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Forthcoming in Hugh Lafolette (ed) International Encyclopedia of Ethics
Natural Resource Ownership
Chris Armstrong
For Hugh LaFollette (ed) International Encyclopedia of Ethics
The category of natural resources is commonly taken to comprise anything - whether matter
or energy – which is potentially useful to human beings, but which was not created by human
beings. All of us require some land to stand upon, air to breathe, and water to drink, and in
that sense natural resources are key to human survival. Moreover - though doing so is not
always easy - individuals or communities lucky enough to command larger than average
supplies of valuable resources such as oil or gold may manage to convert their good fortune
into great wealth. Because the ownership of natural resources can be so consequential for
peoples’ wellbeing, philosophers have argued for centuries about just how the pattern of
resource ownership ought, morally speaking, to be constrained. This essay aims to provide an
overview of debates about the justice or injustice of patterns of resource ownership. First, we
consider ongoing debates about the circumstances in which individual agents can come to be
the owners of the world’s natural resources. Second, we consider the way in which arguments
about natural resource ownership have come to play an important role in more recent debates
about the territorial rights of states.
Justice and Resource Ownership
Since natural resources are not created by any of us, it has often been argued that no-one has
any greater initial claim to their ownership or use than anyone else (see e.g. Risse 2012).
Unlike the artefacts we create through our own labour, natural resources do not come into the
world already ‘attached’ to particular people, so to speak. Among seventeenth-century
philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, or Grotius, it was a commonplace that natural resources
were created for the enjoyment of humankind but not for the enjoyment of any particular
person. In recognition of that fact, some constraint would need to be placed on how many of
the world’s resources any one person could convert into their own personal property. That
constraint would operate as a moral and perhaps legal ‘proviso’ on the appropriation of the
world’s natural resources.
Such a thought has continued to resonate in recent debates within political philosophy. To
contemporary left-libertarians, for instance, the world’s natural resources represent (at least in
their bare, unimproved state) a distinctive currency for egalitarian justice (see JUSTICE,
EGALITARIANISM). Although people do have strong individual claims over the social
products they create for themselves, natural resources are the only objects in the world to
which no-one has any special claim, and the only objects which might need to be
redistributed if their ownership became unduly skewed. Questions about natural resource
ownership also play a central role within contemporary debates about the nature and
justification of territorial rights (see below) and within debates about climate justice (where
scholars ask, for instance: who should be taken to own the absorptive capacity of carbon
sinks such as the world’s forests, or its oceans?) (see CLIMATE CHANGE).
One of the most famous and influential discussions of natural resource ownership appeared in
John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government of 1689 (see LOCKE, JOHN). In that essay
Locke presented an argument for the permissibility and indeed the usefulness of private
ownership over the world’s resources. When individual appropriators make particular
resources into their own property, then – at least in the case of rivalrous goods - they thereby
deprive others of the ability to become owners of the same objects. Nevertheless
appropriation can be beneficial even for the excluded, if giving appropriators an interest in
the improvement of the world’s resources acts as a stimulus to useful economic activity. No-
one in particular has an interest in expending time or money in improving or conserving
resources which are held in common for the rewards would then be reaped by all.
Individual owners, by contrast, would have an interest in improvement, since they would reap
the benefits alone. For this reason, a system of private property in resources is superior to
alternatives such as joint ownership in which we all have a stake in the world’s resources,
and individual acts of appropriation, if permitted, must be sanctioned by all or non-
ownership – in which the world’s resources remain available to all, but appropriable by none.
Even if a regime of private property in at least some resources is justified, however, three
questions remain to be answered. A first question is how particular external assets can come
to be appropriated. In order to make objects our property must we improve or otherwise alter
them? Or it is enough to factor control over those objects into our personal projects, for
instance? Locke’s answer to that questionthat since we own our own labour, we must also
own any objects we ‘mix’ our labour with has been widely criticised. But there must be
some agreed means by which agents are permitted to stake claims over this or that resource.
A second question is which property rights an act of appropriation justifies. Scholars have
often assumed that acts of appropriation get us something akin to ‘full liberal ownership’
(Honoré 1987). But conceivably, they might justify some set of property rights short of full
ownership (Armstrong 2015). A third question is within which moral limits we are to be
permitted to appropriate the world’s resources. It cannot be the case, at least on most
philosophical views, that individual acts of appropriation are to be morally unconstrained. If
no proviso on appropriation were applied, in principle we could end up with a scenario in
which one person owned the entire world of external objects, leaving others unable to
improve or interact with those objects without the owner’s express permission. The owner in
question could then name his or her price for access to the world’s resources including
resources which are, as we have noted, essential to human survival.
