No Trespassing: Overview
Essay? Kind of.
As promised, following is the full Overview section from my book proposal for No Trespassing: How the Ancient Struggle for Ownership, Private Property, and the Rights of the Commons Will Define Our Future. Some of it will feel slightly outdated (I mostly finalized this document in August 2020)—for example, the recent publication of The Dawn of Everything and books like Nick Estes’s Our History Is the Future give more accessible models for commons-based “ownership” as well as better, Indigenous-centered language for the theft of land that transforms it into private property. I have very lightly edited in a few places to update it, but otherwise left it untouched from the original. One thing I do want to note is that book proposals are written for a very specific audience: book editors and publishers. The “we” and “our” here were used with that audience in mind.
I will begin offering a paid version of this newsletter on or about August 1, 2022 (details at the end of this post), and the installments of this book will be spaced out over a couple of years. There’s a lot of research to do! So many books to read! Rivers to visit! The proposal included a finished Introduction and Chapter 2, but the rest remains to be researched and written. A brief outline of the structure and chapters is here.
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No Trespassing book proposal Overview:
Ownership: the deepest foundation of what we call civilization.
Owning a place can create a sense of belonging, a spiritual investment in a community as well as a financial one; it’s what allowed my homesteader ancestors to feel at home even in a cold, muddy dugout on the Montana prairie. Ownership has a darker side, though: Pursued out of fear or greed, it leads us to believe that we cannot live together equitably, that there will never be enough resources for everybody. Ownership turns land into property, rivers into commodities, people into slaves. It limits our imaginations, restricts what we believe is possible in how we exist on this planet. In the face of our climate crisis—rising sea levels and rising temperatures, plastic pollution that falls as snow in the Rockies or ends up in the fish on our plates, and scarce potable water mixed irrevocably with fracking fluids—our current relationship with ownership may very well be what destroys us.
But it doesn’t have to. Our paradigm of ownership is based on feelings of scarcity and fear. We want to keep what’s ours, pad our bank accounts and acquire property, build walls and gates, hunker down. Only then, we tell ourselves, will we be safe. Safe from what? Nobody’s quite sure. Losing it all? Ending up homeless and alone? The lawless masses hungry to take what we think is ours? That’s the thing about fear. It devours us but we never quite learn its shape.
No Trespassing will investigate what we are so scared of losing—land, food, health, freedom, agency, survival—and why, and how that knowledge can help us all recreate the world we want, one that is equitable, habitable, and just. It will reveal how the cold, distancing language of economics and property law is only a psychological wall around a concept that can instead be warm and deeply personal. When I consider what’s possible within the framework of “owning,” I turn not to title deeds but to relationship, kinship, health, well-being, community, and connection. What if we could build something that nurtures all of life?
Most of us think ownership is clear-cut. There are legal guidelines and people to enforce them, with lots of serious-looking paperwork to ensure we always understand who has the rights to what. But that paperwork is essentially a story, the outcome of what unfolds in hypothetical spaces.
Imagine two people, maybe the only people in existence, facing each other in a flower-covered meadow. One person places a rock between their feet and says, “Everything on this side of the rock is now mine.” Does the other person acquiesce or not? What if one of them has access to fresh water and the other doesn’t? What if one has a weapon and the other doesn’t? Will they fight over the invisible line spilling out from that single stone, or agree on it? Will their descendents seven generations hence feel bound by their choices?
How we approach and define ownership has profound implications for our lives, both expected and surprising, from access to clean water and control of personal information, to eminent domain and income inequality. Property lines are the most obvious manifestation of ownership, but they’re still only a powerful legal fiction. They create an imagined reality, telling me that what I do in the space I own, whether it’s a studio apartment or a ten-thousand-acre ranch, won’t have an effect beyond those boundaries. But air and water don’t care about property lines. Our treatment of them as empty neutral spaces is a legacy of outdated legal definitions of ownership, definitions that remain at least two centuries behind scientific knowledge.
