Setting Free Our History

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This post originally appeared at On the Commons.

In the wake of superstorm Sandy and a presidential
election in which both candidates essentially ignored climate change, it’s time
that our schools began to play their part in creating climate literate

Hurricane Sandy, and the superstorms that will follow,
are not just acts of nature–they are products of a massive theft of the
atmospheric commons shared by all life on the planet. Every dollar of profit
made by fossil fuel companies relies on polluting our shared atmosphere with
harmful greenhouse gases, stealing what belongs to us all. But if we don’t
teach students the history of the commons, they’ll have a hard time recognizing
what–and who–is responsible for today’s climate crisis.

If the commons is taught at
all in history classes, it’s likely as a passing reference to English
enclosures–the process by which lands traditionally used in common by the poor
for growing food, grazing animals, collecting firewood, and hunting game were
fenced off and turned into private property. Some textbooks may mention the
peasant riots that were a frequent response to enclosures, or specific groups
like the Diggers that resisted enclosure by tearing down fences and
reestablishing common areas. But they are buried in chapters that champion
industrial capitalism’s “progress” and “innovation.”

Some texts, like McDougal
Littell’s widely used Modern World History, skip the peasants’ resistance
entirely, choosing instead to sing the praises of enterprising wealthy
landowners: “In 1700, small farms covered England’s landscape. Wealthy
landowners, however, began buying up much of the land that village farmers had
once worked. The large landowners dramatically improved farming methods. These
innovations amounted to an agricultural revolution.”

This is a disturbing
narrative, as much for what it leaves out as for what it gets wrong. Students
could fairly assume that enclosures involved a fair exchange between “wealthy
landowners” and “village farmers,” instead of the forced evictions that removed
peasants from land that their families had worked for generations. Take the
account of Betsy Mackay, 16, when the Duke of Sutherland evicted her family in
late-18th-century Scotland:
“Our family was very reluctant to leave and stayed for some time, but the
burning party came round and set fire to our house at both ends, reducing to
ashes whatever remained within the walls. The people had to escape for their
lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their
back. The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did
not encumber the land that was by rights their own. The people were driven away
like dogs.”

The McDougal Littell
version of history silences the voices of the poor, who struggled for centuries
to maintain their traditional rights to subsist from common lands–rights
enshrined in 1217 in the Charter of the Forest,
the often-overlooked sister document to the Magna Carta.

Of course, this history is
not limited to land enclosures during the British agricultural revolution.
Around the world, European colonizers spent centuries violently “enclosing”
indigenous peoples’ land throughout the Americas,
India, Asia, and Africa. The Indian scholar and activist Vandana Shiva
explains why this process was a necessary aspect of colonialism:

The destruction of commons
was essential for the industrial revolution, to provide a supply of natural
resources for raw material to industry. A life-support system can be shared, it
cannot be owned as private property or exploited for private profit. The
commons, therefore, had to be privatized, and people’s sustenance base in these
commons had to be appropriated, to feed the engine of industrial progress and
capital accumulation.

The enclosure of the
commons has been called the revolution of the rich against the poor.

In the same way that world
history curriculum passes over the social and ecological consequences of land
enclosure, the current U.S.
history curriculum contributes to a larger ecological illiteracy by glossing
over the historical role of nature. When we’re not taught to understand the
intimate and fundamental connections between people and the environment in our
nation’s history, it should come as no surprise that we struggle to make these
same connections today.

One of the few places where
nature shows up in the U.S. History curriculum is with discussions of how
Native American and European concepts of landownership differed. Textbooks could
provide a valuable opportunity for students to analyze these differences.
Instead, they usually dismiss Native American notions of property as quaint and
in the end–just like the struggle of the Diggers–somewhat tragic in the grand
scheme of things.

Every textbook I’ve seen
presents the buying and selling of land as a normal–even inevitable–part of
human history. What’s missing from all accounts is the naked truth that land
inhabited and used in common by English peasants and Native Americans had to first
be stolen, before it could ever become the private property that can be bought
and sold today.

Instead, we have this
section of Prentice Hall’s America,
titled “Conflict with Native Americans”: “Although the Native Americans did
help the English through the difficult times, tensions persisted. Incidents of
violence occurred side by side with regular trade. Exchanges begun on both
sides with good intentions could become angry confrontations in a matter of
minutes through simple misunderstandings. Indeed, the failure of each group to
understand the culture of the other prevented any permanent cooperation between
the English and Native Americans.”

This is history of the
worst kind, in which a misguided attempt at “balance” results in a morally
ambiguous explanation for the dispossession and murder of millions of Native

In fact, the growth of
industrial capitalism has been predicated on the private enclosure of the
natural world. And these enclosures have always met with resistance. Students
need to learn this alternative narrative for at least two reasons. First, it
encourages critical conversation about how “economic growth” has been used to
justify the private seizure of the earth’s resources for the profits of a
few–while closing off those same resources, and decisions about how they should
be used, to the rest of us. Even more importantly, this conversation about
history can help us to see today’s environmental crises–from the loss of global
biodiversity to superstorm Sandy–for
what they really are: the culmination of hundreds of years of privatizing and
commodifying the natural world.

The private enclosure of
nature continues today; it’s just hard to see. Like the proverbial fish
surrounded by the water of the “free market,” it’s easy to assume that fossil
fuel companies have some god-given right to profit from polluting our
atmospheric commons. How are young people to recognize this atmospheric grab
when the school curriculum has erased all memory of our collective right to the
natural commons?

Reclaiming these commons
means fueling students’ knowledge about a past that has conveniently
disappeared. Educators did not create the climate crisis, but they have a key
role to play in alerting students to its causes–and potential solutions.

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