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Private sufficiency, public luxury: land is the key to the transformation of society

How can we move away from the entrenched inequality of land ownership? George Monbiot discusses land and the commons as a territory of transition from private luxury to public sufficiency. 

Published September 29, 2022 | 10 minutes read

Originally published by Schumacher Center for a New Economics. A video version of the talk is featured below.

How is it possible to own land? I find it remarkable that this basic question is so seldom asked. The current pattern of ownership and control of land lies at the heart of many of our biggest dysfunctions: the collapse of wildlife and ecosystems, the exclusion and marginalization of so many people, the lack of housing in many cities—indeed, in many parts of the world—the lack of public space in cities, our exclusion from the countryside.

The pattern of land ownership underlies all of these massive issues, and indeed of many more. Yet we rarely question it. We seldom even talk about it, although its scarcity is a factor in public life. Such a grip does the current pattern have on our imagination that it feels like trespassing even to raise the issue.

At the heart of public life there’s a universal unexamined assumption that the money in your bank account translates into a right to own natural wealth. If you have enough money, you can buy a whole mountain range, a whole fertile plain, a whole section of a city. You can buy as many minerals as you want, as many precious natural resources as you want. That money in your bank account gives you a right, a concomitant right to own the Earth’s surface. But why? What just principle lies behind that right? Why does the dollar sign or the pound sign make you a more important citizen than someone who has less in his or her bank account? Why can you grab resources, thereby depriving other people of the use of those resources. This applies not just to land; it applies to the atmosphere as well. Why are some people allowed to burn so much fossil fuel? It has to do with the stuff we own. Why are some people allowed to have so much more than others, depriving us of a habitable planet? It also applies to what we eat. Why do some people aggregate to themselves the right to eat a steak every day or scarce fish when it’s destroying our life-support systems?

It does seem incredible to me that we’re not asking these questions every moment of every day, and yet they’re not being asked at all. In fact, people are completely befuddled if you ask them why money translates into a right to own natural wealth. Most people have never been confronted with this question at all. But often those who have been will turn in a kind of panic to John Locke, the famous 17th century philosopher, and his Second Treatise on Government published in 1689. This Second Treatise has really become the basis of our property law and indeed of our whole modern economy. Yet in my view, it’s completely mad. What Locke says is that we establish our right to own natural wealth by mixing our labor with it. If you pick a fruit from a tree or if you dig a hole in the ground, you own that thing because you have used some of your labor to obtain it. That ground becomes yours because, in this case, you’ve dug a hole in it.

The notion of mixing your labor with the land or mixing your labor with natural wealth has become absolutely fundamental. Even if it’s not actually talked about, it’s a tacit assumption behind the whole way in which our lives are structured today. This notion was picked up by the eminent jurist William Blackstone in the 18th century. With his help and that of many others, it was translated across vast tracts of the world into law, whereby basically you can achieve sole domain over attractive land or another aspect of natural wealth on the grounds that at some point you or your ancestor or the person you bought it from mixed their labor with the land.

Let’s just examine this notion for a moment. For a start, it assumes a year zero. You can turn up as the first person who ever arrived—the colonist—on a completely blank slate, on a piece of land where nobody had any rights before because there was nobody there. John Locke is quite explicit on this point. He says, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” In other words, all the world was empty of people; it was there for the taking.

Of course all the world was America—but not in the sense that he meant, because all the world was occupied before European colonists turned up—and the Americas particularly so because there were tens of millions of indigenous people who had their own rights to the land, even though they didn’t recognize the concept of land ownership in the way that the European colonists did. This idea that you have legal title, which gives you exclusive domain and no one else can enjoy the fruits of that land, was as alien to Native Americans as the idea is to us today that we might own the air that surrounds us.

This idea that you have legal title, which gives you exclusive domain and no one else can enjoy the fruits of that land, was as alien to Native Americans as the idea is to us today that we might own the air that surrounds us.

