Skip to main content

The Sharecropper’s Story and An Ethics for Environmentalism

  • 900 Accesses

Part of the Library of Public Policy and Public Administration book series (LPPP,volume 16)


The progress and now the danger of American Prosperity has relied on the treatment of the Earth as “land.” The story of “lands” around the Atlantic include people viewing the Earth as “Mother,” as “sacred,” and a gift, and as a thing. While the English Common Law treated land as property, the Latin/Roman view saw land as having a “social function.” This view seems implicit in the decision of freed Blacks after the Civil War to choose sharecropping over wages. They believed that “the tillers of the soil should be guaranteed possession of the land” (from the Creed of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union). Returning to the sharecroppers’ desire opens the possibility of changing the current course of history by taking reciprocity or “balanced social relations” as our guiding star. Balancing social relations would entail reparations of unbalanced relations and sharing a city’s land wealth with all the city’s inhabitants.


  • Pawnees
  • Mother Earth
  • English and Latin view of land
  • Social function of land
  • Sharecroppers
  • Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union
  • Reciprocity
  • Reparation
  • Henry George

8.1 Introduction

As an immigrant nation populated with people from different nationalities and cultures, the belief that has kept many white people and some others together has been the promise of American prosperity. From the beginning, the proclamation of this promise relied on the denial of the injustice of the appropriation of Native American land and the assumption that it could be turned into private property with impunity. The refusal to repair these social injustices has keep us from examining our unjust relationship with the Earth by mistaking it as a “thing” that one can commercialize, exploit, and destroy. This all seems quite “normal” to many who have adjusted to living in a climate of injustice. Those who have not adjusted and who have tried to maintain a connection with the Earth as a living habitat for all living beings invite us to tell a different story about the “land” of the Americas.

The story here begins with the lands of the Atlantic before they were reconceptualized by Atlantic commerce beyond any one’s imagination. It then turns to the experience of sharecropping, which provides an opportunity to imagine a different future than the one we inherited—a future based not on dominance and submission, but are reciprocity, reparation, and restoration.

8.2 The Story of the Lands of the Atlantic

For most of the past 400 years, the Atlantic Ocean has remained fairly dependable. Its trade winds facilitated the European appropriation of American lands and the exploitation of African people, the sharing of technological development, the Industrial Revolution, and the globalization of commerce, culture, and everyday life. Recently, the ocean has begun to change. It’s getting warmer, its storms are more violent, and potential changes in its jet streams threaten the livability of some of the nations that surround it. There are other oceans, of course, but none so central to the identity of the United States as the Atlantic and its triangular connections. Bernard Bailyn, one the leading scholars in the field of Atlantic history, writes of the Atlantic:

The integration of the once-disordered American into the emerging Atlantic system was profoundly favored by the ocean’s physiography. The clockwise circulation of winds and ocean currents, sweeping westward in the south and eastward in the north and linked by deep riverine routes—the Elbe and Rhine, the Amazon and Orinoco, the Niger and Congo, the Mississippi and St. Lawrence—to immense continental hinterlands, drew the Atlantic into a cohesive communication system (2005. p. 83)

The Atlantic “communication system,” carried Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality, and prosperity. What made these exchanges possible, however, was the development of the Atlantic triangular trade based on the enslavement of millions of Africans. Bailyn quotes Barbara Solow, a specialist on the Atlantic trade of enslaved people:

What moved in the Atlantic in these centuries was predominantly slaves, the output of slaves, the inputs of slave societies, and the goods and services purchased with the earnings on slave products … Slavery thus affected not only the countries of the slave’s origins and destinations but, equally, those countries that invested in, supplied, or consumed the products of the slave economies (p. 93).

This Atlantic commerce not only radically changed the well-being of Europeans, but also radically changed the African and American indigenous communities. To understand this, you have to imagine what it meant to separate people from their traditional habitats. Although I will use the term “land” in the following section, remember it represents a particular Western perception of the Earth.

8.2.1 The Africans’ Land

What did it mean for enslaved Africans to be torn from their habitat and brought to the Americas to labor on another’s land and to make it productive, not for themselves, but for their owners? What did Africans lose? In addition to the horrific loss of freedom, they lost their community. Losing connections to that community meant that they also lost their connection to their community’s home. They became homeless. Who can ignore the tragedy here that Europeans who left their homes took Africans from their homes to work on someone else’s land—land that the homeless Europeans had taken from Native Americans? Perhaps the homeless Europeans had no idea of what they were doing. How did Africans view their land? The view of the Sudanese Mossi represents what one can assume was a view of many African communities. Elliott Skinner quotes them as saying:

Land is the mother; it fed the ancestors of this generation; it feeds the present generation and its children; and it provides the final resting place for all men (1964, p. 107).

