Wednesday, 10 February 2016
Who owns the world?
The world relative to its human population is quite large. It is 123 billion acres in size, of which 37 billion acres are land. This means that there are a notional four acres available for every man, woman and child in the predicted 2050 world population 0f nine billion, which would be an increase of two billion on the present population. But notional is not real, and what is noticeable when looking at how the 37 billion acres are used by nature and humanity is that the urban area, humanity's footprint on the land patch, is extremely small, at 1.5 per cent. This conflicts with the common rhetoric of environmentalists, which too often comes fact-free.
Land use has historically tended to follow claims to ownership, defined as the right to the use of and disposal of land. The relationship between humans and land begins with a fundamental claim by some people or countries to "own" land. On that basis, the world divides into two simple categories: those countries that allow citizens to own the land to which they hold legal title and those that grant only tenancies to their citizens, permitting the state to claim a total prior right to the use of all land within its borders.
Those countries that allow their people to own the land to which they hold legal title are among the most economically successful - such as the United States, Germany and France. Those operating what is essentially a feudal or pre-feudal system, in which the state or monarch claims legal rights to all land, tend to be less developed, with rare exceptions such as the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The latter category, in which citizens cannot own land legally, is dominated by one of the oddest situations on earth: the legal ownership by a single individual of all land in a number of countries and the consequent downgrading of all citizens of those countries to the status of feudal vassals in relation to land.
The world's primary feudal landowner is Queen Elizabeth II. She is Queen of 32 countries, head of a Commonwealth of 54 countries in which a quarter of the world's population lives, and legal owner of about 6.6 billion acres of land, one-sixth of the earth's land surface. Her position is a relic of the last and largest land empire in history, rumours of whose demise would appear to be somewhat premature based on her position and possessions. But her power is real, or at least legally real, and it derives from a tradition based on a specific and unbalanced relationship between rulers and the ruled.
1066 and all thatFeudalism begins with the idea that all land and people are the possession of the gods, with the gods devolving that ownership to a human representative. The divine origin of land ownership became all-pervasive in classical times and took its most brutal general form in the deified Roman emperors, from whom all land in the empire was held. The Romans brought the idea of imperial ownership to Britain in 43AD.
Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the last time Britain was invaded, the idea of a singular, absolute, monarchical owner of land became entrenched in constitution and practice. With the expansion of the British empire, this version of the feudal system was imposed on about a quarter of the world.
Today we have two kinds of feudal state: the inherited state, usually with a monarch at its head, such as the UK; and the state that claims ownership of all land and is feudal in its conception and often totalitarian, such as China. But the core surviving feudal structure in the modern world is inherited, transnational and covers many countries. It has no formal name. It is, in fact, the British crown and its wearer, Elizabeth II. Her legal title runs thus: "by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith".
This constitutional statement includes some vast territories where the Queen is quite separately the sovereign head of state and legal owner. First among these is Australia, which, if its Antarctic territories are included, is the second-largest country on earth. And the Queen, in effect, owns it. She also owns the third-largest country, Canada.
When the Queen's territories are added together, the Russian Federation ceases to be the largest single political entity on earth. Like the Queen's realms, the Russian Federation is dramatically underpopulated and immensely rich in mineral wealth of all kinds.