The Culture of Owning


Answer the following questions based off the reading. Should the Polluter Pays principle still apply today? Why or why not? What are your views about the harm-benefit test? How can the do no harm rule improve nature today? This article published in 2005 by Eric T. Freyfogle is about land ownership in the United States and how we as Americans, our concept on property rights have changed or evolved since colonial times. Freyfogle begins by talking about the Dust Bowl, a period of time in the 1930’s where severe dust storms damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies. The Dust Bowl also brought on severe drought wind erosion. The drought came in three waves, 1934, 1936 and 1939-1940. Some areas experienced a drought for eight years. Bad farming practice and land use were contributors to the Dust Bowl. Another cause was the fact that private property rights gave landowners the freewill to use or misuse their land and the right to be left alone. Efforts to control soil erosion gained ground through the 1980’s, as did the creation of wildlife habitats.

There were many other measures to protect the land as well like the Wilderness Act, floodplain protection ordinances, costal-zone development restrictions, and pollution/pesticide laws. All had seen much success until the 1990’s when the laws began to be challenged. Former Vice President Dan Quayle thought that those who harmed the environment, should be held responsible. The “Polluter pays” principle required polluters to either compensate for the damage they cause or purchase the technology needed to control it. Landowners strongly resisted taking responsibility for the polluted runoff from their land. They did not want to be held accountable for destroying wildlife habitats, altering the flow of water or letting their top soil slide in to water reservoirs. They argued that complying with the environmental laws infringed on their right to make a profitable use of their land. The landowners came up with their own rebuttal called the harm-benefit test. Basically, under this test, a landowner uses their property to benefit the population. If the population benefits, they should have to pay for it. Thus now, we have farmers expecting payments from government programs and such when they comply with the things in place that reduce development and the conservation of wildlife habitats. The American right to property has had so many different meanings and variations over time. These rights to property have never included the harming of others. The do no harm rule commanded that landowners cause no harm to other landowners or the surrounding community. With this rule, however, lawmakers have given varied content. What one sees as harmful, another may not, so that fight continues. In recent years, the law has allowed landowners to alter nature freely. As we have learned in class, altering nature can be harmful to everyone. Freyfogle ended the article by stating that we would be good to remember the Dust Bowl and the failure of the generation then in charge to foster new ideas of ownership. Property law and land use are not separate entities. We should want to live in healthy places, while not infringing upon a landowner’s right to do with their land as they see fit.  

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