But in order to create that blank slate which John Locke talked about—that terra nullius, that land without people—those people who lived there had to be cleared from it, and that clearance took the form of genocide. Huge numbers of people were killed, many accidentally through disease but many deliberately through mass murder and expulsion in order to create that blank slate, in order to create that place where the colonist could turn up as if he, and frankly it’s almost always he, were the first person ever to have stepped onto that piece of earth and to have thrust a spade into it. By thrusting that spade in, the colonist is able to annul all previous rights to that land.

But not only all previous rights, all future rights as well because according to the Lockean doctrine, by mixing your labor with the land, once you and your descendants or the people to whom you sell the land have absolute rights in perpetuity to that piece of land, this means that someone else can’t turn up five years later, thrust a spade in the land and say, “Hey, I’m mixing my labor with the land, so the land is therefore mine.” No. You’ve not only canceled all prior rights, you’ve canceled all future rights by once mixing your labor with the land.

It gets even crazier than this, because it turns out that your labor doesn’t have to be your labor at all but the labor of those whom you employ, the labor you control. So the person thrusting the spade into the ground isn’t the person who acquires the rights. The person who acquires the rights is the person employing the person thrusting the spade into the ground.

In 1689, when Locke’s Second Treatise was published, if you were to establish large-scale rights, particularly in the Americas, you were basically going to be using slaves. You were going to be using slaves to dig that land, saying “I, as a slave owner, am mixing my labor with the land; because that is my labor, I own those slaves.”

So what Locke did, maybe purposefully or perhaps inadvertently, was to create a charter of human rights for slave owners. And this is the basis of law, the basis of economic life today. It’s essentially a series of humongous lies. The lies are so big and are repeated so often and are embedded so deeply in the way we see the world that we don’t recognize them as lies, we don’t question them; we don’t even ask the questions that would lead us to question those lies.

As a result, the great majority of people on earth are born on the wrong side of the law. We have a comical concept of equality before the law, yet a huge tranche of law in every nation is based on property rights. What this means is that those who own property have far more rights than those who do not. Property law is designed to preserve exclusive rights for those who own against those who don’t—to keep those who don’t, the have-nots, out of the domain of the haves.

Full video of the original version of the talk that this article is based on

This series of legal seizures was created through a process we know as enclosure. Enclosure means grabbing, often with violence, the resources that other people were making use of, which was the basis of other people’s livelihood, and then, having grabbed those resources, using them as the basis of your exclusive and private wealth.

These processes really kicked off in their modern form in England in the 16th century and spread to Ireland, then to Scotland, then to the English colonies abroad, and then to much of the rest of the world. And it is still going on today. Across huge tracts of the land there is now land-grabbing taking place, which means local people, often indigenous people, are kicked off the land by big corporations, by states, by private enterprise of all kinds, by private owners; that land is grabbed and its wealth exclusively concentrated in the hands of the person who grabbed it.

This is often accompanied by massive environmental destruction. We’ve seen the felling of forests taking place across South America and Central America, across Indonesia; we’ve seen the replacement of those forests and the forest people who live there with monocultures of cattle, of soya, of palm oil, with the replacement of these incredibly rich, irreplaceable ecosystems by monocrops, the purpose of which is to enrich a very few people. That process continues today. Even in the richest nations, enclosure continues, though by different means, and exclusion continues as a result.

Let’s take a problem that everybody cares about: housing. Now, in my country, the United Kingdom, it happens that at the moment we have a higher ratio of housing to households than there has ever been. We have a huge amount of housing, but we also have a very large number of homeless people and an even larger number of underhoused people; whole families are crammed into flats designed for one person to live in. People are sofa surfing, people are barely keeping a roof over their heads, sometimes under squalid and inadequate circumstances.

