“Living Together Shouldn’t Put Us at War With One Another or With the Earth”

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

The only just future is one in which every person is given the chance to flourish — without exploiting other people or the planet.

Ancient granaries, part of the House on Fire ruins, are shown here in the South Fork of Mule Canyon in the Bears Ears National Monument on May 12, 2017 outside Blanding, Utah. The newly created Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are under review by the Trump administration to help determine their future status. (George Frey / Getty Images)

Interview by
Alyssa Battistoni

Nature is often treated as separate from politics — as something we can take for granted while we struggle over human affairs. Climate change has suddenly made nature political — or so it seems.

But in fact, Jedediah Purdy reminds us, it has been that way all along. For two decades, Purdy, a law professor at Columbia, has investigated the political beliefs that shape our understandings of nature, the struggles that play out on the literal terrain of the earth, and the human politics that remake the nonhuman world around us. His new book, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth, takes up the question of what it means to belong to a land — a country, a nation, a place — and what it means to live with others on it at a time of renewed nationalism and nativism.

Jacobin’s Alyssa Battistoni recently spoke with Purdy about capitalism and ecology, commonwealth and care, and the meaning of work in the face of ecological crisis.

Alyssa Battistoni

The subtitle of the book is “the struggle for a new commonwealth,” and early on, you argue that we face a choice between “commonwealth or barbarism,” riffing on Rosa Luxemburg’s famous phrase “socialism or barbarism.” What do you mean here by “commonwealth”?

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

I’m using “commonwealth” to capture a moral vision of political economy. The idea is that living together in this place shouldn’t put us at war with one another or with the earth. I shouldn’t be driven to see you as a competitor to overcome or a profit opportunity to exploit. My secure life shouldn’t rest on your failure or your going into debt or being exploited. A commonwealth would honor all good and necessary work: nursing, teaching, caring for elders, laboring to produce food — the kind of work that keeps the world going. And there’s an ecological dimension of commonwealth: our everyday lives shouldn’t be cumulatively destroying the living world.

A commonwealth would be a kind of opposite of the economic world we have now, which throws us into constant tragedy. Just living means using up the world and, often, misusing one another — through the gig economy, through exploitative supply chains, through an economy that’s unequal and, for so many people, frightening and dangerous.

The book begins from some moral impulses that are pre-political and pre-ideological — though I argue they have some definite political and ideological implications! I wanted to start from this, and not from the arguments that, say, the eco-socialism concept brings up: public ownership or cooperatives, internationalism or globalism, the place of markets, etc. I also want the book to be an invitation to people who start outside a socialist frame, but who can recognize themselves in this description of what’s wrong with our political economy and how it could be different. I’ve always argued that, without socialist traditions, politics is flying with one wing, but it’s never been my master vocabulary. I want a Wendell Berry reader to start out with me and see that caring for the world means being political at a global scale. I want a Greta-curious liberal or a well-meaning progressive to see that distribution and the built environment are at the heart of twenty-first-century environmental politics and that we have to fight over the conception of value in our economy. And I want to make the case to socialists that egalitarian politics is necessarily a radicalism about the planet itself and the ground on it.

Alyssa Battistoni

There’s a fascinating interplay in the book between material and meaning: as you put it, “ideas are entangled in rocks and dirt.” And I have a few questions in this vein.

First, how do you think about the relationship between material gains and meaning with respect to work? And how should that affect how we think about green jobs and their appeal to people who have worked in extractive industries? Your narrative, I suppose, suggests that substituting green jobs for extractive jobs might not be so straightforward.

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

All politics is identity politics. All politics is also material politics. And all politics is environmental politics. This book is an exercise in trying to keep all those premises in view at once.

I come from people for whom work is everything. That you put in a hard day’s work was the highest compliment you could get from my grandfather, a dairy farmer, and from many of my neighbors when I was growing up in West Virginia. So much of identity there, for better and worse, is about whether you’re a person who works.

This is very masculinist — although women have been working outside the home in Appalachia for a long time, and today on most farms both spouses work at least somewhat off the farm. It’s literally settler-colonialist: getting value out of the ground was the heart of the ideology that said Europeans had the right to this place.

