Who Owns Nature? A Debate

By: Jan Narveson, University of Waterloo (Canada)

What's interesting about this question isn't the answer, which is straightforward: basically, nobody owns it. The real question has to be why anybody is asking. I think a good part of the answer to this latter question is that they are answering the wrong question. A fair bit of this talk will be devoted to explaining that.

Ownership is a moral concept, and our question accordingly requires a moral answer. Moral questions concern what we can reasonably demand of other people. Any other people, all other people - not just our friends.

What's special about other people is that they are, indeed, "other" - they廝e not just ourselves all over again. They aren't clones. But they are like ourselves in that they are, at least often and certainly potentially, reasonable. They have minds of their own. In discussing moral questions, we are appealing to those minds.

These obvious points about morals set up the framework within which we can possibly get a decent answer to moral questions. If we are to have principles that are reasonable for all, they must, as David Hume and so many others pointed out long ago, be based upon an impartial and general viewpoint. Principles reasonable for all are uniformities for the non-uniform. They must be based on the way we all are, in such a way as to enable our differences to function without conflict.

The way not to do this is to take somebody's, or some few people's, or even quite a lot of people's, tastes and special interests as the basis of general rules for all. Morality is not "bourgeois morality" nor is it "proletarian morality", nor is it, again, "feminist morality" or "masculine morality".

What do we all want, whatever we want? There is a brief, very abstract answer that must be the right one. Everyone has various interests, values. What that person - anyone - wants to do is, simply, the best he or she can in terms of those values.

What do we want of other people, then? Lots of things, of course. But whatever we want, other people can have any of just three possible relations to what we want: (1) They can make things worse for us - impede our actions, frustrate our pursuits; or (2) they can make things better for us, help us out; finally, (3) they can be neutral, their actions making no difference to us one way or the other.

Morality requires universal agreement. What, if anything, can we all agree on? The answer is actually pretty easy: we can all agree that the third and second options are the acceptable ones, while the first is unacceptable. We're happy with people doing nice things for us, we won廠 agree to their frustrating us, and neither is at least better than the first.

But we can廠 reasonably *insist* on their doing nice things for us. That would be absurd, especially in the case where they hate our guts! The most we can insist on is keeping off each other's backs. I don廠 hit you, you don廠 hit me.

Hitting people, killing them, and, more generally, acting so as to make them worse off than they already are, and than they would be if we just let them alone, is what is wrong - that廣 the general form of what is wrong. Refraining from what is wrong is what we can reasonably insist on everyone's doing. If you are doing x, and x bothers no one, then I have no business forcing you not to do it, or destroying whatever you were creating by doing it. This means, in effect, recognizing everyone as, strictly speaking, being the proper owner of himself. Everyone is basically OK, has the right to be who he is, and thus to do what he does, so long as he minds his own business or, if he minds anyone else廣, does so with the latter's consent.

So let's get back to the question of wilderness.

In the first place, what is it? There are two answers to this. The philosophically basic one is that wilderness is unoccupied bits of nature, land or sea or whatever. It is that part of nature which is in the "state of nature", as one popular philosophical expression puts it. As such, I want to point out, it is by definition not owned. Note that it is not only not owned by you or me, but also it is not owned by some nebulous group called "Mankind"; nor is it owned by some alleged god who is supposed to have manufactured it, for some mysterious reasons of his own. Nature, so far as people in general know about it, is just there.

But perhaps some other animals occupy it? Often this is so. Animals large and small, usually, are to be found in areas unoccupied by people, and of course plants are found almost everywhere on the earth. Does this matter? Well, it can matter a heck of a lot to people encountering them. Some animals are dangerous, others are useful, and the same with plants. However, in the sense most basically relevant to our question, the answer is that it does not matter. That is important, because some think it does. They think, for example, that animals, and some even think that plants, or even nature in general, has moral status - rights, for instance. That is a deceptive view, which we must have a quick look at - though a quick one is all we have time for.