Like much of Africa, the Mossi land was not colonized by European nations until the late nineteenth century (1880–1914) during what has been called “the scramble for Africa.” Before then, the European nations, for the most part, viewed Africa as a trading partner.

Why did the Europeans not colonize Africa earlier? There were probably several reasons. The tropical climate may have discouraged them. African tribes were quite successful in preventing Europeans from moving inland. African tribes and European nations were early trading partners. In any case, Europeans, for the most part, did not settle Africa, but bought Africans and shipped them to the Americas to work the land.

8.2.2 The Americans’ Land

We know today that what was a “discovery” for Europeans was an occupation and, in some cases, an ethnic cleansing and genocide. What we may not always recognize is that the history of the treatment of the land of America is central to the history of America. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in her book, An Indigenous Peoples History of The United States:

Everything in US history is about the land— who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife, who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (real estate) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market (2014, p. 1).

As one might imagine, the more then 500 tribes in the Americas had various views of the land. In general, Native Americans viewed land as a common ground that gave them their provisions. Many farmed the land, owned what they harvested, but did not “own” the land. So, if they did not use the land, someone else could. Some tribes viewed the land as part of a web of life, as ‘Mother Earth.” This does not appear to have been universal, however, because some tribes sold their land to the colonists and later to the US government, which one would hardly do to “Mother Earth.” In fact, as Stuart Banner points out, the colonists-settlers acquired more land by purchase than by conquest (2005, p. 26). Banner also reminds us that these sales were made in particular contexts that in many cases gave the tribes little choice.

The selling and buying of land meant quite different things for the Native Americans and the Europeans. For the Native Americans, selling land meant that the buyers would become an integral part of their social and political network. For the English, the deal meant that they would now have exclusive use of the land and the Indians would have to vacate it, a concept quite foreign to Native Americans (p. 58). Through a long history of forced sells and broken treaties, as well as lost wars, North American Natives lost most of their land.

I recently attended a course by the filmmaker, Christopher McLeod, on the history of Indigenous peoples’ struggles to protect their sacred places, such as Mt. Shasta in California and The Black Hills in South Dakota. In 1980 the US Supreme Court agreed that the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux nation and the government offered to pay $106 million in reparations. The Sioux rejected the payment. For them the Black Hills are sacred (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014, p. 208). Tribes like the Sioux are not only struggling to gain recognition of the spiritual meanings of these sites, but also to have non-natives learn from such sites that the Earth possesses an important spiritual dimension that could be a guide to sustainability.

This perspective is quite different from the one I acquired while growing up on a farm in Western Nebraska. Both of my parents came from farm families. Most of my cousins lived on farms as well. We were farmers, not land speculators. We were more interested in the price of wheat and corn than in the price of land. One could say that we were stewards of the land, but we did not treat it as sacred, as many Indigenous people did. We did improve the land’s productivity through the use of hybrid seeds, fertilizers and irrigation. Still, I think we recognized and experienced gratitude for the Earth’s fertility and the landscape’s beauty. We did not acknowledge, however, in any adequate way that our land had been taken from Indigenous peoples.

At different times, the Nebraska territory was the home to the Arapaho, Arikara, Cheyenne, Dakota, Fox, Kansa, Kiowa, Omaha, Oto, Pawnee, Ponca, Sauk, and Winnebago tribes. Some tribes immigrated to the Nebraska territory, such as the Sioux who came from Minnesota. Others had lived in the general territory for centuries, such as the Pawnee.

Once the Pawnee acquired horses that the Spaniards brought to the Americas in the sixteenth century, they lived as farmers and hunters. In the Spring and Fall, they planted and harvested crops, and in Summer and Winter they hunted bison. The first whites they encountered were fur traders in the early nineteenth century. The continued growth of settlers increased the pressure to sell their land to the federal government before they lost it completely. The convergence of various events led to the Pawnee’s losing their land. Here is Stephen R. Jones’s description of their experience:

As the whites crowded in, capitulation became inevitable. In 1833 the four Pawnee bands gave up 13,000,000 acres south of the Platte River in exchange for $4600 in goods to be paid annually for 12 years. In 1848 they relinquished 110,000 acres north of the Plate in exchange for $2000 in goods. In 1857 they turned over most of their remaining lands, about 10,000,000 acres north of the Plate, for 21.7 cents an acre.

The promised annuities rarely came. Grasshoppers devoured the crops that Indian agents had advised Pawnee to plant. Smallpox and other imported diseases decimated the population, reducing it from about ten thousand in 1832 to fewer than two thousand in 1874 … In addition, the depleted villages became virtually defenseless against repeated raids by the well-armed Lakota. Finally, in 1874 the Pawnee gave up the rest of their land in Nebraska and trudged South to “Indian country” in Oklahoma (2000, p. 46–47).

