Monday, December 7, 2009

On "American Green" by Stephen Germac ***

I had wanted to read American Green by Ted Steinberg, but the library didn't have it. That book apparently does for lawn care what Fast Food Nation did for fast food. Instead, I found this American Green, by Stephen Germac, which turned out to be an interesting subject all its own--enough that I opted to check it out.

Germac's book is no light reading. This is academic writing as its dense and difficult best. By that I mean that, while not easy reading, it is by no means impenetrable, and the rewards of wading through the prose are worth it.

Germac's text is essentially a Marxist critique of public and national parks. His basic thesis is that capitalism creates inevitably excess production. This is the cause of our economic downturns every nine years or so. In the 1870s, there was a railroad bubble, just as in the 1990s there was a tech bubble and in the 2000s a real estate bubble. To use up this excess capital, the state turns to financing public parks. Parks produce nothing, yet they use a tremendous amount of the surplus production. In turn, they also put the unemployed laboring class to work and, thus, help to offset labor unrest and keep the peace, as well as keep the social strata in its familiar order of rich, middle class, and poor.

The irony of the creation of said parks is that while they are "public"--accessible to all, thus appearing to elide class difference--and put the laboring classes to work, Germac notes, such parks actually reinforce class structures. They do this because they are generally built at the expense of the lower classes for the primary benefit of the upper classes. How so? Germac uses New York's Central Park, Yosemite, and Yellowstone as his key examples.

In Central Park, Germac notes, how the park itself required the resettling of a predominantly black neighborhood. This neighborhood, in a passage from the New York Times that Germac quotes, was, in the eyes of the contemporary higher classes, mostly a shanty town in need of destruction. Germac notes that the neighborhood was actually one of the most stable of the black neighborhoods in New York. Here, what little the poor have is taken for the sake of handing over property to the "public." This "public" is essentially one consisting of the higher classes, because those who are able to enjoy the park are those who have one of the following: (1) money to transport to the park; (2) money to afford the higher-cost real estate next to the park; and/or (3) jobs that are flexible enough to allow for trips to the park during daylight hours. Such benefits preclude those who are removed to districts much farther away in order to make the public park possible.

A similar thing happens in Yellowstone, where native people are booted off their land in order to create a public park available for all American citizens. Here, land surveyors note both that the land is inhabited only by a few barbarians and also that the land is uninhabited. Barbarians--Natives who lack political power--in other words, equals no one. The public that can afford to visit the park are those able to afford the railway ticket costs, which again precludes most of those in the lower class.

It's an unsettling reading of the American park system. And it's engaging theoretically. On a practical level, I'm left a bit startled, however. The author alludes to environmentalists' dislike of his work and gives a little rational for why they should not be troubled by it (after all, few environmentalists would accede to booting Native peoples off land in order to "preserve" the land for a blessed "public," if they knew in fact that was at the heart of what was happening). But this, for me, doesn't resolve the question as to how one preserves natural spaces--it would, in fact, seem to suggest such preservation is inherently ill-conceived.

I'm reminded of a Supreme Court case from a few years ago wherein a town declared eminent domain over some private property in order to hand that property over to another private owner for redevelopment. Many among my friends were dismayed and shocked. And yet the case, while troubling, is not so easily black and white. If a state has the right to condemn private property in order to build a road or a stadium or an airport--something that is supposedly in the public interest--how is one to determine what is public interest and what is private? Often the two work with each other to achieve something that neither on its own would be able to do. Many "public" roads become private toll roads. A dilapidated downtown might best be condemned, in the public interest, so that it can be put to use again, for private interest. But what is dilapidated? And what is to happen to those who own land, and make a livelihood, in this supposedly bad part of town? Is the creation of capital inherently bad? Is it, by contrast, inherently good? I would propose neither, and it seems to me that when it comes to public interest there is a vast gray area.

In this sense, I wonder if the economic system set up on the biblical Old Testament might not be on to something. There, every seven years, all debts are forgiven and agricultural production ceases for the course of twelve months. If we extended that to industrial production, would that not give opportunity to use up the excess production that capitalism inevitably creates and thus avoid economic bubbles? In that system also, land is redistributed every fifty years, meaning that no one is left without property in perpetuity in the name of a public or private interest. Perhaps, in that system, equitable distribution of wealth would actually to a degree be possible.

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