Why can earth be owned?

There’s a concept that strikes me strange, which no one I talked to so far found as foreign as me:

Earth can be owned.

Wait Philipp, what do you mean by “owning Earth”? I never heard that phrase.

When I say “owning Earth”, I refer to owning land. Calling it “owning Earth” sounds radical, given that all living that we know exists on this one Earth, that we don’t have more than this one planet, that this is the single environment in which we can survive and thrive.

I argue that not my terminology is radical, but rather what we consider a normal practise. The milder sounding attenuation of calling it “owning land” is what lets it appear more normal to us than it should.

Anyone can purchase a piece of land. The person not only owns it for their lifetime, but passes on the right of ownership to someone of their choosing when their death comes. Land ownership lasts forever1.

How is this a system that works? The short answer is likely something along the lines of: Capitalistic practises rule more or less globally — no wonder, given the wealth markets efficiencies have brought to us on average. The belief in capitalism in turn cements a belief of individual ownership rights. Without the right of private ownership, capitalism doesn’t work. It’s natural that we see land as a tradable good as any other. But let’s look at the implications of someone owning land:

As of today, there’s 7.8 billion humans on earth. Predictions claim that we’re going to surpass 10 billion sometime in between 2050 and 2060. A human owning a unique slice of land — a unique piece of Earth – takes it away from all the other 7.8 billion - 1 humans. Humanity loses claim to use this portion of earth as common good. Does that sound like a healthy distribution between common good and individual rights to you?

Now, banning land ownership all together is an idea too drastic for my own liking. But I want to argue that the permanence of land ownership is a concept that is problematic:

Permanent land ownership creates inequality

Let’s leave aside for a moment that we continuously degrade Earth through resource over-usage, and assume that Earth’s resources in 2050 will be the same as today. Then, given a population of 10 billion humans, there will be 7.8/10th = 78% as much of Earth and its resources available for every human compared to someone living today. Or, put in reverse, if a human owns a “fair share” of one 7.8 billionth of Earth’s land today, this piece of land will be 128% bigger than the fraction that every human could own if we’d split Earth equally between all humans in the future. There is dynamics at play which increase inequality over time: People who are wealthy today can increase their wealth of the future by purchasing land, because the ownership captures a good that is growing scarcer per capita. On average, regions with a wealthy population have statistically less offspring, whereas poor regions of the world have a high rate of population growth. Land ownership therefore grows more concentrated instead of diluting proportionately to population growth. Lastly, regions of the world which are poor today are said to be hit hardest by degradation of land(s usage) by climate change, which, ironically, so far has largely been caused by wealthy humans.

In conclusion, the concept that land ownership is passed on across generations entrenches inequality within societies, and humanity.

Who has the right to grant the right to own land?

Good question! The short answer is: countries.

A country is made of a population, which lives within confined borders, and adheres to a set of accepted rules, tied together by a shared culture. The population’s government decides laws by which (land) ownership is regulated.

In a democracy, the government is thought of as executing the population’s will, and the population is the shared owner of all public goods of the country, including the land. Sounds perfect: basically the people who live, are born, are citizens of the country own that part of Earth together. Everyone has a purely conceptual claim to own a tiny piece of their countries public goods. A country also gets to decide who is considered a citizen. The latter is interesting: If humanity owns Earth together, why can’t a human freely decide which part of Earth they want to be attributed to? And what gives people the right to define a country and take ownership over it in the first place?

Well, people just take possession and call it ownership, legitimising the act by invoking a higher right, and belaying the claim with the (military) strength to defend it. For instance: kings are legitimated by god. And once enough people believe, the legitimation becomes “truth”. Today, largely everyone agrees on most of the world’s borders. Disagreement about the higher legitimacy create conflict, for example: When a group of people claims that god granted them ownership over the same part of Earth that other people already live on and consider their home, there’s a problem.

Ok, so in general countries decide how land is owned / sold / passed on within their (globally accepted) borders.

A proposal to decrease inequality

There’s something that to me sounds like a “quick win” to counteract the increasing inequality caused by permanent land ownership: Prevent the inheritance of land ownership rights. When someone dies, their land’s ownership should flow back to the commons. If this were the case, every generation could actively appropriate all of Earth’s land. Society would have a “default hook” to re-decide what “good use” for a part of Earth means. It might frequently occur that the outcome would be similar to today: In those cases, society would decide to re-sell the land, and put the proceeds to good use. But it might also be, that societies priorities and needs changed. In those cases, society could decide to re-purpose the land. For example, if affordable housing grew into a problem in an area, society could decide to re-purpose a piece of land for additional affordable housing for and by the local community. In areas fighting with decreased biodiversity, land could be re-naturalised. And so on…

Naturally, my proposal is easier said than done. For instance, questions remain around how to treat structures built on top of the land. Expropriation sounds simple, but (c/w)ould cause noticeable disruption to economic activity, and therefore incur costs.

One could argue that inheritance tax is a more efficient way to address inequality through inheritance2. Inheritance tax bi-passes the expropriation disruption problem by letting heirs pay society a “wealth gain dividend”.

To this argument I want to counter, that my proposal does not only tackle the unequal wealth distribution, but additionally enables future generations to self-determine how to live on Earth. This freedom for the future, this generational justice, in my hope more than offsets negative effects of economic disruption caused by a regular reset of land ownership.

There’s more opposition to my reasoning that society should re-gain control over land regularly: There’s research concluding that private land usage is more economically more efficient than public land usage3. This point is not in conflict with my argumentation though, as I pointed out above that society can decide to re-sell the land, and will be incentivised to do so, if the private usage is more valuable.

It’s clear that this discussion can be wagered to infinity, but to me it boils down to a question about justice and freedom:

Why should should any single mere mortal get to decide a piece of Earth’s future not through action, but through having possessed it when dying?

I for my part haven’t found a good answer.


  1. “Forever” as a term is not precise. Unusual events like expropriation through the government, or war can put an end to “forever”. For the purpose of simplifying the argument’s readability, I’m foregoing this precision. I also glossed over the fact that there is countries in which land can’t be purchased and ownership can’t be transferred as I describe, a prominent example being China. I ignore these cases because globally seen they are exceptions and because people from those countries can purchase land somewhere else and pass on ownership of it after death.

  2. Though I’d argue that those taxes would need to be higher to offset the inequality inherent to inheritance.

  3. However, free markets have failures (so called externalities) around accounting for external costs like environmental damages.