Theorizing Modernities article

Introduction to Theories of Land

“Dead End” trail sign in Fossil Springs, Arizona. Image credit: Flickr User Al_HikesAZ. CC BY-NC 2.0.

What does it mean to treat a piece of land as someone’s home? Can home be reduced to property? Can the sacred be owned? Do conceptualizations of land as wilderness exclude human inhabitants? Does the value of land vary according to whom it “belongs”? Should land be “productive” for human beings, and if so, how should the productive value of land be determined? How should the goods of the land—minerals, foodstuffs, natural materials—be valued, obtained, or preserved? The answers to these questions depend on how we understand land in general, as well as how we understand certain places in particular.

Texts from different disciplines—legal, religious, literary, ethnographic—offer competing theories of land. Land is often rendered as property and commodity, but it can also be protected or preserved as having cultural significance or as wilderness. The term “Mother Earth” suggests a kinship relationship between us humans and the land, and Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ refers to the land as our shared home. Can such divergent theories of land coexist or are they mutually exclusive? If these theories of land are competing and mutually exclusive—some argue the sacred cannot and should not be owned by humans; land that is cultivated as home is not wild anymore—which are most suited to address the ethical and political questions that present environmental crises pose to our collective well-being?

These questions touch on intimately cultural matters, evoking how different communities conceptualize themselves and how such conceptualizations relate to land. These questions are not new. Ancient Greek philosophers from Thales to Aristotle asked about the essence of the earth, and early modern political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau grounded their social contract theories in the valorization of agricultural cultivation and its relation to private property. The new politics imagined by Enlightenment thinkers paved the way for European projects of colonialism and capitalism, bringing all land everywhere under the power of possession. Alternatives to and critiques of colonial theories of land abound: from the kinship models of humans in relation to land found among many Indigenous peoples, to the agricultural commune movements of the nineteenth century; from the anti-imperial communisms of the twentieth century to the radical environmentalists of the twenty-first century.

Many contemporary philosophers, scholars, and authors share these concerns and propose scientific, political, and social critiques and solutions to our environmental crisis. These critical discourses and proposed solutions have at their basis a theory of land.

This symposium emerged from a working group funded by the Social Science Research Council. An interdisciplinary group of ten scholars—all interested in religion but also in geography, Indigenous studies, Black studies, Latin American studies, law, and anthropology—got together to discuss theories of land over the course of one year. We read texts of legal theory, environmental humanities, environmental science, political theory, and ethnography, and we discussed the question of what academics who care about land, the natural environment, and ultimately, about environmental justice, can bring to the table when what we do is theorize but what we need, what the land needs, is very practical.

The interdisciplinary collection of authors we have read together each offers a different theory of land. While author Amitav Ghosh argues that our environmental crisis is the result of our colonial view of the land as resource, Red River Métis environmental scientist Max Liboiron reminds us that we treat the land as resource, and that we assume access to Native land, not only when we pollute, but also when we recycle. While ethnographer Keisha-Khan Perry reminds us that it is often Black women who are at the forefront of land rights and racial justice struggles (in Brazil and elsewhere), and that we tend to invisiblize them, political theorist Robert Nichols argues that the notion of land rights is based on a settler colonial understanding of land as property. Geographer Nicolas Howe tells us that if we focus on our relationship with land as landscape, as something that we look at, we can learn as much about ourselves as we will about the land. What we learn will have both legal and religious implications. Ethnographer Marisol de la Cadena pushes us to consider the ethical and political implications of our interdependence with the land. Finally, Indigenous studies scholar Candace Fujikane offers a Kanaka Maoli idea of abundance, a radical approach to land in the face of capitalist notions of scarcity.

Though we came together to discuss theory, our conversations often revolved around method as well. What can religious studies scholars who care about land learn from other disciplines? And how can we learn from other disciplines without being extractive? It turns out that what is true about being in good relations with the land (you should not be extractive, which means that you shouldn’t treat the land as commodity) is also true about knowledge (you shouldn’t read texts only as sources to cite). So, can we learn things from other scholars, especially Indigenous scholars, without extracting knowledge from them? One thing some of us kept insisting on is that it is not theorists who can help make our land relations better; rather, it is communities on the ground who can help us theorize better: Black women fighting for land rights in Colombia, Ohlone peoples fighting for #LandBack in California, first-generation college students. We need to take these communities’ lived experiences into account when we work to decolonize the Catholic Church or the land-grab university. Indeed, we need to listen to the land itself—the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Sonoran Desert—in order to theorize better, in order to live better.

Dana Lloyd
Dana Lloyd is Assistant Professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies and affiliated faculty at the Center for Peace and Justice Education at Villanova University. Her first book, Land Is Kin: Sovereignty, Religious Freedom, and Indigenous Sacred Sites, is forthcoming this fall from University Press of Kansas. 

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