Most settlers and their decedents would agree that forced removal from one’s home is a traumatic event, but how much worse it must have been for people whose relationship with the land was sacred and not commercial. Jones quotes from George Cronyn’s book, American Indian Poetry, the Pawnee shaman, Tahirussawichi’s description of dawn as a time of creation and wonder:

As we sing the morning start comes nearer, moving swiftly toward its birthplace … . We call to Mother Earth, who is represented by the ear of corn. She has been asleep and resting during the night. We ask her to awake, to move, to arise, for the signs of Dawn are seen in the east and the breath of new light is here.

Mother Earth hears the call; she moves, she awakes, she arises, she feels the warmth of the new-born Dawn. The leaves in the grass stir; all things move with the breath of a new day; everywhere life is renewed.

This is very mysterious; we are speaking of something very sacred, although it happens every day (p. 40).

What a difference between the perspective of the settlers and the settled. As a descendent of settlers, I can say I did sometimes experience a silent connection with nature with the morning sun shining in my bedroom window or the sea gulls following behind the plowing of fields in the spring, but I did not imagine the Earth as sacred.

For most of human history, and for most human communities around the world, my experience—the experience of settlers and their decedents—has been the exception. Even as a boy on a farm, my perceptions were influenced more by the Western framework of what the sociologist Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world,” than by the Native American assumptions of a spiritual world (1922). Weber’s observation was that the scientific approach had eliminated the spiritual dimensions of the Earth. No one illustrates Weber’s view of disenchantment more than the English view of the land.

8.3 The English View of Land

As many of us know, the signature idea of the English view of land is private property. The philosopher, John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government summarizes this view:

Though the earth and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men; for this labour being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others (1980. p. 18).

According to this view, one acquires ownership of land by separating it from the commons through labor. By mixing one’s labor with the land, it becomes one’s private possession. This theory, however, has little relationship with the facts. Those who mixed their labor with the land seldom owned it. The landed gentry did. There are actually two developments that aptly illustrate the English view of the land: enclosure legislation and land speculation.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth century, England passed multiple “enclosure laws,” that gave the landowner absolute control of property. This break from feudalistic relations between the nobility and commoners lead to the migration of commoners to European cities to find work, and to the Americas. The enclosures also broke the connection between land and people. As Andro Linklater writes in his book Owning the Earth, the enclosure movement “split asunder the principle of mutual obligation implicit in land use around the world” (2015, p. 14). One might find some similarity between the enclosure movements and Locke’s theory of property—they both support private ownership—but the difference is also obvious: the landowner’s control of the land was not due to his labor, but rather to legislation. The people who actually worked on the land were the ones driven off.

Although the enclosure movement gives us some understanding of the uniqueness of the British view of land—that its owner had exclusive rights to it—the British view also treated land as an investment. Instead of evaluating land in terms of what it could produce, it was evaluated as a piece of property. As one could imagine, the creation of property you could buy and sell would lead to land speculation. And speculate they did. As Linklater writes,

More than in any other economy of the time, American land was the prime producer of wealth, partly from crops and livestock, but mostly from the increase in its value (p. 148).

We should take notice here that land speculation had nothing to do with John Locke’s notion of land ownership. Owning land does not necessarily include the right to treat it as an investment. To see land as a commodity is to base its value not on what it can provide, but rather on the market of supply and demand. This British view was not shared completely by all European countries, especially those with a Latin history.

8.4 The Latin View of Land

In the occupation and control of Latin America, the Spanish and Portuguese granted large tracks of land to former Conquistadors and other favorites of the Crown as a reward for their efforts in gaining control over the Americas. They were not given ownership of the land, however, but rather dominion over the people on the land. This polity of Encomienda , which means “entrusted,” entitled Spaniards to dominate the native population and extract tribute from them in return for protection, much like in feudalistic Europe. In many cases, the policy of encomienda allowed practices that were as cruel as enslavement. Still, the native population was included in the social order rather than excluded from it. As the historian J.J. Elliott points out, although encomienda had nothing to do with land ownership during the colonial period, some privileged families were able to become owners over time (2006, p. 40). For American peoples, the difference between the English and Latin view of land and people may seem insignificant, but as we try to forge an ethics for environmentalism, it does offer significant options.

Elliott attributes the differences in approaches to different experiences with “others” in Europe: Britain’s experience with the Irish and Spain’s experience with the Moors. Although the Spanish fought the Moors, they did not experience them as culturally inferior. The British, on the other hand, believed they were superior to the Irish, and adopted policies of segregation to avoid racial intermarriage.

Where the Spaniards tended to think in terms of the incorporation of the Indians into an organic and hierarchically organized society, which would enable them in time to attain the supreme benefits of Christianity and culture, the English, after an uncertain start, seem to have decided that there was no middle way between anglicization and exclusion (p. 85).

