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Editor’s note: Charles Bedford, the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, is living and working in China for the next year and will be writing about conservation issues there. Read all his posts.

Everywhere I’ve been outside of the United States in the last few years has a property system that looks like the classic regulated “commons,” or resources that are collectively owned. For example:

  • Mongolia’s lands are owned by the “people.” (Try doing a title search for that).
  • China’s land is owned by a variety of government agencies with conflicting mandates, and they are in the midst of their third or fourth land reform, heading toward privatization of some of the “bundles of sticks,” or rights, that make up each parcel of property.
  • The forests and seas of Indonesia are owned by the government and sold off to resource extraction companies to raise funds for government’s general operating budgets.
These shared resources, like all commons, begin to fail when too much pressure is placed on them. But what to do about that?

Garrett Hardin’s influential 1968 Science magazine article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” seems more prescient now than ever as I witness the mining of the oceans’ protein, overgrazing of the world’s last great grassland to produce wool for the fashion industry, the degradation of clean air and water, and the destruction of forests that harbor enormous biodiversity, protect the watersheds of people and store more carbon than any of the most wildest sci-fi fantasies about carbon capture.

What resource will we have left to leave our children? The bumper sticker cry of the anti-environmentalist backlash of the 1980s (”Earth first, we’ll mine the other planets later”) is beginning to sound like the collective official policy of the governments of the world — most of whom are not thinking about what they leave future generations, but merely how to get re-elected in four years.

China’s land reform steps have each been toward a more vested property rights system. I am now taking a crash course in this movement, since it will truly determine what the country looks like, what wild nature remains, what ecological systems will stay intact, etc., over the next 70 years — which is the length of the leasehold interest being offered in many cases for rural land.

One of the great things about the United States is that we have done a reasonably good job of maintaining biodiversity in a strong private property rights system through tools such as:

We evolved these tools from a base of pure private property rights that relied on tort law (or the ability to sue your neighbor for damages that s/he caused to your land) as a way to protect the common good.

In China, the evolution is happening the other way around: Since 1949, land has been held by the government for the common good, and government is now tacking on attributes of private ownership to specific parcels of land. It would be easy to layer on the old English private property system and have the common good fade away — allowing one’s neighbor to build a hog slaughter facility next to the preschool.

Many of us, especially in the western United States, believe in a strong private property system, but we also have the luxury of living in a region of low population density and great natural resources. Given the massive population of China and the demand here for natural resources, such unfettered deregulation and privatization would cause further degradation of the air and water resources, of soil stability and of wildlife habitat.

China’s government, in search of what they call “ecological civilization,” seems to be headed down a different path. The country is unclear at the moment what that path will produce — but it certainly knows it’s unable to stay where it is now.

— Text by Charles Bedford, Cool Green Science Blog