Making Sense of Land

Ethics Land Use

Few things on earth are as mysterious as the living soil. One would hope otherwise, as most human food production depends on that small fertile layer that allows plants to grow. But while their importance is plain, soils are, scientifically speaking, exceedingly complex. A single spoon of earth is so rich in biodiversity that some have dubbed it the poor man’s rain forest. Plant growth requires the right nutrients in sufficient quantities and the proper soil structure – not too brittle, not too solid. Fertile soil needs century to build and yet can get lost within moments in a strong rain shower. Clearly, soils have their own distinct ways to make brilliant humans look foolish.

It was easy to forget this during the symposium at Germany’s National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, which I attended this week. It discussed the future of agricultural land use in Germany and beyond, and speakers offered a bewildering array of figures. They could project land use for decades into the future, in addition to energy needs and food consumption. They also knew how climate change will influence the productivity of land worldwide. Some even talked about the situation in 2100. And they had figures to offer, too.

Frankly, I was confused. I still am. Few things are more intimidating than experts with figures.

Or, to be more precise, experts with figures that you take at face value. It was usually not too difficult to sense that these figures were merely informed guesses at best. Some speakers were quite clear about the uncertainties involved. Others conceded their qualms in the discussion. A third group preferred to ignore the issue altogether, as if that would make figures more trustworthy.

Of course, no one should be blamed for being uncertain about the future. And we surely need projections, particularly in a setting like the Leopoldina, which serves as a link between academia and government. The overall topic, the future of land use, surely deserves some attempts at projection. Whether and how planet earth can feed some nine billion habitants in 2050 is no trivial issue.

Still, there was a notable gap between the confidence of a number of experts and the intricacies of the living soil. Through their sheer complexity and fragility, soils teach humilities. My symposium was notably scarce of humility.

Speaking at the very end of the conference, I had a chance to adjust my talk accordingly. I had been invited to talk about the ethics of land use, and I used the occasion for a far-reaching voyage across space and time. In fact, the talk became much more sweeping than anything I would offer to my scholarly colleagues in history, who would surely have ask for more nuance in my talk. But then, you need to cut through complexity once in a while.

My point was that the ethics of land use has come a long way. We once had the land title, one of the most marvelous cultural inventions of modernity: a single unique identifier of property ownership. Then a lot of things happened throughout the twentieth century. Peasants complained about the unjust distribution of land. Estate owners, once invulnerable in feudal societies, lost much of their power and their firm grip on land. Politicians called for and enacted land reforms. Erosion became a global problem due to the intensification of land use. Excessive fertilizer use created a whole host of environmental problems. Government programs stepped in to prevent the worst. Gone are the times when farmers could do on their fields as they please.

Taken together, that is an awfully diverse set of goals. We want our soils productive, healthy, immune to erosion, without deleterious externalities, and distributed in an equitable way. As it stands, we have no idea how merge all this in a coherent vision of stewardship. The land ethic that we have is a palimpsest of claims and hopes.

In short, the ethics of land use looks increasingly like a train wreck. It’s no longer the proud engine of modern property law churning ahead at full speed. There are multiple engines on the same track now. And you don’t need to know much about railroads to sense that this spells trouble.

My conclusion was that it would be surprising if we would not encounter surprises in the future. Prepare for the unexpected. And plan in a way that leaves room for unanticipated developments. Not something that government advisors get cited for, but something that government advisors should know.

So where does that leave George Monbiot’s wilderness? Summarizing the talks, there may be room for his vision – in fact, more room than I had expected when I came.

But maybe he should skip the reference to the 30 million acre projection, and generally refrain from figures as much as he can. As a clever man, he should know that land is about much more than figures can tell.

Frank Uekotter

Further useful links:

Ethics in Land Use Issues

Bioenergy and Land Use: Framing the Ethical Debate

Land use ethics managing driving forces and searching a proper response

Land use ethics and property rights

Avoiding Ethics Traps in Land Use Decision making

A set of ethical principles to guide land use policy

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