But if appropriation is to be somehow limited, what are the appropriate limits? The so-called
‘Lockean proviso’ suggests that appropriation is permissible for so long as ‘enough and as
good’ resources remain available for others to appropriate themselves. Whether Locke in fact
intended this famous proviso to act as a substantial constraint on appropriation remains
controversial (Waldron 1979). So too do its practical implications if so. On one view, the
proviso is so ambiguous as to be devoid of any determinate implications at all (Fried 2004:
84). Either way, it has certainly been taken as the point of inspiration by philosophers seeking
to defend quite different normative conclusions.
Robert Nozick’s argument in Anarchy, State and Utopia (Nozick 1974) is one well-known
example. The account Nozick defends is a ‘libertarian’ one (see LIBERTARIANISM).
Libertarians treat property rights as morally basic, not least insofar as they serve to protect
individual liberty. Notably, libertarians emphasise the moral significance of ‘self-ownership’
– an idea which picks out the fundamental property rights we each have in our own persons.
Right-libertarians believe, moreover, that our individual appropriation of external resources
should be relatively unconstrained. Like Locke, Nozick emphasised the socio-economic
benefits of a regime in which private appropriation, compared to alternatives in which natural
resources are, for instance, held in common. If a system of private property leaves no-one
worse off than they would be under a scenario in which there was no private property in
natural resources then, Nozick claimed, there could be no objection to its introduction. Given
the familiar economic advantages of the free market, he suggested, this proviso is unlikely to
be violated in practice (1974: 182). Nozick’s ‘proviso’ has been the subject of considerable
critical discussion. Even if the introduction of a regime of private property in resources does
not make me materially worse off, for example, the transition to a world in which most
resource are owned by a few might represent a serious loss to my autonomy (Cohen 1995,
Otsuka 2003). It may be a necessary part of the justification of a regime of private property to
show that it leaves everyone at least as well off as they were under the system it replaced (i.e.,
a system of joint or common ownership). But a whole variety of regimes of private property
are conceivable, including regimes in which inequalities are limited through taxation, say. For
a particular regime of private property to be fully justified, it might be thought relevant to
ask whether it performs better than all alternative systems in advancing the interests of those
subjected to it, and not merely whether it performs better than a system in which private
ownership is forbidden. If there are alternative or accessible alternative regimes which
perform still better when it comes to advancing peoples’ wellbeing, it is not obvious why we
should not choose them instead.
Note that some right-libertarians favour an even more permissive position on appropriation
than did Nozick. In fact, some appear to believe that justice places no constraint upon private
appropriation whatsoever; there would indeed be no objection, from the point of view of
justice, if one person appropriated all of the world’s resources. It is rather difficult to see,
however, how such a situation would promote the value of individual liberty which is
supposed to be the lodestone of libertarian views. If one person is allowed to own the entirety
of the world’s resources, then our self-ownership is compatible, somewhat paradoxically,
‘with its being the case that some persons have no right to breathe the air they need to live or
to stand on any place on Earth…or even to occupy with their bodies the physical space that
their bodies must occupy’ (Arneson 2010: 172). Those who do own the land, or the air, could
name their own conditions for allowing us to do so. So much for our liberty if so.
An would be to stipulate some kind of basic floor principle. For instance, we might forbid
appropriation of resources whenever that appropriation leaves others unable to meet their
basic rights. Such a constraint could be defended as part of a ‘moderate’ version of
libertarianism (Wendt 2017), though it is unlikely to be attractive to right-libertarians who
doubt that we possess any duty, whether positive or negative, to ensure that others’ basic
needs are provided for. Why might a basic rights constraint nevertheless be attractive to some
libertarians? One argument might be that, if the justification for defending a strong right to
private property is that it allows individuals to securely pursue personal projects, then it
would be counter-intuitive to tolerate a situation in which some people, simply because they
lacked access even to the most modest shares of resources, were unable to pursue any
projects at all. A regime of private property justified on such a basis must allow all
individuals to actually live as project-pursuers (Wendt 2017). This would require, at the very
least, that basic rights to food, shelter and housing should be secure.