These different views of the peoples of the Americas paralleled differences between the common law and the Roman legal systems.

8.4.1 The Common Law and Roman Legal Systems

The Latin colonists lived in the legacy of Roman law, which had developed codes of mutual obligations among different classes, including between master and slave. English people, on the other hand, lived in the legacy of the British Common Law, which was not based on codes or principles, but on precedent. There was nothing in this legacy to counter the English trends toward the view of the individual free from all social bonds with others, with the result that, in Linklater’s words:

In sharp contrast to Roman law and for that matter to the civil obligations of landowners under Chinese and Islamic customs, the version that evolved under English common law had no counterbalance. Far from subjecting rights of individual ownership to those of social obligation, throughout the sixteenth century the law heaped civil liberties, political power, and legal protection upon the freeholder at the expense of everyone else (2015, p. 31).

The treatment of land as private property, of course, has been one of the foundations of Western and now Global civilization. Who knows where we would be without it.? Linklater sums up quite well its dual legacy:

The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can be carried or occupied, but of the immovable, near eternal Earth, has proved to be the most destructive and creative cultural force in written history. It has eliminated ancient civilized nations wherever it has encountered them, and displaced entire peoples from their homelands, but it has also spread an un-dreamed of degree of personal freedom and protected it with democratic institutions wherever it has taken hold (p. 5–6).

Hard to disagree with Linklater’s assessment that the practice of treating the Earth as private property—as something devoid of social connections—has brought us to where we are today. It is even more difficult to disagree with the assessment that continuing to treat land as a commodity and as private property accelerates the destruction of the planet. The ideology of private property, in its current form, actually blocks us from moving in the direction of creating a sustainable world, a world where instead of privatizing the Earth for the few, we share the Earth with everyone. There is a legacy that opens up a path that takes us in that direction: the Latin idea of the social function of land.

8.4.2 The Social Function of Land

For most countries in Latin America today, land is interpreted as having a social function. The French Jurist, Leon Duguit, first articulated this idea in 1919 (Ankersen and Ruppert 2006, p. 95). He reasoned that since the state’s function was to provide for certain social needs, the state had an obligation to ensure that land was being used productively—that it was fulfilling its social function. As Thomas Ankersen, and Thomas T. Ruppert, point out, by the middle of the twentieth century, the Social Function Doctrine had been incorporated into most of the Constitutions in Latin America (p. 99). This Doctrine gave the State the right to confiscate lands that were not serving any social function and distribute it to landless people who would use it. In Brazil, the organized squatter movement—the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terro, or MST—used the Social Function Doctrine to justify their occupation of large landholdings. In the past 30 years, MST has assisted over 350 thousand landless families to take unused land (Stedile 2002, p. 85).

This Latin doctrine of the social function of land carries with it an assumption that land and society are deeply related to one another. Indigenous communities have always known this. This knowledge has been recently collected in a volume on “original instructions,” where we can learn, as Melissa Nelson writes, “how to be a good human being living in Reciprocal relation with all of our seen and unseen relatives” (2008, p. 3). For me, these “original instructions” question many of our Western assumptions. That’s a great service. At the same time, they do not make much room for the experiences of enslaved Africans working on land that belonged to their master—their owners.

Enslaved Africans and Native Americans did share a common desire to have a place—to inhabit the Earth. Most Native Americans were removed from their habitat and forced to live on “reservations,” which was not their land but land “set aside” or “reserved” for them. Their place, in other words, in many cases, was not a home. Enslaved Africans, of course, lived on their master’s land. After they fought and gained their freedom in the Civil War they took a chance to create a place for themselves through sharecropping. What could be more natural than sharing crops among those who have contributed to their growth? The historical record, of course, is much more complicated, and yet I think we can find in the history of sharecropping a place to ground an ethics of environmentalism that is broad enough to include not only our relationship with the Earth, but also with each other.

8.5 Sharecropping

Sharecropping, as T.J. Byres points out, is as old as recorded history and practiced in China, India, Africa, and Europe (1983). Landowners and farm workers did not share ownership, but they did share in their efforts in producing something of value from the land.

Although sharecropping has a bad reputation today in the United States, that has not always been the case. In the nineteenth century, the British economist, John Stuart Mill described sharecropping in a more positive light as it was practiced in Northern Italy. His evaluation deserves our attention because it demonstrates what the system of sharecropping could have been in the Anti-Bellum period in the United States.

8.5.1 Mill’s Evaluation of Sharecropping

When Mill examined various accounts of the status of the sharecropper, or “metayer,” in Italy during the nineteenth century, he found their living conditions quite superior to the Irish farmers suffering from the so-called potato famine.

