Why private property? II
How does the ecological crisis challenge contemporary theories of property?
@ Nuffield College, Oxford University, 10-11/05/2020
Keynote Speakers :
Simon Caney (University of Warwick), Catherine Colliot-Thélène (Université de Rennes), Catherine Larrère (Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne), and Stuart white (Université d’Oxford).
Pierre Crétois (Université de Bordeaux Montaigne), Eric Fabri (Wiener-Anspach Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford-Université Libre de Bruxelles), and Cécile Laborde (University of Oxford, Nuffield College).
Private property is traditionally conceived as the unlimited right to control a resource freely. It is also a power to exclude others from decisions about the use that will be made of this resource, even though they will be affected to a certain extent by this use. Private property expresses the sovereignty of the owner’s will on the thing, as opposed to the commons where the use of the thing is subject to the decisions of a community composed of many individuals. But this opposition between private ownership and the commons is challenged by the growing ecological crisis.
The existence of what economists refer to as negative externalities is a clear indication that the use of a resource (or of means of production) never concerns the sole owner, whereas the nature of the right of private property allows him to follow its sole interest when deciding on their allocation. It is in fact extremely difficult, if not impossible, to assign a border to things that always go beyond the fences arbitrarily assigned to them. Things are always situated in an environment over which they have an influence, as their uses have an impact on other actors and entities in the ecosystem. In the end, even though a thing is privately owned, it always remains connected to the commons within which it fits in various ways.
In addition, the ecological crisis repeatedly announced by the IPCC also invites us to rethink why private property is legitimate. Resource exploitation based on the concentration in a few hands of private property rights has shown its limitations. It is particularly doubtful that any global coordination of extractive and productive activities is likely to happen to limit the impact of these activities on climate change in an economic system based on the right of the owner to defend and insulate his interest against those of the community. If the capitalist mode of production is unable to generate these necessary self-limitation mechanisms, should we modify and amend the institution of private property on which it is based, or is it time to consider radical alternatives? Moreover, if we recognize that capitalism is unable to generate these limits that would allow the preservation of the environment, does this acknowledgement not also call for a reassessment of the idea that private property is legitimate because it promotes an efficient organization of the production? How can efficiency legitimate private property if it does not take into account its devastating effects on the climate (and the political crises that are potentially linked to it)? In this sense, it is now more than ever necessary to rethink the type of property rights that should apply to resources and means of production in order to integrate ecological and political constraints.
Therefore, is it possible to make a case to defend the rights of the affected community on a property that is supposed to be private? Doesn’t this interpenetration of common and private elements in every form of private property call for a critical reassessment of the classical representation of private property as a right in the hands of the sole owner? How can we rethink of property then? Or should the concept of private property be abandoned in favour of new types of limited control rights over natural resources and means of production?
In this conference, we want to bring together political theorists, economists, sociologists and lawyers to critically evaluate how the ecological crisis is forcing contemporary political theory to rethink the question of private property. It aims at breaking definitively with the classical approach to private property as an absolute power of the owner on his thing in order to critically elaborate updated, alternative or subversive models of property rights that take into account the insertion of every single thing in its global environment.
We therefore welcome contributions that fall within the theme identified above, and aim to answer, for instance, the following questions. Can the owner of a field legitimately cultivate it as he or she sees fit or does the community have the right to exercise rights over its “common” property by deciding how that field should or should not be cultivated? Should we then compensate the prejudice if there is prejudice? Can the owner of a combustion engine or car use it without restriction despite the fact that its use causes a deterioration of the air that is somehow a common resource, or must we find a way to integrate the rights of co-air users and the rights of owners of polluting vehicles or factories? Should new fundamental rights such as the right to clean air, water and nature be created to give people affected by pollution a say in the use of polluting goods? Given that a community, a company, or an individual each develop specific ways of relating to a thing according to their interests, should they not also enjoy differentiated property rights adapted to the particularities of their relational modalities? And should we not also hold into account the interests of the future generation when we think of the legitimate uses of different resources?
These questions and many others call for a renewal of the way political theory conceives the legitimacy of private property in order to make room for these concerns on the boundaries and limits of the concept of private property and for the protection of environment.
See also the ongoing call for papers for the conference.