Land Reform and the Green New Deal

Land Reform and the Green New Deal

Few Green New Deal proposals include explicit attention to rural people and places. But a bold vision for rural America can challenge the ascendance of right-wing populism.

Suburban Resettlement Administration poster, 1936 (Library of Congress)

Talk of a Green New Deal is shaking up the U.S. political landscape. While the specifics remain open to debate, Green New Deal proponents argue that the government could simultaneously reduce inequality and the dangers of climate change with a variety of measures aimed at shifting the national economy toward renewable energy sources. Conservative forces and their media mouthpieces are working hard to discredit the Green New Deal as, among other things, an attack on individual freedoms promoted by big-city vegans. But while support for the Green New Deal is higher in urban and suburban areas (67 and 63 percent, respectively), a majority of likely rural voters (55 percent) also favor the idea.

As the 2020 elections approach, a wide array of pundits, activists, interest groups, and community organizations on the left are vying to influence the content and scope of various Green New Deal proposals, but very few, if any, include explicit attention to rural people and places. That must change. A bold vision for rural America can build broader support for the Green New Deal and challenge the ascendance of right-wing populism.

Revisiting the original New Deal, and a 1970s movement that rearticulated its vision, suggests that land reform must be at the heart of that vision. The politics of land and the rural United States more broadly were key to the New Deal. Inspired in part by the demands of migrant farmworkers and impoverished farmers, a group of agrarian reformers attempted to address the linked crises of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. While their programs often incorporated contradictory goals and were locally implemented in ways that reinforced existing racial and class inequalities, they also enacted meaningful progressive reforms. The Resettlement Administration worked to provide productive land, training, and communal infrastructure for some of the country’s poorest farmworkers; its successor, the Farm Security Administration, provided loans for tenant farmers to purchase their own land. New Deal land programs also addressed environmental problems, such as the soil erosion that led to destructive dust storms, by providing technical assistance to landowners and purchasing marginal properties to increase national forest acreage. Rethinking control over land was central to addressing the social and environmental crises of their time.

Today’s challenges are strikingly similar. Climate change poses an even greater existential threat to human life than unchecked soil erosion did in the era of the Dust Bowl. In both moments, unchecked corporate power over land and other resources—whether the railroad monopolies of the early twentieth century or the fossil fuel industry today—is a root cause of the problem. And inequalities in U.S. wealth distribution are approaching the same levels as those of the Great Depression—a trend reflected in, and related to, the increasing concentration of land ownership. Between 2008 and 2017, the median holdings of the top 100 U.S. landowners grew from 160,000 to 250,000 acres. According to a 2016 study by economist Edward Wolff, the wealthiest 1 percent of households own 40 percent of U.S. land value. The top 10 percent owns a whopping 85 percent. This concentration is starkly racialized: the top five landowners, all white, own more acreage than all of black America combined, and 98 percent of agricultural land acreage is white-owned. And the original inhabitants of what is now the United States own very little of it; Native reservations are federal land and subject to policies that encourage fossil fuel extraction for corporate profit.

For decades, free-market ideologies have made it almost impossible to even discuss this problem. But the ongoing crisis of neoliberalism provides an opportunity for the left to embrace a full-throated critique of existing property relations. If the Green New Deal is to achieve its stated goals, it must incorporate meaningful land reform. This might seem like a pipe dream, or a relic of the distant past, and there are indeed serious challenges with any national land reform program. But there are also examples of such projects all over the world that offer important lessons today, including a robust national land reform movement that formed in the United States just over forty years ago—the National Coalition for Land Reform (NCLR).


In April 1973, a group of about 400 scholars, policymakers, organizers, and advocates gathered in San Francisco for the First National Conference on Land Reform. It was a thoroughly populist affair. However, in contrast to the right-wing populisms reshaping global politics today, the conference mobilized the language of “the people” in order to challenge economic inequality and environmental destruction. Speakers elaborated a critique of “the takeover by wealthy outside interests of land and resources that should belong to the people,” and they argued that “farmers, farmworkers, and environmentalists, whites, blacks, chicanos, and Indians [must] join together in the struggle.” The conference spawned several publishing and organizing projects over the next three years aimed at connecting local and regional efforts for land reform into a loose national coalition that could share strategies and push for policy change at the federal level.

The 1970s were a crucial turning point in U.S. political history. Many have traced the break-up of the New Deal coalition and the onset of neoliberalism to this decade. In his new book, We’ve Got People, Ryan Grim locates the roots of the Democratic Party’s turn away from the working class in its efforts to court corporate donors in the 1970s. The story of the NCLR adds to our understanding of this critical moment by shedding light on the historical roots of the current tension between rural politics and liberal environmentalism. The NCLR developed a critique of the way that increasing land concentration by corporate and absentee owners exacerbated both economic inequality and environmental destruction. Instead of embracing this analysis of property and power, however, green liberals increasingly turned away from rural and productive landscapes, promoting a politics of consumption rooted largely in the urban and suburban concerns of the professional class: recycling, energy efficiency, outdoor recreation, and the like.