Why should this be? Well, it’s because very rich people tend to own a lot of property, whereas very poor people don’t own any at all. Those very rich people tend to have multiple homes—second homes, third homes, fourth homes, fifth homes—many of which are left vacant for much of the year. Each of the homes they own has enough room for a big family, maybe even more than one family, and yet they often are occupied by just one couple or perhaps even by only one person.

There exists a grossly unequal distribution of housing, and it’s becoming more unequal all the time because the current pattern of land ownership drives a powerful spiral of patrimonial wealth accumulation. 

There exists a grossly unequal distribution of housing, and it’s becoming more unequal all the time because the current pattern of land ownership drives a powerful spiral of patrimonial wealth accumulation. If you own property, you can leverage it to buy more property through the rents you get as well as through the rise of the value of that property; then you can buy more, and then you can buy even more. That spiral just keeps building and building if left to its own devices. It doesn’t all work out well in the end, unless government intervenes and deliberately breaks the spiral, primarily through taxation and through regulation. Otherwise we find fewer and fewer people with more and more property in their hands and ever more people excluded as a result. That exclusion extends to all sorts of aspects of our lives.

One of the things we’ve discovered during the pandemic is just how important green space is to us. It is crucially important to our mental health and to our physical health, particularly to that of our children. Children brought up in areas with plenty of green space generally do a lot better on a series of indicators, including mental and physical health, than those who are surrounded by concrete and hard surfaces everywhere. And yet, despite the fact that even in densely populated nations there is a great deal of green space, we’re excluded from the huge majority of it. In most cities, the provision of parks and green places is woefully inadequate. We find ourselves walking round and round little green areas in the countryside. Even in a country like mine, which prides itself on being a great nation of walkers, we are confined to a few footpaths with barbed wire on either side, crossing depressing landscapes, while big estates have enclosed the most beautiful parts of the countryside and built walls around them, putting up “no trespassing” signs.

Even though in the UK we provide three billion pounds a year to landowners with taxpayers’ money in the form of farm subsidies, we don’t get access to what we pay for, except on 8% of the land in England. We’re excluded from 92% of the land. For many people in parts of the country where there’s almost no access to land at all, there’s no sense of escape from the gridded, managed, human-made landscape that we often feel trapped in. It’s also a potent driver of environmental destruction.

To stay for awhile with my own country, the UK has very large tracts of land in the uplands, which you would expect to be great wildlife havens because the land is really poor for any form of farming. Many of these tracts are located in our national parks, which again you would expect to be ecologically rich places, but they are used instead for shooting grouse. Now, the grouse is a wild bird, at least in theory, but the grouse moors are owned by some of the richest people in the world, who are not just the very rich aristocrats in the UK but also Russian oligarchs and oil sheiks and Texas minerals barons and all sorts of people from around the world. A lot of the time you can’t even find out who owns the land because it’s registered in the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands, in the secrecy jurisdictions. This land is owned by these big owners exclusively for shooting these little birds, these red grouse.

A lot of the time you can’t even find out who owns the land because it’s registered in the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands, in the secrecy jurisdictions.

In order to maximize the number of grouse, the owners systematically destroy the ecology of these great areas of land. They do so by burning the land, because that way you create lots of little green shoots coming up the next year from the heather, which the grouse like to eat. These landowners do so by also killing any predator which might eat the grouse—from foxes and weasels and stoats to eagles and hen harriers and peregrines. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s legal or illegal to do so. They will trap them, they will shoot them, they will snare them, they will poison them, and they get away with it because they are effectively above the law.

So the pattern of land ownership there has turned what should be extremely rich and vibrant ecosystems into monocultures, effectively upland chicken runs that are massively overpopulated by red grouse and almost nothing else. We see a similar pattern all over the world: the demands of the very few who own large areas of land supersede the demands of the majority who might want that land protected for wildlife; instead, that land is very often destroyed at the behest of the owners.

