easily aroused by the smell of money, continues at will to devour our rapidly vanishing virgin landscapes, excreting progress in the process. (Peter Marks, A Vision of Environment: Is Life Worth Living Here?)2
THE ENCLOSURE OF THE COMMONS: A GLOBAL PHENOMENON
From the seventeenth century to the present, political and legal maneuvers were initiated throughout the world to enclose publicly held land, thus fundamentally altering the economic relationships between people and their natural environment and paving the way for the industrial and urban revolutions.3 Throughout medieval Europe collective forms of landholdings coexisted with individualized holdings. Generation after generation, people farmed the same lands, trod the same paths, and organized themselves communally in order to sustain their existence. The novel social practice of enclosed public lands - the "enclosure of the commons" - emerged first in Tudor England. The rising capitalist class joined aristocrats in their efforts to remove millions of people from the commons in order to make space for sheep. After all, wool became a crucial commodity in the growing textile markets of the early Industrial Revolution. Peasants were dislodged from their lands and forced to migrate to the cities and work in factories, a process that has continued until today. The enclosure movement, sometimes referred to as "the revolution by the rich against the poor," caused considerable hardship to the smallest landholders and the landless squatters who possessed only a tiny cottage and a small vegetable garden.4
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the enclosure movement developed into an increasingly global undertaking. From Australasia and Oceania to the Americas and Africa, indigenous peoples were being moved off their land by legal and illegal subterfuge. People's resistance was frequently met with mass killings. But the dominant social classes were not content with just enclosing the land. As environmental thinker Jeremy Rifkin observes:
Nature, once an independent force, both revered and feared, has been reduced to an assortment of exploitable resources, all negotiable in the open marketplace. The privatization and commodification of the Earth has elevated humanity from servant to sovereign, and made nature an object of pure commercial exchange. The great landmasses, the vast oceans, the atmosphere and electromagnetic spectrums, and now the gene pool have all been desacralized and increasingly rationalized, their worth measured almost exclusively in monetary terms.5
The effects of these changes on human life, not to mention that of the rest of the biosphere, are pervasive and essentially incalculable. All our notions of security in the modern age, both personal and national, flow from the privatization of the world. The passage from the medieval world of sacred, communal arrangements to the industrial world of secular, market forces brought with it the fall of public man and the meteoric rise of the private individual. Alienated human life, itself now enclosed, becomes a struggle for individual autonomy, where life retreats behind walls and where personal bank accounts and private property come to define human worth. Psychologically, this has meant a "systematic withdrawal from the external world of group participation and its enthusiastic retreat into a new psychic world of self-reflection and self-absorption."6
The destruction of the commons was essential for the Industrial Revolution, to provide a supply of natural resources as raw material for industry. But the enclosure movement should not be seen merely as a historical episode that occurred in early modern England. Rather, it is a global phenomenon - the guiding metaphor for understanding conflicts and contradictions being generated by the expansion of human colonization of the planet. Thus, the enclosure of the commons represents the modern mechanism that has produced increasingly violent and progressively ecocidal relationships between modern industrial societies and nature.
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