Indeed, the NCLR coalition disbanded in the mid-1970s without achieving the policy changes its leaders desired—and it left little mark on popular political consciousness in the decades that followed. Yet its bold vision suggests several important lessons for the left at a time when issues of land rights, corporate power, and global-scale environmental destruction are more pressing than ever.

The NCLR explicitly invoked the radical potential of the original New Deal land reforms. The coalition reflected on both the strengths and weaknesses of these programs, with particular attention to how new land reforms ought to favor the country’s poorest people and challenge the racial inequalities that characterized the original New Deal. Like many New Dealers, the organizers of the NCLR positioned rural America as central to national problems. Peter Barnes, one of the movement’s leaders, argued that urbanization and the separation of people from the land over the course of the twentieth century facilitated unchecked power and destruction in the countryside, and impoverished the political vision of progressives in the process. “With three out of four Americans now jammed into cities,” he lamented, “no one pays much attention to landholding patterns in the countryside.” However, Barnes and the NCLR insisted that, despite the immense demographic and cultural changes in the decades following the Great Depression, the political economy of the rural United States remained just as central to the fate of the entire country in the final third of the twentieth century.

The most obvious intellectual link between the New Deal and the NCLR was Paul S. Taylor, an influential agricultural economist at UC–Berkeley from the 1920s into the 1960s. Much of Taylor’s early research revolved around the struggles of Mexican farmworkers. It was through this work that he met Dorothea Lange, whose photographs for the Farm Security Administration captured the lives of tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the 1930s. Lange and Taylor, who married soon after meeting, in 1939 published American Exodus, a popular and dramatic documentation of rural poverty during the Great Depression aimed at pushing the extension of New Deal benefits to farmworkers. Later in his career, Taylor highlighted the ways that the benefits of publicly funded agricultural irrigation projects in California flowed into the coffers of elite landowners, reproducing massive inequalities in rural land ownership. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who drafted legislation in the early 1970s that limited the expansion of corporate power in agriculture, followed Taylor’s work closely and helped connect a network of progressives across the country with an interest in rural land reform—the foundation of the NCLR.

At the 1973 conference, historians Sidney Baldwin and Donald Grubbs debated the strengths and weaknesses of New Deal land reforms. The Texas populist and founder of the Agribusiness Accountability Project Jim Hightower highlighted the ways that public land-grant universities supported corporate agriculture over rural people. Dorothy Bradley, a Montana state representative, spoke about the ways that massive land giveaways to railroads affected her rural constituents. The academics, community organizers, union leaders, politicians, and bureaucrats at the NCLR conference came with their own particular causes and areas of expertise, but they had the common goal of reviving New Deal–era critiques of land consolidation and offering an alternative vision. They argued that the government should heavily regulate and tax economic elites in order to support rural land redistribution by and for “the people.”

Yet they did not see “the people” as homogenous. Class and economic inequality were foundational to NCLR participants, but they also acknowledged the importance of regional, sectoral, and racial differences. Economic inequality, environmental devastation, and “the deterioration of our cities,” as one member argued, “have their roots in the land, or more precisely, in the lack of access to productive land ownership by the poor, the young, and the non-white.” They believed that “the land issue” could bring together environmentalists, labor, and dispossessed racial minorities. At the initial conference, Robert S. Browne—founder of the Review of Black Political Economy and the Emergency Land Fund—spoke about how racial discrimination exacerbated black land loss in the U.S. South. Indigenous peoples were also involved in the founding conference, and NCLR publications include their critiques of the continuing colonization of Indian lands. Kirke Kickingbird and Karen Ducheneaux argued for establishing an inviolable Indigenous land base of 100 million acres.

By the end of the 1973 conference, the NCLR agreed on a broad and ambitious Declaration of Principles. “Land is a precious and finite resource and the birthright of the people,” it opens. “Its ownership and control, and the associated economic and political power, must be widely distributed.” The declaration outlines the values that should guide the management of public lands in the public interest, and the redistribution of land from exploitative corporations and absentee elites to “Indians and Hispanic-Americans with historic claims, along with low-income people generally.” It included a land transfer mechanism, financial and technical assistance to new owners, marketing assistance, tax reform, anti-trust reform, and reform of the land-grant universities. All of these policies would work to prevent the reconsolidation of land ownership, and many (such as a more progressive tax structure) would produce egalitarian results in other areas as well.

