Inheriting The Wind

Review of Slide Mountain, or The Folly of Owning Nature, by Theodore Steinberg

By George Monbiot. Published in New Scientist,15th April 1995.

A few Sundays ago, I was caught trespassing on a large sporting estate in Berkshire. The gamekeeper politely informed me that I was intruding on the owner’s privacy. I pointed out that the owner lived in Dorset, and seldom, if ever, visited his Berkshire estate. He asked me how I would like it if people started walking through my living room. I countered that if my living room covered 10,000 acres, I might not object to the odd uninvited guest. Finally he pulled out an irrefutable argument for my exclusion: he had the right to use reasonable force to remove me, and he was considerably bigger than I was.

In both Britain and the United States, we accept the exclusive ownership of land as if it were the natural order of things. Yet from time immemorial until near the end of the 18th century, all but a few corners of both countries were open to anyone who wished to cross them. The right to roam across the land was, like the air, the water and the weather, a gift of God, which no man could usurp.

These gifts began to be monopolized in Britain at about the same time as the Parliamentary Enclosures accelerated the dispossession of commoners from their lands. Until the 18th Century, the people of Britain could walk almost anywhere. Though the land was privately owned, over much of it – the commons and the wastes of the manor – rural people maintained rights to farm, graze their animals, catch fish and collect firewood, bracken, gravel or turf. The proponents of enclosure claimed that it promoted social justice as well as agricultural efficiency, but in truth it destituted hundreds of thousands of Britain’s rural people.

It was then, Theodore Steinberg points out, that property began to be understood less as the right to use something – which could well be shared – and more as the thing itself, whose ownership tended to be exclusive. The cost of absolute ownership soon began to be paid not only by the dispossessed but also by the environment.

Steinberg is a legal historian who treads the fascinating borderlands of law and philosophy. Slide Mountain, or The Folly of Owning Nature, is the chronicle of how property law has confused and impoverished our relationship with the natural world.

As property became first a thing of importance in itself, and then an abstraction of powers, privileges and immunities, the possibilities of harnessing Nature by more equitable and sustainable means than those we have chosen diminished. Social relations were left out when the modern laws of property were drafted. The control afforded to landowners is one of the reasons why environmental regulations have been so successfully resisted when drafted, and so ineffective when applied.

Property law’s absurdities flourish in proportion to its range. As it parcels up ever remoter and more metaphysical components of the natural world, Steinberg suggests, it becomes more contradictory, divisive and destructive. Control over nature leads to control over human beings. When the law extends to clouds, to percolating water and to airspace, our attempts to free ourselves from natural constraints become the means by which we are enslaved to each other.

The problem with Slide Mountain is that Steinberg’s arguments, meritorious and interesting as they are, are put forward clearly and concisely in the introduction. Thereafter they are scarcely advanced by the anecdotes with which the rest of the book is filled. Even so, the implausible but well-attested stories he has chosen are undeniably intriguing.

In 1965 a group of farmers in Pennsylvania went to court to complain that someone was stealing their weather. The fruit growers in the Blue Ridge Mountains had hired a rainmaker to avert destructive hailstorms by seeding threatening clouds. The farmers downwind of the fruit growers complained that promising thunderclouds coming their way dispersed when the rainmaker’s plane flew through them. This, they claimed, was the reason for the disastrous drought they were suffering.

In court, the farmers were repeatedly cross-questioned as to whether they would approve of rainmaking if it worked for them, rather than against them, and on every occasion they insisted that they would not. Rain, they maintained, was a social leveler, falling on the rich and poor alike. For one group of people to take possession of it, to buy and sell the clouds, was an abomination.

The verdict was equivocal. Every landowner, the judge decided, had a property right in the clouds and the water they contained; men should not play God, but if the government decided that cloud seeding would benefit public interests, it should be allowed to proceed.

In the Bayou country of Louisiana, the ownership of the rich oil-producing lands on either side of the Atchafalaya waterway hinged upon whether sections of it were, in legal terms, streams or lakes. If they were streams, then the silty lands emerging as they diminished belonged to the surrounding landowners. If they were lakes, the new land belonged to the government, as it had once constituted the bottom of a navigable water.

The point was an important one, for private ownership meant not only that the state was deprived of oil revenues, but also that the marshy wilderness left by the receding water could not be conserved by the authorities. During ten years of appallingly costly litigation, Six Mile Lake was transformed first into a legal stream and then, after two failed appeals and a hearing in the state’s Supreme Court, back into a legal lake.

But perhaps the best of Steinberg’s stories concerns the sale, by the Interplanetary Development Corporation, of 4000 plots of prime bottomland for a dollar an acre. It seemed like a good deal, except that the location was a little inaccessible: Copernicus Crater, on the north-eastern quadrant of the moon. The corporation promised prospective purchasers rights not only to the land and minerals but also to fishing and clam digging in the Sea of Nectar.

One report suggested that 90% of the buyers knew the sale was a joke, which leads to the depressing conclusion that 400 people believed they had exclusive title to a patch of lunar real estate. But perhaps we should not be over-hasty in mocking them. Five hundred years ago, the notion that a harmless rambler could be marched out of an empty field in southern England would have been scarcely less conceivable.