Even the legal walls between what is protected as yours or mine can prove as porous as the property lines we pretend we draw. I might think I own the land my house sits on, but what happens when a natural gas company is given eminent domain to build a pipeline through my yard, and I don’t have the right to stop them from digging? This happens to people in America all the time. In 2016, a family of maple syrup farmers in Pennsylvania lost ninety percent of their mature maple trees after a pipeline company fought for eminent domain over their property and won. There is a phrase I hear in Montana all the time, that “private property is bedrock.” But in reality it’s friable at every turn, more like quicksand than a steadfast foundation. Worldwide, communities battle constantly against mining operations, oil drilling, natural gas pipelines, luxury housing developments, deforestation . . . the legacy of damage and destruction has increased through the twenty-first century, disconcertingly in tandem with the knowledge that continuing our modern way of living is likely to make future human life impossible. Faith in private property’s immovability has become a trick of the light.
No Trespassing will show how attachment to our homes and ecosystems can instead map a way forward for everyone, the have-nots as well as the haves. We all live on this planet; we’re bound to share with one another. Property rights and property law tend to get dismissed as being the exclusive realm of economists and ideology-driven think tanks. No Trespassing will explore how every aspect of this question, how we shape and separate our world, is instead intensely personal for all of us.
Some years ago, when we still lived in places far from my home state of Montana, my husband and I came back for a visit to my hometown. We hiked and swam and picked huckleberries. I felt like I would burst with affection for the place, this town ringed by mountains, socked in with gray and fog for months in the winter. Yet I also felt that I would burst with anger: this was a few years before the 2008 financial crash, and all over the mountains and along the lakes land was smashed and trees cut down to make room for massive multi-million-dollar vacation home developments. I felt like something was being stolen from me. Maybe it was my freedom to walk certain hills that were now gated off; maybe it was the newly empty gaps in the stands of lodgepole pine and larch trees; maybe it was the removal of landscapes from where they could benefit everyone, into the realm of that which can only benefit the already enormously privileged.
My husband and I were partway through a mountain hike and sat down on a rock to look at the view plunging into the valley. It was a beautiful August day, cool but no breeze, the huckleberries ripe and plentiful. I began to cry. “Shouldn’t this beauty,” I said, waving a hand at the entire expanse of the valley, with its towns and roads and farms and undeveloped mountains on all sides, “belong to everyone?”
I’ve spent years struggling with this feeling. Why does wealthy vacation homeowner development jar me so badly? Why is it almost impossible for a community, especially an underprivileged community, to successfully resist the building of an oil pipeline or coal ash waste pond near clean water sources, and why does their inability to protect the water they depend on feel so deeply unjust? And where does my sense of belonging, of home, fit into the context of a place I love that was seized from people—Blackfeet, Sioux, Crow, Salish, and many more—whose own sense of belonging I can’t even begin to fathom? Is there even any comparison? After all, that muddy dugout that gave my ancestors a sense of belonging on the Montana prairie was built on someone else’s stolen home.
Most people feel a connection to somewhere, a home with deep roots or recently adopted. What shapes our feelings of home, how do ownership and private property rights put those feelings—that connection—at risk, and how much power do we truly have to protect the places we love?
This isn’t academic for me, though the questions and answers are informed by economics, cultural anthropology, and biology. It’s born out of knowing that Montana, the home I love, would always be at risk, and there was only so much I could do about it. Facing these questions led me to consider what we value about the world around us and how that has changed. We pay attention to the health of the stock market but not the health of a river, when in fact the latter is crucial to our well-being while the former isn’t. Why?
I am far from alone in grappling with this problem. Oil pipeline and mining companies use the right of eminent domain to despoil people’s homes; chemical companies spill endocrine disruptors into rivers, affecting ecosystems and human health. The land I love, like all land, is subject to the always-shifting legal interpretations of ownership and the priorities of human societies. What happens to it is ultimately the result of a story we tell ourselves about how we should use land, how we can abuse it, and how our relationship to it alters over the eons.
No Trespassing will draw together history, economics, anthropology, and science to bring readers an understanding of how we’ve come to own this world—how once-shared land became property, for example, but also how possessing knowledge translates to power and how hoarding wealth is no different from hoarding newspapers. This book will demonstrate, using specific real-world examples and Nobel Prize-winning economic theory, how redefining ownership can grant us permission to connect with our world, along with connecting with ourselves and one another, in ways that many yearn for but few are able to satisfy.
