The Earth is mostly made of water, and yet humans have always been more concerned with everything relating to land. That is because land is our home, it is where we live, work and build our communities and societies. In his newest book Land, How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, New York Times best-selling author Simon Winchester tells the story of our home, of how we have acquired, stolen and cared for it. Land takes the reader on a journey around the world, and through time, telling a multitude of stories. From the US to New Zealand, and to India, Ukraine, the Netherlands and many more, the book ultimately conveys the message that land may not be as durable as we once thought it to be. We are losing our land to climate change, and therefore it does matter how we treat and care for it.
Born and raised in England, Winchester moved to the United States where he became both a citizen and the owner of 123 acres of land. In an interview with Earth.Org, Winchester told us that owning a small fraction of land has helped him truly feel invested in the US. Not only that, but becoming an owner and tracing the history of ownership of his own land has taught him a few lessons, sparking his curiosity on land. Writing his book just before the 2020 pandemic, Winchester travelled the world to research and engage in conversations around land and land ownership. Amongst these, he was particularly inspired by a number of indigenous populations, to whom the concept of land sovereignty is traditionally alien, and just as bizarre as the idea of owning the air we breathe.
The strength of Winchester’s book lies in its commitment to telling an array of stories from all corners of the world. For Native Americans, the concept of land sovereignty used to be foreign and it brings back memories of loss, genocide and pain, just as it does for people in India, Ukraine and Palestine. For the citizens of the Isle of Eigg, in Scotland, “land” is associated with a history of reclaiming and reappropriating. There are lessons to be learned from these stories: when reading Land, we read about mistakes that shouldn’t be repeated, but also about examples of success we can emulate.
Winchester does not shy away from pointing the finger at those he calls “accumulators of space,” or the wealthiest land-owners in the world: he openly denounces the actions of Gina Rinehart and the Wilks brothers, who use their land in a way that is anything but sustainable. He is also rather critical of attempts at land use that may seem sensible at a first glance: in particular, he deems wilding projects artificial (almost like a “theme park”) and not necessarily the best way forward. But he also uses his book to praise those who have made better use of their land, namely media moguls and conservationists Ted Turner and John Malone in the US. Winchester also reserves some praise for community ownership, land stewarding and the power of local land trusts, all great examples of sustainable and sensible land management.
You might also like our review of: Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man & the Sea, by Callum Roberts
Why does any of this matter? During his interview with us, Winchester mentioned that he hopes more young people will read his book. That is because younger generations will be left to deal with the consequences of climate change, and with a new understanding of land and land management. Land could almost be described as a history book: it simply tells the story of land, a story that is as violent and granular as it is global and aggrandising. The story of land is about our inherent desire to own something, and our complementary need to make what we own exclusive to ourselves, firmly keeping others out.
But by Winchester’s own account, that is not the only way to live on this Earth. In a most engaging and accessible prose, he shows us how land is being lost, and how we can save what we have left. Because ultimately, humans need land, but land itself will come and go with or without us. In the frame of geological time, land is indifferent to what we inflict upon it. The same cannot be said for us.
In our interview, Winchester reminded us that “the world will look after itself. Maybe it won’t be congenial for humans and we will reap what we sow, but the planet will recover and we will just be a small blip on the geological timeline”. But as long as we are here, we may as well do the best we can: Winchester encourages us to “look after our land, not exploit her, not pollute her or build grand highways over her”, to “treat our land more tenderly”. For our own sake, and for the sake of those who will come after us, we must do better. And reading Winchester’s Land may just be the best place to start.
For more, watch Simon speak with Earth.Org in a fascinating 60-minute conversation here.