Common Ground: Part One:  On Enclosure, the Commons, and Awe by Beth Bartlett

I spent the first half of my academic career studying and teaching the history of Western political philosophy – the works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau to name a few.  It gave me the best possible grounding in understanding the foundations of patriarchy.  In more recent years, I have used these works to explain the Western paradigm of thought to my ecofeminism students so they could better understand how women, colonized others, and the earth have been defined and dominated based on these assumptions.

One of the key pieces of writing in developing such an awareness in my students is English philosopher John Locke’s understanding of the origins and “rightful” distribution of private property. “As much land that a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common” Locke wrote.[i]  In doing so, not only does “a man” come to own property, he is fulfilling God’s commandment “ . . . to subdue the earth – i.e., improve it for the benefit of life . . . .”[ii]

Locke’s writing provided justification for what would become the English enclosure movement. In 1773 the Parliamentary “Act of Inclosure” (sic) codified the enclosure by feudal lords of the “commons” – the land common to all, available for the growing of crops and the grazing of cattle. And so, with hedgerows, fences, and walls, later to be joined by barbed wire and no trespassing signs, the enclosure of the land and our separation from it began. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Parliament approved roughly 5000 enclosures, displacing thousands of the peasant population.[iii]  These enclosures would multiply with the expansion of the British Empire, as well the imperialism of other European nations. Sanctioned and encouraged by their governments and various versions of the papal Doctrine of Discovery,[iv] Europeans, including those displaced by the enclosure movement, descended upon lands across the globe, assuming that by “improving” the land and planting a flag the land was theirs, ignoring the fact that vast numbers of people already lived there. “The rush to gather up the spoils — the land and its landscapes, soon to be deconsecrated and commodified – got ponderously under way,” wrote land historian Simon Winchester.[v]

Ecofeminist Vandana Shiva has written at length about the ways in which the English enclosure movement was imposed on the Indian population following the British conquest. Peasants were forced to grow indigo instead of food; sacred forests were enclosed and cut down. Eventually the Indian population lost their rights to food, fuel, and grazing lands, resulting in their impoverishment.  But this, she says, was just the beginning. Since then, water has been enclosed through dams and privatization; seeds and biodiversity through Intellectual Property Rights.  “While these first enclosures stole only land, today all aspects of life are being enclosed – knowledge, culture, water, biodiversity, and public services such as health and education.”[vi] Each enclosure is justified in the name of “improvement.” As ecofeminist Susan Griffin writes, “Every effort had the same theme, those whose lands were taken were being improved.[vii]

According to the Act, the enclosures were designed “for the better Cultivation, Improvement, and Regulation of the common Arable Fields, Waste, and Commons of Pasture in this Kingdom.”[viii] The Crown of England had declared the commons “wastelands.”  However, as Shiva points out, the commons had provided life sustenance to the peasant population. “Despite the opinion of the landlords, the commons were not wasted land; they were a rich resource providing the community with a degree of self-reliance and self-governance.”[ix]  “The colonial concept of wastelands was not an assessment of the biological productivity of land but of its revenue-generating capacity,” Shiva continues.[x] As Griffin states, “in the Western habit of mind . . . a forest exists for lumber. Trees for oxygen. A field for grazing. Rocks for minerals. Water for irrigation.”[xi]  Thus did the Crown embrace Locke’s philosophy that “land that is left wholly to nature, that hath no improvement of pasturage, tillage, or planting, is called, as indeed it is, waste.“[xii]

 Waste – from the Latin vastus – meaning “empty, desolate;” “immense, extensive, huge.”[xiii] Vast – also from the Latin vastus – meaning the same. How did “vast” become “waste”? How did the experience of vastness come to signify a wasteland? And with what consequences?

Hardly a waste, vast and vastness are at the very heart of the vital experience of awe. In their study of awe, psychologist Dacher Keltner and his colleague Yang Bai  found that regardless of the source, the experience of awe followed a distinct pattern — “vastness, mystery, and the dissolving of boundaries between the self and other sentient beings.”[xiv] Vastness, Keltner writes, can be physical – such as looking out over the vast expanse of the ocean, standing beside tall trees, experiencing the star-lit sky, or a singer’s voice; or temporal – such a scent or a piece of music that transports you back in time; or about ideas – such as an epiphany that helps you make sense of the world.

