Justice and the Earth

The experience of buying a farm in rural Champaign County, Illinois, afforded law professor Eric T. Freyfogle the opportunity to rethink some assumptions about land ownership and use. Freyfogle examines the economics of overuse, which have encouraged many landowners to choose short-term profits over the long-term health of the land. By ignoring the full costs of pollution, erosion, or environmental degradation, a landowner may profit while the indirect environmental costs are passed on to others. Market pressures alone will not promote an environmental ethic, Freyfogle argues, since the free market is value-free and rewards the ethical and unethical alike.

Freyfogle reviews a recent environmental dispute involving a New Jersey developer’s attempt to fill fourteen acres of state-protected coastal wetlands, a case that pitted the rights of landowners against the need to protect threatened ecosystems. The legal notion of nature as property does not easily lend itself to environmental restrictions that may reduce the value of the land. Freyfogle insists that it is a simplification to focus entirely on the rights of the owner without considering the need to protect the health of the entire ecosystem. He argues that humans need an environmental ethic of self-restraint that will preserve the remaining wilderness and maintain the health and sustainability of cultivated land. The language of law will need to expand in the future in order to balance property rights against the rights of nature. Legal and political boundaries should correspond with watersheds; landuse practices should be defined by the carrying capacity of the land; development should aim to protect the integrity of ecosystems.

Restoring his own neglected farm to health has taught Freyfogle the elemental lesson of land stewardship: We hold the land in trust for future generations. Legal concepts of land ownership must expand in order to view human life as within and not apart from nature. JUSTICE AND THE EARTH examines how environmental concerns can improve accepted laws and practices of land ownership.