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Introducing the principle

This second principle explores the different “bundles” of access rights that come with different types of natural resource ownership.

The question we look to answer when considering this principle is, “To what extent do we own nature?”

If you stand on a sea cliff and face into the wind, you can feel the exhilaration of wild nature. You wouldn’t say that you owned that wind or the natural forces that created it. However, in your own garden at home perhaps you do feel a sense of ownership over nature. Between the sea breeze and your garden there are fields, forests, plains, moorlands, rivers and mountains. Can they be owned? If they can, who owns them?

Man stood on a cliff top facing the sea

It is often said that a person’s home is their castle:

  • In 1604, a legal case in England acknowledged that the home owner determines the right of access: “the house of everyone is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defence against injury and violence as for his repose…”

  • In 1763, the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, said: “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow through it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter.”

However, ownership is more subtly nuanced than this implies:

  • In Britain, if you make alterations to your home, you need planning permission. The State can also issue a compulsory purchase order to buy your house without requiring your consent.

  • For land outside the “curtilage” immediately around the home, there are many rights of access permitted. For example, in Britain, and many other countries, you can collect mushrooms and other wild fruits from land that is not your own, provided it is only for your own use.

In the next step we consider the hierarchy of access and ownership in more detail.

Key learning points:


On completion of this activity you will:

  • be introduced to Elinor Ostrom who developed a hierarchy of different types of property rights
  • recognise different types of property rights and how they affect access to, and withdrawal of, natural resources
  • appreciate the need for flexible property rights in areas with dynamic ecologies.

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This article is from the free online course:

Environmental Challenges: Hierarchy in Property Rights

University of Leeds

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