Critical Reflections on Ownership

Critical Reflections on Ownership

Critical Reflections on Human Rights and the Environment series

Mary Warnock

In this thought provoking work, Mary Warnock explores what it is to own things, and the differences in our attitude to what we own and what we do not. Starting from the philosophical standpoints of Locke and Hume, the ownership of gardens is presented as a prime example, exploring both private and common ownership, historically and autobiographically. The author concludes that, besides pleasure and pride, ownership brings a sense of responsibility for what is owned and a fundamental question is brought to light: can we feel the same responsibility for what we do not, and never can, own? Applying this question to the natural world and the planet as a whole, a realistic and gradualist perspective is offered on confronting global environmental degradation. Critical Reflections on Ownership examines the effect of the Romantic Movement on our attitudes to nature and is a salient commentary on the history of ideas.

Editorial introduction

Anna Grear, Karen Morrow and Evadne Grant

Subjects: environment, environmental law, law - academic, environmental law, human rights, legal philosophy


In the context of critical reflections upon the relationship between human rights and the environment, it is difficult to imagine many themes more central to the human–environmental nexus than that of ‘ownership’. Lying at the heart of the widely impugned subject–object relations that set up the human as ‘master’ (and ‘owner’) of the earth and its living order, the notion of ownership raises a profoundly natural–cultural (in the rich sense evoked by Haraway) knot of puzzles and dilemmas. The impulse towards forms of what we can broadly think of as ‘ownership’ is, at one level, deeply ‘natural’. Such impulses can be read, for example, in the struggle within and between various non-human animal species for territory, burrows, warmth and food. Humans have, of course, turned ‘ownership’ impulses into something more complex and institutionalised. The human institution of ownership has long formed a contested theme in political and legal theory, and ‘ownership’ has often featured in fraught questions of intra-and inter-species justice. Some humans have even deployed notions of ‘ownership’ (and closely related justifications drawing upon a ‘natural’ entitlement to ‘property’) as a legitimation for historical and contemporary practices of dispossession.