The Canadian social science professor, Kevin MacKay, points out that when you look at the history of civilizational collapse, you find a very interesting and disturbing pattern: there’s an association with complexity, there’s an association with soil loss, there’s an association with energy use, but the strongest association of all is with oligarchic control of those societies. When you have a very few people in charge, and everyone else is excluded from the crucial decisions, such as what to do with the land, those civilizations collapse. They collapse because what the oligarchs want is not in the interest of society as a whole but is in their own exclusive interest. By pursuing those exclusive interests and shutting everyone else out of decision-making, they drive societies to ruin. And that’s just what we’re seeing today.

I’ve mentioned the foundational lies of our legal system and our economic system, but there’s also another huge foundational lie, which could be called the foundational lie of capitalism. This is the idea that everyone can justifiably aspire to private luxury, that however poor you might be now, however excluded, however marginalized, you have a chance under capitalism of becoming extremely rich and owning a huge amount of natural wealth. In fact, that’s the only thing which really allows capitalism to continue, because vast numbers of people are—in a quote misattributed to John Steinbeck—”temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We believe we are going to acquire vast wealth even if we are poor at present.

That is why we allow the system that permits a few people to acquire vast wealth to continue, even when it’s clear that the system is not in any sense distributional but acts instead to concentrate wealth and make those who already possess it much richer than they are, while ensuring that those who don’t possess it scarcely get a look in.

But the premise is that you too can be like those people you see on TV; you too can be like the Kardashians, you too can be like the Koch brothers, you too can be like Donald Trump and have a great big gold tower with your name emblazoned on it; you can have a private jet, you can have a huge ranch, a great big country estate. That’s the promise on which the whole thing is based.

Now, even if capitalism were distributive, even if it did ensure that everybody has a chance of becoming very rich, that promise would still be impossible to fulfill simply because there isn’t enough space in which it can be fulfilled. You can’t all have a ranch or a giant estate or a tower in your own name. You can’t all have a private jet and a runway to land it on, because there simply is not enough land. And of course, there’s not enough ecological space either. If everybody lived like the very rich, we would cook the planet in a matter of years. It would become uninhabitable even more quickly than it’s becoming uninhabitable at the moment.

This notion that we can all acquire private luxury is fundamentally untrue. To give you one example, even if you’re not going to own your own private jet, if everybody owned a tennis court and a swimming pool and a private art collection and a big garden with play equipment for their children, then the city of Newcastle would be as big as London and London would cover most of England, England would cover Europe, Europe would cover the world. There isn’t enough space for everybody to live like that. The possibility just doesn’t exist. That much available space is an illusion.

Of course, alongside that illusion comes an even bigger illusion: that we can all just continue to grow, that the economy can grow and grow and grow infinitely on a finite planet. As a result of this illusion, again to draw on my own country because I’ve always felt the need to bring these things home rather than just pointing to other nations, our global ecological footprint amounts to around five hectares of land and sea per person per year, yet our biocapacity in the UK is one hectare.

In other words, to pursue our rich lifestyles and to pursue as much or as little private luxury as each person has in this country, we need to be taking resources away from other people. We exclude and deprive people in order to live high on the hog today in our own nation. If everybody tried to do that, well, we would need five planets. Clearly, we don’t have five planets, so we’ve got to be much more careful about the way we use the resources we do have on this one planet.

This means we can’t allow a handful of people to take more and more, excluding everybody else, depriving others of a chance for a good life and at the same time destroying our life-support systems. Our private luxury deprives other people of their private sufficiency.

So what do we do? Everybody wants a good life, we all want to share in the natural wealth of the planet, we want to share in prosperity, we want to live decently, we don’t want to be excluded, we don’t want to be marginalized, we don’t want to be so poor that we have a rubbish quality of life. But how can we possibly attain all that if there isn’t enough space?