But there’s another side to it, too. It was about caretaking — for family, for animals, even for land. A good farmer doesn’t use up the land. And there’s something in it about using up your body to keep the world going on, returning everything you have to the dust you came from, which has a kind of poetry. Also, valuing work was part of why they were free-labor Republicans, why my grandfather’s grandfather, a small farmer, got his eardrum blown up fighting the Confederacy at Gettysburg. So there are elements in the tradition of work that I think nearly anyone could admire, and that the Left in particular could welcome.

It’s cruel the way the dominant ideal of work in those places trains people to identify with specific kinds of labor that capitalist creative destruction then makes worthless. You tie people’s identity to a form of life that’s built around a specific kind of work in a certain industry, and then you wipe out the industry and the work, and leave them with only their identities. What do you expect them to do? Move to LA and do casting work for Appalachia-themed reality TV?

Part of social democracy and socialism is decommodifying social reproduction, decoupling your ability to go on being, and to help others go on being, from the issue of whether you make someone a profit in doing so. Another part is that work should not be purely commodity, either. Work isn’t just how an economy produces; it is part of what an economy produces, part of a form of life. Part of the reason some work should exist is that it’s good to do: some kinds of caregiving and teaching, some kinds of farming and caretaking, some kinds of arts. Part of what makes work good to do is that it’s needed: to sustain a community, a culture, a family, a landscape. Profitability has not been a great proxy for this. Letting any labor market determine exactly what work gets done implies a huge decision about how people’s lives are going to go. And the cruelty of our market is that it tells people, “You are not profitable, therefore you are not needed.” We discard human beings and call it efficiency.

Alyssa Battistoni

You write really powerfully about economic powerlessness as the incapacity to control your environment, as illustrated in particular by Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity — economic powerlessness means you have to live with contaminated water, sick kids, and so on. It’s a wonderful illustration of how “environmental issues” are about economics and power in a really deep way, which is not how we usually talk about them. How can we draw those connections more closely in political discourse?

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

There’s been so much reluctance to talk about vulnerability in US politics — except in terms of national security and terror, which activates fear and then immediately turns it to a promise of total protection. An interesting thing about Trump’s 2016 campaign is that he did say, “You’re in danger, your life is threatened.” Of course, that was mostly a revival of racist law-and-order politics for his anti-immigrant agenda. But he also talked about the ravages of the opioid epidemic, and of job loss. That was a huge departure from Republican politics, and it helped him to win. I am not saying a good word for Trump, not even one. But in some way the response to him is also evidence of a hunger to hear politicians stop saying, “America is already great, and so is your life.” The much more important evidence from 2016 is the Sanders campaign. But it’s worth appreciating that this exhaustion with American cruel optimism doesn’t exist only among people who are already on the Left.

The myth that we can be safe alone, in our own houses and cars, is breaking down again, as it did at the end of the last Gilded Age. When you read progressives and other radicals in the first decade of the twentieth century, they’re all saying, “On the frontier, in the antebellum economy, it was possible to imagine you were independent. But now we’re being overmastered by huge economic forces, and we need social action to master them and restore personal freedom and security. Interdependence is the key to a more complex form of independence.” That’s what we’re saying again. That’s the starting point of both the new progressivism and the new democratic socialism.

Part of what’s powerful in these politics is naming vulnerability and then turning it immediately to an assertion of power: you can change the world, democratically, to make it less fearsome, and to make your life less fearful.

Alyssa Battistoni

Infrastructure is a core theme of the book, but by this you don’t just mean investing in roads or bridges. Instead, you’re interested in the 30 trillion tons of “technosphere” — the built environment that we have made and that by now is just as necessary to our survival as water and air. Does this imply that if we build new infrastructure (for instance, bullet trains instead of open highways), we are also building a new idea of what it is to be American? How should we think about infrastructure politics in light of this more expansive view?

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

Yes, this is exactly right. Making the world is how we make ourselves.

A major argument of This Land is that human beings are an infrastructure species: our powers, our sociability, our nature as creatures living on this earth, are all shaped in deep ways by our built environment, which weighs in at about three thousand tons per person as a global average (so just think how much it is here in the United States). We do all the things we do — move around, participate in economic and cultural life, get our food and shelter — through these heavy, complex, energy-intensive systems.

