Organisation - May 16, 2013

Ownership

This month the eight polar countries are getting together in the Arctic Council to discuss the future of the North Pole. More and more countries are seeking a say on the region in the hope that they can then share the pickings when it come to exploitation of its underground resources, for instance. So who has a say and who does the melting icecap belong to, actually?

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The subject of ownership and property has occupied great minds over many centuries. Thomas Aquinas stated back in the 13th century that private property comes with responsibilities and unavoidable cares. Common property, on the other hand, can easily lead to misuse and over-exploitation, a process that came to be known as the Tragedy of the Commons. Air pollution and overfishing are two obvious examples. The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) linked the concept of property to that of labour. He stated that God gave the world to all humanity in common, but that anything created through your own labour is yours. In other words: a tree belongs to everyone but if you make a table out of it, that is yours.
In spite of all these theories, I am continually reminded of the famous 1854 speech of Chief Seattle. What do you mean by ownership and property? His speech was a response to the bid by the American government to buy the land of the Duwamish Indians. Is that possible, Seattle asked his white audience. 'If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?'
Haven't we learned anything?  

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