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Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World


Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World

Simon Winchester thoughtfully points out at the very end of LAND that his 35th book was in its final editing stages in April 2020 after COVID-19 had just been declared a pandemic by the UN World Health Organization. The irony of having completed thousands of miles of unrestricted travel to research this monumental but immensely readable tome on the state of our planet’s habitable skin could not be lost on Winchester or his vast readership.

Throughout this unprecedented year, as LAND quietly moved through its publication and release process, most of us got used to living and working much closer to home than ever before. This sudden change in lifestyle hasn’t been without sorrow, complaint, discomfort, loneliness and, unfortunately, genuine suffering for some. But if you follow (or even marginally trust) popular social theorists, pandemic isolation has also increased our awareness and appreciation of experiences we can’t enjoy as freely as we did before 2020, such as ample personal space or the freedom to travel for pleasure.

So as folks like you and me rediscover assets like local community nature trails, public parks, even our own backyards, we’re forging stronger and stronger connections with the very land that these places of respite occupy. All of a sudden, land, the stuff our feet walk on and our hands dig into, has become very personal. In fact, that’s how Winchester begins this 400-page odyssey through the social, political and economic history of how humans have treated their relationship to the incredibly thin layer that makes our planet uniquely (so far) able to support sentient beings.

Long before terms like “coronavirus” and “social distancing” had entered daily conversation, Winchester purchased an uninhabited forested tract on a New England mountainside --- the first in his family to acquire property this way --- and introduces the global dimensions of LAND by musing on the concept of personally “owning” an infinitesimal amount of Earth’s estimated 37 billion acres.

"The irony of having completed thousands of miles of unrestricted travel to research this monumental but immensely readable tome on the state of our planet’s habitable skin could not be lost on Winchester or his vast readership."

Winchester, whose rigorously organized mind seems able to codify and categorize any human endeavor into sustained good reading, could easily have hopped from continent to continent, country to country, exploring each region’s land relationships through the perfectly legitimate lenses of history, geology, governance, resources, economies and as many other parameters as made sense. And he does all these things, but not in a predictable textbook fashion.

Instead he groups many seemingly disparate forces, both vast and small, into chapters whose titles never mention the names of individual countries, continents or regions at all. This is where his subtitle, “the Hunger for Ownership,” suddenly takes on potent universal meaning. When one opens LAND to find segments called Uncommon Ground, Borderlines, Annals of Acquisition, Battlegrounds or Stewardship, you know right away not to expect a comfortable roadmap to smug and familiar conclusions, or pat answers for the human or natural disasters that have profoundly impacted humanity on earth, especially in recent generations.

Setting secondary school geography aside (so many borders and names have changed since I took my last class anyway), Winchester instead looks at how situations of scarcity, greed, racism, abundance, creativity, power, conquest and discovery --- just a few variables --- have played out in places as distant as New Zealand and Scotland, the Ukraine and America’s “wild west,” Holland and Palestine. I could fill a page with more examples.

Out of a dizzying diversity of peoples and places whose territorial affinities find a place in LAND, a few common issues and questions arise. Does “discovering” previously unknown or unmapped territory automatically entitle you to claim it for your native country? Seafaring explorers like Captain James Cook thought so. Today’s indigenous activists call it theft. 

Can you buy or simply take land from people whose spirituality holds that only the Creator “owns” it? For several centuries, colonial powers on every continent had no problem with that; negotiations to redress this global injustice will continue for the foreseeable future.

Can you do whatever you like with land you “own”? The catastrophic history of the enclosures, when English and Scottish crofters lost the right to pasture their herds on common land, disrupted the United Kingdom’s culture and economy forever. And similarly in newer nations like Canada and the United States, forcibly herding indigenous peoples onto barren “reservations” amounted to near-genocide. A more recent internal displacement program in both countries saw citizens of Japanese heritage robbed of their properties and assets and incarcerated inland during World War II.

And can there be a limit to how much land an individual can own? It seems not, regardless of whether you’re a hereditary ruler like Queen Elizabeth II or a wealthy American capitalist.

In every case, whether recounting the stories of individuals, communities, cultures, tribes, nations or empires, Winchester points repeatedly to the persistent notion that power is measured in the extent to which the land and its resources --- natural, human and economic --- can be controlled from one centralized point.

In the end, it turns out to be not only an illusory notion but a disastrous one, repeated time and again in cyclic tragedies of famine, drought, flood, extinction, desertification, pollution, cultural collapse and systemic oppression.

But nature may have the final say on “land” as we now know it. In a short but authentically expressed Epilogue to LAND, Winchester points out that land on earth can no longer be understood as a fixed quantity of some 37 billion acres.

Rising sea levels caused by climate change and global warming are already gradually but inevitably reducing livable areas in some of the world’s most populous coastal regions. He suggests that humans would do better to exchange their hunger for individual or corporate land ownership for an equal passion to steward and restore it for future generations. In 2021, how can anyone argue against that?

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on March 5, 2021

Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World
by Simon Winchester

  • Publication Date: January 18, 2022
  • Genres: Economics, History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062938347
  • ISBN-13: 9780062938343