There are other ways to own places, things, and ideas than what a short slice of Western history has shown us is possible. Examples of different forms of ownership and coexistence come from all over the world and from deep within our histories. It is indeed possible to manage our local commons, to share with one another while simultaneously caring for the non-human communities—plant, animal, water, tree—that sustain our lives.
There is even a name for this other kind of owning. That is, there are legal names, and names born out of hardheaded academic economic studies, but I mean a name we can relate to on a human level and based on mutual respect. It’s called love.
How we see ourselves, the stories we tell about our society and one another—these, too, just as much as land and minerals, are subject to power imbalances that allow ownership to permeate our lives in often nefarious ways.
In sixteenth-century Russia, the majority of peasants were enslaved under a system known as serfdom, prohibited from leaving their masters and punished for failing to bring harvest to the landed class who owned it all—the land, the crops, and the people. By the mid-1600s, landowners had total ownership over their serfs, who comprised about four-fifths of the Russian population. A landowner could sell a serf to another farm while keeping the serf’s family, though they had no right to kill them. For most of Russian history, the vast majority of the population was not considered to be fully human, not enough to control their time, their health, their security, their families, their lives, or their work.
Does being human require ownership over oneself—over freedom of movement, of thought, of affection? Or is it innate to us—is humanity a construct or an immobile fact? Philosophers have been debating questions like these for hundreds of years and will still be doing so hundreds of years from now. I doubt anyone reading this lets that debate detract from their own feelings of being human. At least, I hope not.
For slavery to function and to last it has to make people non-human and therefore own-able. When you are in a position of being owned, a feeling of humanity might be hard to retain, and the problem isn’t limited to our common conception of slavery. For women, this is an ongoing struggle reimagined in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale and its more recent adaptation for television: in Gilead, the post-America country she imagined, women and the babies they bear are once again property, as they have been many times throughout human history.
The power of reproduction has been central to the discussion of women’s bodies as property for as long as civilization has existed. The right to privacy underpinning the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade is contained within a woman’s own body: The majority of the current U.S. Supreme Court now disagrees with this but I, as a woman, have a right to choose what happens within the confines of my own skin, and personally, as the mother of a daughter who will someday be a grown woman, I’ll fight tooth and nail to ensure she has the same right. And I’ll have to fight tooth and nail because there will always be those who seek to remove that right. That question may shift dramatically in the future, though, as medical science is able to keep babies alive ever-earlier in their fetal development. My first baby was born nearly eight weeks early and spent a month in neonatal intensive care, where we talked daily with nurses who’d seen the survivability of premature babies pushed back to unimaginable levels over their careers, who’d worked with 22-week-old preemies weighing barely over a pound, babies who would have died less than a generation earlier. The question of abortion and its battleground in women’s wombs might shift just as dramatically depending on how early a fetus can be removed from its mother and still survive. If women’s bodies were no longer required to bring babies into life, how would our position in society change? And how much more pressing might that make the question of women’s, and everyone’s, right to self-determination and survival?
The right of determining our own humanity and what our lives might look like are being eroded in less obvious ways as data harvesting enabled by algorithms and artificial intelligence grows at breakneck speed. The European Union enforces laws protecting an individual’s ownership of data, while in the U.S. and Canada companies like Facebook and Google own that information and the rights to monetize it. In the U.S., your doctor’s office is required to keep your medical information private, but your searches on WebMD and the Mayo Clinic are fair game. The only reason this situation continues is that data-dependent companies have asserted their rights to our data, and few people have as yet pushed back.
This assertion, this claiming of space or items or people, has happened repeatedly throughout the history of civilization. Data is only the latest frontier, and I don’t use the word “frontier” metaphorically here. The American frontier wasn’t uninhabited land open for anyone’s taking. “Settling” it required invasion, massacres, dehumanization, and outright theft of what rightfully already belonged, in different iterations, to other people.
It can feel out of place to connect land ownership and the frontier settler mentality with data and the future of digital technology. But I believe this disconnect stems from our inability to imagine the potentials of this technology, both for good and evil. Yaël Eisenstat, an eighteen-year veteran of the CIA, former Global Head of Elections Integrity Ops at Facebook, and current policy advisor at the Center for Humane Technology, has said that unlike previous media and technology developments, the capabilities of current and future digital technology to influence our minds, opinions, and choices is unprecedented. Facebook, she says, knows more about us than the CIA and the FBI ever will, not because of what we specifically post but because it follows our behavior patterns all over the internet. “Attention extraction,” as she called it, is having an incredible and damaging impact on public health. Guillame Chaslot, a former YouTube engineer, explains that the speed with which we can go from watching kitten videos to conspiracy theories is determined by an algorithm that “makes 99.9999% of the choice for you,” with dire consequences for personal well-being and the strength of our social fabric.
