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Buy the Land then Buy the Light: The Emergence of Private Property & the Purchase of Stars

Adam Krause

This essay was originally presented by Adam Michael Krause at the Ecological Challenges Conference at the University of Oslo in February 2017.

Johann Bayer

Johann Bayer

In 1603, Johann Bayer introduced one of the oldest star naming systems still in use. In Bayer’s system, the visibly brightest star in each constellation is named Alpha, the second Beta, and so on through the Greek alphabet, giving us names like Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri. There are other systems, such as the Henry Draper Catalog, which identifies over 300,000 stars by number. For instance, Alpha Centauri is known there as HD 125823. Betelgeuse, or Alpha Orionis, is HD 39801.

Henry Draper

Henry Draper

Like Betelgeuse and Alpha Centauri, many stars have multiple names. And although the International Astronomical Union recognizes most star names, even they have their limits. Their website states, “The IAU frequently receives requests from individuals who want to buy stars or name stars after other persons. Some commercial enterprises purport to offer such services for a fee. However, such ‘names’ have no formal or official validity whatsoever.”[1]

The most well-known of the star-selling enterprises that so irks the International Astronomical Union is the International Star Registry. Founded in 1979, the Star Registry allows people to pay to name a star whatever they want. In addition to a star name, customers also receive a parchment certificate and a map with coordinates. It’s quite the deal.

The Star Registry’s website admits that “International Star Registry star naming is not recognized by the scientific community.”[2]

But the thing is, stars don’t care what we call them. They don’t recognize the Star Registry or the scientific community. There’s a star in the Andromeda Constellation we could either call HD 10307 or Margaret Thatcher.

It was burning back when our most advanced ancestors were single-celled organisms. It will still be burning when cockroaches inherit the Earth. And it is very, very far away. We are entirely irrelevant to this star. Beyond the bounds of Earth, neither name has any more validity than the other.

So my problem is not that the people at the International Star Registry think they can, like the International Astronomical Union, name stars. Of course they can name stars. They do it all the time. What bothers me is that they can make a successful business out of it. A world where purchasing points of light makes perfect sense, and where the International Astronomical Union “frequently receives requests from individuals who want to buy stars,” is a world with its goals and values wildly misaligned. Now may be the only moment in human history when selling stars would sound anything but absurd. But what has changed? How could a business, inconceivable in any other era, survive for decades?

To answer that, we need to pivot from purchasing stars to purchasing property. Given what follows, using the Star Registry as a set-up may seem unfair. New notions of ownership that emerged in the last few centuries made the International Star Registry possible. These notions were instated through destruction and genocide, and were then used to justify further destruction and genocide. But it was a chance encounter with the Star Registry’s website that led to the rest of this research. And that initial question remains interesting. Just what happened to make such a business even possible?  

The development of exclusive private property provided the context in which the Star Registry could come into being. Exclusive private property is a surprisingly recent phenomenon that emerged as Europeans, particularly the English, colonized North America. The practices that emerged as they divided and sold an entire continent—empty except for all the people living on it—ushered private property into existence, along with the new idea that anything we survey can become our own personal possession.

And as those colonizers divided that not-so-empty continent, a whole lot of surveying went on. It was a very popular profession. For example, three of the four U.S. presidents whose faces are carved into Mount Rushmore worked as surveyors. George Washington was sixteen when he accompanied George William Fairfax on a surveying expedition in the Shenandoah Valley, becoming one of the continent’s youngest professional surveyors.

Thomas Jefferson served as the county surveyor of Albemarle County in 1773. His father, Peter Jefferson, had also been a surveyor.

Later, after the frontier shifted from Virginia to Illinois, a young Abraham Lincoln took up the profession. “New Boston, Bath, Petersburg, and Huron were among the towns that he laid out.”[3]

And even if Theodore Roosevelt, that fourth face carved into Mount Rushmore, never worked as a surveyor, he still loved to see land divided and sold. He claimed that “civilization” ought to be spread by “the order-loving races of the earth doing their duty” and acquiring “the world’s waste spaces.”[4]

There are reasons why there were suddenly so many surveyors once the English started colonizing North America. In 1620, the same year the Mayflower set sail with some of England’s earliest committed colonizers, the mathematician, geometer, and astronomer Edmund Gunter introduced Gunter’s chain. Sixty-six feet long, ten of his chains by ten of his chains mark ten acres.

