Several major environmental events over the past several months have me thinking about the differing attitudes people and nations have about Planet Earth, especially the land. There is great concern about the oceans but in this column, my focus is on land.
This is important now because the results of ancient beliefs and actions are becoming apparent. The three major issues that have set me going are: the request/demand by our president to buy an autonomous region of one of our allies; the setting of clearance fires in the Amazon Rain Forest, of one of the most sensitive parts of our natural climatic balancing machines; and the rapid melting of glaciers and the polar ice sheets as oceanic temperatures rise.
Owning land was not a common concept until written records were first used. Different cultures evolved unique and differing ways to describe and designate land ownership. In North America, and in other landmasses where human life was nomadic, the tribal concept of land ownership was more about stewardship of the land and wildlife, than about physical and personal ownership. People were dependent on finding local wild food and game at particular times of the year for their survival. This attitude still continues where indigenous people remain, such as the rain forests, arctic regions, and remote island cultures. The concepts of farming and staying in place were novel to the native populations of many continents. Annie Proulx’s novel, "Barkskins," illustrates this very well in her descriptions of the cultural conflicts in the late 17th and early 18th centuries between the native tribes of northern New England and Eastern Canada and the European immigrants.
European Feudalism in the 9th through 15th centuries, and later the Enclosure Movement in England, consolidated the concept of personal possession of land in the hands of those with the power and wealth to afford it. From this, with the development of oceanic trading, came the concept of colonialism and possession of lands far from home. Many European countries became involved for wealth, religious, political, and strategic reasons. This colonizing process expanded, in differing forms, outward from the original colonies and continues today as Earth’s population increases.
It was startling to hear our president’s apparently “out of the blue” demand to buy Greenland, a mostly autonomous part of one of our NATO allies, Denmark. At least he was honest about the reason, “lots of important minerals that we need.” No mention of the people who live there, who are apparently very happy with their long-time Danish connections. This unsubtle gesture of a wealthy and powerful man illustrates the motivation of generations of colonialists: “I like it, I want it, I have the power and wealth to get it!” It also illustrates how ownership affects how we think about our own small portion of land or any property we own. We want the freedom to use it as we wish.
We know only too well that pollution of many kinds spreads from one place to another. So what you do with your land or property spreads through air, water, soil and visually and audibly to affect neighbors near and far. The chemical pollution of water supplies in southern Vermont has been in the news for at least the past three years. We are hearing frequently of large cities that are found to have polluted public water supplies. In the 1980s, red spruce trees on Camel’s Hump experienced significant die back from acid rain pollution from factories in the midwest, 1,000 miles away. The Clean Air act of 1990 and other State and National environmental legislation has helped to reverse some of this damage but this change takes time and in some cases is not possible.
We do not have a lot of time left to mitigate environmental change as we see both ocean ice and glaciers melting rapidly in many parts of the world. In 2014, the first of Iceland’s many glaciers was declared "dead," not having sufficient mass to move forward. An Aug. 14 Reuters report from Copenhagen stated, “Iceland unveiled a plaque to its Okjokull (Ok) ice sheet on Sunday, the first of the country’s hundreds of glaciers to melt away due to climate change.” The plaque bears a poignant message:
A letter to the future
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.
At the other extreme is the Amazon Rain Forest of South America, the largest rain forest in the world. It covers parts of eight countries. It is a perfectly balanced system of water rotation, a major climatic control of water circulation on Earth. Legal and illegal fires in the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil are being used to clear land for agriculture. Interruptions in the forest canopy caused by burning can lead to the growth of grassland which, when dried out by the tropical sun, burns rapidly, increasing the area of interrupted forest, self-perpetuating destruction.
The concept of shared responsibility for land is ancient. As we have moved from living on the land to dividing it and owning a piece of it, the “sharing“ aspect has diminished. This is reflected in the increasingly negative attitudes in many countries towards immigration, which itself is a symptom of the population pressure on Planet Earth and its changing climate. It’s difficult to know where to begin unraveling these complex issues, but the basic concepts of sharing and tending the land allowed our species to survive and evolve so maybe we need to see the future through that lens once more.