Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How we got from there to here: Changing conceptions of property and the environment

Discussing my current research on water law in Mandate Palestine and the British Empire more broadly with my law school colleagues last week, I noted (and enjoyed) their surprise and amusement at discovering the gap between the way lawyers, economists, and others involved in environmental policy today think about efficient property regimes in natural resources and the way people did so a century ago.

While efficiency is today typically identified with private property and markets, in earlier times it was associated with expert control by public servants. The gap reflects more than a semantic shift in the use of "efficiency"; it reflects a deeper revolution in the assumptions that policymakers, scholars, and others bring to the table when thinking about markets, government, and the environment.

I've encountered similar reactions when talking about my earlier work on the appropriation doctrine in the water law of the western U.S. While "prior appropriation" is closely identified today with the idea of using markets to allocate natural resources to their most efficient uses, its origins were in a very different set of values, including widening the distribution of property and preventing corporate takeovers of natural resources.

Now using history to destabilize current assumptions and conceptions can be stimulating, entertaining, and sometimes even useful. But I'd like to know more about not just what people thought and did in the past, but how we got from there to here. In the case of Mandate Palestine, I have some initial thoughts about how a belief in the advantages of private property in water began to take shape, but I have yet to form an opinion on the extent to which this process was local or rather part of a broader phenomenon. In the rest of the world, how did we get from the Progressive-era efficiency of state control to the efficiency of markets in regulating the environment? Echoing Sarah's post from last week, what does environmental history have to teach us about this change? How can environmental history, economic history, legal history, and intellectual history help us (and each other) make sense of how and why we think about property and the environment the ways we do?

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