Tag Archives: ownership

What if we re-thought land ownership?

Land ownership is mostly about violence.  There are places around the world where land is held collectively by the people who live on it, but that’s not mostly what we get. Where land is bought and sold, it’s all about those with the most resources being entitled to control the bounty freely available from the Earth. This tends to have its roots in conquest. Land has gone from common ownership, to being under control of relatively few people. At some point, this will probably have involved war or aggressive colonialism.

There is no moral justification for letting a few people benefit from the violence in our shared history.  That your ancestor had a big sword and was willing to kill should not be a basis for deciding who now has control of land. All too often, we see vast areas of land exploited for the benefit of the few, with no eye to the good of most people, the needs of nature or the urgent need for decarbonisation.  In the UK, the grouse moor is the prime example of this – areas of land that are burned to provide habitat for grouse so that rich people can hunt them. Grouse moors are known to contribute to flooding elsewhere, they deprive regular people of land access, and for what?

Meanwhile in our urban environments, homes and areas of land are bought as investment and may be left empty because the people who own them are only thinking about their personal profits. We’re not obliged to allow this. Laws could be changed to prevent this kind of behaviour. We could have a much more equitable approach to land.

We could cap how much land a person can own. We could penalise people for misusing the land. We could redistribute land ownership more fairly, or bring more land into public ownership. We could require public green spaces as part of urban planning permission.

While we’re at it, we could challenge ideas around private ownership. With a small percentage of people owning far more than they can use while vast numbers of people have little or nothing, we could afford to rethink how we distribute resources. We could start rejecting the violence inherent in certain kinds of ownership. We could decide that exploiting masses of people so that a few people can have far more than they need, isn’t an acceptable way to carry on. We could re-write some of our narratives around entitlement and fairness and question whether ‘deserve’ really should mean being able to profit from someone else having taken land by force at some point in history.

We could question the whole idea of owning land.

The logic of ownership

Our laws and society are very much underpinned by ideas about ownership. Ownership of property, wealth, and the land itself. This is so deeply entrenched in how we do things that it’s not easy to even imagine what any other model could look like, but that doesn’t mean what we have is right, just or reasonable.

I have no problem with the idea of private property, let’s be clear. A home, and the things you need should be considered a right for all of us. A little private use of land for gardening and growing food.

In the UK, the history of land ownership is not much discussed. I understand that we have one of the most unequal distributions of ownership of land, and that this probably dates back to the Norman invasion, when about a thousand years ago an invading French nobleman parcelled up the land and gave it to his friends. We can also think about Henry the eighth taking land from the church for himself and his friends, and the enclosures act, putting previously common land into the hands of the few at a dire cost to the many.

Much land in the UK is inherited. Any land ownership is likely to have its roots in invasion and conquest. In any country that has experienced colonial takeover, the history of land theft tends to be more recent, and very bloody. Land ownership and death go hand in hand. Those who own the land then own the resources on the land and are able to make a profit or get a profit out of those who do not own the land. This is the foundation of many of our laws. It’s something we could afford to question.

Rivers are poisoned, air polluted and land wrecked by exploitation so that some people are able to make a profit. It’s bloody stupid to trash our irreplaceable, finite environment in this way, but we also ought to be looking at why a few people are allowed to make money out of this exploitation, while others are left with no clean drinking water, polluted air, unfarmable land, and so forth. We take more than we should, as a species, but we do not share the loot of our pillages fairly either.

We all need food, air and water. We all need access to the resources of the land, and so do the generations who will come after us. Why do we continue to believe in the idea of ownership, when we are all affected by the use and misuse of the commons (air, water, land)? Why do we continue to support the few in exploiting essential resources? Why do we continue to believe there is an entitlement to make a profit at the expense of others, from land ownership, when land ownership is often little more than the consequence of historic bloodshed. Why does historical slaughter beget modern rights?

Who owns the land?

Owning the land tends to equate to owning any resources in the land – minerals and water most especially. Thus the ‘right’ to control resources that everyone depends on, is not equally distributed. As Nestle push to own water, and fracking poisons water for many, the question of ownership is especially pertinent at the moment.

It’s worth thinking about how land ownership comes to exist. How do people obtain the resources to buy large tracts of land? And however many times the land has changed hands, the history of ownership comes back to violence. In Europe that tends to mean kings, feudalism, conquest, and in many parts of the world it means the violence of colonialism, the forced taking of land from its indigenous people and all that has flowed from that. Go back far enough in history and no one owned land. The idea of kingdoms, and the idea of big kingdoms and control of vast land areas, is more recent. How many people own land because their ancestors took it by force?

I wonder what it would be like if no one had the right to privately own and exploit material resources. Land, and all that is in the land, and on the land, the water, and the air held as common property in which fair access for all is the priority. Without the scope to exploit these commons for profit, we’d probably have a lot less consumerist culture, and fewer accumulation habits and would be more sustainable. If you can only exploit the land for the good of your community, the whole basis for decisions about benefit and usefulness would shift.

In such a situation, we would own the fruits of our labours. We would own our ideas, the work of our hands, our time. It would move us away from stuff, and towards doing. I suspect such a shift would create radical cultural change, because that minority of people who do nothing useful for anyone else but extract wealth and power through their ability to control the resources we all depend on, would no longer hold that power, while people doing useful things would more readily be respected.

