The children on climate strike are right: their lives should not be sacrificed to satisfy our greed, says Guardian columnist George Monbiot
The young people taking to the streets for the climate strike are right: their future is being stolen. The economy is an environmental pyramid scheme, dumping its liabilities on the young and the unborn. Its current growth depends on intergenerational theft.
At the heart of capitalism is a vast and scarcely examined assumption: you are entitled to as great a share of the world’s resources as your money can buy. You can purchase as much land, as much atmospheric space, as many minerals, as much meat and fish as you can afford, regardless of who might be deprived. If you can pay for them, you can own entire mountain ranges and fertile plains. You can burn as much fuel as you like. Every pound or dollar secures a certain right over the world’s natural wealth.
But why? What just principle equates the numbers in your bank account with a right to own the fabric of the Earth? Most people I ask are completely stumped by this question. The standard justification goes back to John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published in 1689. He claimed that you acquire a right to own natural wealth by mixing your labour with it: the fruit you pick, the minerals you dig and the land you till become your exclusive property, because you put the work in.
This argument was developed by the jurist William Blackstone in the 18th century, whose books were immensely influential in England, America and elsewhere. He contended that a man’s right to “sole and despotic dominion” over land was established by the person who first occupied it, to produce food. This right could then be exchanged for money. This is the underlying rationale for the great pyramid scheme. And it makes no sense.
For a start, it assumes a Year Zero. At this arbitrary point, a person could step on to a piece of land, mix their labour with it, and claim it as theirs. Locke used America as an example of the blank slate on which people could establish their rights. But the land (as Blackstone admitted) became a blank slate only through the extermination of those who lived there.
Not only could the colonist erase all prior rights, he could also erase all future rights. By mixing your labour with the land once, you and your descendants acquire the right to it in perpetuity, until you decide to sell it. You thereby prevent all future claimants from gaining natural wealth by the same means.