New Enclosures Research Working Group




Across cultures, land ownership is an aspiration and a source of pride, identity, livelihood, and security. Yet, it is not accessible to everyone, and those who hold it are at risk of losing it. My work asks why loss of land ownership happens, what are the results, and what can done to prevent it? Are our legal means of ownership at fault and are there alternatives?


This project has three motivations: (1) The Land Grant Mission bids us understand who owns the land, a question that is no less interesting abroad than within the US; (2) the global land base is shrinking both absolutely (e.g., sea level change) and relatively (population growth); and (3) investors are commandeering lands around the world as a personal and national security hedge. Our work complements the work by the World Bank and numerous NGOs on these topics. The impacts of land loss and concentration are now of global concern and have the concerted attention of civil society as well as FAO, the UN, and many national governments.


I have started a systematic accounting of global land loss due to anthropogenic effects in an attempt to "map" how much arable land and habitat is being subtracted from the "denominator" of our changing land base. This system requires standardizing different metrics, estimating losses where data is absent, and sharing the caveats as to why the cumulative impact across the categories is limited in its accuracy. The foremost audience is the scientific community, striving to understand the interactions between sea level change and other "marginal" lands that will now experience greater use pressure. Another audience consists of demographers and footprint analysts who seek to inform the world about changing "Global Hectares" and "carrying capacities." Progress is currently preliminary, as I am still working with a technician to assemble the global estimate.


As land per capita shrinks for the absolute and relative reasons mentioned, social pathologies increase due to poor nutrition, greater morbidity, and social extremism both on the part of those forfeiting land and those (often states) who seize it. Suicides rise, community coherence is severed, and populations turn to "fictitious commodities" to survive in place of land. Resource curses become more acute. Artisanal skills are compromised, and essential relationships between humans and their ecosystems erode. A potential institutional shift that may grow from this seemingly insoluble suite of problems is a re-examination of the public trust doctrine (PTD), now appearing in national constitutions and being upheld by higher courts. Cornell faculty are mobilizing a new research working group with lawyers and leaders from other institutions to help the PTD become operative in local units of government and more broadly across civil society. From these actions, we hope that new forms of property pluralism will emerge that afford ownership flexibility in the face of pending scarcities.

Submitted by: 

  • Geisler, Charles C

Researchers involved: 

  • Geisler, Charles C
  • Nadasdy, Paul
  • Chao, Nancy
  • Wolford, Wendy
  • Wolf, Steve
  • Craib, Ray
  • Makki, Fouad
  • Currens, Ben

International focus: 

  • United States of America

United States focus: 

  • New York
  • North Dakota