Mine and Ours

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The concept of property is fundamental to an understanding of the relationship between humans and nature. Moreover, land use, or land management and governance, is a significant factor determining the human impact on natural systems, including agriculture, biodiversity and habitat loss, deforestation, and overall climate change. Aldo Leopold made the connection between property and land use explicit: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”[1]

The note Leopold sounds here has been an enduring one in social philosophy. Here are three of my favorite examples.

Writing in 1755, Jean-Jacques Rousseau maintained that a decisive turning point in the story leading from the state of nature to human political and social being was the invention of property, especially as it manifested itself in the enclosure of land:

The first person who, having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human Race have been spared by someone who, uprooting the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to all and the Earth to no one![2]

A century later, writing shortly before his death in 1884, Karl Marx described the next step in human social evolution as involving a change in our attitude toward ownership and the land:

From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias.[3]

Finally in 1944, economic historian and anthropologist Karl Polanyi traced the changes that led in the late medieval and early modern period to viewing land, human labor, and capital as commodities that could be bought and sold in an impersonal market. He regarded this way of looking at land and labor as artificial and pernicious, but recognized how historically and politically powerful this alteration of perception had been in history. It changed the ways in which the relationship between human beings and the material world was understood and the ethical rules governing it. And it fractured the way that economic production and consumption had been embedded in a larger cultural structure of meaning and norms, thereby setting the economy apart as a semi-autonomous sphere of life and activity, with rules and a logic of its own.

Polanyi argued that this commodification of material life and separation of economic activity from a more seamless cultural web of meanings, despite its material benefits, was in other ways impoverishing and diminishing to humanity. He expresses the point this way:

The economic function is but one of many vital functions of land. It [land] invests man’s life with stability; it is the site of his habitation; it is a condition of his physical safety; it is the landscape and the seasons. We might as well imagine his being born without hands and feet as carrying on his life without land. And yet to separate land from man and organize society in such a way as to satisfy the requirements of a real-estate market was a vital part of the utopian concept of a market economy.[4]

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, “This is mine” increasingly looks like a bad deal. Where is Rousseau’s “someone,” that shadowy figure who pulls up the stakes and fills in the ditch? Where are Marx’s good householders and good ancestors?

The answer is, everywhere. But they operate on local scales mainly, and they are only slowly gaining ground.[5] They are the new commons movement that is redefining property and the management and governance of common-pool resources. It is a diverse movement, full of intellectual inspirations that are often conflicting. Recovering and re-governing the commons in a practical sense must go hand in hand with rediscovering the concept of the commons.

The concept, ethics, and politics of the commons are vibrant topics in many disciplines. This is especially the case in economics. A starting point for discussion in that discipline was Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which focused attention on the vulnerability of common-pool resources to overexploitation or neglect. This is a situation in which individuals following the logic of rational self-interest produce suboptimal collective results. Many, including Hardin himself, have drawn the lesson that privatization of the common resource is the best solution to this collective action problem. However, Elinor Ostrom’s work challenged this. Rather than embracing privatization as a solution to the degradation of the commons, she found in many parts of the world that localized, culturally informed participatory management of common-pool resources results in sustainable governance. And it avoids the conventional approaches of competitive market privatization on the one hand, and of central government regulatory and legal control on the other.[6]

Moreover, since the concept of the commons tends to reintegrate economic activity within a broader cultural and value network as a counterpoint to the fragmentation that Polanyi decried, it has also led to lively discussions between economists and anthropologists, who find that much more is involved than rationality and efficiency, which are often the overriding concerns of economists.[7] For example, a study of the aboriginal commons in Queensland, Australia, found that the land is not understood as an economic resource primarily, but as a being with its own agency of “listening, watching, nurturing, disciplining and balancing human and natural resources.”[8]

One lesson to be drawn from these debates is that the relationship between humans and the natural world in principle has many dimensions and facets. Commodification in a separate sphere of market exchange and merely instrumental economic use flattens the meaning of nature and perhaps removes some of the reasons for, and inhibitions against, inappropriate and ultimately self-defeating exploitation of the land. Exactly as Leopold envisioned.

