A sunset is part of the aesthetic commons, a feature of our planet that is equally mine and yours and yet belongs to neither of us. Likewise with the view of a forested hill, or a field, or the river that winds its way along the highway.
But every day it gets a bit more difficult to see the river. And the sunsets have become increasingly fragmented, occluded by gargantuan billboards that turn the horizon into an endless smear of commercial advertisements and political propaganda. Ecopsychologists have found that the simple ability to view a natural landscape or skyscape has a positive impact on physical and psychological wellbeing, which means that my wellbeing is being assaulted so that corporations can increase their bottom line.
Nothing new here.
The government (federal, state, and local) has the power to divest me of my property for any purpose it deems justifiable—which is any purpose at all—without my consent. It’s called eminent domain, a term that has its source in a 17th century description of the king’s sovereign ownership and control of every scrap of land in the kingdom. The government has the authority to take my land and give it to a private business if it is deemed to be in the best interests of the community. So if the government determines that it is in the community’s best interests to erect a walmart where my house now stands, I will have no choice but to find someplace else to live.
I will be compensated, of course. The constitution guarantees “just’ compensation, which means that I will be paid whatever the government thinks my home is worth. Any emotional connection I may have developed—even if the land has been in my family for generations—does not factor into the computation of just compensation. The existence of just compensation, whether or not it is truly “just,” suggests that there are (in theory, at least) some limits to eminent domain when it comes to physical property.
But land is not the only possession of mine the government has an interest in selling. It is also in the business of selling my mind. There are no limits to when and how and to what purposes my mind can be altered, and when an advertising agency erects a billboard to persuade me to buy their product or to alter my political opinion in a way that promotes the corporate agenda, I am entitled to no compensation.
Research suggests that training myself to ignore the billboard does not prevent the message from worming its way into the unconscious tissues of my thought, so the persuasive content cannot be avoided. But that’s not the whole point. The point is that the billboard obstructs my view of the horizon. The view of the horizon is part of the commons. The billboard adds to the clutter and ugliness of my commute, and contributes to the impoverishment of my physical and psychological state. It affects my thoughts—that is its very purpose—and I have not consented to have my thinking so affected. And I am given no compensation.
If I had the means, I would issue a bounty on billboards. I would offer a cash reward for each billboard that was destroyed: blown-up, burned, knocked down, or otherwise irreparably defaced. Send a clear message that the horizon is not for sale!
Of course I wouldn’t stop at billboards…