But a basic rights proviso has appeal beyond libertarianism, where it intersects with
sufficientarian views on justice. For instance, it has also been defended within recent (non-
libertarian) accounts of global justice. On Mathias Risse’s theory, for instance, a country’s
right to exclude outsiders from accessing domestic natural resources is undermined when
those outsiders are otherwise unable to meet their basic rights with the resources available to
them (Risse 2012). This is because Risse defends a version of common ownership of the
world’s resources in which we retain at all times the right to use the world’s resources to
support our own survival. Even if states with plentiful resources are generally justified in
turning away potential immigrants, they are not justified in doing so, therefore, if the
consequence will be that those would-be immigrants perish through a lack of resources. But a
basic rights constraint could of course have implications beyond qualifying a state’s right to
exclude outsiders. Even within the borders of a community, individuals might be justified in
taking natural resources from their erstwhile owners if their basic rights were at stake.
Contemporary defenders of the very old idea of a ‘right of necessity’ believe that the claims
of the deprived can trump the prerogatives of owners in these circumstances (Mancilla 2016).
Thomas Pogge has developed another argument connecting resource ownership with the
fulfilment of basic rights. On this view, resource extraction by the advantaged is unjust if it
occurs in the face of severe poverty elsewhere (see WORLD POVERTY). This is because we
are all co-owners of the world’s resources in at least some minimal sense. All must benefit at
least to some small extent, therefore, from their appropriation and use. Individuals or
companies ought to be required to pay a minimal tax – a Global Resource Dividendaimed
at combating severe poverty whenever they extract resources. The proceeds would be
enough, on Pogge’s calculations, to eradicate severe poverty worldwide (Pogge 2002; for
objections, see Haubrich 2004, and Hayward 2005).
More demanding still than either right-libertarian or basic rights constraints would be some
form of egalitarian constraint on appropriation. So-called ‘left-libertarians’ defend a right to
self-ownership but couple that right with a defence of equal individual ownership of the
world’s natural resources. Our equal stake in the world’s resources might be unpacked in
various ways. We might forbid people from appropriating beyond such a point where their
opportunity for welfare outstripped that available to others (Otsuka 2003, Vallentyne 2012).
Or we might stipulate that all of the world’s individuals are entitled to appropriate an equal
per capita share by market value of the world’s resources (Steiner 1994). In either case, to
appropriate more than an equal share would constitute a violation of others’ rights to the
fruits of the earth. Hillel Steiner argues when some appropriate a greater than equal share of
the world’s resources, they must in consequence compensate others by paying a tax on their
surplus appropriation - with the tax reflecting the full market value of the surplus (see
TAXATION). The revenues from such a tax would suffice for the creation of a Global Fund,
and the proceeds could then fund a universal basic income (see BASIC INCOME) or a basic
capital grant for all. Such ideas resonate with the arguments of Thomas Paine in the
eighteenth century. Paine argued that a tax levied on the unimproved value of land should be
used to fund a form of basic income (Paine 1987).
There are also well-known arguments for egalitarian constraints upon natural resource
ownership which arise from outside of the libertarian tradition. Within debates on global
justice (see GLOBAL DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE), one influential argument suggested that
the distribution of the world’s resource across countries is mere happenstance from the point
of view of those countries. Cases of conquest aside, no country, after all, can claim to be
responsible for the fact that it controls more rather than less crude oil, or more rather than less
gold or iron ore. Nevertheless, the haphazard distribution of resources appears to leave some
countries advantaged with respect to economic development, and others disadvantaged. To
ensure that all countries possessed the ability to achieve effective institutions and fulfil the
rights of their members, a global resource tax might be required (Beitz 1979; see also Barry
On both this view and the left-libertarian one, natural resources are distinctive insofar as we
have no special claims over them in their original or unimproved state as may not be the
case with other goods. More recent egalitarian views have questioned, however, whether
natural resources are genuinely distinctive in this respect, given that there may be many other
goods over which we turn out to have no sound special claims. For instance, we appear to
stand in the same relationship with social or cultural capital built up by our ancestors as we
do to natural resources: these assets are immensely valuable, and can impact significantly
upon our life-chances, but no-one living can claim to have had a hand in creating them. If the
parallel holds, natural resources ought to be treated in much the same manner as other sources
of advantage and disadvantage (Armstrong 2017).