It [sharecropping] establishes a community of interests, and relations of kindness between the proprietors and the metayers; a kindness which I have often witnessed, and from which result great advantages in the moral condition of society. The proprietor under this system, always interested in the success of the crop, never refuses to make an advance upon it, which the land promises to repay with interest. It is by these advances and by the hope thus inspired, that the rich proprietors of land have gradually perfected the whole rural economy of Italy. It is to them that it owes the numerous systems of irrigation which water its soil, as also the establishment of the terrace culture on the hills: gradual but permanent improvements, which common peasants, for want of means, could never have effected, and which could never have been accomplished by the farmers, nor by the great proprietors who let their estates at fixed rents, because they are not sufficiently interested. Thus, the interested system forms of itself that alliance between the rich proprietor, whose means provide for the improvement of the culture, and the metayer whose care and labour are directed, by a common interest, to make the most of these advances (1848, II. 8. 11).

What makes the metayer system in Italy so different from its practice elsewhere? As Mill says, the difference is custom rather than competition. The reigning custom in this case was one of mutual cooperation between the sharecropper and the landowner. Competition, on the other hand, would motivate the landowner to take advantage of his status as owner of the means of production. Mill knew that this could happen.

But if we suppose him converted into a mere tenant, displaceable at the landlord’s will, and liable to have his rent raised by competition to any amount which any unfortunate being in search of subsistence can be found to offer or promise for it; he would lose all the features in his condition which preserve it from being deteriorated; he would be cast down from his present position of a kind of half proprietor of the land, and would sink into a cottier [Irish farmer] tenant (II. 8. 17)

It would be hard to find a more opposite case of Mill’s description of the nineteenth Italian system of metayer relations than the nineteenth century sharecroppers’ experience in the Southern United States.

8.5.2 Southern Sharecropping

After the Civil War, planters and freed workers had different views of how they would relate to each other. Planters tried to get the workers to work for wages. Many Blacks rejected such contracts, because they believed they could be made to work in gangs, as they had done as enslaved workers. What they wanted was “40 acres and a mule” as they had been promised. They wanted, in other words, their own land. As W.E.B Du Bois reminds us, the two key advocates of the Freedman’s Bureau in Congress, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Summer, were perfectly clear that owning land was an essential aspect of reconstruction. Du Bois also argued: “for 250 years the Negroes had worked on this land, and by every analogy in history, when they were emancipated the land ought to have belonged in large part to the workers” (1935, p. 368). The union organizer, Howard Kester, who worked with sharecroppers in the 1930’s, acknowledged that after reconstruction both blacks and poor whites perceived sharecropping as a better option than working for wages.

At that time, it looked like a just and workable scheme that would benefit both. … The Negroes and eventually the poor whites began sharecropping as a means of deliverance (1997, p. 21).

It turned out that sharecropping vastly privileged the landowners over the workers. Kester writes, “what seemed just and workable during the chaotic and black seventies and eighties had re-enslaved him [the workers] once more” (p. 21). Sharecroppers became indebted to landowners for family provisions until the crop was harvested, so their share of the crop was used to repay the debt. The sharecropper also had to buy provisions at the owner’s stores; usually on credit and at inflated prices, which kept sharecroppers into a kind of “debt slavery.” In contrast to Mill’s description of the cooperation between workers and owners in the villages of Italy, the sharecropping experience for Blacks in the South was a disaster. Still, besides recognizing the failure of Southern sharecropping, we could also focus on the significance of the sharecroppers’ desire for their own land as a better alternative then becoming totally dependent on wages. No better formulation of this belief than the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union’s creed:

All actual tillers of the soil should be guaranteed possession of the land, either as working farm families or cooperative associations of such farm families:

The earth is the common heritage of all, and the use and occupancy of the land should constitute the sole title thereto; This organization is dedicated to the complete abolition of tenantry and wage slavery in all its forms, and to the establishment of a new order of society wherein all who are willing to work shall be given the full products of their toil (Lichtenstein 1997, p. 50).

Granted, STFU was not successful in realizing its goal. In the late 30s, many sharecroppers left for better jobs, and those who stayed did not have the means for further mobilization. Still, this fight for land seems like a place from which we could imagine an alternative to the trends of American prosperity that are now destroying the Earth’s living systems. In his recent book, Between The World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates paints a persuasive picture of where the trends of American prosperity are taking us in terms of the American Dream:

Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmitting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the Earth and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves (2015, p. 150–151).

The dream for the automobile—the noose around the neck of the Earth—represents the refusal to see the Earth’s limits, which reveals the Dreamer’s ignorance of the human animal’s place in the planet’s living system. An alternative to this Dream of having it all is the dream of the sharecropper, who recognizes the need to share—to share a place. This idea of receiving one’s share belongs to the notion of reciprocity; perhaps the most widely held, if not always the most widely practiced, principle of communal life.

