You Can Drive My Car–But It’s Still Mine

‘Baby, you can drive my car’–to babybooming Americans, the car and cheap gas represented freedom–a means of escape; private property represented stability and security–a home to come to. Then, in post-WWII America, you could have your cake and eat it too: freedom and security. Every man is a king, for a man’s home is his castle, eh? Eric T. Freyfogle in ‘Private Rights In Nature: Two Paradigms’ [ewl, 270-278] notes that property, like driving, embodies ‘core American values.’

Property rights confer ownership. Freyfogle writes that ownership means you can do whatever you want to the land as long as there is no ‘spillover’ affect. But as we’re finding out, everything spills over. Yet, having no ownership is foreign to us; in fact, it smacks of Communism, and that’ll never do. Freyfogle suggests a middle way; but first, a little history.

It was a collective desire in the late 19th century that chose a particular mode of private property, to make private property even more private. In 19th century America that may have been appropriate, but not in 21st century Earth. The 19th century outlook Freyfogle calls ‘industrial’, but now we need an ‘ecological’ outlook. It’s a question of direction: do we go towards a technozoic era with its anthropocentric focus or an ecozoic era and its biocentric focus?

Freyfogle lives in Indiana, where 99% of the land has been changed since the state entered The Union in 1818. Back then ownership didn’t originally give you exclusive rights–people could still hunt and fish, forage, gather firewood, on your land. Only gradually has property law–ownership of the land–become exclusive–to the detriment of use of the land.

Freyfogle makes two points about private property:

  1. private property is a human creation
  2. private property works best when it’s for the common good

Freyfogle says property laws in the 21st century need to be reformed with an ecological understanding. The private property law extremes of the 1990s need to be tempered with a common law knowledge so that ownership and private property benefits both the owner and the wider community of all living things, which he summarizes as the ‘do-no-harm’ principle. He suggests that it includes not only no harm to neighbours but also no harm to the land itself and its community. He also notes ‘the fact that an activity that was not deemed harmful a generation or a century ago is no reason why we cannot view it as harmful today.’

As for driving a car, doesn’t that harm too?

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