Tuesday, October 22, 2019

This Land Is Not Our Land

This is the title in one of the songs of the musical Nanyehi, written by Becky Hobbs and Nick Sweet. The musical is about the ancestor I share with Becky: Nancy Ward, a.k.a. Nanyehi. If you get a chance, go see this musical (information at the link above).

In this song, Nanyehi’s warrior cousin Tsiyu Gansini and his warriors has encountered a white farmer on Cherokee land. The farmer showed them the deed which the South Carolina legislature had given him, proving his land ownership. Tsiyu Gansini told him that it was Cherokee land and the legislature had no right to sell it. As a matter of fact, even the Cherokees did not own the land. Nobody can own the land. It belongs to the Great Spirit, or to God, or to all the species, not to any individual human. “This land is not our land, it’s only ours to use, it don’t belong to me, it don’t belong to you.” This is the original Cherokee view (and that of many other tribes), and remained so until private land ownership was forced upon the tribes (in the case of the Cherokees, by the Dawes enrollment of 1904).

For years, I have opened the class session about ecology, for my general biology students, with this song. It expresses perfectly what I want them to understand about ecology. After going over some basic concepts of ecology, such as the Ten Percent Law and biological magnification, I then show them a slide that summarizes ecosystem services, especially as it relates to plants. All the things that plants do for us for free! A forest is worth much more alive than dead. I wrote a whole book about this years ago: “Green Planet.

How do I draw all of this together? If you look at the Earth, or any part of it, from the private ownership viewpoint, then a forest is worth more dead than alive. You, the owner, can get money for the timber. But to the world as a whole, it is worth more alive than dead. A living forest creates oxygen, uses up carbon dioxide, holds down the soil, lets rain penetrate into the soil, etc. But notice that these are all benefits not just to you, the owner, but to everyone else. If you forego the profits from the timber, most of the benefits go to other people and you cannot make a profit on it. Other people, who do not pay you, get to breathe the oxygen.

That is, to see the benefits of ecosystem services, you have to take the original tribal view rather than the modern capitalist view. The rich people who own most of the land do not care if the land’s ability to keep us alive is destroyed, so long as they can live someplace where someone else’s plants are producing oxygen and preventing floods.

Nobody in my classes has ever complained about my attack on unlimited private capitalism. I think it is because I introduced it in the context of tribal world views (in Oklahoma, many of my students are part or full Native American) and through the vehicle of Becky’s music.

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