Who Owns The Planet?

Posted on August 19, 2012

A recent opinion piece in The Guardian raised, for me, an interesting question. Who owns the planet?

OK, it’s not quite put in that way in the piece, but that is the gist of the argument. The author argues that nobody can own a beautiful sunrise or a fine day. Similarly, he argues, nobody should own “the commons”. This is a fallacious argument. The use of the term “commons” does not imply a lack of ownership but rather that that which is designated as commons should be owned in common across society rather than by individuals or corporations or small groups. “The commons” is a political statement about the most desirable form of ownership not a statement of non-ownership.

“Some things are simply and rightly unownable” says the author. Which gets us back to the original question – who owns the planet? Can the planet be owned and do humans own it? If so, which humans have right to ownership to which parts of the planet? Do we own the atmosphere? It seems to me that whether we own the planet or not is neither here nor there. The simple fact is that humans have evolved in such a way that enables us to exercise rights of ownership over more-or-less the whole planet. We behave, and will continue to behave, as though we do, indeed own the planet. Once we can, with impunity, behave as though we own the planet, the abstract philosophical discussions as to whether we actually own it or not, or whether we are ‘owners’ or ‘stewards’ all become of little practical relevance.

This is the reality of what some have chosen to label theĀ  anthropocene.

Given this reality that we can, and do, and will continue to, act as though we own the planet, the question of who owns the planet becomes less relevant. The question, rather, is, given the current evolutionary state how should we best use our ability to exercise these rights of ownership. Some will argue that we should continue industrial exploitation, development and wealth creation in much the same way as we have been doing. Others argue for a different vision focused on preserving nature and natural systems, self-restraint, working towards low carbon economies and so forth. I am not trying to argue here for one or other vision. I am simply pointing out that the debate is about different visions for what we should do with our human ability to behave as though we own the planet and how such competing visions should be organized and funded.

The decision to transform a tract of land to a managed National Park is just as much an exercise of ownership rights as choosing to utilize that land for farming, resource extraction or to house a wind farm. In fact, many natural spaces are today being protected simply because of the single-minded application of the rights of private ownership. Exactly the same logic applies to whether we choose to pump noxious gases into the atmosphere or choose to bury them underground; or whether we choose to occupy more land and ocean with sources of renewable energy so that we do not occupy the atmosphere with CO2.

The discussion is not one of Man vs Nature – as many try to portray it. It is a debate of whose vision should prevail when we exercise our ownership ability over the land, sea and air. Should we privilege the industrialist’s vision, or the ecologist’s, or the conservationist’s, or the sociologist’s or the vision of this or that political or activist movement?

There are vary many reasons why we should want to preserve natural spaces, treat our environment with respect, etc, etc. But the simplistic statement ‘because we don’t own the planet’ is not one of them.