Together with his new triangulation methods, surveying became a science. This allowed land to be more accurately quantified and commodified, and made strict property lines possible. Trespassing became an enforceable offense. In tandem with the new notions of ownership that appeared as the United States became a nation, a world emerged in which any land could become exclusively held and forcefully defended.

Exclusive private property was a new development. Although many of the English colonizers immediately and irrevocably perceived the indigenous as “savages,” tribal land management along the East Coast was not remarkably different from the English feudal-era methods the colonists brought with them. Among natives along the East Coast, land was ultimately held and managed by a chief or other powerful figure, but this did not constitute “ownership” by that person, just the power to allocate resources. This person granted tribe members access to certain things at certain times of the year. Yet this was still not “ownership.” Land was not “owned,” just used. In addition to this rotating access to resources, there were also common areas and shared supplies.

In the English system, everything was ultimately held by the crown, and a lord or earl granted land and materials as needed. There were common areas and shared resources here as well. The English had much more of a tendency to stay put for centuries, but the indigenous people and the colonists managed their land similarly. Early New England settlements had a village green, or common area, usually just a few acres, in the center of town. There was rarely enough space for all the village livestock to graze there, but there were common pastures outside of town. “Children brought their family cow or horse to the green and left the animal in care of the town herdsman, who then led the herd to a distant piece of common ground. Late in the afternoon the herdsman returned with the livestock, and the children came to the green to fetch home their own animals.”[5] Gristmills and sawmills operated as public utilities, not private businesses. Besides some common-field agriculture, there were also shared woodlands for lumber and hunting.

But when the United States seceded from England, the crown no longer owned the land. It could become anyone’s. Everyone could be their own earl. This was part of an understandable attempt to undermine centuries of aristocratic control exerted by a few families. But combined with Gunter’s new systems of surveying, exclusive private property came rushing into history. Lines were drawn. Trespassers were prosecuted. The commons disappeared and were soon forgotten. Rather than a shared resource outside of town, land became a commodity—one person’s private possession to be bought and disposed of in any way.

And when the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1791, the change became complete. The “takings clause” of that amendment stipulates that the government will give “just compensation” if private land is taken for public use. By making a law about how a government purchases land from its citizens, exclusive private property rights became official. The indigenous people, now more than ever, could be portrayed as outliers to civilization. They had no fences. They shared their resources. It was all suddenly unthinkable.

The United States, with a new relationship to land, created new arguments to justify grabbing every bit of soil on which the original occupants stood. In 1823, the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh came before the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas Johnson had bought land from the Piankeshaw Tribe. William M’Intosh had supposedly received a land grant for some of the same land from the Federal Government, although it turns out that the two parcels did not actually overlap. But the facts were accepted as presented and the ruling stands. Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for a unanimous court, declared that, “While the different nations of Europe respected the rights of the natives as occupants, they asserted the ultimate dominion to be in themselves, and claimed and exercised, as a consequence of this ultimate dominion, a power to grant the soil while yet in the possession of the natives.”[6]

The indigenous people were suddenly subsumed and consumed by a legal system that enshrined private property, especially if any white people wanted their land. They soon found themselves dispossessed with increasing frequency and violence. In 1864, to mention an especially egregious example, the U.S. Army descended on a Cheyenne and Arapaho village at Sand Creek, Colorado, killing and mutilating as many as 150, most of whom were women and children. The mistake the Cheyenne and Arapaho made was signing a treaty for land that turned out to have gold in it.

It seems like colonizers love gold. An 1868 treaty had given the seemingly worthless Black Hills to the natives in perpetuity. But in the mid-1870s, with the discovery of gold, perpetuity lost its meaning. As the Sioux holy man Black Elk said, white people “had found much of the yellow metal that they worship and that makes them crazy, and they wanted to have a road up through our country to where the yellow metal was.”[7] The Sioux and Cheyenne refused to sell any land or lease mineral rights. They were deemed “hostile” by the government, and the army moved in to make the land safe for gold-miners.

