Governing the environment: historical perspectives on socio-environmental property systems (Late 18th century-present, Europe, the U.S.A, the colonial and post-colonial worlds)

This project investigates the history of the environmental governance by means of property, from the late 18th century to the present, with a focus on three particular settings: Europe, the U.S.A. and the colonial and post-colonial worlds. We use this phrase to designate the range of practices, knowledge and devices which have served to govern the use of environments, by means of property, in three different ways: to organise their economic exploitation, to guarantee the availability and sustainability of resources, and to counter those effects of human activity judged deleterious (preservation, conservation, mitigation).

We will mobilise the historical method in order to analyse this specific form of environmental governance, its impact on ecosystems, the conflicts to which it gives rise, as well as its economic, social and political dimensions.

Our approach is underpinned by a broad conception of ‘property’. It views property systems as a range of institutions of a legal, technical, political, administrative and theoretical nature. For each specific context, these institutions interact to produce a bundle of rights and capabilities to take action over physical entities. This conception of ‘property’ matches the global methodological approach of GOVENPRO. It is based on the analysis of concrete historical cases in order to apprehend, beyond normative aspects, the complex processes brought about by property-based environmental governance.

The history of environmental governance by means of property has never been studied in itself. This project aims at analysing it systematically, in an overall approach marked by a long-range historical perspective. By articulating empirical research, global and comparative analysis, and theoretical reflections, we will illuminate an essential, and yet little-known, dimension of our societies’ environmental trajectory.

For this purpose GOVENPRO has brought together an international team (whose members are from France, USA, Holland and England) comprising a majority of historians, and also economists, anthropologists and political scientists.

The project has four scientific objectives:

(1) Modern states have long sought to influence the uses of nature through property, by employing such tools as servitudes on resources and protected areas, or arrangements using property rights on the living matter to protect biodiversity. Our 1st objective is to produce a global, multi-scale historical analysis of these public policy tools, thus illuminating a very ill-known side of the history of environmental public policies.

(2) Our 2nd objective is to shed a new light on the history of the environmental Commons, in western and (post-)colonial contexts, by analysing them with regard to (a) their socio-ecological dynamics (b) their interactions with states and local authorities (c) their integration in broader economical contexts (d) their present day uses as « tools » in development policies.

(3) A crucial means for governing environment is to organize or use the transformations of property regimes on resources and ecosystems. Our 3rd objective is to produce an environmental history of these property dynamics, in the XIXth and XXth centuries, by focusing on 4 types of process: (a) the incorporation of new socio-ecological entities in the realm of property; the processes of (b) extension of the domain of the State (c) concession (d) enclosure affecting ecosystems, territories, resources, organisms.

(4) From Adam Smith to Ronald Coase, the interaction between environment and property has provoked an intense theoretical output in the fields of economics, of law, of political thought and the life sciences. Our 4th objective is twofold. First, to produce a long-term, social and political history of these theories. Second, to make use of our empirical research to test those theories, very influential, developed by Douglass North and Elinor Ostrom.