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Setting free our history

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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 citizens.

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 Americans.

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.

About Tim Swinehart

Tim Swinehart teaches social studies at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon. This is reposted from Good magazine, and will appear in a longer form in Rethinking Schools, for which Swinehart regularly writes. The article was written as part of the Zinn Education Project for its If We Knew Our History series. See his related article Don’t Take Our Voices Away: A Role Play on the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change in Rethinking Schools.

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