In June 1876, General Custer and his cavalry attacked a native encampment, but neither Custer nor any of his soldiers survived the attack. For the natives, it was a successful act of self-defense. For the U.S. Government, it was an unconscionable massacre of their troops. Secretary of War William Tecumseh Sherman declared that the tribes had violated the treaty of 1868 by going to war with the United States. The Cheyenne and Sioux, having been invaded, were justifiably confused. But with the treaty supposedly broken, the army really poured in. Everyone was disarmed and forced onto reservations. Fugitive bands were hunted down, slaughtered, or arrested. Sitting Bull fled to Canada. Crazy Horse was caught and stabbed with a bayonet while in captivity and died. Then the U.S. Government carved the faces of some of its most powerful surveyors into a mountain.

More than a century later, dispossession and disregard continue apace, but now it’s not just gold driving injustices against the indigenous, but fracked oil as well. And private property laws are one of the main tools used to make this happen. The Dakota Access Pipeline, designed to move crude oil from the Bakken Formation in western North Dakota, through both Dakotas, Iowa, and into Illinois where it might become less crude and more refined, was going to cross under the Missouri River north of the mostly white city of Bismarck. But the citizens complained that this could destroy their drinking water. The route was changed so that it passed under the river a half-mile north of the Standing Rock Reservation through land and under water that had been seized against the tribe’s will in September 1958, through legislation passed by Congress that stated, “Any interest Indians may have in the bed of the Missouri River so far as it is within the boundaries of the Standing Rock Reservation, are hereby taken by the United States for the Oahe Project on the Missouri River.”[8] When the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted through land that was “hereby taken,” the people on the reservation, like the people of Bismarck, complained about threats to their water. But rather than another rerouting, they were met with pepper spray, rubber bullets, and attack dogs.

In September 2016, Judge James Boasberg ruled that the tribe had been sufficiently consulted and the pipeline could proceed. His statement claims that “A project of this magnitude often necessitates an extensive federal appraisal and permitting process. Not so here. Domestic oil pipelines, unlike natural-gas pipelines, require no general approval from the federal government. In fact, DAPL needs almost no federal permitting of any kind because 99% of its route traverses private land.”[9] So if you own a piece of land, pretty much as long as you’re not sacrificing children or making methamphetamines, you can do whatever you want and no one can stop you. James Boasberg is a judge. It’s his job to interpret the law. He ruled that “the Tribe has not shown it will suffer injury that would be prevented by any injunction the Court could issue.”[10] In a technical, lawyerly sense, he may be correct. Put a pipeline through private land, and no one can legally complain. But from the perspective of the Earth and its inhabitants’ common interests, he is completely wrong—especially since the laws and precedents he is interpreting were made in the aftermath of atrocious and embarrassing cases like Johnson v. M’Intosh. As Kiana Heron writes, the “protests at Standing Rock today can only be fully understood in light of this colonial legacy, which from the beginning proclaimed that native lands were empty, and that native people, were, in effect, nothing more than the rocks, the trees, the water that they now so valiantly strive to protect.”[11]

The very same day Judge Boasberg issued his ruling, a pipeline in Alabama broke and spilled 250,000 gallons of oil. The governor declared a state of emergency.[12] The very next day, a pipeline in Texas leaked about 33,000 gallons of oil.[13] And this is not just some strange coincidence. Angry gnomes were not trying to make this judge look foolish. Pipelines fail almost constantly. According to the United States’ Pipelines and Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration, there have been more than 10,000 pipeline failures already this century. Pipelines are a terrible invention, even exempting the fracking that fills them or the fossil fuels they bring us to burn. They just break all the time. But if they’re built on private property, no one can complain. Private property is sacrosanct. It’s your land, do as you will.