Property is not a thing, although we often use the word that way in common parlance. It is more accurate to say that property is a relationship between and among objects and people. As such it has consequences—it affects individual and group motivation and action, it determines access to and control over resources, and it is value-laden, not value-neutral, from both an economic and an ethical point of view. In the Western tradition, at any rate, property has been linked to the concept of rights going back to ancient Roman law. In modern times a privatized and individuated understanding of property is predominant, and it links property closely with commoditization and market exchange. But that conception of property is not the only possible one. Most generally understood, property concerns access to resources, differentiating those who have free access to something from those who do not, and setting the conditions under which various individuals and groups may obtain access and a right to use. Often, the right of access and use brings corresponding duties and obligations.

It is important to distinguish between private property and collective or common property. Today the term “property” is often taken to be synonymous with private property or individual ownership, but this closes off creative possibilities, especially in connection with sustainable land use and ecological trusteeship. Private property puts one person in control of how a resource is used; common property involves shared control and shared use. Indeed, there are forms of property rights in which the private owner does not have complete and exclusive control over access and use of a resource. Usufruct (usus et fructus, “use and enjoyment of fruits”) arrangements cover a situation in which individuals have rights of access to property owned by someone else, as long as the property is maintained appropriately. Use and enjoyment rights to someone else’s property historically have come in many forms and varieties, but one important notion that was developed over time is the idea of estover (est opus, “it is necessary”) rights under which owners could not deny non-owning occupiers access to resources needed to sustain themselves and to perform their services on the land. Such resources could include access to grazing land, firewood, wild fruits, game, and the like. Hence it is important to note that while common property involves shared ownership and shared power to determine resource use, and thus, the normative dimensions of participatory decision making are readily apparent, even private property ownership can also be limited by normative notions, such as the appropriate maintenance and usage necessary to sustain people or ecosystems. Common-pool resources are those for which open access is difficult to restrain, either for physical or traditional cultural reasons. Neither private ownership nor state ownership always provide the best governance and trusteeship for the commons.

The ontological separation of human life and well-being from natural living systems on local, regional, and planetary scales is now the ideological default setting. And so is private control of the land in the service of the personal and material interests of the owner. These presumptions—and they are indeed presumptuous—go hand in hand. They both must be challenged and, in certain circumstances, rebutted. Last year, new legislation in California to limit the virtually free-for-all drilling of deep water wells and the depletion of aquifers in the face of the current severe drought in the Central Valley is a noteworthy example, but such governmental regulation of common-pool resources is only one solution. Weaving an infrastructure of more participatory common governance solutions, through the law and through building alternative institutional arrangements in civil society—mutual associations, cooperatives, sustainably oriented covenants and contracts, and the like—is an important alternative and an opportunity for the conservation movement. When one is pleading the case for the planet, commons-inspired efforts to reintegrate the property system with the fabric of other cultural and natural systems is a worthy goal and an ethical imperative.

Today the vision of ecological trusteeship through democratic governance is not a self-evident truth by any means. It requires hard work to make a case for its ethical justification that can persuasively garner popular support. But nature is chiming in and pressing its own case against the continued abuse of the land in the name of private property rights. In the past, the notion of estover was applied as a basis for claiming certain rights to common access and land use for people. How about the estover claims of nature itself? To the human cultural claim, It is mine, the answering response is the natural claim, It is necessary.

In other words, the current psychological and economic defaults of individualistic strategic thinking must be reset to a mode of relational ethical thinking that is mindful of human interdependence, sustaining the natural commons, and promoting the social common good. From mine to ours, from “What’s in it for me?” to “What’s in it for diverse, abundant, and resilient life?”


The articles in this issue of Minding Nature, while not addressing the commons movement directly, do touch on this transition from mine to ours in various ways. This month features the Center Senior Scholars who led the resilient question on “Mind and Morality,” Arthur Zajonc and Michael McCullough.

Zajonc argues that relationship and suffering are at the root of morality. He stresses as well how important it is for us to understand the nature and potential of other beings. “We are at greatest peril if our ontology is impoverished or wrong,” he says. In a critical discussion of thinkers such as Descartes and Peter Singer, he reminds us of the significance of assumptions we make about the kinds of minds others possess—their cognitive and affective capabilities. Horrible things have been done to those who were thought to have no minds or inadequate minds. In the end, he turns Descartes on his head and also rejects the position of ontological materialism. Subjectivity, perspective, and relationship are the keys to understanding reality in space and time. In his apt phrase, “We live in a world of eros and insight, not oxytocin and neural circuits.”