“The content of what is vast varies dramatically across cultures and the contexts of our lives,” writes Keltner. “In some places it is high-altitude mountains, and in others flat never-ending plains with storms approaching. For infants it is the immense warmth provided by parents, and when we die, the enormous expanse of our lives. . . . The varieties of vastness are myriad, giving rise to shifts in the meaning of awe.”[xv]

In considering that which is vast to be waste, we deprive ourselves of the experience of awe, and thereby deprive ourselves of the means of our own betterment. People who experience awe are more open to new ideas, curious, thoughtful, generous, kind, willing to put aside self-interest in favor of others, less prone to political polarization, less likely to experience anxiety and depression, and more likely to experience joy.

I explore more consequences of considering what is vast to be waste in Part Two.


Chollet, Mona. 2022. In Defense of Witches: The Legacy of the Witch Hunts and Why Women Are Still on Trial. Trans. Sophie R. Lewis. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Griffin, Susan. 1995. The Eros of Everyday Life: Essays on Ecology, Gender and Society.  New York: Anchor Books.

Keltner, Dacher. 2023. Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.” New York: Penguin.

Locke, John. 1690/ 1960. Second Treatise on Civil Government: An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government. In Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau.  With an Introduction by Sir Ernest Barker. London: Oxford U. Press. 1-143.

Shiva, Vandana. 2005. Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.

Winchester, Simon. 2021. Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World. New York: HarperCollins.

[i] Locke, 20.
[ii][ii] Ibid., emphasis mine.
[iii] The enclosure of the commons was particularly hard on women, who depended disproportionately on the commons to graze cows and gather herbs. For many, it ended their independence, with the oldest often reduced to begging. See Mona Chollet’s In Defense of Witches.
[iv] The Doctrine of Discovery, which gave official Church sanction to conquest of lands and peoples, was granted by Pope Nicholas V in his 1454 papal bull giving dispensation to the Portuguese to seize any land and peoples in Africa south of Cape Bojador.
[v] Winchester, 132.
[vi] Shiva, 3.
[vii] Griffin, 100. Emphasis in original.
[viii] Quoted in Winchester, 177.
[ix] Shiva, 23, 20.
[x] Shiva, 25.
[xi] Griffin, 56.
[xii] Locke, 26.
[xiii] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “waste” has several meanings, among them:  1.“uninhabited or uncultivated country; a wild and desolate region, a desert, a wilderness; 2. “a piece of land not cultivated or used for any purpose, producing little . . . “; 4. “of speech, thought, or action: profitless.”  It is interesting to me that the “unprofitability” of the “wastelands” has become extended to speech, thought, and action.
[xiv] Keltner, 124-125. Psychologist Dacher Keltner and his collaborator, Yang Bai, asked 2600 people in 26 countries around the world: “What is an experience of awe that you have had, when you encountered avast mystery that transcends your understanding of the world?” (xix).   They were seeking an answer to the questions 1) what is awe, and 2) what leads people to feel awe. They discovered that universally “eight wonders of life” consistently evoke the experience of awe. First and foremost is what they termed “moral beauty” — “other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming” (11). Second is “collective effervescence” – a sense of “we” experienced at weddings, graduations, sports, political rallies.  Third is nature; fourth – music; fifth – visual design; sixth – spiritual and religious awe; seventh – birth and death; and finally – epiphanies – “when we suddenly understand essential truths about life” (17).
[xv] Keltner, 8.

