Who owns the Earth?

In the literature on global justice, we find the position that the Earth is commonly owned by humankind (advocated by Matthias Risse, for example). Although this smacks of biblical hegemony of ‘man’ over the rest of the biosphere, the protagonists claim that this can be reconciled with eco-centric views, although there are limitations: Human basic needs even trump ecology. Hence, the key concern is achieving justice in the human sphere, claiming that the primordial source of human well-being, the Earth, should not be appropriated by particular groups and individuals of the human species. These ideas dovetail with the older literature of common ownership of land, from Thomas Paine to Henry George or Silvio Gesell.

There are two problems with that view. The first is that once the category of ownership is applied, the question is how this is translated in workable institutional regimes. For example, Thomas Paine was the first to argue that common ownership of land may allow for partitioning the use rights in the form of private property and operate agriculture in a market system, while taxing the land rents and redistributing the revenue in the form of universal basic income for all humans, which reflects the more fundamental common ownership of humanity. This shows that common ownership can be combined with many forms of operating that system institutionally, with most of these forms being compatible with even a capitalist economy in terms of mechanisms of growth (as Silvio Gesell emphatically argued, conceiving his system as a model overcoming obstacles to growth in capitalism). The second issue is that common ownership is anthropocentric, hence retains the exclusive mechanisms of property vis-à-vis non-humans. Indeed, common ownership of the Earth appears like the attitudes of the American settlers who seized the allegedly pristine land in Paine’s times, thus excluding the natives like ‘non-humans’.

Therefore, we must radically rethink this matter. Let me start out from questioning the use of property and ownership in the context of the Earth system as object, since after all, we are part of that system, and our relationship to the Earth is systemically mediated by the technosphere which we own (mainly via private property) but certainly do not fully control. Yet, we might still gain insight from reflecting on these distinctions. I distinguish between property and ownership in the following sense, though both share the key feature of excluding others from using the object of the relationship: Property refers to legal rights certified with reference to a specific legal system, such that the rights are fungible in a market system and can be priced. Ownership refers to socially recognized possession of a good. In terms of relations between subjects, objects and excluded parties, property combines with legal responsibilities, especially regarding externalities caused by using the property; ownership combines with care for the object, in the sense of respecting and maintaining the features that makes it a socially recognized good. Consider land: Land as property can be traded, mortgaged or partially rented out to someone else, and the proprietor can act on it as she or he wants; if, for example, actions lead to the depletion of soil, this would only be legally considered as harm if this also affects the excluded via externalities caused to neighbours. In contrast, the owner would take a long-term perspective on the land, perhaps regarding it as family wealth to be inherited to future generations, takes care of maintaining the fertility of the soil, and feels attached to it as a ‘place’.

Common property of the Earth would mean that there is an institutional setting in which the riches of the Earth would primarily serve the needs of humans as expressed in the market system, which requires arrangements such as a leasehold system (envisaged by Gesell or recently in the model of ‘radical markets’ promoted by Posner and Weyl) by which individual use is enabled, but benefits are distributed equally among all humans (such as via universal basic income). This system would not contain detrimental effects of economic growth on the Earth system, unless human actions in totality would be subject to legal regulations of externalities caused on the Earth system. This raises the question who the excluded others are, and how they can make claims against humans causing harm on them. In comparison, common ownership of the Earth would mean that humanity would take care of the Earth, with presumably the ‘commons’ as adequate institutional template. Since the Earth system includes the entire biosphere, this would imply that no entity would be excluded from this caring relationship. However, all non-humans would still remain excluded from ownership of the Earth.

Both regimes do not give rights to non-humans. In case of common property, for example, plants occupying a certain territory have no legal claims that might limit human actions in that territory, since externalities only count as damage done to other humans who might have an interest in the plants. As for common ownership, humans are the ones who decide about the needs for care that plants might have, so that care remains anthropocentrically determined.

Are there alternatives? Obviously, common ownership, in fostering care for the Earth, is desirable as a first step, but remains anthropocentric and therefore a bio-hegemony. Can we imagine common ownership of the Earth by the community of all living beings? Obviously, this may work as an abstract concept, but difficult to institutionalize. A commons with all living beings as members faces the challenge that there are unsurmountable obstacles to communication among them. In contrast, common property by all living beings seems feasible, because this only requires assigning legal rights to non-human entities which are negotiable within the human subsystem: Law is anthropocentric in terms of doing the law, but can be Earth-centred in terms of its content. The institutional requirement is to design mechanisms of representation of non-human holders of property rights within the human legal sphere.

Hence, common property of the Earth including both humans and non-humans can be a way to establish what I call in another post the ‘community of advantage’. Common property does not preclude ownership, in the sense that property can combine with ownership stances, manifest in responsible stewardship and other forms of caring for the Earth system.

Perhaps universal and inclusive common property is the best of possible worlds, given the conditions of the modern global economy. Common property still operates with institutional mechanisms of exclusion on the level of its partitions and assignments of rights. Could we imagine a non-exclusive institutional framework? I doubt that, since principles of exclusion form an integral part of biosphere evolution, such as territoriality in animal behaviour. Imbuing partitional common property with the spirit of caring ownership may be the way to go. Imagine a community forest which is partial property of a group of humans which recognizes, at the same time, territorial claims of non-humans as partial property, represented by other humans who are not members of that community (such as an animal right NGO). The ownership stance of humans inspires careing for the forest and the membres of its ecosystem, thus turning the proprietors into responsible stewards. Impossible? Look here.

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