There’s not enough space for a private luxury, but there is enough space for everyone to enjoy public luxury

Well, there is. There’s not enough space for a private luxury, but there is enough space for everyone to enjoy public luxury. If only we use the space more intelligently, there is enough space for everyone to enjoy magnificent public parks and public swimming pools and public museums and public tennis courts and public art galleries and public transport. By creating public space we create more space for everybody, whereas when we create private space, we exclude the majority of people and create less space for others.

Particularly in cities in the poor parts of the world, you see this profound inequality, with huge numbers of people crammed into tiny living quarters under really squalid and impoverished conditions, with no public space at all, with scarcely any public amenities, public transport, and the rest, whereas in other parts of the city, you see enormous villas with huge gardens and their own swimming pools and huge cars which fill up the roads every day. It’s because some people have taken so much that other people have so little.

This is a zero-sum game. Land stopped being made long ago, so if we take more land than is our due, we are excluding other people from that natural wealth. But if we use urban land wisely, and if we ensure that we concentrate primarily on public amenities—on public transport, on public space, on public goods—then we can have public luxury for all. My catchphrase has become “private sufficiency, public luxury.”

Am I saying that vast amounts of land need to belong to the state? No. I think the state has a very important role to play: it’s crucially important for providing education and public health as well as public transport, for regulating society, for ensuring that some people don’t become so big and powerful that they destroy democracy, for ensuring that everybody has an economic safety net. The state has many crucial roles to play, but if we rely on state provision alone and if we look to the state to meet all our needs, then the state itself becomes too powerful and threatens democracy. Also, state provision alone leads, I think, to a cold transactional set of relationships.

Alongside state provision in the crucial areas, I feel we need much richer and stronger communities. Community power, community strength, comes from something we call the commons. Now, it seems crazy to me that we have to explain what the commons is, because it’s so fundamental to our well-being that everybody should know. But because of the huge lies we tell that sit at the basis of economic thought, the very notion of the commons is alien to perhaps the majority of people.

A commons tends to consist of three elements: there’s a resource, which could be a piece of land or it could be a forest, it could be an internet platform, it could be community broadband, it could be a community energy company, it could be a housing co-op. There is the community of people who manage that resource. And there are the rules and negotiations that those people create to ensure that this resource is well managed.

The commons is a distributional system. It ensures that everybody has an equal share, either to the resource itself or to the product arising from that resource. It’s also a system which tends towards much better environmental protection, because the resource which the commoners look after is meant to be inalienable. You can’t sell it, you can’t give it away; rather, you’re meant to pass it on to the next lot of commoners—the people who come after you, after you’ve died—intact, without degrading the commons.

A classic example which I benefit from greatly are the allotments we have in the United Kingdom to which, since the beginning of the 20th century, everyone in this country is entitled, if he or she wants it, to a small patch of land for growing fruits and vegetables. These patches of land are parts of bigger patches of land called allotments, run by an allotments association controlled by its own members. There might be 100 or 200 or 300 plots on the allotments, and the members decide how those plots are to be managed, making sure that they’re equitably distributed.

Within your own plot, you can do more or less what you want within the broad rules created by the association, but across the allotments you’ve got a democracy, and you’ve got consensus being built through deliberative democracy by the members of the allotment association. It’s a classic commons. And it’s one which brings enormous benefits to the lives of many people in this country who don’t have land of their own.

Indeed, by sharing and distributing that land you make sure that far more people have access to it than the market economy alone ensures, i.e., that only those who are rich enough to buy land have access to it. This is a fair distributed system, and that’s basically how commons work in general. They’re not capitalist, they’re not communist. They exist in a sphere of their own. It’s a different economic dimension. And what we see all over the world is that where commons exist, the general prosperity tends to be greater, societies tend to be more just and more democratic than where those commons have been destroyed.

Indeed, by sharing and distributing that land you make sure that far more people have access to it than the market economy alone ensures

If you go back far enough, the commons were once the fundamental economy. They were the basis of people’s economic life. But those commons were seized during the process of enclosure under the Lockean proviso that the person who turns up as a private owner in the commons, as a colonist, and sticks his spade in the ground is the person who gets to own that land. It’s partly because of the termination of the commons across the world that we find ourselves in such an extraordinary mess in so many ways, both economically and politically.

