Legal Values: Property, the Environment, and Equality

Quick Info
(3593E.03)  Seminar
Professor J. Nedelsky
3 credit(s)  2 hour(s);
Seminar, discussion
Upper Year Research & Writing Requirement

Property is at the heart of economic institutions, beliefs about freedom and security, and people’s understanding of their relationship to the Earth. The focus of this course is (1) understanding the role of property law in harm to the environment and in human relations of inequality and (2) exploring alternatives to the norms and legal forms of property.  To do this, we will integrate analysis of political theory, legal theory, legal history, case law, environmental policy, and issues such as housing and homelessness.  This course will explore the connections between property law and beliefs basic to the economic and political systems of common law countries. For example, we will look at how property law expresses and maintains assumptions about human superiority to other life forms, and the links between those beliefs and settler colonialism.  We will (briefly) look at the legal history of property to understand evolving structures of power and inequality, and the role of property law in that evolution. Legal history provides a perspective that allows us to see that beliefs and practices dominant today have not existed from “time immemorial.” This then sets the stage for examining viable alternatives to existing property structures. In exploring those alternatives, we will look to Indigenous law, comparative law, and the potential for existing legal concepts like “trust” to be re-purposed. We will look at issues of human inequality and the ways they are interwoven with environmental harm. Hierarchies among humans and between humans and the Earth (with humans at the top of a pyramid of life forms) are interconnected through property law. Because property is so embedded in institutions and norms, transformation will require a deep rethinking of core beliefs. We will look at some of the resources for re-envisioning property and the values associated with it. In addition to Indigenous teachings (including learning from the land), these include:  the invocation of spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and Christianity, to promote care for the earth; theories of the role of competition vs cooperation in evolution and contemporary “human nature;” the importance of nature for human health. Specific topics will include: property and settler colonialism; animals as legal beings; learning to care for the earth; the history of exclusion from the land; the importance of “place” in assessing loss of property; the idea of all land held in trust for the earth community, present and future; the power and threat of the myth of absolute rights of property; property, poverty, and homelessness.