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The Earth Belongs to Everyone

Alexia Eastwood
09 February 2009

Sharing the land and resources of the world more equally is the basis for the ‘Next World Economy’ founded upon comprehensive tax reform and Earth Rights Democracy, says a new book by Alanna Hartzok. Review by Alexia Eastwood.

In ‘The Earth Belongs to Everyone’, Alanna Hartzok establishes equal rights to the earth and its resources as a basic human right, identifying sharing as a key ethic in constructing the ‘Next Economy’.  This compilation of essays represents the author’s life journey, weaving personal narratives and new economic perspectives around the themes of Earth Rights Democracy and land rights issues.  In providing practical and applicable policy solutions, Alanna Hartzok’s analysis stands out in its capacity to inspire optimism and propose affirmative action.

From a holistic perspective of the current world system, Hartzok identifies the maldistribution of wealth that characterises contemporary society as rooted in our systems of land tenure, capital ownership, and monetary policy. In examining the historical context of the distribution of land ownership, she finds “a crack in the liberty bell” that emerges as the principle dilemma of democracy and the root of its failure to provide a just society for all.  The concentration of land in the hands of a few is historically traced to the Roman land tenure system of dominium, which legalised land titles acquired by conquest, and ”continues to make rot of our political democracy.”

A sobering review of the statistics reveals both the extent of and the link between economic inequality and the concentration of land ownership.  The solution, Hartzok proposes, can be found in an economically democratic world system, what she calls ‘Earth Rights Democracy’, which would embody a new form of political economy based on equal rights to the land and its resources.

Two proposals for tax reform to achieve this goal are outlined, combining work from classical economists such as Henry George and Thomas Paine, as well as current movements for green taxes.  Land value capture tax, or ground rent, as a source for public revenue ensures that funds for the commonwealth are collected from the common wealth, in this case defined as our collective birthright to the earth and its natural resources.

Hartzok argues that shifting the tax focus from labour and productive capital and onto land value tax (the intrinsic value of land and natural resources without the input of human labour) would secure an equitable source of public funds to provide for the collective needs of the community, or else could be distributed through an annual citizens dividend programme.  Green tax reform, either by way of polluter tax or resource rents, would also prevent the externalisation of the environmental costs of production onto the public, and promote more efficient and careful use of natural resources by the private sector.  

A Global Resource Agency could supervise the use of the resources of the global commons that fall outside of the jurisdiction of national territories, which would address the use of the air waves, the ozone layer, the deep seas and similar shared spaces, as well as decreasing conflict over natural resources and territories.  A ‘local-to-global’ public finance system could thereby provide a framework to integrate environmental protection and human interest with market principles. 

A number of variations of these simple and yet convincing proposals are already a reality in some regions of the world, and Hartzok provides several inspiring examples of their success.   The Alaska Permanent Fund is one such working model of resource rents that is invoked as a potential basic template for an extended global model.  Under the Alaskan constitution, the natural resources belong to the state and are to be managed for the maximum benefit of the people.  Accordingly, a resource rent is collected on oil and other resources and invested for the benefit of future generations, as well as a portion being distributed as an annual citizens dividend.  (Interestingly, as Hartzok points out, Alaska is the only state in the United States where the wealth gap has decreased during the last decade.)

A similar initiative is in place in Norway, with the benefits being delivered to citizens by way of public services and investment for future economic stability.  In Pennsylvania, the implementation of a split-rate property tax, which increases the tax on land values whilst decreasing tax on buildings, has been widely successful in improving the efficient use of urban space and infrastructure, as well as discouraging land speculation and ensuring that the benefits of development are passed onto the whole community.  Furthermore, land value capture is a policy supported by the UN Habitat Declaration of 1996 as a tool for alleviating poverty and inequality.

Sharing the land and resources of the world more equally among the population would “level the economic playing field,” says Hartzok, and the proposed programs of tax reform encompass the potential for a public finance system that could provide a fivefold benefit for society:

  • Fair distribution of wealth

  • Environmental protection

  • Wealth production

  • Provision of adequate government services

  • Peaceful resolution of territorial conflicts

Hartzok’s vision gives us a renewed hope for a society in which the world’s resources are no longer exploited for private gain, forming the basis for the ‘Next World Economy’ rooted in ideals of social justice, environmental protection and basic needs for all.

Alanna Hartzok is Co-Director of Earth Rights Institute, a civil society organization working for economic justice and peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Link to reviews of The Earth Belongs to Everyone

Link to the Earth Rights Institute