That claim might turn out to be important, since arguments for the egalitarian redistribution
of resource value alone stands prey to a significant objection. Contrary to Beitz’s assumption,
shares in natural resources often turn out to correlate quite poorly with overall levels of
wealth or indeed advantage more broadly construed. In fact, as political economists have
repeatedly observed, countries with deficits in social or economic capital, or weak political
institutions, not only frequently fail to convert natural resource wealth into economic growth,
but are often plagued by political conflict and cycles of poor governance. A consequence of
this is that plans to redistribute wealth from countries which are natural resource-rich to
countries which are resource poor would see funds flowing from some of the poorest
countries in the world to some of the wealthiest. From an egalitarian point of view this would
be a highly regressive move. One way of avoiding that unfortunate implication would be to
argue that we ought to allocate funds to countries which were disadvantaged overall, and not
only to those which happen to have relatively meagre shares of natural resources. Another
would be to argue that any global taxes should be raised not on the basis of a community’s
natural resource wealth considered in isolation, but on the basis of some broader index of
advantage. Taxes on natural resources in particular can sometimes have welcome effects, but
are best seen as part of a broader package of measures intended to achieve global justice
(Armstrong 2017). Moreover, if countries (and especially countries with weak institutions)
are often ‘cursed,’ rather than blessed, by significant resource endowments, we have reason to
investigate parallel measures such as proposals for greater transparency in the resource
trade which display promise in subverting the curse and hence ensuring that resource
wealth works for the benefit of ordinary citizens.
Resource Ownership and State Sovereignty
For the most part, the discussion of natural resource ownership in large part inspired by
Locke has sought to establish the moral limits to individual appropriation. But when we pull
our focus up to the global level, we will immediately observe that decisions about resource
ownership for instance, whether there is to be a regime of common ownership, private
ownership, or some mixture of both – are made for the most part by individual states. Under
the international legal doctrine of ‘permanent sovereignty,’ natural resources are held to be
both the property, and subject to the jurisdiction, of the particular nation-states in which they
occur. These resource rights are often taken to be one of the core elements of a state’s
territorial rights - alongside the right to control borders, and the right to exercise jurisdiction
within a particular territory (Miller 2012).
But as Beitz (1979) pointed out, this doctrine can have major distributive implications,
vesting countries with widely divergent shares of resource wealth. What, if anything, might
justify the assumption that states ought to hold these rights over domestic natural resources?
After all, we can imagine a scenario in which states exercised core functions without
possessing exclusive ownership of, or jurisdiction over, local natural resources. This is a topic
to which philosophers have until recently devoted surprisingly little attention (Simmons
2016: 148). In recent years, however, there has been a substantial reawakening of interest in
the normative basis and content of states’ territorial rights. Within the emergent literature on
territorial rights (see TERRITORIAL RIGHTS), the claims of states to enjoy ownership over
domestic resources has now become a topic of lively debate.
An apparently simple solution to the puzzle of why states ought to enjoy rights over domestic
natural resources would be to argue that the territorial rights of states at least those
territorial rights which are ostensibly property-like in nature - are simply an aggregation of
the property rights of individuals who have consented to join those communities. On an
individualist Lockean theory, for example, individuals with property holdings might form
communities with people adjacent to them, and over time large communities could result
communities which would have rights over the whole territory comprised of the individual
property-holdings of members. If those individuals happened to be the rightful owners of
local resources, the state might then come legitimately to exercise rights over all of those
resources. Though it is a simple and elegant theory, critics have doubted whether such an
account is capable of justifying anything like the contemporary pattern of state territorial
rights. One problem is the issue of ‘holes.’ It is perfectly possible that, whilst most people in
an area will consent to join a particular community, some dissenters will not. The resulting
territory might then have gaps; and those who live in those gaps might find their freedom of
movement severely restricted. Second, there are questions about how robustly territorial
rights might persist if they are generated by individual labouring. On Simmons’s view, the
land in question must be actively lived and laboured on if property rights are to persist
(Simmons 2016: 116). But this too could have the implication that potentially large tracts of a
community’s territory could cease to be their property over time. More importantly, perhaps –
and this is either a problem of the theory, or an attractive feature, depending on your view – it
is worth noting that this theory does not in fact appear to support the generation of property
rights on the part of the state or society. Rather, individual citizens remain the owners rather
the community as a whole (Simmons 2016: 118). As such, it is not obvious why individual
property-owners should be prevented from ceasing to be members of the community if they
so choose, and (metaphorically, rather than literally) taking their property with them if so
(Steiner 1996). The consensus, then, is that the individual voluntarist account of
contemporary Lockeans is highly unlikely to justify anything approaching the robust
territorial rights enjoyed by contemporary states. Some defenders of the theory, of course,
might be happy with that conclusion, arguing that the sweeping resource rights claimed by
states under international law cannot be justified (Simmons 2016).
