Who Owns The World?


In Athens in the state of Georgia there is a tree that owns itself. This tree is the only tree in the world that is the legal landowner of the land it lives upon. Having fond memories of the tree when growing up the landowner William H. Jackson wanted to protect the tree forever. So, in the early 1800s he went to court and transferred the deeds for the land in an eight foot radius around the tree, from himself to the tree. To this day the legality of the tree's property rights have never been questioned. Planet Earth has 57 million square miles of land or 36 billion acres and until the day comes when we set foot on other planets that's all the land we have. Land therefore is the most limited commodity we have, thus it comes at a great price. As the population increases and more homes are needed to house the next generation, the demand for land increases. In the past 10 years alone land prices have trebled, in some countries. But who owns the world? And I'm not talking about power and money but the actual Earth you stand upon, from the wilds of Alaska to Outer Mongolia who really owns the dirt and gravel beneath your feet and more importantly who owns your house and the land it sits on. Is it really you or is it in fact the bank, the government or some kind of land and gentry? Let's start with America and its 2.3 billion acres of land across 50 states. The biggest land owner in America is cable billionaire John Malone who owns a staggering 2.2 million acres. He owns enormous ranches in Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado. Oh, he also owns Humewood Castle in Ireland, because he thought it was pretty. Malone is closely followed by Ted Turner who owns 2 million acres of American land across seven states. He is a media mogul who founded CNN. Turner's land includes 14 ranches, 28 homes and the world's largest herd of privately owned bison. He also has four girlfriends, he spends a week with each one per month, because if you're a 78-year-old billionaire who owns a massive chunk of America then why the hell not? An Englishman's home is his castle, no matter how big or small, your humble abode is yours and no one can ever take it away from you. Or can they? And come to think of it, is it really yours? If you own your home via leasehold you have zero rights to the ownership of your property or its land, absolutely none. You are simply renting the property and have decided to pay for the next 99 year's rent upfront. The freeholder is the true owner of the land and everything upon it, he or she is your landlord, for the next 99+ years. If you are wealthy enough to own a flat or even a house in London then you probably don't actually own it, or the land. This guy does instead, 26-year-old Hugh Grovesnor, the 7th Duke of Westminster, who owns about half of London. He is worth over £12 billion, making him the richest person under 30 years old in the World. And you are simply renting from him for a very long time. But what if you do own the freehold to your property? And what if you've paid off your mortgage, with no interference from the bank, you must then be the one true owner of your castle and its land? Well, not quite. I'm sorry to burst your dream of setting up your own country in your back garden but you don't truly own any land. In fact not many people do. There's a centuries old doctrine of law called "Absolute land ownership" which is fuzzy but it means that you may hold the rights to a piece of land and its title but you don't "absolutely" own it. In most countries the government owns the entirety of the land in that country, all you own is a title to that land, giving you certain rights to it, but not absolute ownership. And the government can forcefully buy your house and land off you at any time if for example, they wish to build a bypass through your home, well you've got to build bypasses. This is true for every country in the world, after all if the government didn't own 100% of the land within that country then it wouldn't be a complete country, it would be Spain, minus all these plots of land where people have purchased property. Each property owner would essentially own their own little country and maps of the world would get really complicated. So countries have to own 100% of their land in order to create and enforce laws within that country's boundaries. But in truth there is no such thing as true land ownership, the laws surrounding land ownership are really messy, and change completely depending on which country you're in. In reality you have essentially paid for some rights over a piece of land, but your rights to the land are overlapped by the rights of other bodies, such as the government and the monarchy, if there is one. Speaking of Monarchies, that's when things get really complicated. For example, in England, the absolute land owner is not the government, but The Crown, an independent body who acts on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen. Queen Elizabeth II owns every square inch of land of the United Kingdom. When you buy a property in the UK you are simply put on a map called the "Land Registry" to identify that you own the title to that plot of land. In reality you don't own the land, you hold it; you are a tenant of The Crown. If you were to really buy that land outright, you would have to draw up a sales contract with Her Majesty and The