Agrarian Justice?

This June marked 205 years since the death of Thomas Paine, which prompted me to think about Paine’s legacy and his relevance to contemporary politics.

From Common Sense, the pamphlet which strengthened American resolve to fight the British and continue the American Revolution to The Rights of Man, ‘the most widely read pamphlet in the movement for reform in Britain in the 1790s and for the opening decades of the nineteenth century’ (Philp, 2013), to his election to the French National Convention and prosecution for treason after he spoke against the execution of Louis XVI, Paine shaped the political landscape which we know today. Yet I believe that it is his final work, Agrarian Justice, which has the greatest relevance for our contemporary politics as it seeks to resolve the inherent tensions and problems regarding the use of finite natural resources.

Paine repeats throughout the text that the Earth belongs to all and ‘in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race’ (Ibid.: 325). This is because ‘earth, air, water’ (Ibid: 320) are the ‘legitimate birthright… [of] all individuals’ (Ibid.: 321). But despite this clear and continued support for the rights of all to their shared environment, Paine is also aware of the necessity of exclusive private ownership and the use, transformation and destruction of natural resources.  He argues that this system of ownership and use of resources is ‘a necessity’ as ‘without it there cannot be sustenance for more, perhaps than a tenth of its inhabitants’ (Ibid.: 324). Developing natural resources is, Paine argues, necessary if we wish to promote the quantity and quality of human life.  Furthermore, he also defends the rights of those who own and use natural resources – ‘while therefore I advocate the right and interest myself in the hard case of all those who have been thrown out of their natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property, I equally defend the right of the possessor to the part which is his’ (Ibid.: 326). Paine therefore recognises a dilemma with which contemporary environmentalists may be familiar – all humanity is dependent on our shared environment, yet the ownership, use and destruction of this natural world may be essential to our survival and to the quality of life which we can achieve.

Yet I would argue that Paine’s relevance to our current environmental politics does not rest on his recognition of this problem, but in his suggested solution. He suggests that all those who are ‘dispossessed of their natural inheritance’ to the environment should be compensated (Ibid.: 333).  This compensation would be funded by heavy tax levelled on landed property of over five hundred pounds, payable on the death of the property owner (Ibid.: 329 – 330, 333 – 355). The money raised in this way should, Paine argues, be shared amongst all in the form of a grant of fifteen pounds when an individual reaches twenty one and an ‘pension’ in the form of ‘the sum of ten pounds per annum during life, to every person now living of the age of fifty years and to all others as they shall arrive at that age’ (Ibid.: 327). Grants will also be given to those who are physically incapable of earning their own living (Ibid.: 331) but the initial payments should  ‘be made to every person, rich or poor’ (Ibid.: 327), as they reflect the rights of all to their environment.

Overall, in Agrarian Justice Paine is arguing that ‘every individual in the world is born therein with legitimate claims on a certain kind of property [in the environment] or its equivalent’ (Ibid.: 320), enabling the development and use of resources to take place without violating the environmental rights of others. This idea of environmental equivalents may not be a complete solution to the tensions of finite resources, the necessity or otherwise of development and property and the claims of all to the environment, but Paine is suggesting a way of thinking through these problems.  And, at the very least, Agrarian Justice shows that we are not the first to try to confront these issues.


Ashley Dodsworth, University of Leicester

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*


Paine, T., ‘Agrarian Justice’, 1797 in Kuklick, B., (ed.), Thomas Paine Political Writings, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000c), 320 – 338.

Philp, M., “Thomas Paine”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), accessed July 2014 at

‘Bonn Courage!’

Camilla Born, @camillaborn and Louisa Casson, @louisacasson

UK Youth Climate Coalition, @ukycc


In December 2015 the UN climate talks are on course to sign a global deal that puts us on course for avoiding unmanageable climate change. The mid-year conference in Bonn this month set the agenda for December’s Conference of the Parties (COP) in Peru. Relatively speaking things were actually quite positive in Bonn this time around – as long as we all pick up on the clues of where we need to take action.

  • The announcement from the US on power-plant regulations and the Chinese non-announcement (it was a bit of a teaser, nothing official yet) on coal capping, put things in a positive frame.
  • Severalstates and groups – Marshall Islands, Germany, Grenada, Norway, France (kind of), LDCs and AILAC – came out in favour of carbon neutrality. (See here for all you need to know on the technicalities of net zero but in short there is barely any chance of capping warming at 1.5C, maybe even 2C, without it).
  • Countries also started talking about adaptation much more productively. Adaptation is often sidelined in negotiations but it’s starting to become a pretty hot topic and about time too!
  • Procedural differences slowed things down when it came to nailing down the upfront information for the nationally determined contributions (i.e. commitments) but countries did get a chance to start sharing their opinions on what the information might include.


Nationally Determined contributions

These are the mitigation commitments that countries will put forward to the 2015 agreement.

The intended nationally determined contributions (iNDCs) are meant to be presented (for those ready to do so) by March 2015. The expectation had been that major economies like the EU, US and China would be ready by quarter 1 of 2015 but at the moment the US are the only actor firm on the deadline. Youth groups have already begun to campaign for more ambition in states’ iNDCs- UKYCC explained what’s going on in a quick video!

Up front information  

The info that the iNDCs need to feature includes the kind of ambition, timeline, and types of emissions will be covered in the mitigationtarget. One of the sticking points is whether the commitment period will be for 5 or 10 years. A 5 year agreement has the advantage of not locking in low ambition but a 10 year target can give more certainty for longer-term planning. A way around this is to make sure a 5 year period is done in mind of rolling commitments toward a long-term goal (like net-zero!). Developed countries generally recognise the need to adaptation and finance in the agreement overall – but don’t want them in the iNDCs.

The benefit of having adaptation and means of implementation (finance, technology transfer, capacity building) in iNDCS is that it could create more balance in the agreement and it brings these issues more firmly into the spotlight. However, it might have a negative effect on the legal standing of the contributions (we want mitigation to be as binding as possible) and make it difficult for developing countries to prepare these contributions in time.


Civil Society

Civil society came back to the negotiations following the walkout in Warsaw last year with a vengeance – volveremos! NGOs are starting to get organised and working pretty well together which is good too. The youth constituency was super active and everyone learnt and developed a huge amount.

It was particularly cool to see civil society engaging really pro-actively with net zero – with youth bringing moral authority to the often dreary world of climate policy.


Up next:

Ban Ki Moon UN Secretary General is hosting a summit in September for world leaders to come together and raise their game on climate change in New York. But there is no certainty leaders will go and there is no certainty they will actually have anything useful to say. The next formal negotiating session will be in October in Bonn again on the topic of the Paris deal (ADP). Hopefully at this point the upfront info will get sorted out so that countries have no excuse but to prepare their iNDCs. The ADP chairs are putting together a compilation of all the views on the agreement as a basis for this discussion.



*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*