Does Sustainability Require a New Theory of Property Rights?

51 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2009 Last revised: 2 Jun 2014

See all articles by Carl J. Circo

Carl J. Circo

University of Arkansas - School of Law

Date Written: May 5, 2009


By demanding stewardship of natural capital over exploitation, sustainability envisions a property regime less committed to individual property rights than are the traditional and economic theories of property. While the traditional property theories of Blackstone, Locke, and U.S. constitutional doctrine tolerate restrictions on private property rights for the sake of public welfare, they resist the strongest versions of sustainability, which promote generational and social justice. Similarly, an economic analysis of property recognizes the values of resource conservation and welfare for future generations, but only to the limited extent the economist can calculate future value. As a result, economic analysis may overlook or undervalue the interests of remote generations. Moreover, the goal of a more egalitarian distribution of resources, which informs the social justice model of sustainability theory, runs counter to the dominant economic analysis of property. Only relational principles at the fringes of property theory in the United States can fully embrace the strongest versions of sustainability. Thus, absent an unlikely theoretical revolution in the U.S., the sustainable development agenda cannot succeed in this country at the level required by the international community.

Keywords: sustainability, sustainable development, property theory, property rights

JEL Classification: K11, K32

Suggested Citation

Circo, Carl J., Does Sustainability Require a New Theory of Property Rights? (May 5, 2009). Kansas Law Review, Vol. 58, No. 1, 2009, Available at SSRN: or

Carl J. Circo (Contact Author)

University of Arkansas - School of Law ( email )

Fayetteville, AR 72701
United States
479.575.2714 (Phone)
479.575.3320 (Fax)

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