Why couldn’t a forest own itself?

I’ve talked a great deal about the incoherence of the concept of self-ownership and how it’s a self-serving belief used to further capitalist aims. Here I would like to talk about how self-ownership rhetoric can unwittingly be used to attack capitalism.

My line of reasoning began when I learned about a very special tree. There is a tree in Athens, Georgia, the only one in the world as far as I know, which is a “self-owner.” Not only that, but it also owns the piece of land it lives on. Since it is the son of the original “self-owning” tree, people call it “The Son of the Tree that Owns Itself.” For the sake of clarity, let’s call them both SOTs (self-owning trees).

The Wikipedia page opines:

This does not confirm that the tree owns itself, but suggests, rather, that it is considered to be within the right-of-way along Finley Street. Athens-Clarke County confirms that the tree is in the right-of-way, and is thus “accepted for care” by municipal authorities… Regarding Jackson’s deed, one writer noted at the beginning of the 20th century, “However defective this title may be in law, the public recognized it.” In that spirit, it is the stated position of the Athens-Clarke County unified government that the tree, in spite of the law, does indeed own itself.

This may just be a “cute” footnote to local Georgia folklore, but seen from a political perspective it does present some interesting questions.

“Property” is really two relations: a relation between two sides, owner and owned, which we could call a claim, and a relation between the owner and the other individuals in that society where the latter agree to respect and uphold the claim. Without either of these two relations, property cannot exist.

According to self-ownership rhetoric, however, we can just forget about the first relation because “owner” and “owned” can be equated. If this is true, then, from this perspective, “property” can only be a relation between that person or thing and the rest of society. If other people recognize and respect a property claim, then that claim is valid. And in reverse, if the property claim is not recognized, then the claim is invalid.

If this is true (and I am not saying it is, obviously, since I don’t believe in self-ownership), then the SOT in question is actually self-owning, because its claim is recognized by the individuals in its society. The law is, as in all things, an indication but not a definitive answer: an unenforced law has no relevance due to that lack of enforcement, and a belief enforced without or against law (as in this case) gains relevance from that enforcement.

One may answer that this recognition is facetious and could be withdrawn at any time, but I fail to see how this does not equally apply to human beings. After all, we withdraw our belief in other people’s self-ownership constantly (for example, when we throw them in prison, force them to go to school, kill them in wars, etc), and most people praise these events. If this does not nullify self-ownership in humans, why should it nullify self-ownership in trees?

On what other basis should we disqualify trees from “self-ownership”? That we need to cut them down, and therefore cannot afford such tenderness of heart? But there are plenty of people who defend human sacrifice, and who would accuse egalitarians of being namby-pamby. So again, no significant difference there.

Is it that trees do not have a “self”? I have yet to hear any account of the “self” in “self-ownership” that doesn’t either degenerate into “the body owns the body” or veers into metaphysical nonsense. If advocates of the concept can point to a “self,” and can explain why their particular conception has any relevance to the discussion, then we shall see.

But suppose that non-human organisms, such as trees, can indeed own themselves, as I think the SOTs has demonstrated. Then the link between self-ownership and rampant capitalism is cast in even further doubt than previously.

Our “normal” perspective on “self-ownership” is that only humans can be “self-owners.” That’s because “self-ownership” is a self-serving construct meant to reinforce the notion that humans are at the apex and “nature,” that which is outside of us, is inherently inferior and should serve our needs. As God stated to Noah and his family, all green plants are their property and everything that moves is for eating: the only difference now is that we’ve replaced the religious Bible with a secular “Humans’ Burden.”

In capitalism, the natural world only gains any sort of value at all through an alchemic transmutation called “mixing one’s labor,” or “transformation.” The message here is clear: nature itself is only valuable insofar as it serves human values. This is the same rationale of exploitation that the elite uses against women, workers, children, POC, and so on: you are valuable only as long as you serve our interests.

The concept that a tree could be an owner is ridiculous to us because we’ve been raised with the elitist Western notion that humans are separate from the rest of nature, that humans (especially white adult males) are “intelligent” in a way that no other part of nature can be, that trees, like all other “natural resources,” exist solely for our benefit.

I was driving through the English countryside with my daughter Juliet, then aged six, and she pointed out some flowers by the wayside. I asked her what she thought wildflowers were for. She gave a rather thoughtful answer: “Two things,” she said. “To make the world pretty, and to help the bees make honey for us.” I was touched by this and sorry I had to tell her that it wasn’t true.
Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable

Sure it’s easy to laugh it off as childish ignorance, but she’s just regurgitating what she’s been taught. That’s the worldview we’ve all been indoctrinated with, and it’s the worldview that’s leading to the squandering of the resources of this planet and the extermination of hundreds of species every year.

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