I would like to see a restitution of the commons to the greatest extent possible. I think this is essential, not just for justice within generations but also for intergenerational justice. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells us that all of us are born free and equal in dignity and rights. We know that’s not true, but even if it were true within any generation of people born it’s invalidated by the fact that one generation can steal the resources, the environmental resources in particular, on which subsequent generations depend. So you might all have equality when you’re born into this theoretical world, created by the Universal Declaration, but it might be equality in sharing a degraded planet.

What we need to see added to that Declaration is, I think, the notion that every generation should have equal rights to the enjoyment of natural wealth. If this were added, it would in theory—on paper, at least—change everything because it would say that no generation is allowed to create a net reduction in the amount of natural wealth. You can’t burn up resources and dump them. There has to be a circular economy. You can’t use fossil fuels at all, in that case, because then you would be making the atmosphere less habitable; you would be destroying the natural wealth of a benign climate, which would in turn destroy people’s chances of experiencing dignity and having rights in the next generation.

But what does this say about the land itself? Obviously, if you are born into a situation where some people own almost all the land and the majority of people none, you’re not born free and equal in regard to dignity and rights. And when you turn to Article 17 of the Universal Declaration, you will notice a fundamental contradiction within that article because it says everyone has the right to own property, but it doesn’t set any limit on the amount of property that anyone can own. Thus, if some people have the right to own property and accumulate more and more property, it means that other people don’t have the right to own property. The Declaration as a whole makes no sense because it hasn’t considered these issues and because it’s based on the false Lockean premise.

So I think we should add a new article to the Declaration, which is that everyone has the right to use property as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights to use property. And that again could change our fundamental relationships with one another and with the land.

But how might you bring this about, especially in a situation where those with the land have the law on their side and have the money on their side? Well, if I ruled the world, which I will do imminently, I would impose much higher taxes on the ownership of land. Land ownership is massively undertaxed. It provides you with tremendous amounts of wealth for which you don’t have to work. Wealth for which you don’t have to work is known as economic rent, the wealth that should be taxed most but tends in practice to be taxed least, principally because even in our so-called democracies, those with the money determine to a very large extent the course of politics. They are not very democratic at all but tend to be quite plutocratic.

If we were to impose much higher taxes on the ownership of land, particularly extremely valuable land, then we could start using the money gathered by those taxes to buy land. We would buy that land, or rather produce a pot of money with which communities can buy land through the use of a community right to buy. The local community and the organization it founds to represent itself— the commons, in other words—would have right of first refusal on any land that came up for sale within the neighborhood and would have a pot of money with which to buy that land. It might even have the right through compulsory sale orders to buy land which has been left vacant or derelict, particularly urban land where there’s a desperate need for public amenities or for housing, so that the community could then step in and buy that land.

This way, incrementally and slowly and without any of the violence with which the land was taken from us, we can gradually rebalance this severely unbalanced situation, once more getting for ourselves a universal foothold on the land and starting to see a democratization of land use as well as the establishment of the principle of private sufficiency and public luxury.

But even this is insufficient to ensure that the land works for us rather than against us. In addition, we need to democratize the decision-making processes that determine how land is used. Often these processes are hoarded by governments; often highly vocal people who feel empowered and entitled get the greatest say in how the land is used, even during what are purportedly democratic planning processes.

Perhaps we need to start considering planning juries when it comes to deciding what the local plan for a city might be. There could be a form of jury service, co-opting randomly chosen people onto a panel to make the decisions rather than allowing the big developers to bend the ear of the local authority and to say they want the land used in this way, for this purpose, because they’re going to make a lot of money from it.