What廣 deceptive about it is this. If animals had rights, your opinion that they don't - that, for instance, you寮 like to have one for dinner - would be overruled. But who would overrule it? Not the animal itself. Animals have no opinons on moral matters, no answers to moral questions. They aren廠 on the scene, intellectually speaking, however much they may be on it geographically.

Animals don廠 figure in the "social contract", because they can廠. When we humans try to relate to each other, one of the things on our agenda is animals, and another is plants and another mountains and so on. In fact, practically everything is on our agenda - we humans have quite a variety of interests. But we are the only ones who have any agendas for anything to be on.

This being so, the idea that we can be forbidden to do bad things to animals just because it is bad for the animals is in violation of the basic terms of our question. The only basis on which we can be forbidden to do something is a basis acceptable to each of us. That is why the only thing that we can basically rule out is behavior toward other people that harms them. We cannot be forbidden behavior that, in the opinion of some other people, is contrary to supposed "rights" of animals or plants or mountains.

That cuts no ice with anyone who doesn廠 happen to share that view, and there is no way to resolve a difference like that, in those terms. But when we get back to the reality that you and I must somehow adjust our relations to each other, then we can both agree that you must show me how behavior harmful to those animals or plants is bad for "us", and , especially in the case where it is my behavior the control of which is in question, that it is bad for "me".

Now in fact I think that is what naturists really do think. They say tht all things are interrelated, etc., and if I step on nature at point x, then it is going to creep up and swat me at point y. But unfortunately, they do not think this in the right terms. For what they do is to dream up a hypothesis about "ecological integrity" or some such thing that we ordinary folk do not understand, and then insist that we therefore have reason, even from our own points of view, to accept a rule forbidding that we do the activities in question. Sorry: that won't wash. You幢l have to show that my activities are harmful to us all, including myself, *in terms that I can understand*. Otherwise, the ecological enthusiast might just be doing a snow-job on me.

Consider, for example, people who, as it were, worship the environment. "Don廠 do anything to alter nature!" - they say, even though they've driven to work in cars, or at least walked on it in their shiny new shoes. How do they know that the ground they walk on doesn't dislike that? What if I tell them that it does dislike it! And answer is that if I do tell them this, they would have no way of refuting it. If one accept such a view, one accepts it on faith.

But faith is absolutely no basis for morals. Different people have different faiths. We are through fighting the Thirty Years' War, folks: you have your faith, I have mine, and we are each free to have it in our own corners. But we are not free to cram it down the throats of anyone else, and that includes faith in the Environment. As it happens, various bits of nature are often useful. One can plant stuff in it and eat well as a result, or cut some of it up and make a nice house out of it; and still other bits can, as it turns out, be fashioned into MacIntosh computers, greatly to the benefit of us folks who like to write and communicate. We'd like to do some of these, and a whole lot of other things that require using nature in one way or another. Is there any reason why we shouldn't? The "reason" consisting merely in the fact that you, the ecological enthusiast, "don廠 like it" is, as noted above, absolutely irrelevant. Morality is not a matter of our likings and dislikings of what each other does, or of our tastes - because if it were, there would be no such thing as morals, and we寮 all be at each other's throats, and life would be awful, if not impossible.

The rule of morals is live and let live. To show that somebody may not be permitted to do something, we must show that what he does is harmful to someone else. As we have seen, it must be shown to be harmful in a sense more robust than merely that someone doesn't like that person's doing it. Additionally, it must be more robust than the sense in which it "deprives" him of the opportunity, in the future, to use without your permission the things that you are using now. For it doesn't deprive him of that thing - he never owned it in the first place! I cannot take from you what you do not have - and you do not have the world.

Whatever there is to own, "people" own. They own it by just being on it and working on it, in the first instance. Or they get it from other people who already have it, but are ready to part with it on mutually agreed terms. The only other way of getting something is by violence, by taking it from other people. Those ways are wrong, forbidden.

