Private property and public commons each
represent strongly felt concepts of society but in very different ways. While
the protection of private property is at the heart of the capitalist system and
deeply embedded in our laws, the protection of the public commons is a mere
subset of government policies and often lacks firm regulations. Critically,
natural commons such as air, water, biodiversity, and a habitable earth, are
hardly protected at all. Environmental laws regulate use and protection of
natural “resources” in a strict instrumental fashion, ignoring the intrinsic
value of Nature and take Earth’s ecological systems for granted. This article
traces the “hidden logic” of environmental law and explores some of the history
of property and the commons in the European context. It then shows the
fundamental importance of ecological integrity for all efforts towards
sustainable societies. The overall thesis is that property and commons must be
based on ecological sustainability as a fundamental norm of law.
Hardin G. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science1968, 162, 1243–1248. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/162/3859/1243.pdf. Note: The phrase, “tragedy of the commons” is most commonly attributed to Hardin, but, in fact, the originator of the phrase was William Forster Lloyd, who coined it in 1833 in his Two Lectures on the Checks to Population. William Forster Lloyd, Two Lectures on the Checks to Population (S. Collingwood, 1833). The commons problem was recognized at least as far back as Aristotle, who wrote: “[t]hat which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” Aristotle, Politics, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Dover Publications, 2000), book 2, pt 3, 57.
Hardin, supra note 1, at 1244.
Schellnhuber HJ, Crutzen P, Clark WC, Claussen M, Held H (Eds.). Earth System Analysis for Sustainability; MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, USA, 2005.
Hardin, supra note 1, 1245.
Monbiot G. The Tragedy of Enclosure. Sci. Am. 1994, 270, 159–160. In this riposte, Monbiot observes that Hardin’s thesis “only works where there is no ownership.” Giving the example of the world’s oceans, he notes: “[T]hese are not commons but free-for-alls. In a true commons, everyone watches everyone else, for they know that anyone over-exploiting a resource is exploiting them.” Ibid., 159.
Engel R. The Earth Charter as a New Covenant for Democracy. In The Earth Charter: A Framework of Global Governance; Klaus Bosselmann K, Engel R, Eds.; Kit Publishers: Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2010; p. 29.
This difficulty in dealing with the “problem of future generations” is a pervasive problem in many of the conventional philosophical frameworks. The extension of modern human activity beyond our immediate physical and temporal boundaries was explored by Hans Jonas in his seminal work, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age (University of Chicago Press, 1984). Concern for “intergenerational justice” percolated into international environmental legal discourse in the 1987 Brundtland Report and the 2000 Earth Charter. A recent attempt to reconcile rights and responsibilities is the adoption of The Hague Principles in December 2018 Available online: https://www.earthtrusteeship.world/the-hague-principles-for-a-universal-declaration-on-human-responsibilities-and-earth-trusteeship/ (accessed on 20 March 2023).
Sands P, Peel J. Principles of International Environmental Law, 4th ed.; Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2018.
Burdon P. Earth Jurisprudence: Private Property and the Environment; Routledge: Abingdon, UK, 2017.
Bosselmann K. When Two Worlds Collide: Ecology and Society; RSVP: Portland, ME, USA, 1995; pp. 51–63.
Engel, “The Earth Charter,” supra note 7.
Grotius H. The Rights of War and Peace [De Iure Belli et Pacis Libri Tres] ; Liberty Fund: Carmel, IN, USA, 2005; II.2.ii.87, p. 389.
Grotius H. De Iure Praedae Commentarius; Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, 1950; p. 8.
Pufendorf S. On the Duty of Men and Citizens according to Natural Law ; Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 1991; p. 12.
This blindness to ecological realities is exemplified in John Rawls’s theory of justice: “The theory of justice as fairness fails to embrace all moral relationships, since it would seem to include only our relations with other persons and to leave out of account how we are to conduct ourselves toward animals and the rest of nature. I do not contend that the contract notion offers a way to approach these questions which are certainly of the first importance; and I shall have to put them aside. We must recognise the limited scope of justice as fairness and of the general type of view that it exemplifies.” John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Belknap Press, 1971), 17. By contrast, a theory of ecological justice aims for incorporating the human-nature nexus; K. Bosselmann, The Principle of Sustainability: Transforming Law and Governance, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2017), 102–128.
