Environmental Conservation Without Ownership?

I have long been skeptical of how ownership and property rights configure of our relationships to each other and to the earth we share together. It seems that when people are convinced they own something, they claim dominance over it. They can either decide to use it, exploit it, abandon it, take care of it, or love it. They can also choose whether to act morally towards it.

Familiar snippets from typical disputes between neighbours run through my head: “This is my house/land and I can do what I want with it”; The notorious “Get off of my lawn!” which almost every kid has heard at least once. My ambiguous feelings about weddings due to the origins of marriage also surface when this topic is broached. Marriage began as a legal contract in which a woman and her things became the property of a man. Honestly, I squirm each time I witness the act replayed in the 21st century in which a father “gives” the bride over to her husband to be.

Property largely entails a one-way relationship in which an owner decides whether he (or she) treats that which he (or she) owns with reverence and respect. The relationship itself does not seem to preclude such respect, at least with regards to land (admittedly, the question of whether one human can ever truly respect another human when they think they own that human is a different question than whether one can respect the land one ‘owns’). For example, I can decide to take care of and revere my own garden. But by virtue of owning the land on which my garden grows, I can also spend a year abroad and allow it to wither, without being morally accountable to it. The moral question of whether I should treat my garden with respect is one that cannot be answered through an analysis based on my property rights alone.

However, as much as the concept of ownership has impeded the possibility for women to live freely, is there not an argument to be made that the discourse of ownership over one’s own body has been instrumental in the fight against sexual assault and abuse? Has the right to property – which is now recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – not been linked to the freedom against the oppression of state hierarchies and (to follow John Locke) resistance to the micro-control of the state over every facet of human life?

As Co-Director of the ecological NPO For A New Earth, I (along with the other two Co-Directors) am exploring the question of whether considering land ownership is helpful or detrimental in the fight to promote care for our common home.

Fellow Co-Director Sean J. McGrath (also my doctoral supervisor) has recently made the argument to rely on collectivism, centralization, and the top-down imposition of solutions by states and international organizations to respond to the environmental crisis would be to ignore and perhaps even cut the “bonds of attachment that are the root of moral life.” His basic point is that "human beings care most about that which belongs to them and that to which they belong" and that "Love of one’s own is the beginning of the love of the Good."

I’m with McGrath that the abolition of private property isn’t the answer to convincing people, especially in our time, to care for the earth. This is partially because of the complex relation between the history of the relation of property rights to freedom I noted above -- and despite my Marxist leanings, I’m not a communist revolutionary. I also support the focus on local governance and ecological initiatives, instead of the promotion of one-stop solutions proposed by a national or international headquarters of an environmental group or political party. Indeed, one of the lessons of the Muskrat Falls debacle in Newfoundland and Labrador is that different cultures inhabiting the same land can conceive of local governance, subsistence practices and spiritual connections to the land differently. For this reason, Nalcor’s dismissal of the environmental assessment and ignorance of the public health concerns of local people (along with actively ignoring local knowledge of the area, particularly surrounding Mud Lake) bears a surprising oppressive – dare I say colonial – structural similarity to the well-intentioned suggestions from the outside that resettlement and compensation for poisoned country foods could resolve many of the concerns of the inhabitants of the Lake Melville Region.

That being said, I can’t get behind McGrath’s claim that to care for the land, we have to own it. The monopolization of the discourse of ownership and property in the presentation of the way people relate to the land seems to be a point of repeated disconnect between Canadian government(s) and corporations on the one side, and Indigenous groups on the other. I realize I am generalizing here, but how foreign must it be to think of that which you relate to primarily spiritually in the terms of ownership? I imagine it is as alienating as a typical, Canadian Christian talking about their church as a building they collectively own with others, and which could be transformed into a commercial business tomorrow if the owners so decided.

I don’t have a definitive answer as to how to convince people take care of our common home. However, I would suggest beginning with the active reconfiguration of relationships to the earth through explorations of the connection of identity, community, spirituality and responsibility to other human beings (including those who are not yet born) to our notions of place and public goods. This would allow for the maintenance of the local element of McGrath’s argument – i.e, support for local initiatives for ecological action –, without defending an inherent, necessary connection between caring for the earth and ownership. While one particular place may not be sacred or special to me, it likely is to someone else, and I should acknowledge this through my actions and attitudes.

I hope that a similar type of reasoning could help us progressively respect and revere more and more parts of the earth, along with public goods that cannot be restricted the land we walk on in our towns and villages. Clean air and water systems are examples of such public goods. Understanding certain public goods as the necessary subject of global action could also assist the demarcation of which issues require trans-national global strategies, and which issues (for example, the maintenance of the East Coast Trail) should be dealt with primarily locally.

Interestingly, approaches that do not posit ownership as the basis on which we develop a relationship of care to the earth open the moral question of when, if ever, we can decide to disrespect property rights if the flourishing or subsisting of a collective way of life or community depends on it. One could use this line of argumentation to justify the action of protestors who chose to disrespect an injunction prohibiting their peaceful protest at mega-project development sites, such as Muskrat Falls. It also allows us to thoughtfully consider squatter’s rights to inhabit and care for abandoned buildings, and to debate the illegal distribution of intellectual property, particularly among students who cannot afford access to the material they require for their education.