Who Owns the Earth

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= article by Antonia Malchik, 2016-04-12, 4300 words

URL = https://aeon.co/essays/is-it-time-to-upend-the-idea-that-land-is-private-property


"Is it time to upend the idea that land is private property?"

"Private land ownership is a beautiful dream gone badly wrong. It’s time to reinstate the forgotten ideal of the commons."

Good as an introduction to the concept of commons in terms of land ownership. Outlines several helpful historical examples of the commons, and discusses Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy" paper.


"Where Hardin’s argument fractures is in his assumption that any system of the commons must necessarily be anarchic. Picturing a pasture open to all, Hardin said that only disease, war, and poaching would keep the population within the land’s healthy carrying capacity. Once social stability had been achieved, and herdsmen could graze as many animals as they wanted, each would have an incentive to increase his individual herd, until the land was destroyed by overgrazing. ‘The inherent logic of the commons,’ Hardin argued, ‘remorselessly generates tragedy.’ What he neglected was the reality of the commons, in which agreed limits that benefit the community are an integral and necessary part of the legal and social system."

"What Hardin got right, though, seems almost unintentional. His dismissal of commons systems of ownership ignores how these systems function, but his claim that a commons system of waste and pollution is damaging to humanity goes right to the heart of where we’ve gone wrong with private property. ‘It did not much matter how a lonely American frontiersman disposed of his waste,’ he points out, but modern pressures of population density and industrial pollution put the integrity of the commons at risk. Here is where Hardin’s statement that ‘freedom in a commons brings ruin to all’ starts to ring true. [...] A commons system of ownership cannot be a free-for-all; it only works when its use is managed in the interests of all."

"Decades of pollution and poison from mines, factories, automobiles, power plants, and industrial farms have barely moved the needle away from profit and private property as public benefits. Only the prospect – and now the reality – of global climate change has begun reframing the conversation in terms of society’s right to an undamaged commons."

"The question that opened this essay – do we need to relinquish private property to solve our most pressing environmental problems? – was not a proposal. Instead, it was meant to prompt us all to think differently about the relationship between public need and private ownership, between private property rights as regards use and the rights of the public to access and maintain the resources it needs to survive. Private property laws can allow us to own land in such a way that we feel free to invest in it both our work and our affection. [...] Those laws will only do so, though, if we at the same time keep the integrity of the commons intact."

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