Those who wish to talk of elephants with territorial rights, and so on, are talking figuratively. And one of the things that indeed may get people interested in erecting systems of property is, quite possibly, some sort of human territorial instinct of the sort one sees exemplified by wolves and zebras and such. But while that may be one of the things, at some level, the question is - so what? You have your instincts, I have mine, zebras theirs. Instincts are no basis for anything.

We don't need any funny "instincts" to justify property rights. All you have to do to see why property rights are a good idea is live in a house you don't own, or rent a car, and so on. Owning something enables you to do much more of what you might want to do with it. And if it doesn't, fine: you don't have to buy! There was a curious tendency to suppose that once upon a time, or primordially, or something, nature was a "commons", belonging to "all mankind." Says who - we should ask? An answer given by John Locke and some other people was: says God! This is an extremely influential but profoundly silly answer. Needless to say, it is not an answer that impresses those who don't believe in the God in question - which are, practically everybody. Why would it impress otherwise intelligent people like Locke? The answer is that they supposed that, after all, God created the place, so no wonder he owns it; and since he owns it, he can give it to anybody he pleases, and that just happened to be Us. Terrific! Of course, if you don廠 think the earth belongs to mankind but only, say, to the Alabamans, then you will, of course, change your story about who God gave it to. And in general, the theological story is a fake. It explains nothing. All it does is tell you something about the person telling you the story.

Getting back to the real world, though, we will find a whole lot of people who have some use for various parts of it. We may well also find some others who don't like the first people having it. The question is: why should these last people get to undo all the work that the first people put in? They worked night and day to plant or build a house, or whatever; and then along come a bunch of resentful loudmouths with their stories about deities and whatnot. To make the vicious tastes of these latter people the basis of general rules for us all is irrational. The only reasonable rule about them is to tell them to shut up and go tell each other that, but not, please, us - we廝e busy!

"Environmental Ethics"

Let me conclude with a few general remarks about Environmental Ethics. If you think about it, you'll note that in one sense, environmental ethics is simply ethics: all of us are, all the time, concerned about our relation to what is outside of us. However, that is not the relevant sense of 'ethics' for this discussion. Morals is about our relation to other people in general. That brings up a vastly narrower set of constraints. Not just anything goes. Environmental ethics in this narrower sense has to be a branch of morals.

What views about environmental ethics are possible? The answers can be divided in the following way: in what aspect or regard is something about the nonhuman environment such that we may therefore impose some or other requirements on people? In view of my discussion at the outset, this amounts to the question, what sort of harms are there, recognizable as such from the general point of view? Basically, there are three.

1. Health. So, for example, if the air is significantly polluted by something you do, then you've harmed me. If my well is poisoned, or in other ways you impose dangers to life and limb on me, then I, and we, may insist that you desist, and perhaps compensate me. But note too that the pollution might be worth it. Better to have cars with some pollution than no cars with no pollution of the particlar type that cars emit. (Better still, of course, cars with little pollution; we廝e working - very successfully, by the way - on that one.)

2. Aesthetics: what you are doing disfigures the countryside, or clutters it up with ugly houses and businesses, parking lots and goodness knows what.

3. Spiritual: plants have rights and if you eat those plants, you harm them; and that's bad for you, spiritually, so you shouldn廠.

Let廣 take these in reverse order.

Views of type (3) we may rule out of court at a stroke. There just isn't any basis for general restrictions on our activity from this quarter. Nothing can be proved about it, and so you either take it or leave it. Is it a bad thing to live on a planet with only 5,000,000 distinct species instead of 5,000,900? Not so far as most of us are concerned. Not only don廠 we care - we can廠 even "tell". If you want to preserve species, then, you have your work cut out for you: buy up a few specimens, or a patch of environment where they can thrive, and keep other people off your property. No problem! But don't go threatening the rest of us with jail terms because we don廠 share your tastes on the point. You're welcome to whatever environment you like, as long as it's in your back yard. Or the yard owned by the Sierra Club, say.