And think how much of identity presupposes a built environment. American libertarianism, individualism, as it developed in the twentieth century, was highway individualism, car-and-driver individualism. And the mainstream image of adult responsibility is suburban or exurban: you have a house, detached from other houses but linked by these heavy networks of roads and pipes and cables, and you drive to and from it.

One thing that all these infrastructure forms do is to conceal interdependence: they create the impression that you can be out on your own, or safe in your family home, when actually you are as piped and wired and framed in with everyone else as a bee in a hive. Denialism is built into the order of things. And although it’s a world people have made, when you’re born into it, it’s just the world. It takes an effort to think your way outside it, or to make a politics of getting outside and remaking it.

So, yes, an infrastructure that reveals and teaches interdependence would be an entirely different thing. Trains and buses do that — buses have less aesthetic charm, but we should try to change that: they’re more flexible in their routes, and they’re much cheaper — partly because they can use existing roads. There should be many, many free buses. And free subways. As free as the sidewalk — or the highway — which is to say, socially funded.

One thing that excites me about my family’s move from Durham to New York is that our child won’t have a backyard, but he will have many little municipal playgrounds. He’ll grow up seeing play as something shared, public. Of course, we’ll also go deep into the parks. But those are public, too! There’s an infrastructure of solitude.

Alyssa Battistoni

You write: “Climate denialism in the US is less about science than about who rules you: it is a way of rejecting the claims of foreigners, international institutions (more imagined than real), and the global poor, and holding on to a narrow sovereignty that the tides are threatening to wash away.” You also argue that there’s a liberal denialism — the stance that says, we just have to go back to 2015, everything was fine then. But in fact, you argue, that perspective has been denying many truths about American history for a long time. Can you say more about how you think we can work through these multiple and contradictory ways of seeing the world?

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

Denialism used to mean just anti-empirical, which obviously put it in a weak and defensive position, even if it seemed to be winning a lot of victories. But this significantly underestimates it. Trumpism and other nationalisms are disturbingly creative and generative in response to conditions of ecological crisis and resource scarcity: they’re proposing, and to some extent building, new conceptions of national identity that are more exclusionary, more militarized, and that rationalize a stance of limiting your moral obligation at the border, or along various internal lines of insider and outsider, friend and enemy. The wall is a monument to this. And Trump’s rally with Narendra Modi in Houston, which drew 50,000 people, is yet another reminder that a nationalist international is no paradox at all: it just needs a common enemy, like Muslims. Modi railed against Pakistan, which both Trump and the audience loved.

The core of the denialism I’m arguing against in this book is the denial that we’re all here, with presumptively equal claims on the world, and that we have to make ways to be here together. That’s the beginning of democratic politics. You could say that politics begins by acknowledging the reality of other people and recognizing the need to work out ways of being together, and democracy adds in recognizing our equality.

The reason I spend time in the book trying to give a sympathetic, if critical, portrait of coalfields politics and public-lands populism is in part to push back against a certain kind of left-liberal application of the friend-enemy principle that says we can just write off these people. This is too crude. We don’t have to persuade or befriend everyone, it’s true: we just have to make majorities. But we also have to build a world to share with everyone who’s here, that has some kind of space for different worldviews and experiences, different kinds of attachment to place and work. Seeing other people for what they are, where they are, is the starting point for trying to build new kinds of solidarity with them, or with their children. Coalfields militancy had the Miners for Democracy version that was somewhat green and deeply radical.

Then there’s also the simpler denialism of Bidenism: just get us back to 2015! As if growing inequality, mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, horrible and endless wars — to name a few — weren’t happening and didn’t contribute to the general nihilism and inchoate grievance in which Trump prospered. Liberals have now embraced George W. Bush as the last good Republican, but Trump is the id of the Bush era. He doesn’t succeed without ambient Islamophobia, chest-beating nationalism, world-bestriding belligerence, and a politics that puts “security” at the heart of its claim to rule. He just took those premises and made them indecorously explicit.

For that matter, he’s the underbelly of the wealth-and-celebrity culture that Obama rode with such elegance. If you celebrate the rich and famous, well, it’s hard not to give some license to its demimonde. Trump is horrible and horrifying, and he exemplifies much of what’s been happening in the country for our whole lives.

