Introducing "No Trespassing"
“The idea of individual, exclusive ownership, not just of what can be carried or occupied, but of the immovable, near-eternal earth, has proved to be the most destructive and creative cultural force in written history.” —Owning the Earth, Andro Linklater
I have a few hundred pages of a fifth-grade reading textbook teacher’s manual left to copy edit, and am trying to get my head around the future of this newsletter post-June. Thank you all for sticking through these ramblings, and providing your own ideas in return!
As I wrote in January, after I finish my current copy editing contract, I’ll be working on a paid version* of On the Commons. The focus will continue to be many of the things I already write about, but as promised I’ll be publishing the chapters from the book I’m writing. To kick off a process that will likely take a couple of years if not more, here are the title and subtitle:
Before shifting to a paid version, I’ll share some excerpts from the Overview section of the original book proposal, but to begin with want to share an even briefer overview known as the “Note on Structure” section (the one part of nonfiction book proposals I always have a hard time getting my head around, aside from the marketing section, which is always hard), lifted from that same proposal. While the proposal itself is over 60 pages and includes an individual summary of each chapter, this section is a briefer version that I hope gives a good overall idea of what I’m working on:
NOTE ON STRUCTURE
“Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks, on a calendar page for August. Queen Mary’s Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII) fol. 78v.”
No Trespassing will have an introduction followed by nine chapters looking at different aspects of humanity’s relationship with ownership.
The first section, chapters 1–4, is focused on the forms of ownership that people are most familiar with: land, water, food, and possessions. Chapters 5–6 are about ownership of people, including forms of slavery and a sense of ownership over ourselves. Chapters 7–9, the final section, take the ideas previously presented and look at their applications for our collective futures: what will happen with resources and property boundaries when humans begin to colonize space, how the weight of a growing population will force changes in how we allow or restrict rights of use, and what ownership of information means for creation of a shared human story and understanding going forward.
The first section details our past and current ownership of land, water, food, and, to put it crudely, stuff. The Introduction presents some of my personal interest in this subject, my love for the Montana landscape along with my own journey to seeing how “land” became “property” over many centuries. Chapter 1 uses my personal struggle with my ancestors’ role in colonizing land that was originally the homeland of several Native nations to introduce the Homestead Act, the Doctrine of Discovery, and Manifest Destiny—ideas created by the powerful in order to take the lands of Indigenous people worldwide. Chapter 2 focuses on ownership of water—questioning how and why corporations have the right to pollute a resource that is necessary for life; and Chapter 3 on what the future of another resource (seeds and food) will be in the face of patented, privately owned, often genetically modified, organisms. Chapter 4 is about hoarding and its role in both income inequality and the sense of scarcity that drives a desire for possession.
The second section focuses on what ownership means for being human. Chapter 5 is about ownership of people told through a history of serfdom in Russia, modern slavery worldwide, and the ongoing struggle for women’s rights. Chapter 6 is about the future of the data commons. As the parody below shows, many people in the tech world liken data-driven capitalism to medieval feudalism, in which users are the serfs beholden to tech companies playing the role of feudal landholders.
Parody of Queen Mary’s Psalter, one of several found online at sites discussing data harvesting as the new feudalism.
Section three looks toward the future. Chapter 7 lays out the real-world examples of commons-based systems of ownership that could provide models for the future, and brings to a popular audience the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, who specialized in studying the commons. Chapter 8 sends us out into space, covering what we’ve already done in terms of exploration and the possibilities of mining, the Outer Space Treaty, and what our science fiction visions of space colonization might look like in practice. Chapter 9 brings the narrative back to the larger human story and where each of us fits into it, and on this planet, in the context of ownership.
I have a backlog of “stuff to read and listen to” to share, but thought I’d leave it at this for now, which seems like enough to read! One of the questions I’m still unsure of is how to publish the chapters. The three-part series on “community” I did recently added up to about 10,000 words, which is what my chapters run (though they should be far more polished than that was!), and it seems like a lot of drop on people all at once. I’d like to make sure that the content remains something to look forward to and have time to discuss, rather than yet another thing added on stressful to-do lists.
Walking compositions and longer essays (which average around 3000 words) will remain the same length.
*I’m digging into Substack’s advice columns and looking at the newsletters I pay for (and asking advice!) to figure out pricing structures. Will share that info on my next post.