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date: 02 July 2022

(p. ix) Foreword

(p. ix) Foreword

Few human sentiments are more urgent than place—the place we are born, the place we become sentient, the place we engage others in a variety of pursuits, and finally the place we will become dust. Some creatures have their territory. Humans are creatures of their territory.

It cannot therefore be a surprise that place becomes conflated with land, and vice versa. The primacy of land can be seen in a number of ways. In some societies, “property rights”—shorthand for some presumptive imaginings about individual control over land—often seem more important than “human rights” (whatever they might be). History reveals the military and political importance of land. In agrarian societies the connection between land and economic well-being is obvious. In that regard, it has been claimed that economic development and attendant urbanization will diminish the economic importance of land. This now seems improbable. Indeed, one could make a plausible argument that land will become of increased importance in the future. The contents of this marvelous volume would certainly support that hypothesis.

Those of us who are modern know well the Lockean Creation Myth—God gave land to all in common and then admonished us to take control of it and make it flourish. From this mischief all manner of tragedy has followed, whether we have in mind the near-complete annihilation of indigenous peoples the world over, or the near-misses of European wars of mutually assured destruction throughout recorded history. Land is always worth a good (or bad) fight.

Happily for those of us who are economists, land is also—and always will be—worth a good debate. And good debates lead to good science.

The chapters included here offer profound insights into many of those debates. Josh Duke and JunJie Wu have arranged for an impressive lineup of experts to address, with clarity and rigor, the important issues requiring good analysis and coherent solutions.

An important undercurrent here, and one that explains many of the difficulties in crafting workable public policy to address problems in land use and land use change, is the conceptual inconvenience that land is a fictitious commodity [Polanyi, 2001].1

...labor, land, and money are essential elements of industry; they also must be organized in markets; in fact, these markets form an absolutely vital part of the economic system. But labor, land, and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that (p. x) anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them....Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself....; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual merely a token of purchasing power...which comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance. None of them is produced for sale. The commodity description of labor, land, and money is entirely fictitious

[Polanyi, 2001, pp. 75–6].

The inconvenience of land as a fictitious commodity arises because economic models can only do the necessary work when they are deployed in the service of answers to questions that motivated their creation in the first place. All models are context specific, and they are only useful if their deployment in new settings is consistent with the assumptions underlying their essential structure. The test of all models is whether or not they are good to think with.

For most economic models, various quantities of a particular commodity can be arrayed along one axis, and the various prices of that commodity can be arrayed along another axis. Unfortunately for land and land use changes, the commodity fiction renders this problematic. It is, of course possible to plot acres/hectares of land along one axis, and it is possible to refine that depiction by incorporating some index of “quality.” But that may not satisfy some who refuse to see land in that light. Equally problematic, the other axis in our models reflects yet another fictitious commodity—money.

Suddenly we see why there are so many profound debates about land. The very concepts and models that allow us to analyze markets for “real” commodities—toothpaste, bread, houses, cameras—offer up seriously contested concepts when we must deal with land (nature). Two obvious problems arise. First, many people refuse to accept money as a plausible measure of the value of land—the one fictitious commodity cannot be mapped into the other fictitious commodity. Second, many people refuse to accept the idea that land (nature) is a commodity. Note that for the concept of a commodity to have any meaning in economics it must be capable of assignment (ownership). This introduces the concept of “belonging to.” Native people say that land does not belong to them—they belong to the land. The implication of this notion may warrant a brief elaboration. Recall that the essence of a normal commodity is that when it moves through markets the only thing that really matters is that there is a change in its ownership. That is what markets do—they mediate changes in ownership of those commodities that “pass through” markets. And since ownership is itself yet another social construct, we see the layering of contestation that will always attend economic analysis of land, land use, and land use change.

We disregard these concerns at our peril. If we hope to produce policy relevant insights concerning the contested realms of land, we must speak to a large audience of sapient adults who refuse to accept quite fundamental presumptions in our models. Science practiced in disregard for shared human meanings is impertinent.

The various chapters here admirably spell out the contested nature of figuring out how to think about what is better to do with respect to land. I like to say that there is no such thing as land, there is only land tenure—social rules that bestow on certain individuals (p. xi) a circumscribed suite of capacities concerning what can and cannot be done with that thing we call land. And this reminds us that when we study land we are really poking around at the outer limits of presumptions concerning who gets to define the rules by which land use—and land use change—shall be determined. It seems we are back to the matter of presumptive “rights” over land. And as we know, rights are not inherent but worked out:

Only those economic advantages are rights which have the law back of them...whether it is a property right is really the question to be answered [Justice R. Jackson, Willow River Power Co. 324 US 499, 502 (1945)].

In other words, economic advantages are not protected because they are rights. Rather, those settings and circumstances that a society chooses to consider valuable are given protection under the cover of “rights.” We see that economic advantages are bestowed by the political class. Suddenly we grasp the fount of contestation over the manifold advantages of owning this thing called land.

Daniel W. Bromley


October, 2011 (p. xii)


(1) Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.