Article Open Access

Private Property and Public Commons: Narrowing the gap

Ecological Civilization. 2023, 1(1), 10002;
New Zealand Centre for Environmental Law, University of Auckland, Auckland 1142, New Zealand
Authors to whom correspondence should be addressed.

Received: 29 Nov 2022    Accepted: 19 Apr 2023    Published: 22 May 2023   


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.


Property; Commons; Environmental law; Ecological sustainability; Grundnorm


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