Author: Beth Bartlett

Elizabeth Ann Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she helped co-found the Women’s Studies program in the early 80s. She taught courses ranging from feminist and political thought to religion and spirituality; ecofeminism; nonviolence, war and peace; and women and law. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including "Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant"; "Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought"; and "Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior." She is trained in both Somatic Experiencing® and Indigenous Focusing-Oriented trauma therapy, and offers these healing modalities through her spiritual direction practice. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, indigenous rights, and climate justice movements and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors. You can find more about her work and writing at

17 thoughts on “Common Ground: Part One:  On Enclosure, the Commons, and Awe by Beth Bartlett”

  1. The experience of awe is a reality in my life because I am attached to nature, seasonal turnings and meaning . Although I found this article interesting and educating I think we need to be focusing more on now and how we re going to survive the present earth crisis – i experience awe but also deep despair – taking refuge in how we got here doesn’t help me now. I too taught women’s studies for 15 years before they dropped it from the university…. says it all – yes?


    1. Thanks for your comments, Sara. I don’t see understanding the past as a way to find refuge, but rather as an avenue for change — that in understanding how we got here, we can know that it hasn’t always been this way and that we can do things differently. Often we need to see the ways we’ve been enculturated to think one way in order to think a different way. I hope you will find at least some of what you are looking for in Part Two of this post. Women’s Studies has been cut to near non-existence in our university, too.


      1. wrote refuge as a mistake – too late to go back to correct and clarify what I meant – the past is not a refuge – rather its opposite – I think we know its hasn’t always been this way but how/where to go from here is the burning question


        1. Thanks for the clarification, Sara. I do believe where to go begins with a paradigm shift. I discuss some possibilities in Part Two, and certainly ecofeminism and indigenous wisdom point the way for me.


  2. That instruction in the Bible to “have dominion over” has done so much damage. If only it had said “stewardship of” instead. 😢


    1. You know, Katherine, the translations of the verses as they have come down to us in English are often very different than were originally intended. If I can get the chapter and verses where “dominion” has been used, I can take a closer look at the Hebrew. I’m not home now with all my Hebrew dictionaries and resources, but if you have the passage and/or passages, I will look when I do get home.

      The translation process from the original writings went through lots of filters and as, William Albright once said, “Biblical spin.” It would be an interesting topic to check out.


    2. I agree. Some newer translations have changed the wording, and many theologians have sought to redefine this phrase, but it has definitely been at the root of justifying so much damage to the earth. I love the Anishinaabe origin story in which because humans came last, we have the most to learn from all the plants, animals, and other beings that came before.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Such an interesting post esp. about the history of “enclosure.” One of the buzzwords of today, esp. in mental health circles is “boundaries.” The word bothers me no end and I think this has helped me to articulate why. We limit ourselves as much as others when we enclose. Thank you for this important history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That word “boundaries” has also bothered me. In my psychology studies, it always seemed like a way to separate people from each other, which seemed like a very patriarchal and damaging idea. There was little to no emphasis on “connection” in those studies.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for this really important exploration of how Locke’s concept of private property, especially related to land, became so embedded in our society that most people don’t realize that it is only a few centuries old, that it is neither traditional or inevitable, even in western cultures historically, and that it need not be the way of the future. For most of my life I believed that this concept of private land was the way things always were, and only within the past few years understood how this idea is an aberration, not how humans have understood our relationship to land for most of our existence. I do see people rediscovering, or remembering, the idea of the commons and trying to make it work for the 21st century. I think of, for example, the intentional housing movement, where people live in individual homes, but share a lot of common land, prepare and eat meals together, etc. Or how people both in the US and Europe are going to court to maintain their right to use roads or trails and open land that have traditionally been public ways or open to other use. The fervor with which people are pursuing these cases makes me think that people understand that there is a more fundamental than just the right to use a particular area, but rather speaks to our deepest relationship to the land. Can’t wait for part 2!


    1. I really appreciate your comments, Carolyn. And yes, there is a relatively new movement to reclaim the commons in so many respects. Even some of the photos I have used in these posts have come from Wikimedia Commons! If you are interested, I found Simon Winchester’s book “Land” to be a fascinating look at how land around the world has been both divided up and privatized, and opened up and made accessible to all.


  5. Excellent! and I love that in describing the European imperial export of enclosure methods, you point to the fact that many colonial settlers had first been displaced by them in their home countries.


    1. Thanks, Max. In so many ways have those colonizing the lands of others reverse the Golden Rule, and done unto others that which they opposed having done unto them.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: