Thoughts on land ownership

This page deals with questions relating to whether we can or should be considered to own land - from a philosophical and ethical point of view.

According to the law of Australia at the time I wrote this page my wife and I owned 46ha of land. What does this mean - to own land?

I own a computer. I can do whatever I like with the computer, within some limits: for example, I should not burn it because it will pollute the atmosphere. But if I wanted to take a hammer to my computer and destroy it there would be no wrong in that. If I decide to ruin 'my' land by over-cropping it year after year, and allowing the soil to wash or blow away, I have committed a crime, at least against our shared environment. If many land owners did that then how would future generations survive?


An alternative view

The world would be a far less damaged place if, rather than acting as if we own the land, we treated it as something sacred that we all had a duty to look after. Has this attitude been one of our greatest errors?

More reason to give this subject thought

On 2021/05/10 I climbed St Mary Peak in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. According to one source the 'traditional owners' prefer that people don't climb St Mary Peak.

There were obvious ramifications regarding land ownership, and other matters.

Land is an immovable part of our shared planet. It is not a thing that we can pick up, take to market, and sell. It is fixed and an inalienable section of the Earth. It cannot be the property of an individual, it cannot even be the property of all humanity; it is a part of the biosphere that is the home to all life.

Surely I have a responsibility to look after 'my' land; to leave it in no worse a condition than when I took responsibility for it? Wouldn't it be better to speak of tenancy of land, or tenure over land, rather than ownership?

It seems that we do not own land in the same sense as we owns computers, cars, chairs and tables. The 'land owner' should more properly think of himself as the steward of 'his' land. He is holding it in trust for the future benefit of the biosphere.

My understanding is that primitive peoples generally believed that they belonged to the land, rather than the other way around. Better, don't you think?

Contact: David K. Clarke – ©
This page created 2007/05/18, last edited 2021/05/13

Mist and trees
A bit of 'my land', in the Clare Valley of South Australia

Very similar arguments apply to the entire planet. We should not think of the Earth as 'our planet'; rather we should accept the Earth as a responsibility; something to pass on to the next generation in at least as good condition as it was when we were born.

Is the idea that humanity owns the world one of our great errors?

In the early twenty first century our shared planet is suffering from a great many problems caused by humans, climate change being one of the greatest of these.

Perhaps if instead of thinking that the world is 'ours' to do with as we choose, we were to accept that we are just a small part of the world and it is our responsibility to look after it, for our own sake, but also for the sake of all other life, we would treat the planet with the respect it deserves and needs?

I would hold that the idea that we own the world, or that we as individuals or groups own parts of world, amounts to an ethically unsupportable belief, or if you like, a delusion, and an enormously harmful delusion. We should think and act in ways that consider the needs of all other sentient beings and of life as a whole. We should be compassionate to all other life and the environment that we share with all other life. To do otherwise is selfish and unethical.

Animals and land ownership

Many animals have a territory that they defend from individuals or groups of the same species (and from other species too – wedge-tailed eagles have looked threateningly at my drone once or twice, or perhaps they were wondering if it was edible?) For example, there is from time to time a group of (Australian) magpies that live near my place. They apparently consider some area within perhaps a hundred metre radius to be 'their territory'. Is this 'land ownership' in magpie 'law', enforceable by the magpie family? If other magpies feel the same way about 'their territory' then does this 'law' have some sort of universal validity in magpie culture?

Perhaps the human concept of land ownership came from this sort of behaviour?

'Our' gardens

Our relationship with our gardens can tell us something about ourselves. First, there seems to be a 'natural' affinity between people, especially perhaps older people, and gardens. I suspect that this is instinctive and has held an evolutionary advantage since our ancestors changed from hunter-gathering to farming many thousands of years ago. My observation suggests to me that aboriginal Australians don't have this affinity; their ancestors didn't go through a farming period. (My experience has been with aborigines of the dry parts of Australia. In some other, better watered, areas some primitive and very limited form of farming might have been done.)

The need to 'own' our gardens

The couple of years after I met my wife we each had a house, one in Adelaide, one in the country. We normally stayed in her house during the week (although I was often away in the bush, usually two weeks at a time) and went to my house on weekends. I found it difficult raising enthusiasm gardening in my wife's garden, because it didn't feel like 'my garden'. It didn't matter if I told myself that this was irrational and silly, the enthusiasm that I had when working in my own garden was not there when I worked in my wife's garden.


Update, May 2020

Since writing this I have become heavily involved in three projects that could be called community gardens. Gleeson Wetlands, since 2014; Bowman Park old homestead garden, since June 2018; and Crystal Brook Central Park, since June 2019.

I certainly do not own any of these, but I do have some degree of control over what is done in two of the three, and all three are being developed in ways that I feel are appropriate. If it was not so I would probably cease my involvement.

Perhaps because I feel I am getting close to the end of my life I am wanting to do something for the community in which I live?

