Property Rights

A Spectacularly Stupid Idea: Governing Land as a Global Commons

Making an environmental resource a commons is tantamount to calling for its destruction.



"Land must be considered as a global commons—conceptually by researchers and legally by the international community," argues Felix Creutzig, a climate change economist at the Technical University of Berlin. He makes this perplexing claim in "Govern land as a global commons," an article in the current issue of Nature.

Creutzig cites the arguments of the philosopher Mathias Risse, who Creutzig believes has "made a powerful case for humanity's collective ownership of the Earth." Let's briefly consider Risse's position. In his 2008 working paper "Original Ownership of the Earth," Risse begins with two intuitions: "First, the resources of the earth are valuable and necessary for all human activities to unfold, most importantly to secure survival; second, those resources have come into existence without human interference."

There is a prior question that Risse (and Creutzig) must answer: What is a resource? Surely edible plants and meat animals count. And just as surely, our forager ancestors claimed and defended territories containing wild edibles against encroachment by other groups. They had no notion that land was collectively owned by all human beings.

In any case, Risse's second claim is basically wrong. The vast majority of resources come into existence as a result of what he is pleased to call "human interference." As Creutzig and Risse both note, the 17th century British philosopher John Locke argued that before the rise of civilization, land and natural resources were notionally held in common by mankind. They do not consider deeply another of Locke's arguments: that without the application of human ingenuity, "nature and the earth furnished only the almost worthless materials." Only with the development of private property rights and the rule of law to defend them did nature's worthless materials become useful and valuable.

As Locke explained, a landowner has a strong incentive to increase the productivity of his land. By intensively cultivating it, he produces "a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, [and] may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind." Locke also wrote that a privately owned cultivated acre in Britain produces 1,000 times more value than an uncultivated acre left in the commons in America. The same is true for other natural resources. For example, as I have pointed out elsewhere, a deposit of copper is just a bunch of rocks without the know-how to mine, mill, refine, shape, ship, and market it. Petroleum was a nuisance until Edwin Drake figured out in 1859 how to drill for it and refine it into lamp oil.

In any case, Creutzig's model for global land governance is to adopt international agreements like the Antarctic Treaty, the Law of the Sea, and, yes, the Paris Agreement on climate change. This is exactly backwards: To the extent that those pacts are needed, it's because they deal with unowned, open-access commons—Antarctica, the oceans, the atmosphere. No treaties are needed when formerly open-access commons have been enclosed and protected by secure property rights.

Creutzig does reassure us that "private property will remain protected with the common ownership of global land." But he doesn't appear to really mean that. "Land-use rights can be assigned for a limited period," he suggests. He then notes, with apparent approval, that "Chinese property law limits them to 40, 50 or 70 years."

Creutzig doesn't just favor global common ownership; he wants what amounts to global zoning. Who would be the zoning board? The United Nations, of course.

"The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals…don't call explicitly for global coordination of land uses," Cruetzig concedes. But he notes hopefully that the first steps toward such U.N.-led coordination might be taken when the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification publishes its Global Land Outlook later this year. He also looks forward to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's upcoming report on land use and climate, due in 2019. "An overarching case for land as a global commons is required; it could be commissioned by the UN secretary-general," he suggests.

One particularly odd moment in Creutzig's paper comes when he justifies these global land-use controls on the grounds that future demand for food will require us to convert up to 3 million square kilometers more land into farms. In fact, due to the rising agricultural productivity promoted by private property ownership, humanity has likely reached peak farmland. As much as 4 million square kilometers may well revert to nature by 2060 even as food production increases by 50 percent.

We know for a fact that countries with strong property rights generally see environmental improvement—air and water pollution decline, fishery stocks stabilize, and forests expand. That's partly because owners have an inventive to protect their resources, since they directly suffer the consequences of not doing so. And it's partly because strong property rights make countries more prosperous, and thus better able to bear the costs of regulating those environmental commons that still remain.

Recreating open-access commons will destroy the very amenities that environmentalists like Creutzig claim they want to protect. Around the world many fisheries are declining, tropical forests shrinking, water shortages spreading, rivers and airsheds growing more polluted. That's largely because they have no owners standing ready to defend them. Weakening property rights in land would have the same effect: environmental deterioration.

Creutzig argues, "Researchers and policymakers should focus on one goal: providing sufficient fruits of the land to support all livelihoods, now and in the future." Governing land as a global commons would achieve the exact opposite.