Property and Nature
Our present culture values private property without questioning and sees it as part of the natural order of things. We take this Western view of ownership for granted while remaining unaware of other possibilities that have existed in the long history of Homo sapiens. The current sacredness of property has led us to the mistaken belief that a piece of paper proving ownership can make us masters of nature within our boundaries. This belief has been essential to the continuous abuse of nature that has destroyed many ecosystems on the planet and is now jeopardizing our survival.
Our present beliefs on private property are derived from Roman law which defined ownership based on three rights: the usus (the use of it), the fructus (the enjoyment of the products), and the abusus (right to damage or destroy it). The usus and fructus have been quite common during the ages -most humans have known that we share the resources of nature with every living thing and that though it is quite normal for the human species to own sections of it, ownership doesn’t give you only rights, it also implies responsibilities to safeguard it for future generations. The added right to abuse and destroy your property or that of others ignores the responsibility to protect it and implies that the owner has absolute power over the piece of nature they own. This idea of complete ownership with no thought for safeguarding its correct functioning has led humanity into a path of ecological destruction that is now coming back to haunt us.
Contrary to what many people think, the Roman-derived Western view of property has not been the norm during our species’ long history, and even now there are still many cultures that don’t see eye to eye with it. Through the ages, the land was treated as a communal good with a variety of arrangements for resource ownership and distribution. Private property has existed for a while. but rarely in such an absolute sense as in our present culture.
Many cultures have abused their land through the ages -the people of Easter Island come to mind. Their strict adherence to their culture required tons of wood for transporting their giant sculptures but they forgot that a finite resource can’t last forever so they cut the last tree and eventually had to leave. They, like other cultures who abused their area, were able to migrate and adapt to different cultures. Unfortunately for us, this is the first time that a culture based on the abuse of nature becomes global and continues for sufficient time to achieve a complete destabilization of the entire planet. A recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology confirms that the chemical pollution levels have surpassed a safe limit on Earth with negative impacts for the Earth systems, biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles.
Our culture’s ideas of property without much respect for nature became quite evident with the discovery of the New World and the subsequent European colonization of most of the world. For many of these native populations, the ownership of land and water for the benefit of a few and with the right to abuse was a very foreign idea. Land and its resources essential for survival belonged to everyone for the usus and fructus. Even if there was private property and some elites could be rich, it was unthinkable for a small group to abuse nature and hoard resources while leaving many without anything. What was the point of abusing the natural world that gave you everything you needed?
In contrast, for the Europeans, nature was there to be subdued, parceled out, fenced, cleared of what their culture considered weeds and lazy natives, and rapidly transformed into a productive spewer of resources. The native populations were using and producing according to their needs, but their methods appeared inefficient to Europeans who had a very different idea of productivity. For the Europeans, ownership and productivity through labor went hand in hand, so the land could not be owned by people which such low-efficiency standards. These beliefs were very useful for stealing the indigenous people’s lands with no qualms and for cataloging them as primitive people who hadn’t yet reached the sophistication of European private property and efficiency.
Enlightenment philosopher John Locke expressed well the European view of property at the time in his North Carolina constitution (wasn’t ratified). Locke, who was secretary of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas, considered these rights essential:
“The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of property”.
This makes clear that the discovery of the New World opened possibilities for ownership of land that Europeans had never dreamed of, and new laws were needed to deal with these new opportunities.
The discovery of new lands and cultures created many philosophical conundrums in Europe and Enlightenment philosophers were suddenly very interested in what they called the “State of Nature”. How could there be people unknown to Europeans, with different Gods, views about property, morality, political organization, and technological advances? Much was discussed but in the end, it was concluded that these people were closer to the “State of Nature” than the Europeans and the world was divided into the humans in a state of nature and the ones that had overcome this stage.
This is how a way of life close to nature became a symbol for backwardness while the ownership of nature and the right to abuse it became the mark of the civilized. The world was classified using a developmental pyramid with the ones farther from nature at the top.
Our view of the Earth as a place to divide, own, and abuse if it suits us, has allowed us to pollute it to the extreme with our industrial agriculture, destructive fishing, animal husbandry, extensive mining, and fossil fuel extraction. The overwhelming evidence of the collateral damage is in our toxic water sources, soil, and air, but it has failed to make us regret sufficiently to force us to rethink our whole strategy. Our leaders continue to promote the use of GMO seeds that can withstand the use of very harsh and unhealthy pesticides to fight the ever-encroaching weeds, and we barely notice. The same leaders promise a 4th Industrial Revolution and we happily accept this proposal for increased use of technology that will inevitably lead to much more environmental toxicity -mining of the materials and the energy required for their functioning.
A good example of how our property beliefs translate into a disregard for nature is the case of Texaco’s (later acquired by Chevron) willing destruction and pollution of a part of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Steve Donzinger, an attorney from New York, and other lawyers and scientists went to Ecuador and verified the dramatic humanitarian and ecological crisis that Chevron had caused. In 2011, Donzinger won a 9.5 billion suit against Chevron, who immediately countered with a RICO lawsuit, a type of suit mostly used to nab mobsters for racketeering. They falsely accused Donzinger of fraud and influencing the Ecuadorian judge, while Chevron bribed a judge in New York to accept the fraudulent charges. He was sentenced to house arrest for contempt of court for refusing to surrender his computer. After 800 days the Judge upped the ante and sent him to jail for 6 months. There was a righteous outcry and the judge had to relent and send him back to home arrest for the rest of this sentence.
