Disrupting Geography

Fixing our Hunger For Land

Hunger dominates the news today. PBS report that 270 million people are on the brink of starvation because of COVID. One consequence of this is Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus plan which, presumably, will help feed America’s hungry. But there’s another, even creepier kind of hunger too - our hunger for ownership of land. In spite of COVID, we learnt today that real-estate prices continue to rise in America, with the average value of a home rising 14% over the last year, thereby compounding the crisis inequality.

My Keen On show today was about this relentless hunger. I talked with the writer Simon Winchester, the author of the new Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World.

Winchester, the 76 year-old globe-trotting author of many best-selling books, is hardly a Bolshevik. So it’s particularly disturbing to see him repeat Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s argument that the desire for land ownership is the root of many of our “crimes, wars, murders, miseries and horror”. Indeed, Winchester dedicates Land to Chief Standing Bear, the 19th century Ponca chief who had his ancestral territory seized by an American government dedicated to privatizing and monetizing this land.

So what to do? Winchester argues that we need to rethink land ownership along the lines of the co-operative models now being experimented with in New England and New Zealand. Particularly given an environmental catastrophe on the horizon which, he predicts, will result in our land “flying away”. We need to disrupt geography, he says. Disrupt cartography. Disrupt land by recalibrating its public and private ownership.

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Earlier this week, I warned about the privatization of public space in both the rise of anti-democratic populism and unaccountable Big Tech. Winchester’s warning about the consequences of our relentless privatization of land underlines how geography is the issue that makes sense of our new politics.

As I will explore in this year’s How To Fix Democracy series, land and citizenship are intimately entangled. It’s no coincidence that new right wing movements around the world are returning to the strong gods of geography. To the 21st century right, land is the metaphysical symbol of this retreat into identity politics. But globalized progressives can’t simply deny geography. It goes without saying that land needs to be divorced from ethnicity. Rather than excluding others, geography needs to be the thing tying us together as citizens.

“The future is a different country,” Simon Winchester argues in Land. “They will do things differently there.” But how different that future is will depend on how we can rethink physical public space in an age in which “our” land is, quite literally, flying away from us.

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