Owning the earth

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Historian Andro Linklater, who died in 2013, was inspired to write what became his last book by the economic crisis of 2008. Inequality was rising and social mobility falling: the top 3% of British taxpayers owned almost 80% of the country’s wealth. For Linklater, the question of ownership lay at the heart of the boom and subsequent crash. Owning the Earth is a remarkably wide-ranging and erudite study that explores the global history of possessing land. Thought-provoking and original, it is packed with insights into the history and politics of ownership. Beginning in the 16th century with the carving up of the New World, he traces the emergence in England of the idea that one person could exclusively own a piece of the Earth. He argues that this idea has destroyed traditional systems of rights and responsibilities binding communities to the land, promoting instead an individualistic culture of “greed and selfishness”. He concludes that “the private property society” is “a bizarre mutation alien to most of humanity” and a “monstrous method of owning the earth”. PD Smith