For children, erosion of privacy can start from before birth, when happy parents post 3-D sonogram images on social media. By the time they turn eighteen and are legally responsible for themselves, so much data about children has been mined and analyzed and stockpiled and sold that their ability to define their online selves is almost nonexistent, even though we have little idea of how this data—owned by profit-driven private companies—will restructure their lives. As our digital age matures along with digital natives born into it, more stories have started to seep out of children seeking to claim ownership over their own stories, images, and online profiles. Recently, Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple reminded her mother on a public Instagram post that she had agreed not to post pictures of her child without the girl’s permission.
In America we tend to give parents extensive ownership over their children’s lives, from religious training to refusing life-saving medical care. Laying their physical and psychological selves open to social media doesn’t seem like such a huge step, but that doesn’t mean it’s just, or that we fully comprehend the consequences.
In Europe, the “right to be forgotten” law might make parents and social media companies far more cautious about the amount of material they allow online. Europe and America, in the realm of data and the internet, have widely disparate opinions about who gets to own not just their data but their sense of self. Europe’s stance might be considered the data equivalent of the “precautionary principle,” a scientific guideline founded on the idea that we should be extremely cautious about releasing new technology, whether a pesticide or an algorithm, into the public sphere unless we’ve done as much research as possible to ensure it has a minimal potential to harm human life. America has no such precautionary principle, and its legacy with toxic chemicals should be a warning for how we treat the data running through, and in some ways determining, our lives.
Ownership is not just a set of legal precedents. It’s at the heart of how we perceive and relate to one another. Private ownership began with a fundamental shift in how we view our relationship to the rest of life, including other humans. The history of ownership is about the millennia-long fight for liberty—political, economic, intellectual, spiritual, and physical. It was likely born in the advent of agriculture and civilization and is nothing less than the struggle of every human being for the right to live. And it’s not over yet.
No Trespassing will explore many facets of our relationship to owning, from slavery to the future of data privacy, from water use and contamination to ancient and modern economic systems based on management of the commons. But it circles back, in the end, to land, to the planet and our place in it. No matter how far we dive into the realm of data-driven, online lives, our relationship with nature remains at the heart of these questions. Once upon a time, there was no concept of owning nature anywhere in the world, whether owning an animal or owning an acre, because all people believed that they were part of nature. Nature, in whatever form, was integral to their lives and necessary for their survival.
Pared down, this perspective simply reflects a biological reality. If you’re reading this, you’re alive. And if you’re alive, it’s thanks to the vast, complex webs of ecosystems we live among. This would be no less true if you pursued the immortality dreams of certain Silicon Valley investors and downloaded your mind onto a computer, jettisoning your flawed and mortal body. That computer would still need energy, materials, and maintenance, all of which is still part of life, comes from life, depends on life. There is no living without it, no escape to some universe where you can finally be free of interconnection.
We have certainly tried, though. We have built a vast system of commodification that relies on the myth that nature can be bought, sold, used up, extracted, poisoned, warped, and destroyed, and it won’t have the slightest effect on us. This myth is the essence of modern ownership. We can only be willing to risk spills from an oil pipeline into a river of clean, fresh water if we fundamentally refuse to believe that that water is necessary for our survival. We can only attempt to own and dominate one another if we deny the biological reality of our interdependence. And as long as corporations’ or individuals’ right to profit is better protected than humans’ right to live, then any freedom we profess to believe in is only a mirage. Ignoring our interdependence in favor of total independence has brought us to the brink of the climate crisis and the future survival of the human species.