An alternative approach would maintain that states ought to be the bearers of substantial
resource rights because holding those rights is necessary for their performance of valuable
social and political functions. A variety of relevant functions have been suggested. For
instance, it might be that resource rights are required in order that local communities can
exercise discretion over how resources are to be used and regulated, given that decisions here
could have a significant impact on the quality of the local environment; or it might be that
states require resource rights in order to be in a position to enforce justice and to meet the
basic needs of their citizens; or it might be that resource rights are simply a necessary
component of states’ self-determination (for related arguments, see for instance Stilz 2011,
Nine 2012, Moore 2015).
According to critics, however, such arguments have limited potential to justify states’
resource rights. First, each of these functions might be performed with a set of rights
somewhat short of the full complement of rights assured by the practice of permanent
sovereignty. Second, these arguments might provide reasons why states ought to enjoy
jurisdictional rights to govern resource use within a territory; but it is less clear why they
demand that states, or even their citizens, must be the owners of (all of) those resources, as
opposed to some subset of local resources. Third, environmental integrity, basic rights or self-
determination might each be most effectively secured if we share resource rights across state
borders at least to some degree, rather than vesting them exclusively with individual states
(Armstrong 2017). And fourth, even if these functionalist arguments did provide plausible
grounds for states’ ownership of some natural resources, it is not always obvious that they
provide an argument for ownership of the particular resources which happen to fall within
their borders (Simmons 2016: 96). These problems suggest that the functionalist argument
will also struggle to justify resource rights anything like as extensive as those currently
reserved for them under international law.
A distinct set of arguments seeks to ground resource rights not in the functions that states
perform, but in the relationship between national communities and local natural resources.
Two kinds of relationship might be thought important here. On the one hand, national
communities might have laboured over local resources and in so doing improved them. If so,
describing those improved resources as in some sense available for global redistribution is to
do a disservice to the claims of locals (Miller 2012). On the other hand, it might be that
national communities have become attached to local resources, for instance in the sense that
their identities as communities are rooted in a specific mode of interaction with those
resources (Miller 2012). If so, to wrest resources from the control of local communities might
leave them alienated from their environments, or struggling to understand themselves as the
same communities. In response to nationalist arguments, critics have suggested that both
improvement and attachment are likely to have an uneven range, suggesting a close link
between national communities and some resources but not others. Although special claims
from improvement and attachment might have moral force, they will not suffice to justify the
current regime of thoroughgoing resource rights claimed by nation-states (Armstrong 2015).
This brief survey of recent debates has only sketched the complex theoretical issues at stake.
A number of important issues remain to be resolved, and I will close by commenting briefly
on two of them. First, even if permanent sovereignty over natural resources (or something
like it) can be vindicated, an important question remains concerning the agent of sovereign
rights over resources. Should states be seen to hold resource rights in their own right? Or are
they merely the agents of ‘the people,’ who reserve the right to make decisions about resource
use? On some accounts, citizens are morally entitled to exercise a kind of popular sovereignty
over domestic resources. But if ‘popular resource sovereignty’ is to become a reality, it will
demand greater public involvement in decisions about resource use, and the sale of resources,
than has often been the case in practice. This in turn might have important implications for
practices such as international trade. For if it is the people, as opposed to their governments,
who are the ultimate owners of natural resources, it surely cannot be legitimate for
unaccountable rulers to sell those resources and to keep the proceeds for themselves. Perhaps
then, in deference to popular resource sovereignty, outsiders ought to cease purchasing
natural resources from countries where minimal standards of ‘public accountability’ are not
met, such that citizens are aware of sales, and able to object to them without suffering severe
costs (Wenar 2016). An embargo on buying resources from dictators might encourage greater
accountability in general, and encourage the more equitable sharing of resource revenues.
Recent proposals for greater transparency in the resource trade might make further progress
in this direction.
A second important question concerns the external scope, if any, of states’ claims to natural
resources. We have seen that states’ rights to the resources inside their own borders are
contested. But how should we think about the many valuable natural resources which fall
outside of the borders of any state? In this category we could include the atmosphere, the fish
of the high seas, the mineral resources found in or on the seabed, or the petrochemical wealth
or biodiversity to be found in the Polar regions. Here, the story which connects resource
rights to the functions of the state does not appear to apply. Should individual agents be
permitted to appropriate these resources, and if so, under what constraints? Should they be
brought under the control of individual states as has happened with the resources of
Exclusive Economic Zones adjacent to states’ coastlines? Or should they be considered the
common property of all of humankind, with any benefits from their exploitation being shared
more broadly? Contemporary philosophical debates on these issues are still at an early stage
(see e.g. Nine 2013, Moore 2015, Armstrong 2017). But it does appear that the standard
justifications for the territorial rights of states appear ill-suited to justifying state rights over
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