Climate, Land and Homes by Theo Middleton
Back in the heady days of Climate Camp 2007, when it seemed like a radical Green moment might be just around the corner, I remember a flyer that exclaimed “You Are Not Fucked”. The aim was to release people from the paralysing fear of global climate meltdown: to reassure them that their efforts would not be in vain, if we all acted together. Five years on, that vision seems further away than ever: an ongoing economic crisis has pushed climate change off the agenda, the environment has gone out of fashion, and many of the green pundits seem to have given up hope. Perhaps it is finally time to say it: “You Are Fucked”.
Sadly, our political and economic systems are inherently incapable of addressing the issue of climate change. We are facing a cascade of interlinked crises – ecological, economic and democratic – each of which feeds the other in a gluttonous orgy of consumerism and credit. At the root of all this lies a system of wealth distribution little changed since feudal times; it is the enormous inequality in land ownership and the precedence accorded to private property over basic human needs that explains the complete inertia of our governments in the face of these crises.
In the UK, 0.3% of people own 67% of all the land in the country. It’s no wonder that the other 99.7% of us struggle to eke out a reasonable existence on the remainder. Not only is the ownership of land centralised in the hands of a tiny group of aristocrats, little changed over hundreds of years, but large swathes of land are desperately under-used and ill-managed. Without land we cannot support ourselves. We literally cannot live: we have no food, no shelter, and no way to provide for ourselves. We are condemned to an indentured life, selling our existence to rent a little space to breathe. The spectre of the Bill hangs heavy over everyone – even the wealthier among us find they are just able to pay larger Bills.
Local food is very fashionable among the middle-class exponents of a green “transition” – it is advocated as a panacea to many of our social and environmental problems. But we cannot grow food without land. It is not possible, nor is it reasonable, to meet the oppression of inequality solely with “positive” programs behind which everyone can unite. The creation of new worlds is inherently linked to confrontation with the current one.
It is not a coincidence that access to land is a core issue in the crisis we face: the removal of access was a central element in the onward march of capitalism that has brought us into the unsustainable present. As land was gradually claimed and enclosed from the commons, those who were left without had to find other means to earn money – to buy food and to rent back the space to live in from the landowners who had taken it all. In some parts of the world this process is happening right now, igniting resistance from indigenous groups such as the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil, the Landless Workers’ Movement.
As the economic crisis tightens its stranglehold, the preference of the government for the protection of private property over human dignity has become more blatant than ever. The Coalition have been digging the moat around the citadel of good fortune as fast as they have been pulling up the ladder of opportunity. The realisation that our planet, and therefore our economy, cannot support indefinite growth has highlighted the uncomfortable truth that we cannot all be rich. Either the wealthy need to share what they’ve got, or the poor need to live with a lot less than they’ve been promised. The capitalist dream has run up against the hard walls of reality, and the government will do everything they can to ensure it’s not their mates who lose out.
The recent criminalisation of squatting is one part of the moat, and the massive cuts to housing benefits and homelessness provision are the rapidly receding ladder to self-advancement. Criminalising those who make a home in unused buildings is a particularly nasty manifestation of the cheapness of human dignity and its irrelevance to those in power. A young man is now languishing in Wormwood Scrubs simply for using an empty Housing Association building as a home without permission, and others are likely to follow him. The rapidity with which the law was rushed through, bypassing even the flimsy democratic procedures that we do have, illustrates the ideological determination of our leaders to ensure that nothing threatens the accumulation of wealth by the super-rich.
A little recap on the statistics: there are an estimated 600,000 homeless people in the UK. There are an estimated 930,000 empty properties. There are as many as 5 million households languishing on council waiting lists. Street homelessness has risen by 23%, and research suggests that average life-expectancy on the street is just 47. Meanwhile, the government has axed housing benefits for under 25s, cut funding for homelessness groups by 30% and capped housing benefits in such a way that swathes of London are set to be cleansed of poor families – at the same time as the deposit needed to buy a home in London has hit £100,000. The situation is getting worse, and is exacerbated by government policies which protect those at the top. The Squash campaign has estimated that the costs of the new squatting laws may be as much as £790million over the next 5 years – money that could have been spent on housing provision instead of the persecution of the homeless.
The supposed support that is offered by the State to those in dire need is no more than salt in the wound, deliberately degrading those who seek help. A man I met recently told me of his experiences with No Second Night Out, the flagship homelessness initiative of London’s Mayor. Following his council’s withdrawal of his housing support under the current cuts, he was housed by NSNO. He was sent to the other side of London and placed in a large hall with lots of other men. He told me that the lights are kept on all night, and that you have to vacate by 8.30am every day. There is nowhere to keep your possessions, and if you miss shower-time at 7.30am then you cannot shower. He left the accommodation because it was too expensive for him to travel across London to where his support networks and his lawyer are, but also because the provision was fatally undermining his sense of self-worth. He was forced to return to the streets. The idea that this is an adequate response to our housing crisis is an embarrassment.
It is almost a truism to describe UK politics as “elitist”. That is what the representative system is designed to be, and to have political power is to be a member of the elite. But in the context of comprehending why we are so royally fucked, it is worth reminding ourselves of this basic fact: our government is unable to address the crises that we face, because to do so it would have to undertake a massive redistribution of land, and therefore wealth. This would undermine its own existence – it is, therefore, institutionally incapable of doing so.
As long as private property rights continue to trump all other needs, there is no way out of either the housing crisis or the climate crisis. One solution lies in communities coming together to reclaim control of land they need to grow on and live on. Internationally, many groups are struggling on this issue. Reclaim the Fields, for example, is a Europe-wide network of community food growers who are very concerned about access to land, and Grow Heathrow – the squatted market garden where I live – is part of this network. In May last year I joined an RtF event in France, where about 200 people took over and cleared an abandoned field that lies in the path of another proposed airport near Nantes. The project is going from strength to strength, but continues to battle eviction threats alongside the numerous other communities who have established themselves on the land nearby. Grow Heathrow is also fighting an ongoing legal battle, in which the question of the importance of housing need and community interest versus the rights of private property owners to neglect and abandon their property is paramount.
We will almost certainly lose. The legal system, like the parliamentary system, is designed to ensure that we do. But as the economy, the climate, and the democratic procedures themselves come crashing down around the ears of the ruling classes, we hope that all these struggles will help people find new ways of relating to each other and the world around us. So that maybe, one day, things won’t be quite so fucked.
Read this in print – pick up your copy of Strike! here