Over many years I have planted and tended trees and shrubs on the sides of public roads near our home (we sold the other two houses) at Crystal Brook in the Mid North of South Australia. We have our own garden around the house, and we have some land seventy kilometres away which is like a big garden too, so it's not that I lack land for gardening.

I have come to feel some sort of ownership for 'my' lines of trees and shrubs on roadsides; I would be upset if someone removed any of them without first consulting me, I feel personally hurt when a vandal damages one of 'my' trees or shrubs. Yet, if someone kills native trees growing wild along a roadside I feel annoyed, but not nearly to the same degree as if they were 'mine'.

Why the feeling of ownership?

Public land
In the foreground is some neglected public land; it is surrounded by very valuable privately owned land. The residents want their houses and 'their land' to look beautiful, but don't care about the nearby public land.


Update, December 2022

In early 2022 my wife and I moved from South Australia to Western Australia. I became involved in removing weeds from within and adjacent to several parks near my new home. I see very little interest from other local people in looking after these areas.
Elsewhere I see exquisitely manicured gardens, while on public land a short distance down the street, or perhaps even across the road, there is neglected land. The owners of the carefully tended gardens would not tolerate a stick out of place in their own garden, but are not bothered by tens of square metres of weeds within fifty metres of their front door. Why the need for ownership before caring for land and vegetation? If we could all develop a feeling of ownership of the whole Earth, then perhaps we would care more for it? Perhaps, if we didn't have near absolute ownership over 'our own' land, then we would care more for the land that we all belong to?

Perhaps my own feeling of ownership for 'my' plants on public roads is connected to a feeling of personal responsibility for the biosphere that I have developed over the past several decades? Is the lack of such a feeling in the apathetic majority a large part of the source of their apathy? Then should we be trying to instil a feeling of ownership for the Earth in our children? (I think it's too late for most of our politicians.)

I worry about the trend toward higher density of living in cities...

'Traditional owners'

It has become very fashionable to talk of the 'traditional owners' of land in Australia rather than Aborigines. (Aborigines are the original inhabitants of a land.) As I've argued elsewhere on this page, we have no right to claim that we own land. In hunter-gatherer societies I believe it was more usual for people to feel that they belonged to the land rather than the land belonged to them. Consequently to call someone a 'traditional owner' of any land is unjustifiable.

I've written on an aspect of this point in my page on ethics and on 'traditional owners preferring that people don't climb St Mary Peak' in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia.

This section added

Degrees of justification in claiming ownership (or tenancy)?

While holding that we all have a responsibility to look after whatever land we have some sort of legal right to, it seems to me that a person would have more justification to claim 'ownership' of the patch of land that his house is on than another person would have to claim ownership of a farm, or even more, of a big grazing property.

Some thoughts along this line...

  • The larger the patch of land, the greater the responsibility of the 'owner' to look after it and pass it on to the next generations in good condition?
  • And the larger the patch of land the less right the 'owner' should have to total control over that land and to exclude others?
  • The smaller the patch of land, the more intimate the 'owner's' association with that land will be, so the greater the control he/she should have?

An example: when I was on our family's dairy farm I recall that my brother and I thought that someone coming onto the farm to have a picnic, without asking permission first, was a 'bit of cheek'. I remember comparing it to us going onto their front lawn for our own picnic. But, of course, the two situations are not properly comparable. Our going onto their 1000 square metre block would have been very different, and much more intrusive, than their going only our 150 hectare farm.

Surely it would follow from this line of reasoning that 'traditional owners' should have little right to keep people off land in national parks of hundreds of square kilometres.


Brooks Valley
One of the most beautiful little valleys within the region of 'the Clare Valley' of South Australia
This view can only be seen from 'private' land

Should 'land-owners' have the right to stop people from walking on 'their' land? Should people who love walking avoid private land unless they have the express permission of the 'land-owner'?

There is no crime where there is no victim. What justice would there be in the 'owner' of the land in the photo above stopping people from walking on that land and seeing that view? Do I have any right to stop people walking on my land and seeing the view below?

Mist in the valleys
A winter morning when the mist lies in the valleys of Clare
This view can only be seen from 'private' land

Of course there are always some people who will abuse a privilege and leave a gate open or do some other harm; but is limiting the rights of all because of the misdeeds of few justified? The distinction between selfishness and altruism is also relevant here.

If the world belongs to anyone it belongs to all.


Related pages

Related external pages...

ritimo: Land ownership: A fundamental critique of its key concepts is necessary

Related pages on this site...

Animal rights
Crystal Brook Central Park
Immigration / Refugees
Self or all? Selfishness or altruism?
St Mary Peak: and should one have a right to climb it?

Sections of pages on this site...

Why are we reluctant to look after shared land?
Whatever happened to civic pride?
Community spirit
Ethics: freedom to climb