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Erin Drew

Mar 1, 2022

The Usufructuary Ethos

Power, Politics, and Environment in the Long Eighteenth Century

University of Virginia Press 2021

Would a claim that human possession and property rights as merely temporary seem outlandish to a 21st-century thinker? How would this idea be received in Early Modern England? In today's NBN podcast, Dr. Erin Drew addresses this question in our discussion about her new book: The Usufructuary Ethos: Power, Politics, and Environment in the Long Eighteenth Century (University of Virginia Press, 2021). Using an environmental lens to analyze popular theology, moral philosophy, law, Drew also uses the poetry of John Evelyn, Anne Finch, John Philips, John Dyer, and James Grainger to deconstruct usufruct's legacy as a moral relationship between humans and their environments in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth England. During this period, "usufruct" appears as a common point of reference and comparison across philosophical, devotional, legal, and literary discussions of the ethical parameters of possessions, use, and power. Care for trees, for example, and ecologically represent literal connections among other beings and across generations if landlords acted as responsible stewards. By laying out the structure and implications of usufruct as an environmental ethic and its role in English discourse, Dr. Drew brings to light a subversive threat to an eighteenth-century English culture that proves surprisingly conservationist while drawing attention to parallels with contemporary environmental thought and assumption.

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