This case shows how our view of ownership since the Enlightenment is not as civilized as we think. Our belief in our separateness from nature combined with our ideas about property rights means that though the natives have lived in the area sustainably for ages, Chevron’s investment in money and labor (machines) surpasses the natives rights to the land.For the law, Chevron should be protected from pesky lawsuits that reduce their productivity, while the importance of the Amazon forest for the survival of all humanity is never even mentioned.
Another good example of our culture’s views on ownership and nature is Peter Brabeck-Lemath, the CEO of Nestle until 2007. Interestingly, his 21st-century views coincide greatly with those of John Locke –they both find nature incomplete, unable to assure our survival without human intervention. Here is Brabeck explaining:
“humanity is now in the position of being able to provide some balance to Nature, but despite this, we have something approaching a shibboleth that everything that comes from Nature is good, we always learned that Nature could be pitiless.”
His skewed views on nature and property were also evident in a statement he made in 2005 for the We Feed the World documentary. Brabeck agrees that water is essential for survival but rejects the “very extreme view of considering water a public good”, because “that means that as a human being you should have a right to water.”
The correct non-extreme view according to Brabeck is to think of water as just another foodstuff that has market value and should therefore be privatized and handled by corporations.
Nestle is a corporate giant with a bad record of abusing nature and as the world leader in bottled water, it is also the world leader in pumping springs and aquifers dry, polluting the groundwater, and destroying wetland ecosystems. Brabeck and his company destroy nature but produce profits so he, like other elites like him, has been handsomely rewarded for his natural destruction; Brabeck is now the Chairman Emeritus of Nestle and Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the World Economic Forum. In this upside-down world, the people who are displaced or poisoned are not rewarded while the powerful increase their success by reducing the quality of life of millions.
Nestle steals public water, bottles, and resells it for a huge profit and while some people decry it, most people see it as something abstract that happens far away. Nestle is so sure of its power that it dares to abuse drought-prone California where people are told to save water by not washing their cars or watering their lawns while Nestle steals their water with little accountability.
Nestle and its water-bottling peers like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and DANONE conveniently use a very flexible view of property that is quite representative of our culture. Water is now seen as a commodity to be owned by multinationals who abuse the commons and property of foreign countries with a complete lack of respect. French companies Suez (U.S. subsidiary United Water) and Vivendi (US subsidiary USFilter) control over 70% of the existing world water and with a few other corporations control the public water of over 150 countries.
What property law gave corporations the right to control most of the water of the planet? None, it is just our collective acceptance of a culture that sees no problem with corporations owning a commodity like water and defends this practice by lauding the corporation’s increase in productivity and efficiency. In reality, the control of the water adds value mainly to the corporation, but much less to the people who depend on that water.
The right of the powerful elites to steal your public water also extends to the land and its products. The powerful multinationals have also gone on a land grab to turn tropical ecosystems into monocultures of palm oil, soy, and corn, or toxic mud holes from mining. Forests and indigenous people’s territories are being usurped by huge agribusinesses like privately-owned US Company Cargill and a myriad of multinational mining and fossil fuel extraction conglomerates. Their modus operandi is another creative jewel in the disregard for the property of others. In general, the company displaces the inhabitants of the area who rightfully protest in response. This response is usually brutally repressed with help from government forces allied with the corporations, who want to teach the people a lesson.
The lesson is that their sustainable use of the land doesn’t give them the right of ownership — the land belongs to those who can make it more productive. In this eternal clash of cultures, the extensive monocultures of palm oil are considered productive by Western culture, but quite inefficient for the native population who is uprooted so that people in the industrialized world can stuff themselves with an overabundance of snacks and sugary drinks that ruin their health.
We live in a culture that believes that the food and water essential for living should be commoditized and even traded in a futures market where speculators can drive prices to insane heights leaving people hungry all over the world. A culture that has extended the meaning of private ownership with abusus rights to the water and food of the planet without much questioning is a culture that has lost its moral compass.
By prioritizing a destructive idea of property, gain, and productivity, we have entered into an equation in which we ignore the negatives while concentrating on the supposed positives –efficiency, technological progress, and convenience. This strategy has come at a price and the negatives in the equation have been accumulating since the Industrial Revolution and coming back to bite us with a vengeance. The media has consistently presented to the public the positive side of the equation while proposing little band-aids for the negatives that are rarely properly explained.
We have chosen to be outside of nature, to rule it, to use and abuse it, but our rule has not been wise! How could it be wise when we respect the idea of property more than the idea of true sustainability that will ensure our survival? Enlightenment philosophers and corporate icons like Peter Brabeck see nature as something negative -the entity that makes snakes bite you, earthquakes destroy your house and bacteria give you pneumonia. Nature is not something positive or negative, it just is. We are part of it as much as the bacteria and the snake and we follow the same rules. By putting ourselves at the top of nature, we also set ourselves as the victims of it. In reality we just form part of a physical system that follows the rules of our universe, an entity that constitutes what we call nature on our planet. We are part of it, whether we accept it or not, but unless we decide to re-enter nature and truly respect it, our chances of survival are slim.