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Introducing the principle

We begin this course by considering the differing views of nature held by hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists.

Indeginous hunter gatherer people

We compare the ‘giving spirit’ view of nature amongst hunter-gatherers, with the ‘controlling ancestor’ view of nature in agriculturalists.

Property rights, as ownership is also called, are fundamental to social-ecological systems. The perceptions of ownership underpin the basis of our economies. In turn, how we manage our economies determines what happens to the environment. The two cannot be separated.

This first principle looks at two ways of perceiving nature:

  1. The ‘giving spirit’ as understood by hunter-gatherers. This is about sharing.

  2. The ‘controlling ancestor’ as expressed by agriculturalists. This is rooted in ownership.

“Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongos in the world?”

This captivating statement is from a San hunter-gatherer from the Kalahari.

The mongongo, or ‘Schinziophyton rautanenii’ to give it a scientific botanical name, is a tree that grows in the Kalahari sands and throughout southern Africa. It is a staple food of the San. From March to May it fruits profusely and the nutritious nuts can be stored throughout the year. The mongongo is a wild tree growing in open nature.

However, most food is cultivated in agricultural and livestock systems. Once a plant or animal becomes cultivated, then our relationship to it changes fundamentally.

In the next step, we will look at the ways of hunter-gatherers, such as the San, in comparison with agriculturalists.

Key learning points:


On completion of this activity you will be able to:

  • recognise the difference between the perspectives of the ‘giving spirit of nature’ and ‘controlling ancestor’ in our perceptions of nature
  • understand the meaning of ‘reciprocity’ as a way of reducing risk in uncertain environments.

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This article is from the free online course:

Environmental Challenges: Hierarchy in Property Rights

University of Leeds