The Pathology of Property Norms: Living Within Nature's Boundaries

Southern California Law Review, Vol. 73, 2000

William & Mary Law School Legal Research Paper No. 09-327

90 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2015

Date Written: 2000


The institution of property plays a critical role in defining a society’s relationship with its foundation ecosystem. The traditional American system primarily promotes the norms of individualism and autonomy. While this focus worked well when resources were abundant and ecosystems healthy, the traditional system fails to give serious consideration to connections between property rights, use of natural resources, and ecosystem health. Because of the rights-based nature of resource allocation systems and the rights-sensitive nature of ecosystem management programs, traditional property norms have led to escalating land and water use and ineffective resource management over the long term. Property norms have influenced the scales and the types of integrity considered in land use decision-making in ways that are now seriously harming ecosystem health. What is needed is a reevaluation of property norms to incorporate greater accountability for the impacts of property use on ecological integrity. Property rights in land should reflect the ecological and landscape dimensions of land use, not just the individual owner’s personal and economic integrity. The spatial and temporal scales of use should be built into definitions of property rights and obligations. The goal should be a holistic and more adaptive system of property that provides behavioral incentives to protect the interests of the greater good in ecological and system integrity, not just the self-interests of the individual property owner.

Keywords: property rights, property norms, ecosystem management, ecological integrity, land use

Suggested Citation

Butler, Lynda L., The Pathology of Property Norms: Living Within Nature's Boundaries (2000). William & Mary Law School Legal Research Paper No. 09-327. Available at SSRN:

Lynda L. Butler (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States

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