Ownership: Changing Concepts and Practices

From the Series: Temporary Possession

Photo by Rebecca Empson.

More than a hundred years ago, George B. Newcomb (1886, 598) observed that:

Up to the seventeenth century . . . there is frequent mention of societies of persons with associated joint property. . . . It is not necessary to point out all the causes—notably the development of industrialism, the growth of the contract system, and the increase of wealth by trade and commerce—which aided to give the strength to the feeling of right attending private possession, which has in modern times made it so self-asserting.

Concepts of ownership have varied considerably over time, and ownership of human beings has been quite common until relatively recently—as ownership of nonhumans still is. Several Inuit myths describe narratives of marriages between humans and animals, as indicated in titles like The woman who married a fox; the woman who married a shrimp; the woman who took a big worm for husband; when worms had faces like humans; the man who took a fox for wife. The Greenlandic-Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen collected such myths in the early twentieth century.

Even today this view is indirectly expressed by Canada’s first aboriginal judge, Murray Sinclair:

The aboriginal world view holds that human beings are the least powerful and least important elements in creation. They cannot influence events and are disrespectful if they try. Human interests are not to be placed above those of any other part of creation. Regarding the relative hierarchy and importance of beings in creation therefore, Aboriginal and Western traditions are diametrically opposed. (Ørebech et al. 2005, 427)

At present, we are entering a period where the concept of private ownership developed for the industrial era is becoming outdated and dysfunctional. A well-known example is the increasing importance of (intangible) intellectual property. Other examples are the erosion of private property due to or based on debt that can never be paid off. Further challenges arise from unsustainable consequences of private property.

A century after Newcomb, Brendan Edgeworth (1988) argued that recent historical work had uncovered a remarkable complexity of property forms, particularly in relation to landholding up until thetwentieth century. Nonetheless, a strong perception of the timelessness of the modern concept of property exists “with its connotative meaning that embraces the values of an exclusivist, productivist, individualist and capitalist culture” (Edgeworth 1988, 89). According to Edgeworth (1989, 112), a

postmodern approach would break with the attachment to private property as an unqualified good, as in liberalism’s metanarrative, or indeed as an unqualified bad as in the Marxist version, focusing instead on the interwoven legalities and the plurality of interpretive standpoints, measuring them all in terms of power relations and imbalances. . . . The politics of becoming are precisely the postmodernist’s call to create new selves, new identities, new communities in the face of economic orders controlled by multinational corporations under the banner of private property or state-socialist systems extolling a bureaucratized public ownership.

As a guest professor at the University of Gothenburg in 2018, I came across a huge billboard advertising for Volvo cars, now produced by Chinese (state) owners in in the most industrialized part of Scandinavia. The text accompanying the huge image of a car in front of a city skyline was “Do not let the things you own own you” (author’s translation). The implication was that instead of owning a Volvo—a very costly car beyond most people’s economic means—one might want to lease it, thus still making it profitable for the company to produce such cars. This legitimizing argument thus reflects a certain shift in the perception of private ownership as an unqualified good for the owner/consumer.

We can probably expect further legal changes as perceptions and practices regarding relations between humans and nonhuman others evolve. Erin Drew (2016, 196, 198) writes that:

English writers across diverse genres in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries shared the usufructuary world view that humans were granted limited dominion over the earth on the premise that the world was created not just for the support and enjoyment of the present generation, but for all generations. . . . The common thread among natural law, jurisprudence, and equity is the effort to identify, at the most basic level, the ethical obligations that appertain in a given situation or relationship.

After World War two the concept of allemannsrätten (the right of public access) was introduced in Sweden so as to provide workers with access to nature during their spare time. In 1994, this right was included in the Swedish constitution. In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly decided to designate April 22 as International Mother Earth Day:

Acknowledging that the Earth and its ecosystems are our home, and convinced that in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social, and environmental needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature and the Earth,
Recognizing that Mother Earth is a common expression for the planet earth in a number of countries and regions, which reflects the interdependence that exists among human beings, other living species and the planet we all inhabit.

A Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth was proposed on the same occasion, by the government of Bolivia. It may take decades before such a declaration is adopted, as was the case with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

Humans are on Earth temporarily. Our debts and possessions are temporary; they come and go. We need new understandings of them in order to live well while we are here.


Drew, Erin. 2016. “‘’Tis Prudence to Prevent Th’Entire Decay’: Usufruct and Environmental Thought.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 49, no. 2: 195–210.

Edgeworth, Brendan. 1988. “Post-Property? A Postmodern Conception of Private Property.” University of New South Wales Law Journal 11, no. 1: 87–116.

Newcomb, George B. 1886. “Theories of Property.” Political Science Quarterly 1, no. 4: 595–611.

Ørebech, Peter, Fred Bosselman, Jes Bjarup, David Callies, Martin Chanock, and Hanne Petersen. 2005. The Role of Customary Law in Sustainable Development. New York: Cambridge University Press.