Government who have certain historic legal ties with The Crown. But that would just but one less place for Elizabeth to drive her Land Rover and walk her Corgis, so I don't think that's going to happen. One element of the law that exemplifies the fact that you don't actually own your own land is that if you strike oil on your private land in the UK, you have no rights to it. The Crown automatically owns any oil or other valuable minerals found below private properties, and all you're entitled to, is compensation to replace the soil once all the oil has been extracted and sold for lots and lots of money, none of which you will ever see. But the British isles is not all that the Her Majesty the Queen owns, far from it. As a matter of fact, Queen Elizabeth II is the largest land owner in the world, by a large margin. The Queen owns one-sixth of the Earth's land. And she is the only person in the world that owns entire countries. Queen Elizabeth II owns 6.6 billion acres of land and she is head of state of 16 countries, collectively known as the Commonwealth Realm. She owns the entire countries of Canada and Australia, which are the second and sixth largest countries in the world, respectively. The Queen's total landholdings are worth an estimated £25 trillion. Which makes her, by a considerable margin, the wealthiest person on the planet. But it's not quite as simple as that, she is more of a ceremonial owner of said countries. Whilst she does technically own the land, the individual country's governments have ownership to the titles of the lands and they profit from it. The Crown doesn't actually see any profit from much of its land holdings. Because of this the Queen's actual estimated wealth is somewhere around £275 million. I mean that's not to be sniffed at, but it's rather measly for someone who owns one-sixth of the planet, excluding oceans. She also owns a drive-thru McDonald's in Slough, because why not when you're the Queen. But symbolic or not she is undoubtedly the world's largest landholder. So who then, is following in her footsteps? That would be King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who inherited The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after the recent death of his half-brother King Abdullah. He owns 553 million acres in total, just 8% of what the Queen owns. But those 553 million acres are rich in oil, which gives The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a GDP of $646 billion. At number three on the land owner list is none other than Pope Francis. The pope owns the Vatican City, which is its own nation state. But isn't the Vatican also the smallest country in the World? Yes, it most definitely is, at just 108 acres. So how does that make the Pope the world's third largest landowner? Well, the Catholic church actually owns 177 million acres of land world-wide, which means the Pope owns 177 million acres of land. That of course includes every religious institution, diocese and Vatican-owned embassies to the Holy See, which are in 81 countries. If all land was divided equally between every person on the planet then every single person would own roughly 5 acres of land. Just over 3 football pitches each. But of course it isn't, land ownership has always been about power, wealth and social class and it still is. Every time you mow your lawn you are imitating the aristocrats of the past. In a figurative sense, because of course, wealthy aristocrats definitely didn't mow their own lawns. You see the reason lawns were invented in the first place was to show off and demonstrate power. It was a way of saying, hey look everyone, we're so bloody rich we can afford to own and maintain vast areas of land which we have no real use for. But look, isn't it impressive, with its shrubberies, mazes and fountains. Yes, lots and lots of fountains. In medieval times 100% of the land your average person owned was used to either build upon and live in, or to grow food to feed your family. Most people would starve if they decided to grow topiary instead of cabbages. You can't eat topiary, I've tried. So wealthy kings, princes, lords and ladies would purposely clear all trees from their excessive areas of unused land and grow grass upon it instead, creating a meadow or lawn. This served two purposes. Firstly it was now far easier to see people trying to invade their castle and secondly they could show off how much spare land they had. This was even more impressive back then because of course, the lawn mower didn't exist. Neatly trimmed grass lawns has to be painstakingly cut by hand by servants wielding scythes and shears. The Palace of Versailles is a prime example of this showy-offery. Even with modern gardening tools, the amount of money, time and manpower that goes into maintaining a garden this stunning is rather impressive. The trend of maintaining lawns to impress others has continued throughout the centuries. And although the lawns have become significantly smaller with an increasing population, your neighbour will probably still sneer at it, if you don't keep it nicely trimmed, because this medieval tradition has become ingrained within our culture. But who cares if its exorbitant and a completely unnecessary, you are the king of your castle. And okay you don't really own it, but who cares, get out there and mow your lawn.

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