This was consonant with the “Enlightenment” shift of values toward greater individualism and a more instrumental view of nature as “natural resources.” Locke’s theory of property was welcomed particularly in America where the idea of labour mixed with the land creating a property right system suited to colonial expansion. See Eric T. Freyfogle, Bounded People, Boundless Lands: Envisioning a New Land Ethic (Island Press, 1998), 94–97.
Although his view of human economic relations as a zero-sum game was unambiguous: “[w]hen any man snatches for himself as much as he can, he takes away from another’s heap the amount he adds to his own, and it is impossible for anyone to grow rich except at the expense of someone else.” From an unpublished essay of Locke’s in Henry William Spiegel, The Growth of Economic Thought (Prentice Hall, 1971), 165.
Blackstone W. Commentary on the Laws of England, facsimile edition with introductions by Stanley N Katz; University
of Chicago: Chicago, IL, USA, 1979.
Bentham J. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Elibron Classics: Chestnut Hill, MA, USA, 2005.
Bosselmann K. Im Namen der Natur: Der Weg zum Ökologischen Rechtsstaat (Bern/München; Scherz 1992), at 356/357 and passim.
Marguerat SH. Private Property and the Environment; Palgrave: London, UK, 2019.
Bosselmann, supra note 13, at 120–129; Kirsten Anker, Peter D Burdon et al (eds), From Environmental to Ecological Law (Routledge 2021); Geoffrey Garver, Ecological Law and the Planetary Crisis (Routledge, 2020); Carla Sbert, The Lens of Ecological Law (Edward Elgar, 2020); Klaus Bosselmann and Prue Taylor (eds.), Ecological Approaches to Environmental Law (Edward Elgar, 2017).
Radkau J. Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment (Cambridge University Press, 2008); Paul Warde “Paths to Sustained Growth, c. 1650–1760” in The Invention of Sustainability Nature and Destiny, c. 1500–1870 (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Roughly meaning “commons.”
Hans Carl von Carlowitz, Sylicultura oeconomica, Anweisung zur wilden Baum Zucht [Forest Economy or Guide to Tree Cultivation Conforming with Nature]  (TU Bergakademie Freiburg und Akademische Buchhandlung, 2000). For an excellent account of the history of sustainability thinking in Europe Ulrich Grober, Sustainability: A Cultural History (Green Books, 2012); see also Ulrich Grober, Deep Roots: A Conceptual History of Sustainable Development (Nachhaltigkeit) (Wissenschaftzentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, 2007) and Jeremy Caradonna, Sustainability: A History (Oxford University Press, 2014).
This was the first law of this kind, introducing a system that addressed timber shortages based on the principles of “Nachhaltigkeit”. It aimed to shift from present thinking to preserving natural resources for future generations.
Bosselmann K, supra note 19, at 20.
Bosselmann K, supra note 24, at 12.
United Nations. Report of the Secretary General: Harmony with Nature, Doc. A/75/266, 28 July 2020, para. 39/40 https://undocs.org/en/A/75/266; see also the UN Secretary General’s Foreword in “Making Peace with Nature” (UNEP, 2021) https://wedocs.unep.org/xmlui/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/34948/MPN.pdf: “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses and the accelerating erosion of life on Earth.”
Richard Schlatter, Private Property: The history of an idea (Rutgers University Press 1951); Eric Freyfogle, The Land We Share: Private Property And The Common Good (Island Press 2003) 11. See Karl Pohlanyi, The Great Transformation (Beacon Press 1944), arguably the most influential work on economic history.
Bosselmann, supra note 19, at 16–19.
On the devastating consequences of land ownership—from the beginnings of agriculture to the present day—for the colonized populations outside Europe and the global environmental decline see Simon Winchester, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership has Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins 2021).
Pohlanyi, supra note 34.
Bosselmann K. Losing the Forest for the Trees: Environmental reductionism in the law. Sustainability 2010, 2, 2424–2448. [Google Scholar]
Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources 1329 UNTS 47 (signed 20 May 1980, entered into force 7 April 1982).
World Charter for Nature GA Res 37/7, A/Res/37/7 (1982) at I.4.
Rio Declaration at “preamble” and principle 7.
