California Public Beach Access and 19th Century Prussian Wood Theft

On October 2nd, the British daily The Guardian published an article on their website detailing how some wealthy landowners on the California coastline have been hiring private security guards to patrol public beaches adjacent to their properties. Despite California Coastal Act guidelines that public beach areas, even in beaches not accessible to the public, begin where “where the sand is wet (below the mean high tide line),” and despite most California beaches being either entirely publicly accessible or connected to public walkways, for the past few years the California Coastal Commission has noted a prominent uptick in wealthy coastal residents paying private security patrols to approach beachgoers and inform them that they do not have the legal right to be on the beach, sometimes with the help of the local police force. As one longtime member of the Commission explained in the article, “It’s a means of saying: ‘You can’t come here…Even if legally you’re allowed, we’re not going to let you do it.’”

It’d be remiss not to highlight the striking similarities this recent news story shares with a well-known newspaper article written by Karl Marx in 1842 concerning the passage of Prussian legislation criminalizing the taking of felled wood from private forest property. At the time the majority of prosecutions in mid-nineteenth-century Prussia concerned the theft of wood. As a result, the Prussian legislative assembly declared not only the chopping of wood on private property but the simple taking of felled wood to be crimes against the property owner. Marx, at the time a Young Hegelian working as the editor of the rabble-rousing newspaper Rheinische Zeitung, quickly criticized the legislation. Weren’t these two actions entirely different? The cutting of wood from a tree required laboring action from the individual to separate the natural connection between the tree of the land (land that was now private property), but was not the taking of felled wood an artificial connection?  The wood itself was not separated from the actions of the third individual’s labor, but from the preceding laboring action.

For Marx, the central issue was the criminalizing of an act that was previously common and understood: poorer individuals had engaged in the collecting of felled wood for generations, but the “really earthy question” of the parceling of land into private property had led to the transformation of one’s public access to nature into a criminal act.

The aim here is not to make a boring, philistine assertion that Marx’s early writings remain timeless, all-knowing, and wonderfully illuminating regardless of changing context. With each passing day, the political conjuncture of our present moment, corporeal or otherwise, becomes increasingly environmental as the contradictions between human action and climate change becomes increasingly apparent.

News stories like that of the ongoing conflict between wealthy California coastal residents and individuals simply seeking enjoyment of public beaches reveal a central, disturbing problematic present within the makeup of American society: what remains of our communal understanding of the relation between nature and public access? How does the privatization of natural, public land impact the ability of societies to forge successful remedies to thwart the coming of climate change? We are inevitably led to the realization that issues like public access to natural landscape and the parceling of land into private property are not simply issues of the environment or political rights, but of the deep relation between the environment and physical culture built within the material inequality of contemporary global society.

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