Perhaps we need a community participation agency to ensure that far more people are involved in the democratic decision-making process so that people who are usually not heard become heard. I would like to see every local authority all over the world have a future-generations commissioner to represent the people who have not yet been born but whose interests will be strongly affected by the kind of development which is allowed or not allowed on a particular piece of land. Thus, we would see a gradual democratization of the use of land as well as the democratization of the ownership of land.

I see such proposals meshing with some of the innovative moves being made in certain parts of the world. for instance in Paris, where the far-sighted mayor, Anne Hidalgo, now talks of the 15-minute city. I think this is a lovely concept. Initially, it was proposed as a means of solving our massive urban-transport dysfunction, where we have horribly polluted cities, where so many people are using their cars to commute because there are no sensible transport policies. People are also tremendously unfit, because instead of walking or using bicycles, they move around in a ton of metal, one ton of metal per person. This is why we have very little public space, because a lot of the space which could be used for communities is instead used for parking and for roads.

Hidalgo is trying to address this by saying, “Let’s not see this just as a transport problem but as an urban design problem.” It’s not only a matter of what vehicles we’re using, it’s a matter of why we need to travel so far in the first place, of why people need to go so far to get to work, to get to school, to get to the shops and all the other places they might use. What Hidalgo said is, let’s divide the city into 15-minute neighborhoods, where within a 15-minute walk you have all the basic things you might need. We create enough local employment so that a large proportion of the population of that 15-minute neighborhood actually has their place of work within their own neighborhood.

She sees that not just as a means of addressing Paris’s massive transport issues but of creating much richer and more vibrant and participatory communities, much stronger neighborhoods, where people look out for each other and people are much more likely to know each other because it’s quieter and they can actually talk to each other in the street. The street is actually a nice place to be; local businesses are doing much better, are much more embedded, and there is much more sense of localism within the community.

On the back of that, Anne Hidalgo is starting to build new forms of democratic participation. We have, let’s face it, a pretty crazy system, where a government comes into power as a result of a vote every five years, which might involve 30% of the electorate voting for that particular party, or it might be just 20% of the total population, because of course children and various other people don’t vote. As a result, that government can then determine for the next five years everything that happens as long as it continues to command a parliamentary majority. It can say, “Well, it’s in the manifesto, it’s on our platform; therefore we presume we have consent to do whatever we want for the next five years.”

We don’t accept the idea of presumed consent in sex, why should we accept it in politics? A government can say, “Well, tough, you voted for us.” Why can’t we modify that decision, day by day, to actually determine what we want, rather than what the government presumes we want? For this to happen, we need participatory deliberative democracy.

We don’t accept the idea of presumed consent in sex, why should we accept it in politics?

Paris is showing the way, Madrid is showing the way with its “Decide Madrid” program, Reykjavik is showing the way with its “Better Reykjavik” program, the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre showed the way with its participatory budgeting, whereby people now have control over how the money that is spent locally is actually used, rather than allowing a small mafia of developers and people close to government to determine it. This has led to a massive improvement in people’s quality of life: better sanitation, better water quality, better primary health care, better education, lower maternal mortality, lower infant mortality, better public transport, you name it. As a result of that program, Porto Alegre went from being a dysfunctional city to being the capital city of the state of Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil, placed highest on the human development index.

I see no reason why we can’t use participatory democracy everywhere to temper representative democracy. Sure, we still need parliament; sure, we still need local authority, we still need government, but we can also have far richer political engagement by the people all the time. A large part of that engagement is, I believe, built on the land. If we have control over the physical fabric of society—that is, the ground on which we stand—and if we can decide what happens to that ground and how it is used, then we can determine that it’s used for the benefit of all, rather than just for the benefit of a few. We can use that as a basis for the wider democratization of society, the wider protection of our living planet, the wider sharing of the prosperity of our living planet and its natural wealth, not just within generations but between generations.

Let’s democratize the land. Let’s share the land. Let’s use it much better, and let’s use the land as the basis for the transformation of society.

Thank you.

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