Agenda 21 at chs 10.1 (maintenance of the integrity of life-support systems), 16.4 (promotion of sustainable agriculture), 16.22.c (application of biotechnology to protect environmental integrity), 18.38.a (maintenance of ecosystem integrity), 31.9 (international acceptance of science and technology codes of practice that account for the integrity of life-support systems).
IUCN Environmental Law Programme Draft International Covenant on Environment and Development (5th ed, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, 2015), Art 2 (integrity of the earth’s ecological systems to be maintained).
Earth Charter Commission. The Earth Charter (29 June 2000).
Johannesburg Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) at IV 24 (integrity of ecosystems in context of integrated management of land, water and living resources.
The Future We Want GA Res 66/288, A/Res/66/288 (2012) at pt II,  (holistic and integrated approaches to sustainable development leading to restoration of the health and integrity of the earth’s ecosystem).
The Paris Agreement I-54113 (open for signature 22 April 2016, entered into force 4 November 2016), preamble (Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems).
Global Pact for the Environment at “preamble” (“respecting the balance and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem”) and Art. 2: “Every State or international institution, every person, natural or legal, public or private, has the duty to take care of the environment. To this end, everyone contributes at their own levels to the conservation, protection and restoration of the integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.” https://globalpactenvironment.org/uploads/EN.pdf.
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Kim R, Bosselmann K. “Operationalizing Sustainable Development: Ecological Integrity as a Grundnorm in International Law”, (2015) 24(2) Review of European, Comparative and International Environmental Law, 19; for detailed discussion of Grundnorm theory with respect to ecological integrity see Bosselmann, supra note 19, at 94–101.
Tamanaha BZ. On the Rule of Law: History, Politics, Theory; Cambridge University Press: New York, NY, USA, 2004.
Bosselmann K. “Grounding the Rule of Law” in Christina Voigt (ed) Rule of Law for Nature: New Dimensions and Ideas in Environmental Law (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 75.
Grinlinton D, Taylor P. (Eds.) Property Rights and Sustainability; Martinus Nijhoff: Leiden, The Netherlands, 2011.
Bosselmann K. Earth Governance: Trusteeship of the Global Commons (Edward Elgar 2015), at 233–267; Bosselmann, supra note 19, at 176–203.
A concept of international criminal liability for large-scale environmental damage that threatens the survival of the inhabitants of the area affected: see Polly Higgins Eradicating Ecocide: Laws and Governance to Stop the Destruction of the Planet (Shepheard-Walwyn Publishers, 2010).
Klaus Bosselmann, Ronald Engel and Prue Taylor, Governance for Sustainability (IUCN, Bonn, 2008); Bosselmann, supra note 19, at 204–233.
Bosselmann, supra note 7, at 23–50.
Ibid. at 198–232.
Bosselmann, supra note 13; Klaus Bosselmann, “Global Environmental Constitutionalism: Mapping the terrain”, (2015) 17 Widener Law Review at 1–27; Louis Kotzé, Global Environmental Constitutionalism in the Anthropocene (Hart Publ., 2016).
Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment A/CONF.48/14/Rev.1 (Stockholm, 5–6 June 1972) at II Principles, 1.
Boyd D. The Environmental Rights Revolution: A Global Study of Constitutions, Human Rights and the Environment; UBC Press: Vancouver, BC, Canada 2012; p. 47.
Ibid. at 279.
Klaus Bosselmann, Ökologische Grundrechte: Zum Verhältnis zwischen individueller Freiheit und Natur (Nomos, 1999); Bosselmann, supra note 19, at 148–175.
Bosselmann, supra note 70, 80–126.
Bosselmann, supra note 19, at 154.
Kuratorium für einen demokratisch verfassten Bund deutscher Länder, Vom Grundgesetz zur deutschen Verfassung. Denkschrift und Verfassungsentwurf (Nomos, 1991) at 39.
Ibid. at 40.
Ibid. at 40 and 86. See also Bosselmann, supra note 70, at 156.
Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland, at Art 20a.
See BVerfG decision of the First Senate 24 March 2021, 1 BvR 2656/18, 1 BvR 96/20, 1 BvR 78/20, 1 BvR 288/20; See also Dr Trevor Daya-Winterbottom “Constitutional climate action” in Resource Management Bulletin, May 2021, at 163.
Bundesverfassungsgericht. Press Release No.31/2021 of 29 April 2021, at 2.