Locke’s account of property is uniquely influential in its vision of a particular sort of relationship between human beings and the landscapes they inhabit. His position is reputed to be an ideological source of environmental domination and degradation, due to its affirmation of private property rights over communal goods (not to mention non-human interests). In the sense that Locke is often cited in defense of the supremacy of private property this reputation is not undeserved—though in my view it represents a deeply constrained reading of his view. (I discuss his argument at length in my contribution to the new book Engaging Nature—see “Further reading” below.) I will not go into the details of my critique of the standard reading of Locke here. Rather, I want simply to point to a crucial insight in Locke’s understanding of property, which allows us to interpret his view as a key source for a political understanding of habitation.
The insight I have in mind is actually rooted in the companion work to the Second Treatise—the First Treatise of Civil Government. There, for reasons to do with his political commitments, he disputes the reading of the famous “dominion” passage (Genesis i.28) as proof of a grant of the Earth to Adam personally, arguing instead that the grant is to Adam and his descendants, i.e. all of humanity. Locke interprets the passage as “the setting of mankind above the other kinds of creatures, in this habitable earth of ours” (First Treatise, §40, emph. added). Indeed, Locke believes there is a hierarchical moral structure in Creation. But the point I’d like to emphasize is this: for Locke that moral hierarchy is linked to the earth’s habitability. Earth’s bare habitability—what makes it physically possible that human beings can inhabit the earth as living organisms—is based in the presence of the animals, plants, and other materials in the environment that human beings can eat or use in other ways. But Locke has a moral point in mind here: human beings are justified in making use of their environment: the earth is habitable not just in a physical sense, but in a moral sense as well.
That general possibility of survival that the earth embodies must be actualized, however—in both a moral and a physical sense. In Chapter 5 of the Second Treatise Locke argues that labor accomplishes that actualization, in both senses. Morally, it is through the application of his or her own body to the task of gaining survival that an individual gains an entitlement to a particular item in the world. Without that personal investment of labor the generalized entitlement has no practical effect. Physically, labor involves the rearrangement of the environment to make it directly suited to the individual’s organic needs. Thus, most simply, the apple on the tree does not contribute to survival—that function is realized through the labor of picking it. In both the moral and physical senses of must, that is, human beings must transform the earth to realize earth’s habitability.
I do not offer this reading of Locke on the view that it is without serious flaws. But I do think attention to the insight I mentioned allows for an interpretation of his position that makes it much more environmentally sensitive than is commonly thought. More fundamentally, I think that it allows us to read Locke as providing an example of how to politically theorize habitation—of how to place the human activity of transforming the environment at the center of political concern. Needless to say many will reject specific features of Locke’s account. In light of what it tries to account for, in my view, it remains valuable nonetheless.
Cambridge University Press. There is an enormous literature on Locke’s account of property; this work is the one that most influenced my reading.