Alyssa Battistoni

You write about struggles around Western lands, and I think the significance of those battles in the rise of a strain of the New Right is often underestimated. Trump’s attempt to open up Bears Ears National Monument to coal and uranium mining and oil drilling got a lot of attention, but this was less a break with the past than the culmination of a long history of conservative activism against federal intervention with land use, often on the grounds of environmental protection. Can you say more about Western land disputes? What does that long-building resistance to federal power suggest about the future of federal climate policies?

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

Yes! Since the federal public lands were created, there’s been a continuous, self-renewing politics of settler localism. When timbering in national forests was first regulated in 1878, people ran out and said the same thing the Bundys and their supporters said in winter 2016: the federal government was turning the West into a colony, it was an essential part of freedom to timber and mine the land, and the land belonged to the people who worked it. It’s a resilient aspect of American politics, and it’s always had supporters among Western politicians and national conservatives. Ronald Reagan called himself a “sagebrush rebel,” referring to the 1970s version of this politics, which swung into action against applying the new environmental laws to the public lands, and against stepped-up planning by the Bureau of Land Management.

Like all localism, this is partly about who speaks for the region and the community, and who rules it. I point out in the book that the Utah county government that’s done a lot to support localist fights against the Bears Ears monument is an Anglo-minority county that was gerrymandered for decades to produce consistent Anglo majorities. And most local tribes supported the monument. So “local” was a political construction just as artificial — and just as consequential — as “Trump’s America” arising from the electoral college even though he couldn’t win a plurality of votes and has never had majority support.

I worry that the way the federal government has never quite been able to command legitimacy in parts of the settler West may be a harbinger. If progressives were to take Congress and the White House, they’d face the task of generating actual consent and compliance. I think you could see outright state efforts to nullify progressive initiatives, maybe backed by the Supreme Court.

If right-wingers running a few states, or a lot of states, start refusing to obey federal law because it has AOC’s name on it, we’re really in constitutional crisis territory. On the other hand, if Trump or a Trumpist wins, it’s not hard to imagine states like California moving to nullify, say, federal immigration policy. If you think the progressive strategy is to build majorities to use a strong state for egalitarian policies, then it’s really worrisome when fragmentation means you can’t make majority decisions stick. Because majority wins are what a democratic left has.

Alyssa Battistoni

To look to a different political history, you write about the “long environmental justice movement,” which you see as stretching back to the work of public-health advocates at the turn of the century who were concerned with the health of workers in industrial workplaces. You suggest that we can carry that legacy through today in, say, battles over the dumping of industrial pig waste lagoons in North Carolina. Can you say more about that, and where you see the long environmental justice movement today?

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

The people who pioneered the research into toxins that structured Silent Spring were students of industrial toxins and workplace conditions and labor radicals. (As it happens, some of the most important ones were women, including Alice Hamilton, a progressive activist and scholar who was the first woman tenured at Harvard, as well as more grassroots leaders.)

The single most important wilderness activist, Robert Marshall, was a New Deal planner and socialist. He and Benton MacKaye, who designed the Appalachian Trail, were advocates of regional landscape planning as part of a broader program of economic planning. The historical anomaly, in some ways, is the relatively narrow focus of mainstream environmentalism that got consolidated in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the book, I write about how that happened, including key grants from the Ford Foundation and the sudden death of UAW leader Walter Reuther, who helped fund the first Earth Day and who wanted to build a labor-environmentalist coalition with a focus on social and workplace justice and the built environment.

So environmental politics has been about power, distribution, the shape of economic life and of the built environment. The scope of the Green New Deal is nothing new: it’s a return to form. And anyone who sees environmental justice demands as peripheral is making a mistake: they speak to the central issues.

Alyssa Battistoni

What should we make of the rise of mainstream environmentalism right as that postwar era of relative prosperity, equality, etc. begin to decline? Is it just a coincidence that environmentalism is, as you put it, the last gasp of the New Deal era?

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

What strikes me in the environmentalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s is the blend of catastrophic thinking and self-confidence.

On the one hand, mainstream magazines and newspapers were writing about the end of life on earth, the need to give up the technological paradigm of human life, really radical stuff. On the other hand, Congress — Congress! — was up to the challenge. And the big environmental laws that came in less than a decade, whatever their limitations, really did change American political economy, create a new national baseline of health and safety, change the duties of landowners and bosses.