Unfortunately, the same is true of type (2) "harms". Most members of my audience, I幟 sure, have had your aesthetic selves seriously harmed by listening to the Rolling Stones too much, and not nearly enough to Beethoven and Haydn. Unfortunately, you may as well say the same thing to me; and about all I can do in return is call you bad names, or ask you to devote a lot of time to the project of coming to understand why you are all wrong about this. And we don廠 have that much time. You're busy making a living, for instance. So we're just going to have to put aesthetics back in the shelf, apart from the odd special case where we and our immediate neighbors have the same view, and so can act to keep the riff-raff out by refusing to let anybody re-paint their house bright blue and yellow, or whatever.

Beauty, alas, might as well be in the eye of the beholder, whether that is philosophically the bottom line about it or not.

But physical health is another matter. That we can understand, and everybody shares in it. Here indeed could be a basis for environmental legislation. But that is a lot more difficult than environmentalists think. For usually their standards and their methods are all wrong - and also, most of their "information" is tainted.

1. For damage to the general health to be relevant it must, first, be significant. This rules out most environmental initiatives. The fact that x will increase your chances of dying an awful death by .00000001% over the next year is of no interest whatever. That it will increase your chances by 1% is significant. Even then, you might be willing to take that risk in return for some real benefit, such as the ability to drive cars comfortably and quickly from A to B.

2. For damage to general health to be relevant, it must be involuntary. This rules out paternalistic legislation against smoking, for instance. Certainly you may keep people from smoking in your home, and anywhere where you have no choice but to breathe the other person廣 smoke. But you may not require people to refrain from smoking in their own homes, or in stores where the storeowners don廠 mind.


There are two answers to "Who Owns the Wilderness?" In one sense, 'wilderness' means 'heretofore unoccupied bits of nature'. In that philosophically fundamental sense of the term, the answer is that Nobody does - of course.

On the other hand, 'Wilderness' can mean "nature relatively unchanged by people from the way it was before people got there". In that sense, the answer to "Who Owns the Wilderness" is: lots of particular people. They get it either by just being there and doing things with it, or by buying it from somebody or having some previous owner give it to them as a present (inheritance, e.g.). All of these are perfectly legitimate, reasonable ways to come to own nature, and to own it, in general, is to have the right to use it as you please.

The current answer to this question is that a lot of it is owned by governments, large and small. For a long time, national states have asserted claims to large swatches of territory - recall that wonderful moment back in 1494 when the Pope "divided the world" between the Spanish and the Portuguese. That was a wonderful exercise in mystical claptrap, to be sure; but it had no real meaning. In fact, Governments do not, strictly speaking, buy anything - instead, they take it - the question is whether the right description of what they do isn't that they steal it from individual people, by taxation. So the question is whether it is legitimate to take away from individual people their right to come to acquire this or that bit of stuff for the sorts of reasons governments do. The answer is usually, and probably always, No. But defending this wild claim of mine would take much more time than I have left! On the other hand, there廣 no reason why a bunch of people can't get together and keep a bit of wild nature wild. Why not, after all? You can sell camping rights in it, with strict rules. Or if you are Bill Gates, you could buy several thousand acres, and then just gaze out over your wild territory. An expensive thing to do, but certainly legitimate.

Can we sell and buy wilderness? Obviously we can. Lots of people do, in small or big ways, own bits of it right now, and put them up for sale,and buy new bits, and so on. There is nothing wrong with that and everything right: it enables people to lead better lives. And there廣 nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Sometimes they turn it into non-wilderness, by building businesses or houses or what-have-you on it; somtimes they leave it as is, that having been the point of the purchase. Both are perfectly legitimate, in principle. You pays your money and you takes your choice! And in all likelihood, especially if you do your homework, you and your neighbors will consequently end up a lot better off.

Updated: July 23, 1998

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