8.6 Reciprocity

Reciprocity is probably as universally practiced as is sharecropping. The idea is central in the Analects of Confucius:

Zigong asked: “Is there any one word that can serve as a principle for the conduct of life?” Confucius said: “Perhaps the word ‘reciprocity’: Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you (1998, XV:233).

Confucius’ definition of reciprocity will remind Western readers of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others what you would want them to do to you.” In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics one finds a slightly different notion:

In communities based on exchange, however, what binds the parties together is what is just in this way, namely, reciprocity that is proportionate and not equal. For it is proportionate reciprocity that keeps a city together (2014, p. 85).

If one were to ask, what could hold us together if not making compromises, the answer here is simple: reciprocity. Reciprocity, for Aristotle, is not strictly treating everyone the same—equally—but rather honoring relationships between different persons or groups fairly, in terms of what is fair for each participant. Reciprocity, in other words, is about human relationships, not personal virtue. The point is that all parties see the exchanges as fair. In his book on reciprocity, Lawrence Becker points out this basically positive aspect of reciprocity (1986, p. 49):

Clearly, since the whole idea of reciprocity is to return good for good, the return of evil for it will by definition be unfitting, as well be a return of something valueless. Further, since the point of being disposed to reciprocate is to create and sustain balanced social relationships, the good returned will have to be good for the recipient and (eventually) perceived by the recipient both as a good and as a return (p. 107).

When Becker writes “the point of being disposed to reciprocate is to create and sustain balanced social relationships,” he comes close to my understanding of a climate of justice. One could call this a kind of disposition a “civic desire” to do what is necessary to balance “unbalanced social relations,” to make things right.

In theory, sharecropping actually exemplifies the core element of reciprocity: participants received goods in terms of their participation. In the language of systems thinking, those participating in the system share the values created by the system based on their participation. This system worked in nineteenth century Italy but not in the Southern states, because “white redeemers” were successful in re-establishing the old plantation system that had been interrupted by the Civil War and Reconstruction. Instead of co-creating a system based on balanced relations, white redeemers perpetuated the ideology of the “lost cause” that replaced their shame in losing the war with a pride in being right and white.

Today, it’s not the lost cause, but rather the aspirations of the sharecroppers that provide an opening to a viable future. One could talk about the human need for provision and protection without the sharecroppers’ stories, of course, but then it is merely an idea. If we see these ethical principles embedded in human struggles and suffering, then we become aware of where in our story we could change the future, and who must be involved to make the change happen. Encapsulated in the history of American prosperity that now threatens the Earth, in other words, is the story of other Americans struggling to have a secure place on the Earth.

The sharecroppers’ desire for balanced social relations looks a lot like a desire for a climate of justice where differences are not erased, but rather treated in a fair manner, which means that imbalances are balanced. Reciprocity, in other words, requires a re-balancing of unjust social relations, which entails some form of reparation.

8.7 Reparations

The idea of reparation is simple enough. Wrongs are made right. Of course, it’s not so simple. For most Westerners, the most well-known case for reparations was the Jewish claim for reparations after the Holocaust of World War II. Germany sent large payments to Israel, and even though that may have been necessary, it was not sufficient. After the allies occupied Germany, they divided it into different protectorates, and established the Nuremberg trials to prosecute Nazi leaders for crimes against humanity. It was impossible to hide Nazi atrocities from anyone, especially the German population. This situation gave them a chance to create a different social world. And they did. Multiple institutions brought about this change through extensive re-education of the German people. Re-education entailed not just teaching new things, but also enabling people to think differently--to change their orientation toward their future.

One of these institutions was the Evangelical Academies. Eberhard Mueller, a protestant pastor, organized the first meeting of the Evangelical Academy in September 1945. Lawyers, economists, and church leaders met to reflect together on the future of their society. The idea of such centers of dialogue quickly spread throughout Germany. Within one year, there were six other Academies and soon there were seventeen (Brown 1980). Their notion of the “Dritte Ort” or “third place” represented a space for different opinions and interests to find common ground. Two conflicting groups could meet together in a neutral or “third” place.

I spent a semester at the Academies in Germany as an intern when I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. In the US, I had been active in protests against the Vietnam War and became frustrated that we were only talking with people who already agreed with us. When I attended the conferences in the Academy in Bad Boll, participants’ readiness to listen to another’s opinion and to actually learn from each other opened my eyes to new possibilities. As participants dealt with current problems in different types of organizations, they were also continually creating and maintaining a culture of openness and dialogue. These institutions were part of a larger re-education of Germany that changed the nation from one that had violated our common humanity to one that respected human rights.

