Planet Under Pressure

The just concluded Planet Under Pressure conference in London resulted in the first ever State of the Planet Declaration. Among its eye-catching statements was this one:

“Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities.”

This is intended to set the stage for the U.N.’s upcoming Rio+20 Conference.

The briefing papers prepared for Rio+20 make clear that an interconnected, international approach will be required to address environmental systems that we now know are international in nature. The Earth system is defined as

“. . . the Earth’s interacting physical, chemical and biological processes, and includes humanity. The system consists of the Earth’s land, oceans, atmosphere and ice. It includes the planet’s natural cycles – carbon, water, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and others – and the geophysical processes that occur deep below the Earth’s surface. Life itself is an integral part of this system. Our interconnected social and economic systems are part of the Earth system. Many human systems are now driving change in the Earth system. While the system has always changed, what is happening right now is unique.”

To protect the continued viability of this Earth system, researchers have introduced the concept of boundaries for nine planetary boundaries. Already three of them have been crossed – climate change, loss of biodiversity and disruption of global cycles.

Of course, the warning and recommendations of these conferences will give Agenda 21 conspiracists more fodder. But the message is clear, local and national institutions and approaches to these problems are doomed to failure because the system at risk does not exist at the local or national scale, it exists at the planetary scale.

What interests me about this is the disconnect between our current property rights regime which focus on the micro scale  (i.e., the rights of individuals to small, arbitrarily defined plots of land) rather than on a systems scale. As we began to learn more about the interconnected nature of the environment, we have overlaid a regulatory regime on top of the property regime to try to strike a better balance. [For an exhaustive treatment of this effort, see my dissertation.] This approach has had limited success and in the United States runs into the Fifth Amendment’s protection against takings without compensation. I believe that just as we recognized new property rights with the advent of technologies such as air travel, telecommunications and the internet, we need to recognize a new category of property rights the recognize the components of the Earth system and that transcend and overlay parcel scale property rights.


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