Like any political movement, the NCLR had limitations. In its effort to center rural struggles it occasionally romanticized the countryside in a way that echoed a nationalistic agrarian mythology. The NCLR also failed to thoroughly consider whether the concept of private landownership itself—rather than just the concentration of ownership—was a problem. But NCLR’s ideas remind us that rural politics are central to broader economic and ecological issues. For all of their shortcomings, the architects of the original New Deal realized this, and they would be shocked that land reform and rural issues in general are not central features of the green sequel. Any project that aims to create a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will require a massive redesign of our social and ecological landscapes, and land reform is crucial to such an endeavor.

At the most obvious level, any challenge to the current carbon economy must end the giveaways of public land to the fossil-fuel industry. Drastically cutting carbon emissions also requires a complete retooling of the food system, which would demand radically reshaping existing patterns of land tenure to enable smaller-scale, diversified, and localized sustainable agriculture. In fact, access to affordable arable land is probably the single largest challenge for those wishing to create climate-friendly food systems.

Luckily, there are many existing—if often disconnected—movements and projects that are grappling with these issues. Indigenous movements for land restitution remain vital, and since the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016 they have transformed and strengthened alliances with climate activists. Many in the sustainable agriculture and local food movements are also realizing that land reform is necessary if they are to create the changes they desire. For instance, in 2014, Greenhorns, one of the largest nonprofit groups promoting and supporting new sustainable growers, launched a sister organization dedicated entirely to supporting land access for the next generation of farmers. Similarly, the Northeast Farmers of Color Network recently identified access to land as one of the most significant barriers to community well-being and economic stability, as Audrea Lim wrote for Jacobin. Finally, anti-gentrification and urban agriculture movements in cities across the country are creatively challenging existing land tenure patterns—whether through formal institutions like community land trusts or informal actions such as “guerrilla gardening” on vacant land. Linking these various groups and their projects into a broad national movement for land reform is an immense opportunity for the left today.

The NCLR developed a detailed plan that could be adapted to the desires and interests of these diverse groups today with only slight tinkering. A national land trust fund (Barnes suggested the name “Land Conservation Fund” to avoid pushback against “land reform”) would provide a mechanism for the redistribution of land and power from corporate and absentee owners to popular control. The fund would collect revenue from a federal severance tax levied on the extraction of fossil fuels (which could and should be very high), as well as revenue from an unearned increment tax on property holders. Avoiding the worst climate change scenarios necessitates keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and a steep severance tax on their extraction is one of the best ways to do that. In the meantime, any profits made from their extraction should fund the land reforms necessary for a just transition. The unearned increment property tax, which could take the form of an annual capital gains tax on the value of land appreciation, would complement this while reducing real estate speculation. The national land trust would distribute these funds to groups and individuals operating in accordance with the public need for a just transition: low-income and sustainable agriculture cooperatives, local government open space projects, black land loss funds, regional renewable energy infrastructure, Native American land restitution, and community development cooperatives. There are many details to work out and challenges to confront for such a plan, but they are not insurmountable.

An ambitious plan of land reform has the potential to summon a diverse constituency from a currently fragmented polity. Beyond its ecological necessity, it serves a vital strategic role for a resurgent left politics that will need to build a more diverse geographic base if it hopes to wield real power. The NCLR’s main focus was on rural land and national policy, but it overlooked possible urban and transnational connections; it foreclosed important alliances and occasionally resorted to agrarian nostalgia with an anti-urban bias. Land reform efforts today should, by contrast, build a bridge between “rural” and “urban” issues. An alliance of urban food justice organizations and rural small farm advocates is just one of many natural connections.

Similarly, proponents of the Green New Deal need to understand its challenges and opportunities in global context. They need to build solidarity with global climate justice and food sovereignty movements, such as La Via Campesina, in order to understand how a just transition in the United States would affect the rest of the world. As Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson recently pointed out, current elements of the Green New Deal support the promotion of U.S. firms as “global leaders” in the emerging market for renewable energy technologies, effectively reproducing economic imperialism. Green New Deal advocates must also confront the geopolitical imperialism powered by the U.S. military—with more than 800 bases around the world—which is a massive contributor to climate change and drain on public funds. Indigenous activists, complementing the Movement for Black Lives’ call for defunding mass incarceration, implore us to “imagine divesting from these institutions [military, police, prisons] and freeing up $1 trillion to accomplish the task of saving this earth for everyone,” as Nick Estes writes. If its proponents grapple with these political issues not just across the country but beyond U.S. borders, the Green New Deal might live up to its name.

The efforts of the National Coalition for Land Reform suggest that land reform is not only necessary for a just transition but that it has the potential to connect the interests and desires of urban and rural communities, as well as Indigenous peoples, white settlers, descendants of slaves, and migrants. Such a task would not be simple or without conflict. But it will be impossible to build a broad emancipatory coalition without confronting these tensions. A national land reform movement oriented toward environmental justice could provide the foundation for left populism in the era of climate change.

Levi Van Sant is a human geographer and an assistant professor in the School of Integrative Studies at George Mason University. His research analyzes U.S. environmental politics, particularly issues of agriculture, conservation, and land use.