What changed? They changed their language. Words like obrigkeit (high authority) were eliminated from their vocabulary. They educated their teachers to use fewer authoritarian methods. More importantly, they learned that they were one among others, rather than superior to others. We see this with their promotion of the European Union, advocating a shared European currency, participating in creating a sustainable economy, and more recently in their willingness to accept refugees from the Middle East and Africa. This does not make Germans saints, but they do show us how a people can construct a more humane world after living through an inhumane one.

Can you imagine the United States sharing a currency with other nations in the Americas? Can you imagine the United States accepting one million refugees? Can you imagine the United States letting go of its ideology of American exceptionalism and seeing itself as one among other peoples? This is hard to imagine today, even though such a national posture is more necessary than ever before. And what would be the benefit? Ta-Nehisi Coates has said that very well:

Reparations beckon us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is— the work of fallible humans (2017, p. 2020.

The benefit, in other words, is that talk about reparations gives us a chance to deal with what we have called white arrogance, and as an alternative, to create social systems of reciprocity. This will not be easy. Enslaving people and buying and selling them has now been recognized as a “Black Holocaust” and a crime against humanity by the 2001 United Nations “World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and other Forms of Intolerance” (Marable and Mullings 2001). If we could accept this conference’s pronouncement and engage in conversations that included representatives of both victims and perpetuators, we might find in these conversations the power to change us. We could become a better people; not perfect, but closer to our highest ideals. We would be dealing with what Coates has called our “deep wound.”

American prosperity was built on two and a half centuries of slavery, a deep wound that has never been healed or fully atoned for— and that has been deepened by years of discrimination, segregation, and racist housing policies that persist to this day (2014, p. 35).

So, what prevents us from paying for our crimes? The conclusion we must reach from what we have learned already is that the barrier is not just an administrative problem in paying reparations. The real barrier arises from our unwillingness to acknowledge the climate of injustice that propels the dream of American prosperity. It’s not just the existence of evil deeds, but also the social climate these deeds created and continue to box us in.

James Cone offers a way forward: “Just as the Germans should never forget the Holocaust, Americans should never forget slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree” (2011, p. 165). Not forgetting gives us the chance to repair not just our relationships with each other, but also to restore the Earth as a human habitat.

8.8 Restoration

When John Locke wrote about the ownership of land, he states that originally land was a commons. Humans made it into their private property through mixing the labor with it. This myth has a kernel of truth. Many Native Americans were farmers and “mixed” their labor with the land as much as any colonial settler. They just didn’t let such work turn the Earth into a thing—private property. You could say that Native Americans treated the land as a common heritage that provided them with their daily needs. They existed, in other words, in a reciprocal relationship with the Earth.

Southern sharecroppers did not go that far, at least not in an explicit manner. They did acknowledge, if I may put it this way, that we are not people of money, but people of the Earth. The economist Henry George may have had something like this in mind when he wrote:

The equal right of all people to the use of land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air—a right proclaimed by the very fact of their existence (2010, p. 187).

Today, of course, not everyone has opportunities for living closely with the Earth. Many of us acquire most of our provisions through the market. It’s impossible that everyone “mix” labor with the Earth. Still, in some sense, we belong to the Earth. How does one make sense of this in contemporary urban environments?

Let’s consider the meaning of a dwelling: A dwelling’s first meaning is that as a home; a home in an urban and natural environment. A home is a place for security and privacy that we all deserve. Today, we are not just people of the Earth, but also inhabitants of the city. If we agree with this logic, then cities would be seen as the legal institution that provide us protection and provisions. In such a case, a city’s inhabitants would have claims to the wealth that the city creates. Since much of this wealth comes from increases in real estate values, largely due to the city’s efforts to improve infrastructures and other public facilities, inhabitants should share in this wealth. Just as we should share the Earth with all the people of the Earth, we should share the city’s wealth with all inhabitants.

For homeowners, agreeing that most increases in real estate value are caused by a building’s location is not that difficult. This increase is a kind of “unearned income” for the landowner. They acquired the income simply by owning the property. Such unearned income, of course, also causes unearned hardships for others, such as higher rents or lack of affordable housing. Sharing the unearned income with all the members of the city would allow all to share in the city’s increase in wealth.

Sharing a city’s wealth means that the city is no longer ruled by race or by money, but by laws that protect and provide for all inhabitants. It also means that the economy includes all and focuses on making provisions rather than acquiring property. It also means that cities accept their responsibilities of promoting a climate of justice.

Like other species, if we do not restore our human habitat, we will not have a chance to protect our communities. In terms of protecting our habitat, it is clear that we must protect everyone’s habitat if we are to protect anyone’s. If we want to work for the survival of the planet, we must attempt to bring into balance our relationships with each other and our relationships with the environmental systems in which we live. The sharecroppers’ intentions give us a vision of where we need to go. The question is how to get there.