Accumulation sickness

There’s a certain amount of stuff, both physical and more ephemeral, that is necessary for a reasonable standard of life. I’m repeating an old idea here. We need shelter, food, warmth and affection to function. Sometimes objects give an illusion of security, and we cling to them for that, for imagined status and imagined need. Accumulation sickness is much more than that, though.

Where there is a flow of resources, quite a lot of things can and will move around sustainably and to good effect. From love given and received to quality work honoured with an appropriate payment, flow spreads the goodness. What happens when someone in the flow wants to accumulate excessively? All the love should flow to them, not anyone else. All the money should flow their way, not to flow on, but to stop there and pile up. There are plenty of people in our world who have more wealth than it would be humanly possible to use, stashed away in imaginary piles that reduce the flow of money and therefore energy for everyone else. There are people whose desire for importance diverts social flows in wholly comparable ways.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting what is needed, or even in having a safety net, something to fall back on. A little layer of insulation for the hard times is a natural enough thing to seek. Creatures do it, laying down fat in the good times so as to survive the winter, or the drought. But they never get so fat as to be unable to function. If they did, something else would eat them. Plenty of creatures store and accumulate. Bees with honey, squirrels with nuts, but the relationship between storing and need is pretty transparent. Nature doesn’t stockpile much, and when it does, get carried away, it’s usually an accident, as with the way wood becomes coal, or things collect up in one place by chance.

There are many reasons why wild beings do not do as we do. Most have their tools, weapons and insulation built into their bodies, and we do not. All other creatures are their own modes of transport. We mostly gave that up. Other creatures make homes and nests, but none quite like us. Somewhere along the way, the reasonable fear of death and the reasonable desire to have resources stored to avert that threat, became this other thing. This insatiable appetite to own stuff way beyond our capacity to use it, and to attract wealth and power way beyond any scope of either understanding or enjoying the implications of it.

All the while the mantra of ‘work harder’ is chanted at us by our politicians. Why? What do we need that we don’t actually have? What are we working so hard for? No matter what they tell us about working hard to get rich as an individual and do your bit for the economy, (poor, needy creature that it is) the reality is that resources tend to flow towards those glitches in the system where resources have already accumulated. The damns in the stream, if you will. There’s a thing about damns though. Every now and then, the blocked stream picks an easier path and stops piling more debris against the damn. Perhaps if we all recognised that we don’t need to keep accumulating, we could take the stream off in another direction. Anyone with a good vision of how to do this, please say!

Fencing off the good bits

This is her little bit of heaven. She’s worked hard for it, sacrificed years of living to making the money that would pay for it. Or maybe she’s found it by chance, and it cost nothing at all. What she wants to do now is put a fence round it. A big fence, strong enough to keep anyone out who wants a piece of her lovely place. Perhaps it’s her sacred space. She is afraid that someone will take it from her, or ruin it. She knows that if other people come here, it will be ruined because that’s what people do.

Maybe you’re nodding your head just now. Maybe you have a special place too. One that needs loving and protecting. One you ache to build walls around.

Ownership of the land is all about putting fences around it and dictating who has access, and who does not. 60 odd years ago walkers protested about land owners keeping them off mountains. Public rights of way matter. No one, powerful person or corporation should own natural beauty and deny it to others. Here’s another story that may invite a few nods.

You’ve seen it – perhaps it’s a field, or a hill. A bit of woodland sloping down to the river. No paths go there. The road doesn’t even come close. From a distance, it calls to you, whispering that there is magic. Perhaps there’s an ancient site hidden amongst the leaves, an exquisite view, a hidden grotto. But there is no public right of way, so either you trespass, or you move on, because you do not have the right to be here.

Now where are we? Torn between a range of impulses, some to protect and nurture, some to keep private and secret. We also hanker after the secrets, the magic we are not supposed to have. And then there’s the fear, of what other people are like, and what they will do.

In my own life, the canal has become my home. When I first started boating, more than a year ago, the canal was my refuge, my sanctuary. And then a couple of weeks on, the sun came out and suddenly there were hordes of people, with dogs, children, bicycles, noise and banality all over ‘my’ space. And there were boaters, the sort who have hobby boats and a lot of money. ‘My’ canal wasn’t mine any more. I will confess that I was not best pleased about this. I felt that something precious had been snatched away from me.

But I do not own the canal, or the towpath, or the sun. Everyone else needs these things too. After a while I realised that these other people only come by day. In the evening, the space is mostly mine again, quiet, with only the more peaceful, less intrusive visitors. I came to terms with that. I also spend a lot of time hauling other people’s rubbish out of the water, and the undergrowth. There are people who do all the things you fear having happen to your space. When people bring their noise and the ugliness of their lives onto the towpath, leave their litter and dog mess, I hate it. But at the same time I have to ask, what happens if this space touches them, just a little bit? How much better is their life for being in this lovely space? Are they doing this because they simply do not know how to do anything else? What right have I to want them elsewhere? Am I in fact one of those people who, having found a good thing, wants to build a high fence around it?

Fences are human inventions. Nature does like thick, impenetrable undergrowth, challenging rock formations, swamps, and other things that prevent easy access and a direct route from point A to point B. Humans like fences, and not just around our property, but also around our communities, our beliefs, our relationships. Sometimes we’re so busy keeping the bad stuff out that we fail to notice mostly what we’ve done, is to lock ourselves in.

There are no druid temples, we have to go outside, to where there is no fence, or we feel safe climbing over one. But that desire to own sacred space, to control important sites is also with us. It’s worth pondering what we want to keep in and what we want to exclude, and why, and whether there’s any reality or consistency in the mix at all.