What hadn’t yet happened was the forty-plus-year attack on the activist state that has both eroded its real capacities and hollowed out confidence in it. Now we have the prospect of catastrophe with greatly diminished confidence that we can do anything about it. That is a formula for panic.

Alyssa Battistoni

In the UK, there’s been some recent work drawing attention to the fact that 50 percent of English land is owned by 1 percent of the population. In the United States, we tend to talk less about who owns the land and more about things like homeownership, probably in part because we don’t have the same history of an aristocratic class of landowners; but should we be talking about who owns the land itself?

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

In some cases! Farmland, which in the United States has sometimes been remarkably dispersed in its ownership, is getting bought up by investment funds and corporations. It moves grain farmers one step closer to the kind of contract serfdom that poultry and hog farmers are already caught in, running operations where the vertically integrated companies own the animals and call the shots, and the farmers basically do — or oversee — the labor and carry the risk.

In West Virginia and Kentucky, a lot of coal land is owned by extractive companies, and the history of underdevelopment and exploitation there shows what happens when profit flows out of a region, capital never develops there, and local people have no control over their own productive resources. It’s also important that almost a third of US acreage is public land, which can be managed for a political vision of the common good. That includes parks and wilderness but also, right now, a lot of mining and drilling, generally on terms that are very favorable to energy companies. But we could be doing very different things with that land.

Alyssa Battistoni

On the other hand: Can I press you on your argument that this (American) land belongs equally and originally to everyone? What about indigenous land claims?

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

In a moral sense, land doesn’t belong to anyone, but in a practical sense, the state and legal system that arose from settlement will be the forum where indigenous and other claims get decided politically. There’s no outside of it. That’s why contesting its terms and trying to align it with an egalitarian and inclusive vision are so important.

In a small way, the Bears Ears monument that right-wing localists attacked in Utah was a model of what public-lands policy could do to cultivate some democratic justice for indigenous claims. The monument was set up so that several local tribes, which had been involved in its design, would have a central role in governing it. That’s hardly reparation, but it is a shift in whose vision the land participates in.

Some of the other hundreds of millions of acres of federal public land could be dedicated to indigenous management and practices. There has to be pluralism in who can claim that land: settlers’ descendants have been there for generations, and public lands are answerable to the whole polity; but public lands get shaped to particular visions, like wilderness, and there’s no reason there couldn’t be tens of millions of acres of mainly indigenous public land — not reservations, but landscapes to be managed with deep tribal involvement, according to what they articulate as their visions.

Alyssa Battistoni

It seems to me that right now we decide almost entirely on the basis of economic value; and I agree that, as you note, “our economy undervalues [social reproduction] like it undervalues the natural world.” How can we value these necessary things more highly? And can we actually imagine that kind of value shift happening under capitalism?

Jedediah Britton-Purdy

There are at least three ways to think about capitalism in relation to the ecological crisis. First, capitalist markets rely on things that they do not produce or preserve, for reasons that are rooted (or reflected) in their price structure: these things are treated as “free,” or they’re looted and coerced. So capitalism as now structured is unsustainable because it’s built to use up things it — and everything else — needs to go on being.

Another is the growth imperative. The return-on-investment model of economic logic relies on growth. In the end, that collides with ecological limits, no matter how much efficiency is gained along the way. There has to be a way into the future that shifts our standard of value to intrinsic rewards, free time, the literally free activity of being with our young people to help them take shape, being with our elders to learn from them and enrich their last years. We can afford private modesty and public luxury; we can’t afford private luxury and public austerity.

A third thing is that markets colonize every other domain of life. They colonize politics. They commodify child-rearing and eldercare. They commodify learning, sociability, and love. And universal commodification makes it that much harder to create a decommodified world of the kind that we can have indefinitely.

The distortions are extraordinary. We’re raising a baby, and seeing firsthand how hard it is makes it even more shocking that new parents are thrown onto the market for both a living and child care, and end up working to pay for child care, instead of doing the essential work of hanging out with the child. This economy turns one good situation — parents and child — into two vexed and stressful market transactions. (And this is for the relatively privileged people who get to “juggle” work and family.) A culture that takes this attitude toward social reproduction really feels to me like one that doesn’t care whether it goes on.