Property rights and loving nature

It is often said that property rights play a vital role in protecting the environment.  The classic case is when you get a piece of land that no-one owns, then everyone plunders it.  This is the tragedy of the commons.

But it is important to recognise that property rights are not sufficient.  When a cement company owns a mountain and turns it into concrete bollards or when a coal company owns a mountain and turns it into sacks of coal, that is a case of a company exercising its property rights.  This is the not the sort of exercise of property rights which helps nature.

So property rights are a start, but here are some other important conditions:

  • the holder of those rights should want to preserve the thing over which he has rights
  • a third party seeking to abuse the rights should know that he will get caught and get punished severely.  For this to happen the regulatory authority and its agents need to be determined to protect the rights of the holder.  And for this to happen, the authority needs a mandate, probably from the voters.
  • other parties seeking to lobby the government which supervises the rights should know that they will not succeed in undermining the strength of those rights.  Again, for this to happen, the government needs to be confident that it has a mandate to resist the lobbying.

In this way, the property rights system achieve its goal more effectively if all parties – the holder, would-be abusers and lobbyists, individuals in government bodies and subcontractors and voters – all love nature.  It’s so obvious that it is scarcely worth saying, but I don’t see a lot of policy effort around aimed at getting people to love nature.

You can imagine a case, however, where love of nature is so prevalent, that the property rights are, after all, rendered redundant.

If effectively supervised and motivated property rights can protect nature, can other things?  If the state owns the resource it is similarly subject to abuse, failed regulation, bribery of the guards; if a small, homogenous community owns the resource, unspoken agreement, custom and tradition or fear of God can also prevent people from plundering the commons.  But this protection quickly breaks down once newcomers arrive, undermining the shared code.

Whatever system is used to protect nature – property rights, customs, government regulation – the protection will be more effective if love of nature is instilled in the people involved.


[1] Love of nature – for a definition see:  Note that the definition includes understanding: much damage to nature is done unwittingly, such as the harm done to the ozone layer; some is done despite understanding: surely the chaps on Easter Island realised that they needed trees and the trees weren’t growing back as fast as they were being used up.  This is why understanding is not enough: reverence and responsibility are also important.  Responsibility is the hardest: it calls for restraint which is not obviously a natural human characteristic.

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