Book Review: This land is Our Land by Jedidiah Purdy

The word “Commonwealth” has a particular place in Massachusetts vernacular. It’s common to find the word used as political branding, “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts” as an obvious example. But beyond sounding nostalgic, orderly, and constitutional, “Commonwealth” literally means, well-being—wealth, shared by all—common: Commonwealth. 

This reminder begins Jedidiah Purdy’s newest book, This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth. In this short book (150 pages), Purdy, a law professor at Columbia University, meditates on the ways in which the land, the American soil and territory, has been both a dividing and unifying source throughout American history and politics. Purdy likes to say how the land keeps us “apart, together.” 

Divided into seven sections, five chapters, a Preface and Forward, Purdy tackles several issues throughout his book: mountaintop removal, climate denialism (beyond just fossil fuel profits), mainstream environmentalism and its relationships with labor and justice; Henry David Thoreau, the Green New Deal, and more. Purdy attempts to weave these many ecological threads in order to build something of the political imaginary: a Commonwealth, which he describes as, “a way of living in which our survival and flourishing do not prey constantly and involuntarily on the lives of others, in which, instead, my flourishing is the condition of your flourishing, and yours reciprocally of mine” (146). 

The first chapter, “This Land is Our Land” explores the conflicts over whose land this is, and what it means for the land to be “ours.” Purdy does this by examining when “nationalism and nature come together,” or, put another way: how “the things that tie people together and the things that divide them tend to be the same thing. (3)” 

Purdy discusses coast-to-coast examples of this divide using the material of public and natural land to demonstrate this point of land keeping us “together, apart.” In 2017, more than one million acres of land was cleared from Bears Ears National Monument in order to drill for oil and gas. The Monument was shrunk in half–the first time such a thing has happened on public land in more than a century. In the east, The Appalachian Mountains have been dubbed the battleground for the “war on coal.” And the Mountains, Purdy paints for us, is similar to a war-zone, with their mountaintop-removal using dynamite and other explosives to assault the land. But it’s also war-like because there are delineated sides on the issue: those for and against coal. “War is what we call politics that has lost its capacity to bridge, mitigate, and most important, transform our differences, (12)” Purdy says.

Most of the chapter is spent discussing the coal-miners and thinking through the situation of climate change as it relates to the actual lives of the miners: their jobs, their well-being, their sense of identity. He takes them for more than denialists or immoralists. Purdy provides a scope of the issue and how it impacts those on the front-lines: coal-miners included. 

Chapter two, “Reckonings” discusses a handful of examples concerning air and water pollution, hammering in on the point that “Those who cannot control their environments are controlled by it.” 

Chapter three focuses on Henry David Thoreau as a political figure, beyond just the man who “went to the woods to live deliberately.” Purdy discusses an essay by Thoreau called “Slavery in Massachusetts” where Thoreau describes the feeling of himself “losing his country” (the title of the chapter) because of how the State had turned moral lies–the enslavement of black people, into laws and physical facts. Purdy follows Thoreau’s sentiments on slavery, on nature, and on social life, to deal with his own belief that, under a Trump presidency, Purdy also feels himself “losing his country.” 

Purdy remarks, “Losing a country might mean losing whatever accommodation you had made with the country… ‘Losing a country’ might be a way of describing coming to see it more clearly. To use a phrase that is facile but necessary, Thoreau is complaining about, among other things, losing the privilege of ignoring slavery much of the time while also disapproving of it.” (60). Politics was not optional in the time of slavery, and nor is it optional in the time of climate and ecological collapse. 

Chapter four, “The World We Have Built” looks at the built environment and infrastructure of our world. Purdy quotes a study that estimates the entire human infrastructure, what he calls the “technosphere”– our roads, bridges, buildings, crop land, and so on, is around thirty trillion tons. Such an estimate reveals a breakdown in the anachronism between traditional concepts of the natural and the human world. “A ‘natural disaster'” writes Purdy, “is at least half unnatural, the product of a natural event and the infrastructure that it floods, shakes, or ignites. (78)”

Purdy is attempting to weave two ideas together in this chapter to say something about the human species: we are an infrastructure species (we build and develop various forms of technologies, including the immaterial infrastructure of laws, capital, and culture) and we are a political animal (how we organize our lives and make collective decisions). 

What Purdy hopes to accomplish by emphasizing the building of our world and the way we make such decisions, is that, in the Anthropocene, we are the makers of our collective lives. “The great power of a political species is to change the architecture of its common world, (91)” writes Purdy. It is on this hopeful note that we are reminded we are a species who make choices, and therefore can make the choice to live in a world where our infrastructure, both intellectual and material, can be one built upon commonwealth politics: “a way of living in which our survival and flourishing do not prey constantly and involuntarily on the lives of others, in which, instead, my flourishing is the condition of your flourishing, and yours reciprocally of mine.”

The last chapter, “The Long Environmental Justice Movement” is arguably the best chapter. Here, Purdy begins to move away from describing how we got here and the problems our country faces, into offering something a bit more concrete and prescriptive. Purdy begins with the failures and shortcomings of mainstream environmentalism. Most noticeably it’s emphasis on catering to white, suburban, wealthy America and its ties to the popular imaginary of wilderness and “untouched nature” that were in most cases, only accessible to the wealthy and white. 

This image of who and what environmentalism is left the problems of air pollution, toxic water, the fragility of our infrastructure, and more “urban” problems, outside the mainstream of environmentalism. As a result, black and brown people, who are most adversely affected by these “urban” environmental problems, were on the margins if not outright rejected in the mainstream environmental consciousness of America throughout the 20th century. 

However, Purdy recognizes a shift in environmentalism in the first two decades of the 21st century. This is when the terms “environmental justice” and “environmental racism” become  concepts and material realities at the forefront of 21st century environmentalism, says Purdy. 

But Purdy takes it a step further: he proposes the long environmental justice movement must include things like the Wilderness Act of 1872 which has protected over one hundred million acres of land since. Rachel Carson’s work on pesticides in Silent Spring and the Clean Air and Water Acts of 1970 as well. Purdy recognizes the shortcomings of the environmental movement, especially in including those fighting for social and economic justice. Rather than taking this at it’s word, he examines some historical decisions that were made in order to pivot environmentalism in such a way. Nonetheless, protection of public land, clean drinking water, less carbon in the atmosphere are all themselves justice issues. The Long Environmental Justice Movement is long because environmentalism has been turned in many directions, with some choices directly and indirectly supporting justice and others betraying it. Purdy’s point is that environmentalism goes on, and this incarnation will hopefully remedy some of its previous shortcomings. 

Purdy ends with a rather simple prescription for environmental justice. Fight for big changes like the Clean Air and Water Acts. Create partnerships and tie environmental justice with issues not always seen as directly related: subsidies for corn and soybean oils and its impact on obesity and human health for instance. “[Environmental Justices’] mission is more than technical.” Purdy says. “They are working to defend a living world that is under assault at every point, from the global climate to the most vulnerable communities.(140)” It is through the lens of the Green New Deal that Purdy believes we should pursue our 21st century ecological politics. What This Land is Our Land brings in ambition, hope, and examples of land and people under assault between seemingly disparate problems, it also suffers from a singular thesis to tie everything together–or at the very least, remind the reader of that thesis. But maybe that’s not the book’s purpose. The book began as content for a lecture Purdy did at New York University, and follows such a fashion, behaving much more like a book trying to make sense of a situation than trying to solve or deeply criticize. It is not simply philosophy, natural history, nonfiction, and doesn’t come close to legal theory. It is Thoreau-like in its public lecture style prose, both men trying to hold onto a country they each felt they were losing.

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