8.9 Getting There from Here

The Atlantic Ocean temperature is increasing. The strength of its storms is getting stronger. The sea levels are rising. If we do not change current trends, devastating hurricanes will continue to hit Haiti and the United States, floods will inundate Holland and Italy, and droughts will wipe out crops in Mexico and East Africa. Some scenarios see the disappearance of the Gulf Stream that keeps much of Europe from freezing over. These climatic changes, plus the social unrest that will follow in its wake, will only increase the migration of peoples from the South to the North. More than ever before, the Atlantic has become a commons whose future affects us all. It is not an exaggeration to say that unchecked changes of the Atlantic changes everything. It threatens the habitat of millions.

The trends of American prosperity have become easy to discern. They take us where we do not want to go. They are destroying our natural habitat—our home. No better indication of this than the thousands of homeless in our cities and the millions of refugees, the highest number since World War II, moving around the world. Their cry for protection and empowerment also signals that civilians are not in control. There is work to be done.

If we do transform the trends of American prosperity so they turn toward a sustainable future, will the concept of American prosperity survive? Unlikely. It is too contaminated with racism and social incoherence. It is simply unsustainable. We know we must design a sustainable prosperity, but we don’t do it. Why not? We continue to exist in the tailwinds of the climate of injustice that makes it hard to turn around and to change our historical trends. That’s the job ahead. That’s the work of creating an ethical foundation for environmentalism.


  • Ankersen, T. T. & Ruppert, T. 2006. “Tierra y Libertad: The Social Function Doctrine and Land Reform in Latin America” Tulane Environmental Law Review. Vol. 18.

    Google Scholar 

  • Aristotle. 2014. Nicomachean Ethics. trans. Reeve, D.C Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  • Banner, S. 2005. How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Bailyn, B. 2005. Atlantic History: Concept and Contours. Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Becker, L.C. 1986. Reciprocity. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brown, M.T. 1980. On Time and In Place: The Work of the Evangelical Academies in West Germany, ed. Leiterkreis der Evangelischen Akademier in Duetschland e.V. 7325 Bad Boll.

    Google Scholar 

  • Byre, T.J. 1983. Historical perspectives on sharecropping. In Sharecropping and Sharecroppers, ed. T.J. Byres. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cone, J.H. 2011. The Cross-and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll/New York: Orbis Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Coates, T. 2015. Between The World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2017. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: One World.

    Google Scholar 

  • Du Bois, W.E.B. 1935. Black Reconstruction in America: 1860–1880. New York: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dunbar-Ortiz, R. 2014. An Indigenous Peoples History of The United States. Boston: Beacon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Elliott, J.H. 2006. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492–1830. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • George, H. 2010. In Progress and Poverty. Why There Are Recessions and Poverty Amid Plenty—and What to Do About It! ed. B. Drake. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jones, S.R. 2000. The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal. New York: Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw-Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kester, H. 1997. Revolt Among The Sharecroppers. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lichtenstein, A. 1997. Introduction The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union: A Movement for Social Emancipation. In Revolt Among the Sharecroppers, ed. H. Kester. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Linklater, A. 2015. Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Locke, J. 1980. In Second Treatise of Government, ed. C.B. Macpherson. Hackett Publishing Company Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  • Marable, M., and L. Mullings. 2001. World Conference Against Racism—Durban, South Africa. In Let Nobody Turn Us Around: An African American Anthology, 2nd ed. Lanham/Boulder/New York/Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mill, J. S. 1848. Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Application to Social Philosophy.

  • Nelson, M. 2008. Introduction: Lighting the Sun of Our Future—How These Teachings Can Provide Illumination. In Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future, ed. M. Nelson. Rochester: Bear & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • Skinner, E.P. 1964. The Mossi of the Upper Volta: The Political Development of a Sudanese People. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stedile, J. P. 2002. Landless Battalions: The Sem Terra Movement in Brazil, New Left Review, 15, May–June.

    Google Scholar 

  • The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, 1998. trans. Ames, R. T. and Rosemont Jr., H. New York: Ballantine Books, XV: 23.

    Google Scholar 

  • Weber, M. 1922. “Science as a Vocation,” from Gesammlte Aufsaetze zur Wissenschaftslehre. Tubingen, Germany. 524–55.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Open Access This chapter is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license and indicate if changes were made.

The images or other third party material in this chapter are included in the chapter's Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the chapter's Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder.

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2022 The Author(s)

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Brown, M.T. (2022). The Sharecropper’s Story and An Ethics for Environmentalism. In: A Climate of Justice: An Ethical Foundation for Environmentalism. Library of Public Policy and Public Administration, vol 16. Springer, Cham.

Download citation