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An Environmentalism for LPE: Jed Purdy’s This Land is Our Land


Conor Dwyer Reynolds (@DwyerReynolds) is an Environmental Law Fellow and Clinical Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School.

Law and political economy is on a roll. The Law & Political Economy Project is about to host its inaugural conference. The Association for the Promotion of Political Economy and the Law has launched a journal dedicated to LPE scholarship. LPE student organizations at law schools across the country have sprouted. After two years, this blog has generated a critical mass of LPE thinking on subjects from sex work to environmental law. And now, the movement can lay claim to its first book in the latter subject: Jed Purdy’s This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.

This Land explores our many social crises by tracing their relationships to land. In exploring our problems, ourselves, and the earth beneath us, Purdy finds that all of it is inextricably bound together. This Land reveals that the soils of our cities are poisoned with segregation of race and class, our rivers are suffocated by debris strewn by extractive economics, and our air is infused with emissions of our collective consumption. The cause is our economy, “the way we organize our world,” a network of power which distributes resources and capabilities across the planet.

After unveiling this “technosphere,” Purdy arrives at his core argument, which I describe in an essay in The New Republic:

[E]conomies “do not arise naturally, whether from the self-interest of ‘rational man’ or from the disruptive imagination of entrepreneurs.” Patterns of consumption and distribution, he reminds us, do not reflect our innate biases, failures and preferences; markets, prices, and profit-seeking are no more natural than race, class, or any other social construct. Moreover, these creations are fundamentally interlinked; markets sustain unequal distributions, prices reflect past prejudices, and power defines our preferences. In its totality, this “political economy” pushes upon us an “extractive, inequality-producing logic of commodification,” so that, whatever choices we make, “we are locked into making ourselves instruments of one another’s profits.”

In the rest of that essay, I show how Purdy’s law and political economy perspective can give us hope in the struggle to combat climate change. That, in itself, is a great reason for anyone to read This Land.

But there are other reasons why students of law and political economy should reach for Purdy’s latest. First, the book is a prime example of how to introduce LPE ideas to a broader audience. This Land weaves concepts like the economy, efficiency and markets into depictions of the frontlines of social movements: the struggle for indigenous sovereignty at Bears Ears National Monument, the war on coal in Appalachia, the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. Doing so makes Purdy’s theorizing feel both organic and grounded. Just as useful is the fact that Purdy’s writing is simple and clear. In illuminating the role of our “unchosen” political economy in the climate contagion, he abandons legalese and skillfully deploys literary techniques to allow readers to grapple with his ideas, rather than his prose.

This Land also helpfully exhibits methodologies particularly useful to LPE scholars, such as storytelling. Taking up Richard Delgado’s plea “to inject narrative, perspective, and feeling” into scholarship, Purdy situates his discussion of economy and value within tales from his homelands. A chapter on race, property, and national identity would be easily lost to abstraction if not for the parallel narratives of two walks through the woods (those of Purdy and Henry David Thoreau). The effectiveness of those narratives in driving home the inseparability of race and property in America prove Delgado right in claiming that “narratives are powerful means for destroying mindset – the bundle of presuppositions, received wisdoms, and shared understandings against a background of which legal and political discourse takes place.”

Another of This Land’s LPE methodologies stems from its adoption of what Purdy calls the “organizing principle” of environmentalism: that “everything is connected.” As a methodological principle, this translates to an attention to history. In his chapter on the potential to “radicalize environmentalism,” Purdy examines more than just the present day environmental movement and the white upper-middle class perspective which dominates it. Instead, This Land tells the history of that movement (or, more accurately, the histories of that movement) as they were lived by the women, poor people, and people of color at their center. The effectiveness of this method gives weight to Purdy’s conclusion that the inability to address issues like environmental racism is a contingent, rather than essential, feature of the modern environmental movement; by getting back to its intersectional roots – and by building organizations and legal tools which directly address racial and economic inequities within our environments – American environmentalism can be reclaimed and redeemed.

Finally, This Land’s closing chapter provides students of LPE with a scaffolding for tackling the deepest questions of environmental law. Titled “The Value of Life,” This Land’s conclusion begins by describing how the law and economics framework paints dresses itself in neutrality:

Instead of value, the story goes, we use the most precise and neutral concept of price – what things in fact cost. . . . And—we’re told—the concept of price respects the freedom and equality of human beings. Prices reflect people’s real-life priorities in the choices they make every day. You speak your truth, I will do my thing, and our decisions will jointly produce the wage rate for the work we do, the cost of housing where we live, and the price of aloe. By contrast, a theory of value would be totalitarian. It would tell us what priorities we should have. It would amount to telling us what the meaning of our own lives should be.

In his last pages, Purdy goes about uncovering the “deep mistake” at the heart of this story, and how that mistake distorts our understanding of environmental problems. I won’t spoil the details of that excavation, but it ends with a fantastic discovery: that the commonwealth that This Land aims toward is both more ambitious and attainable than we might otherwise believe.

Still, it is not definitive answers which make This Land a must-read for students of LPE. What makes Purdy’s work most compelling is, instead, its incompleteness. At less than 200 pages, it is meant to spark, not end, discussions; it is a book written for those eager to poke and prod at its provocations, rather than merely assent to them. With ideas and images abound, This Land is a statement as clear as it is bold: LPE is arriving.