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Three Axioms for Land Use

by Richard Cartwright Austin

Dr. Austin, a United Presbyterian minister, farms, writes and teaches in Dungannnon, Virginia. This article appeared in the Christian Century October 12, 1977, p. 910. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


American society has laws governing property rights, but it has never had an ethic guiding the use of land. Lacking an explicit ethic, the implicit ethic has been that any use of land by a holder of property rights is justifiable so long as it does not impinge upon the rights of some other property holder.

Likewise, the Christian church has not had a land ethic. We have encouraged our people to give thanks for the land and its bounty; we have reminded them that the land is the work of a benevolent Creator; and we have sometimes warned against a preoccupation with material abundance. But lacking an explicit ethic, the implicit Christian land ethic has been that any human dominion over the land is justifiable so long as it serves worthy human ends.

The way we Americans use our land is often destructive: strip-mining, pollution of air and water, overtimbering, farming that exhausts the soil, removal of land from productive uses, progressive appropriation of our society’s land resources by corporate interests for private exploitation and by the affluent for private enjoyment. Let me propose three principles, or axioms, which might form the basis for more sensitive and responsible land use in the future.

I

FIRST AXIOM: The needs of the land-system itself must be represented in any decision-making concerning the use of the land. This is the most basic axiom, but also the most radical. I am suggesting that human and social rights must be limited by an explicit recognition of the rights of the natural environment itself.

At the most elementary level, this axiom seems obvious. No wise farmer will plant and harvest a field in a manner that exhausts the fertility of the soil within a few years, leaving it and himself impoverished. Land must be fertilized, watered and tended if it is to yield an increase for humanity. Any creative use of land has to be sensitive to the nature of the land itself; it must interact with a given ecology.

At the most abstract level as well, the axiom seems self-evident. We human beings depend on a finite ecosystem for our affluence -- even for our existence. We cannot blow up the world and continue to live on it; we cannot destroy the ozone layer without risking skin cancer; we cannot pollute all waters and be able to drink; we cannot denude the surface of trees and expect the soil not to erode. Human survival requires a sophisticated knowledge of, and a profound respect for, the ecosystem.

At the level of social policy, this axiom has achieved some recognition in recent years through the federal requirement for environmental-impact statements by those responsible for major public land-use projects. We are now sometimes required by law to appraise the impact of our actions upon the natural environment before we act.

But even in an environmental-impact statement, it is the effect of the proposed activity only upon human welfare which has legal standing. (The one exception is an instance in which a federally designated “endangered species” is threatened. Congress has given such species some legal standing.) In order to stop a new highway, a dam or canal, or a power plant, litigants must establish not simply that the environment will be damaged, but that the ultimate injury to human welfare will be greater than the proposed benefit of the project. The environment itself is not truly represented.

I am suggesting that the environment itself must be formally represented within our ethical, legal and constitutional system. We must recognize that our constitution governs not just 200 million people, but an important segment of the earth’s surface with complex and significant ecosystems. The trees and soil, the rivers, lakes and estuaries, the populations of birds and mammals, also have a right to life -- not an absolute right, but a right that must be considered in relation to human rights. Most fundamentally, the systematic interrelations of earth, air, water and living organisms must be taken into account. Impairing these interrelations at one point so that the damage spreads throughout an ecosystem should not be permitted.

Justice William O. Douglas was the first prominent American jurist to propose legal standing for environmental objects. In a 1972 dissenting opinion (Sierra Club v. Morton) he wrote:

The critical question of “standing would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers and where injury is the subject of public outrage. Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.

I do not suggest that the rights of a particular tree or mountain, field or stream will always prevail, any more than the wants of a particular person can always be honored when they stand against the needs of a larger society. But I do suggest that we need the ethical convictions and the constitutional mechanisms to ensure that natural rights are represented in our personal and social decision-making processes.

Humankind has established its dominion over the earth. Today that dominion is a tyranny. In strip-mined hills it is a rapacious tyranny. In national parks it is a benevolent despotism. But neither form of tyranny is what the Lord intended when he put Adam and Eve in the garden to tend it, and when he reminded the Hebrews who were about to enter Canaan that “the earth is the Lord’s.” If the earth is the Lord’s, as we are the Lord’s, then it is incumbent upon us to develop a civil and respectful relationship with the earth -- a relationship which recognizes the rights of natural life. As Christians we worship a God who poured out his life for the world. It is bizarre that we should imagine that this God wants us to maintain tyranny over the natural world rather than to tend it lovingly, even sacrificially.

II

SECOND AXIOM: Humanity is the conscious, sensory element of the ecosystem. There is beauty in the world because we behold that beauty. There is meaning in natural processes to the extent that we understand that meaning. Nature participates in history to the extent that we guide and ensure that participation.