But maybe instead of worrying about one person’s supposed right to profit off private land, maybe we should worry about how we can all continue to live on our shared planet. To quote Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, “Our spiritual leaders are opposed to the privatization of our lands, which means the commoditization of the nature, water, air we hold sacred.”[14]

I was at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in Standing Rock in November 2016, which is situated on the disputed land “hereby taken” in 1958, and meant to obstruct the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The very same day The Army Corps of Engineers issued the camp an eviction notice, one of the water protectors pointed out to me the ways the government had closed roads and seized hills so that “They are leaving us with no option but to trespass.”[15] Police and National Guard stood along arbitrary and debatable boundary lines. Behind those police, the pipeline was being laid. Anyone who crossed onto that land could be arrested for trespassing. No other crimes were required.

The sheer volume of law enforcement brought in to protect a pipeline by enforcing trespassing laws was outlandish. The night we arrived, it was too late and too dark to drive to the camp and set up a tent without being a nuisance to people trying to sleep off the sting of rubber bullets. We stopped in Bismarck, pulled into a hotel, and saw more than half the parking lot was filled with police vehicles. Scared, we went to another hotel. This one was better. Instead of more than half, slightly less than half the parking lot was cop cars. It seemed marginally safer. We stayed there. The next day, trying to get to Standing Rock, we encountered a roadblock, turned around, and took a different route. Trucks heading toward the camp were pulled over and searched. Military helicopters flew above. Trespassers beware.

An entire continent has been surveyed, sold, and turned into private property that can be ripped up and turned into rubble. If anyone objects, the police turn up to protect the right to make rubble. Our collective needs don’t matter. The commons have become a piece of the past, receding from lived experience and into the history books. Need, intent, and collective interest have become irrelevant to land use. Who bought it? That’s all anyone needs to know.

We’re told this is normal. This is reality and we had better get used to it. But now is the aberration. The commons existed for millennia. Private property has existed for a few centuries. Our current system is the anomaly. We do not need to live this way.

So it is perhaps only now that someone could sell the stars and no one would think it’s all that weird, when the Earth is no longer our common inheritance, but a conglomerate of commodities circling the sun. We divide it up and do as we will. And at night, we look into the sky and watch distant products twinkle. But why not? If we can buy and sell almost any piece of the Earth, why not buy the rest of the Universe?

Of course, what the International Star Registry does is pretty harmless, especially compared to buying land to put in a leaky pipeline. People don’t destroy their stars after purchasing them. They just show their friends their parchment proofs of purchase and their maps of coordinates. But the very fact that the International Star Registry could be conceived and continue to exist says a great deal about how far we are from having a reasonable approach to living. 

If we don’t eradicate the mentality that makes the International Star Registry possible, if we continue to slice up our planet, and declare this chunk yours and that chunk mine, we’ll just slice it up until there’s nothing left but dust. We certainly don’t need to return to feudal or tribal systems of land management. The future will be different from any past or present. But we don’t need to accept what we have. A planet composed of private land, surrounded by stars for sale, is not one we have to tolerate. Exclusive private property is relatively new. We can make it history.     

-Adam Michael Krause   






[3] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 52.

[4] Theodore Roosevelt quoted in Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (New York: Knopf, 2002), 126.

[5] John R. Stilgoe, Common Landscapes of America, 1580 to 1845 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 48.

[6] Johnson & Grahm’s Lessee v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543, 574 (1823).

[7] Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (1932: Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961), 9.

[8] Public Law 85-915, September 2, 1958.

[9] Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, United States District Court for the District of Coulmbia. Civil Action No. 16-1534 (JEB), 2.

[10] Ibid., 1-2.

[11] Kiana Herold, “Terra Nullius and the History of Broken Treaties at Standing Rock,” Intercontinental Cry, November 14, 2016.

[12] “State of emergency declared after crucial oil pipeline leaks 250,000 gallons in Alabama,” KFOR, September 16, 2016.

[13] “U.S. regulator orders inquiry, repairs after Sunoco’s Permian leak,” Reuters, September 15, 2016.

[14] “Trump advisors aim to privatize oil-rich Indian reservations,” Reuters, December 5, 2016.

[15] Personal conversation, recorded November 25, 2016.