McCullough also focuses on the experience of relationships in school settings to assess the ways in which education develops a moral sense and character. Today the shortcomings of the educational system receive much media attention, and policy approaches like standardized testing are controversial. Yet these and similar worries about character development and the social functioning of the next generation are perennial concerns. Focusing on the United States, McCullough argues that our schools are succeeding in this regard. In many different areas, educational level is associated with more socially responsible and ethical behavior. He discusses, for example, law abiding behavior, volunteerism and generosity, civic responsibilities, and tolerance and respect, which are all enhanced by more education. Turning to how these correlations may be explained, he reviews various theories of environmental and genetic influence and discusses the role of rational incentives standing behind moral behavior. In the end, however, other fundamental factors may be at work, such as literacy, the development of explicit rules that can be rationally scrutinized and justified, numeracy that aids in the understanding of causal and relational connections between the actions of one person and another, and other critical reasoning skills. These more general capabilities, not specific and didactic character or moral education efforts per se, hold the key to the education of the mind and the development of morality.

In his essay on the work of Thomas Berry, David Schenck also pursues the activity of teaching but in the sense of re-orienting one’s cosmological understanding of the human place in reality. He is alert to the radicalism and subtlety of Berry’s work and his critique of the shortcomings of various wisdom traditions, which finally are flawed in the fundamental way in which they locate human being. Schenck finds the new cosmology that Berry has in mind to be dynamic rather than static; meaning and connection are always in process, and in this regard the form of Berry’s own writing is an exemplar of that re-interpretation.

Australian legal scholar Ben Mylius addresses legal positivism and the failure of jurisprudence to take environmental and ecological sustainability seriously as a factor internal to legal reasoning, not simply an external side-constraint. The perennial debate in the philosophy of law has been between anthropocentric—man-made or positive—theories of law and legal authority on the one hand, and natural law views on the other. Is the law right because it is made, or is it made because it is right? Mylius places this question creatively in the context of global warming and the current state of environmental law. After examining closely some of the modern versions of legal positivism, he argues that ecological considerations should be taken into jurisprudence as internal pre-conditions of the viability and validity of the law. He also argues that a new kind of contextualized and relational understanding of human agency, power, and authority is necessary if the field of jurisprudence is to rise to meet the challenges now facing it in the world.

Also in this issue John Farnsworth explores complicated questions and experiences that arise when wildness and captivity intersect in attempts to conserve endangered species. Piro Ishizaka writes on the relationship between grief and our ability to do work in the world; grief over ecological damage, for example, and how it affects our ability to make up for it. Drawing from traditional cultures, she also appreciates how grief is not simply an inner matter for individuals but has a communal presence and purpose as well. Finally, Stephen Dunsky provides a summary report on the proceedings of the 2015 Geography of Hope Conference held in the coastal village of Point Reyes Station, California.

The Last Word gives us a poem by Julianne Warren, set in the context of the 2014 Climate Action March and observed from many angles, altitudes, and facets.

I would call the unifying theme of this issue the problem of “ontological misprision.” Misprision is not only mistaken understanding, but as a legal term it also refers to the negligible failure to take proper action in response to foreseeable harm. Our authors call attention to the ways in which various activities or policies are predicated on a mistaken understanding of human and natural being—mind and brain, educable moral conscience, rules rooted in something other than human decision, and in the broadest sense the wisdom of dreaming where culture and inheritance meet.

[1]. A. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, rev. ed. (1949; repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), vii.

[2]. J-J. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men, in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 3, ed. R.D. Masers and C. Kelly (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1992), 43.

[3]. K. Marx, Capital, vol. III, rev. ed. (1894; repr., New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 911.

[4]. K. Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), 178.

[5]. An excellent overview is provided by D. Wall, The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014). Also of interest is a study in intellectual history, P. Garnsey, Thinking about Property: From Antiquity to the Age of Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[6]. G. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (December 13, 1968): 1243-48; E. Ostrom, C. Chang, M. Pennington, and V. Tarko, The Future of the Commons (London Institute of Economic Affairs, 2012).

[7]. P. Bardhan and I. Ray, eds. Contested Commons: Conversations between Economists and Anthropologists (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).

[8]. V. Strang, Uncommon Ground: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental Values (Oxford: Berg, 1997), 261.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Developmental Editor for Humans & Nature Press Books and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

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