Jonathan H. Adler has a post over at The Commons about how we might interpret the classic Dr. Suess tale of The Lorax (full text).
He drills it. The reason that the situation ends in tragedy is not the greed of the Once-ler or the consumer society that buys up the thneeds. The reason, in fact, is that the Truffula trees are part of the commons, unowned. As one of the commenters at The Commons points out, someone who wanted to make money would have managed the forest of Truffula trees, not chopping them all down. But if the Once-ler had done that, someone else would have chopped the trees down instead of him. There would be no legal recourse against anyone who did this since the trees are not owned by anyone.
Ergo, property rights and private stewardship are the key to environmental protection.
It’s a conclusion that leads to institutions like The Nature Conservancy, whereby you can designate that land is not to be developed or used by humans, by donating the actual land or giving money to buy such land. Preservation has a price, in other words.
There is something peculiar about this, however. If I acquire some land and decide to donate it to the Nature Conservancy, is the guarantee that this land will never, ever be “developed” for the rest of human history, at least as long as the Nature Conservancy is around?
This same issue of legacy comes up in a myriad of other places (Social Security, the estate tax). It’s not a novel idea, either – The Odyssey largely deals with the idea of fame and going down in history and leaving your mark on the world for future generations to see.
If the up-front price that I pay to buy a piece of land entitles me to determine its use for the rest of the Earth’s lifespan, I’d say I should be buying up all the land I can get.