I state this axiom in response to the radical environmentalists who imagine that the world -- the natural world -- would be better off without humanity. There is a radical despair among some who love the natural world. They see so much beauty there, and so much destructiveness from human society, that they seem to desire a world where humanity would vanish and the natural world prosper.

But it is human beings who see beauty. Although human interaction with the natural environment has never been unambiguous, much of human history has enhanced the beauty and productivity of the natural world. There is a possibility for creative harmony between society and nature, a harmony that enriches both.

Paul recognized the necessity that such harmony be achieved when he stated that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God . . . because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom.8:19,21). The promised salvation is not just for humanity but for nature as well. Just as the futile warfare between persons will be overcome at last by the Prince of Peace, so will the futile warfare between humanity and nature. In the end, as John foresaw, every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein” will give praise to the Lamb (Rev. 5:13). Nature too has its fulfillment in the history of redemption.

Nature is no longer apart from history. Nature has been brought into history. The survival of ecosystems and species, of land and air and water, depend now on what we do and what we refrain from doing. There is no way for us to escape the historical burden. Humanity must be the conscious, sensory element of the ecosystem for the salvation of it and for the salvation of ourselves.

III

THIRD AXIOM: The administration of land should, in general, be in the hands of those who are closer to it and most dependent on it. Care for the earth requires sensory awareness of its processes as well as sophisticated scientific analysis. It requires daily physical presence and labor. The best care for the earth is relatively labor-intensive. It requires interaction between living systems and living persons. It cannot be relegated simply to machines, to bureaucratic structures and to policies. Human care for the land is enhanced by dependence on that land: economic dependence and, even more, emotional dependence.

I learned this axiom in the mountains of West Virginia, which are being exploited by corporate strip-mining and by individual entrepreneurs. The mountains are being fought for by the persons who live among them, those whose houses perch precariously close to the streams, who garden the patches, who hunt in the hills, who love the land.

The growing destructiveness of our society is not just a product of increased population and affluence. The current spoliation of land and natural environments also relates to the increasing remoteness of the actors from the scene of their crimes. The land heritage of our people is being seized by corporate interests which thoughtlessly tear the mountains for coal or overstimulate the plains for bumper harvests of corn and wheat. Superhighways and superdevelopments pave the land into submission. Our middle class is taught to regard the land not as a productive resource or a living system, but as a decorative yard around their houses. We are rapidly convincing ourselves that human beings can no longer work the land usefully or survive from the products of their labor -- that only machines and corporations can do these things. When we are fully convinced of this viewpoint, the death of the land will be assured.

A land ethic must include land reform -- not just in South America or Asia, but particularly here in the United States. The scriptural hope for humanity includes a vision of each family under its own vine and fig tree. The Jeffersonian hope for America was a society where the freedom of each person and family was reinforced by their possessing and working a small plot of land, giving them at least partial independence from the larger economic system. A century ago at least half our population could live on the produce of their own gardens. Today less than a tenth can. That change represents a measurable loss in human independence.

For our free nation to endure, we must enact policies to reverse this trend. At a minimum, all corporate landholdings (and later all larger private landholdings) should be legally subject to repurchase at a fair price by any landless family that wishes to live on and work a small acreage. Agriculture and forestry services should focus on techniques that can make small farms viable productive units while protecting the integrity and productivity of land ecosystems. It should be recognized as socially desirable for persons to live on the land and care for the land, and subsidies should be provided to those who do until the economic system can be readjusted to make small units reasonably profitable again.

The old and abandoned homes and buildings that dot our landscapes should be protected by law, with incentives given for the rehabilitation of these before new homes and facilities are constructed. The urban poor, many of whom are children of tenants and sharecroppers forced off the land by mechanization, should be offered government assistance to purchase land and training to learn how to work it. Physical labor, animal labor and craftsmanship should again be accorded respect within our culture and should be encouraged along with intellectual pursuits.

While it may not be possible to re-establish the majority of our people on the land, it should be social policy to re-establish the largest number possible, on the principle that the land is the most precious heritage of a free people and should be shared, worked and enjoyed as widely as possible.

IV

I am not suggesting that placing people on the land will solve environmental problems. Ignorant and greedy masses, without environmental ethics or social supervision, can destroy our land nearly as quickly as corporate machines. Land reform must include the first axiom discussed -- giving the environment a voice in its own destiny. While human sickness and sinfulness continue, land abuse must be as closely curbed as child abuse or any other form of crime.

When people are brought back together with the land, there is a possibility of a careful, loving, productive and saving relationship between them. So long as the land is held by corporations and machines, this possibility does not exist.

Redeeming the land and redeeming humanity are not separate tasks; they are interdependent. A sound land ethic will be based on a recognition of this interdependence between us and our environment -- an interdependence which God established when he created us together.


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