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.

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  1. “Governing Land as a Global Commons”

    Very similar to open borders where public property is treated as global public property – a socialist view IMHO.

    1. That’s… not what open borders means, but okay.

    2. And even more like closed borders, where everyone’s private property is treated as the collective property of the majority.

      1. I think you’re confusing that with the welfare state.

  2. He makes this perplexing claim in “Govern land as a global commons,” an article in the current issue of Nature.

    It’s in Nature because the science is proven.

    1. …unless you’re one of those communitarian deniers.

  3. A facepalm to end all facepalms.

    1. I read that as “funk enclosure”

      1. That’s what SIV calls his chicken yard. The one with all the heart-shaped water dishes and the stripper pole.

  4. Some ideas are so insanely stupid that one needs a PhD to believe them.

  5. The tragedy of the commons.

    Any Georgists with a counter point?

    1. Georgist: [drools]

  6. He makes Trump;s pulling out of the ‘climate deal’ look even better. And,GET OFF MY LAWN.

  7. What is a resource?

    This is an incredibly important discussion, misunderstood by many. We recognize a resource as something someone else developed, worked, and delivered to us.

    Absent those people, I can’t make steel by myself.

    1. YOU DID NOT BUILD THAT. I miss many commenters.Guess they moved on to greener pastures.

      1. I wouldn’t call them greener…

  8. Seriously, the mask comes off so quickly from these “climate change economists”.

    But in Nature? Don’t they have some sort of peer review process to prevent just this kind of unveiling of the utter economic and social evil behind the movement?

    1. I don’t know if this would fall into that category. It’s an editorial about policy. Not a lot of empirical facts to review.

    2. The first half of the weekly magazine is “news” and “editorial” content. The second half is among the most prestigious peer reviewed literature.

      However, the scientific articles are selected for “news worthiness” as much as scientific rigor. It is heavy on biological science, but the articles are meant to appeal to a wide range of PhD scientists, so they have only the “sexiest” scientific articles.

      Science magazine follows the same format.

    3. Nature is increasingly chewing the progressive kool-aid. I don’t really understand it; are they tired of editing science reports? They jump into all sorts of political battles without even bothering to throw in some pseudo science — gun rights was the first eye-opener for me. I have thought several times of not renewing when the subscription nears its end.

  9. This is why I stopped subscribing to Nature a few years ago.

    1. Nothing like canceling your subscription.

  10. 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.

    Because it’s called “communism,” the most morally bankrupt philosophy to ever grace humankind.

    1. Yeah, let’s make a list of countries where private land ownership with well defined property rights is a strong tradition and those where it isn’t and see how each does in terms of supporting the well being of their respective populations.

    2. “Livelihoods”? OK, in that case my livelihood involves eating kobe beef, grass-fed steaks, quinoa, wild-caught salmon, foie gros, and Beluga caviar. Get on it, policymakers!

  11. When my kids start going in this direction, talking about how to use laws to regulate better outcomes, my first step is to do what Bailey does above- reset their premises.

    “Death is the default condition” is what I say. We aren’t by default happy, clothed, well fed and healthy. By default we are cold, standing in the rain dying of disease and predation. THAT is the baseline from which we must measure our progress. Anyone who has moved you from that baseline has delivered you something of value and if you take it from them, against their will, you have stolen.

    Likewise, useless and dangerous wilds are the default condition of nature. Any person who moves those wilds from this baseline has delivered something of value. The idea that their time and energy spent turning a wild into something of use is somehow a cost owed to YOU is to deny your default condition- to assume that you were better off with no meals, shelter, protection or basic necessities.

    When you accept that the boons of civilization aren’t the baseline, but the result of true industrious progress, the lies of these “Collective good” “social justice” folks are quite plain to see.

    1. reset their premises.

      With the back of your hand, amirite?

  12. How did that policy work out for Lake Baikal and the rest of the territory formerly occupied by the Soviet Union?


    1. The Aral Sea was stupid and pointless anyway and nobody really wanted it.

  13. “…second, those resources have come into existence without human interference.”

    Yes, they may have come into existence, but they simply stay in the ground ‘without human interference’.
    Fuck off, slaver.

  14. The Pilgrims would like to have a word.

  15. It’s almost as if no one studies history anymore.

  16. In the United States, we have vast federal lands which are considered national forests, national parks, wildlife areas, and such. Whenever a hiker or camper gets lost in the wilds of such land, it’s a miracle when rescuers find them still alive after a few days. So there we have a perfect example of what even basic survival would be like without people such as farmers, ranchers and miners investing their talents, labor and assets into making the land support us humans.

    If you think the raw land is a better place without profit driven farmers and ranchers, then have a nice hike in the forest. Been nice knowing you.

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