But we don’t need to throw all ownership out the window to solve the problem of exploitation. We simply need to rethink it, and part of the purpose of this book is to show how often we’ve done that throughout millennia of developing civilization, and to provide models for the future. Human history is full of systems of shared resources known as commons management, where rights to and limits of use were set and enforced according to the carrying capacity of the area. Fishing, animal grazing, crop allotment—these shifted according to seasons, weather, the health of the ecosystem, and population. Before colonization by the English, Ireland had a rigorous system of tribal land ownership called Brehon laws; in Borneo, the Iban adat system to this day lays down land use rules according to a family’s membership in a village longhouse. Most American states have a department related to fish and animal management, which sets boundaries and quotas for hunting with a long-term (and often flawed) goal of maintaining healthy populations of wildlife.
It is only in systems of mass communal use, like in the Soviet Union’s forced collectivization, and in an unfettered free market, which only knows how to strip-mine a resource, not husband it or respond to its needs for sustainability—that is, only at the extreme poles of ownership—that we find Garrett Hardin’s fabled Tragedy of the Commons. This is hardly a fringe view. Economist Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009, spent her life studying how community-based commons systems functioned successfully. Her work on the commons, the Nobel committee said, “Challenged the conventional wisdom by demonstrating how local property can be successfully managed by local commons without any regulation by central authorities or privatization.” More recently, Oxford University economist Kate Raworth’s model of “doughnut economics”—the inner circle of the doughnut is where the full spectrum of human needs are met, while the outer layer is the boundary of what the ecosystem can bear—is being adopted by cities like Amsterdam in the Netherlands as a way to restructure their economies toward true sustainability as they emerge from the economic crisis that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.
Every aspect of owning and ownership spirals into and out of our relationships with one another. In No Trespassing I will explore the ways in which we erase kinship and relationship in order to manufacture ownership. Kinship is part of being human. We are in fact connected to all life, and this knowledge remains within us no matter how much we try to beat it out of each generation. No Trespassing will walk readers through stories of damage to find equally powerful ones of connection. Both sets of stories are true, but only the hard edges of militant private property rights and their attendant ecological damage are the ones we choose. Which means we can choose to build something else.
It is possible, in other words, to both imagine and realize a way of ownership that relies less on absolutes and more on local need, scientific data, mutual respect, and an acknowledgment that we all have an equal right to live. And that is the goal of this book. It will go beyond economics to reframe ownership in very personal terms. We have forgotten that we have a right to a sense of belonging in our world. It’s time we remembered and reclaimed that right—not just for ourselves, but for everyone.
The evolution of ownership has transformed human life in profound ways, from the use of DNA to the Homestead Act to Facebook’s algorithms working to predict—and, in a way, to own—your future. The realities of climate change are already upon us, the end result of a system that began with a lie. If we could pretend that we didn’t need nature, then we could control it. By the same token, if we pretend we don’t need one another, then we can disregard and dehumanize and control “the other.” The climate crisis is here, brought to us by fictions we have been desperate to believe in, and no amount of locally grown heirloom tomatoes or lab-grown meat, no number of wind turbines or carbon offsets, will make any difference in the end. We can’t ensure the planet’s ability to sustain us if we don’t learn how to privilege our relationship with the land, our love of this home, and find a way to share it together. To know where this is all going, we’ll have to look deeply at where we’ve been, how we’ve changed, and what is possible. A livable, equitable future demands it of us.
Starting on or around August 1, here is what On the Commons will offer:
Paid subscribers ($6/month discounted to $60/year for an annual subscription and a $100/year “founding member” option):
Access to my book-in-progress, No Trespassing: How the Ancient Struggle for Ownership, Private Property, and the Rights of the Commons Will Define Our Future, released chapter-by-chapter on this newsletter.
Regular “Walking compositions,” mini-essays mixing ongoing research with my life in Montana, like the time a grizzly bear ate all my sister’s chickens, installing pronghorn-friendly fencing, and elk hunting. Walking compositions include carefully curated lists of writing, podcasts, and videos.
Occasional audio offerings: nature recordings, traffic recordings, audio essays.
Longform essays related to land, privatization, identity, and the human story.
Shorter excerpts from No Trespassing book chapters as they’re released.
REMEMBER: If you want to read but can’t pay, when the time comes email me with the code word “tribble” and I’ll enable a subscription, no explanation needed. Hopefully I can offer that forever.
Another remarkable post. I have no choice but to flag it for follow up. It is rare I read something on Substack twice.
I can’t wait to subscribe. Your writing is so compelling -- I really just can’t wait!