Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

A. Fiona Mackenzie – Places of Possibility [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1405191716″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41wQqACWbNL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”A. Fiona Mackenzie” ]A Land of Possibility and Community

A Feature review of

Places of Possibility: Property, Nature, and Community Land Ownership
A. Fiona Mackenzie

Paperback: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013
Buy now: [ [easyazon-link asin=”1405191716″ locale=”us”]Amazon[/easyazon-link] ] [ [easyazon-link asin=”B00A3JA7AG” locale=”us”]Kindle[/easyazon-link] ]

Reviewed by Sam Edgin

Generally we speak of ownership – especially property ownership – in binary terms. A house, a hillside, or a stretch of farmland is owned either privately or publicly. As there is little else we know, we are largely incapable of thinking otherwise. A mountain is either the property of the government, who will probably preserve it as public land or stick some military installation or communications array on top of it (but more popularly the former); or it is owned privately with farmland running along its base or ski slopes splayed across its face. Or, to boil it down a bit more, we generally see land turned towards conservation in an attempt to preserve the natural resources, or employed for what we think of as “human” use, that is, for building or energy or farming. In Places of Possibility: Property, Nature, and Community Land Ownership A. Fiona Mackenzie presents a stream of qualitative research that wants us to believe there is another way.

Places of Possibility is the result of 16 years of research with The North Harris Trust (NHT) in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. The NHT is a large estate (25,293 hectares or 62,500 acres) in the Western Isles. This region, and Scotland in particular, are “‘at the cusp’, globally, of ‘community centric’ land reform” ( 4). That is, with over one-third of the land in the Outer Hebrides owned by the local communities and two-thirds of the population residing on this collectively owned land, these rugged, windy isles in western Scotland are showing the rest of the world that the binary idea of land ownership doesn’t have to be.


Mackenzie’s concern is not as much the practice of owning land communally, but instead the theory that revolves around such practice and the results that it has on people and the land they live on, and more importantly the effect it has on the creep of neoliberalization. She presents the idea of community land ownership as directly opposed to the ongoing process of neoliberalization, or, the privatization and commodification of resources, decentralization of government, and lessening of restrictions so that the capitalist market may more easily penetrate all areas of life for the maximization of profit.


So she studies the North Harris Trust, exploring the ways in which community land ownership open our natural resources to an indeterminate number of possibilities which have long sat in a global blind spot due to our binary view of land ownership. Wresting the land from the boundaries of public and private alone calls into question another duality we are ignorant of, that of nature and culture, or nature and man. Mackenzie reveals some of the shortcomings of traditional conservation, like the ways in which reinforcing the boundaries between culture and nature ignores the inevitability of effect they have on each other. In the community owning the land, and not an obscure organization that instills lofty restrictions on it, the “wildness” of that land is maintained. It clearly shows touches of human involvement – Mackenzie uses native tree planting across the NHT as an example – but maintains its character as “wild”, or entirely different from yet complimentary to the manufactured heyday of “civilization”. This, along with other similar aspects, allows man to truly be “in nature”. Nature becomes alongside and in step with society. The two are at the same time intertwined and places of their own.


As she watches the boundary between people and their land vanish, Mackenzie dives into the ways in which communities, especially that which owned the NHT, sought to use their land. The NHT, reflecting the ideals of a community that suffers from high out-migration due to poor job prospects, high costs, and stagnant entertainment resources, looked towards low-cost housing, sustainable energy, local food sourcing, low-cost hunting (“stalking” for the Scots), and development of hiking trails. A large section of the book is devoted to the the ways community land owners wrestle with the possibility of installing wind turbines on their land in order to create sustainable income. This is popular in the windy, barren countryside of the UK that the NHT is located among. However, there is conflict in doing this, as it usually requires the community inviting an outside company to have a stake and a say in the land, something anathematic to what community land ownership is trying to accomplish. It is inordinately interesting to see the ways in which a community decides what uses for an area of land would benefit them the most.

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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