Simon Winchester’s history of people’s endless thirst for real estate
People have an insatiable craving for land, and they have since the dawn of mankind, according to bestselling author Simon Winchester. In his new book, he makes the case that this desire for real estate is both a blessing and a curse, especially as climate change alters the notions we have of how much land we have to own in the first place.
Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped The Modern World tells the story of how the land on which we live (which is miniscule compared to the total area covered by our oceans) became so important to humanity’s development and also to our sense of self. Winchester proves a wry, thoughtful, and observant guide as he details all the ways in which land and its ownership has defined our history and our present, as well as our uncertain future. Early on in American history, for example, you had to be a white male landowner to vote or even claim citizenship. Winchester uses micro examples to illustrate macro thoughts, such as his own possession of a piece of land in New York that passed through various hands over the centuries before he staked his claim.
Perhaps it’s no accident that Winchester, a native of the United Kingdom, spends a lot of time detailing the ways in which the British colonized the world often with little or no chance for the native peoples of such areas (including the native tribes of North America) to object. Land ownership on the grand, nationalistic scale has always included the tinge of racism and exploitation.
Winchester details the making of the border between India and Pakistan on the eve of independence in 1947. The man who drew that line was a career British civil servant who’d never been west of Paris, Winchester writes, and his efforts to divide the two parts of the former British colony caused more bloodshed and misery than he could have possibly imagined. In another chapter, Winchester describes the efforts of Gareth Jones, an intrepid Welsh journalist, to bring to light the cruel starvation and genocide of Ukranian peasants under Stalin’s “Five Year Plan”, and how other journalists, on the dictator’s payroll, refuted those reports.
But other examples that Winchester brings up in terms of land ownership are less fraught. He describes how the outbreak of the First World War and then the changing boundaries of the world’s countries over the course of the 20th century continually hampered a quixotic effort to accurately map the world and render it on a large scale. The Dutch endeavored through much of the last century to reclaim land from the North Sea, to give their people more places to live in a country that the sea is always threatening to reclaim. And the citizens of one Scottish island reclaimed their land from the ownership of an eccentric playboy who reputedly held parties with Nazi flags in abundance. Their collective ownership could be a harbinger of the future of Scottish land management.
Winchester, who previously wrote about the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the eruption of Krakatoa, provides a winning mix of scholarly authority and plain-speaking folksiness, his prose enlivened by cutting remarks or insights that accentuate his scholarship but keep it from feeling dry or humorless. He also has an eye toward the future.
The land that we currently live on will not always be the way that we know it to be right now, and the pressures that collide to change it might not be threatening to our way of life yet. But we’ll have to reckon with the changing climate around us, and its effects on the places we live, in due time. With the melting of the polar ice caps, the ocean levels of the world are rising, and soon our world will look very different. And it may very well be, Winchester says, that our sense of ownership will have to change to accommodate those new realities.
Harper Publishing (January 19, 2021)