How can Locke help with today’s crises?

By Dr. Eloise Harding, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Southampton


John Locke might seem like an unlikely historical figure to turn to for help with environmental and social crises: after all, many popular interpretations of his arguments posit him as the theoretical ancestor of unfettered accumulation, dedicated to extracting the maximum productive use from natural resources. However, these readings don’t tell the full story.


The key point here is the interpretation of Locke’s normative argument that humans must derive from the nonhuman world ‘the greatest conveniences of life they were capable’ (2nd Treatise section 34), and ‘make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience’ (2nd Treatise section 26). This has often been read as a call for unfettered exploitation of natural resources: in other words, for the most extensive use as the ‘best’ use. Alternatively, if applied to current events, there is a compelling case for construing a sustainable, zero-waste mode of living as a path to the ‘greatest conveniences of life’, assuming that these include a continued healthy existence.


Of particular interest is the ‘spoilage proviso’, one of the limitations Locke places on the initial appropriation of resources. On this point, Locke argues that ‘as much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils: so much he may by his labour fix a property in. Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others’ (2nd Treatise section 31). In other words, while it is not in his view wrong to acquire more property than you strictly need, it becomes a problem when resources are wasted. Recent French legislation ( to force supermarkets to give away their unsold food rather than sending it to landfill is consistent with this principle.


The spoilage proviso is generally invoked alongside the principle of ‘enough and as good left for others’ (2nd Treatise, various points), which can be read as a further restriction on the acquisition of property in times of scarcity. Taken as a prescription for action today (which I admit would be a controversial use of Locke’s theory), this could have radical implications for solving the austerity crisis. For example, what if there were limits on how many domestic properties could be purchased and left resolutely empty in a city with a high population of homeless and vulnerably housed people?


It is not a new phenomenon to interpret Locke’s arguments as grounded in concern for overall human wellbeing, or to argue as James Tully does that ‘Locke’s two natural rights, of preservation and to preserve oneself and others, are not liberties. They are natural rights directly resulting from, or entailed by, the natural duty to preserve mankind.’ (Tully 1993 112)  It is mildly controversial, thanks largely to C.B. Macpherson, to read this as including the whole of humanity rather than merely the segment who have successfully appropriated property. However, as Kristin Shrader-Frechette argues, ‘one could imagine a contemporary Locke arguing for extensive restrictions on property rights in land (e.g., prohibiting filling in wetlands) and for agricultural zoning or preservation, for example to prevent fertile land from being developed or paved.’ (Shrader-Frechette: 1993 217) We can imagine this, on conceptual if not historical grounds, since Locke’s overall prescription that we must make the best use of natural resources is not thoroughly filled out. However, there are indications in the two provisos discussed above which suggest that sustainable use could constitute the ‘best’ use long term. For example, excesses that impinge on the wellbeing of others are frowned upon: while Locke relates this to the immediate present and future, it can be argued that jeopardising people’s long-term prospects for clean air and water or for food security might also fall within this category. The spoilage proviso, meanwhile, rules overtly wasteful uses of resources out of being considered ‘to the best advantage of life’.


With that in mind, what would a Lockean solution to austerity and environmental crisis look like in practice? In the first instance, there would be significantly less waste than there is currently: for example, inessential single use plastics and throwaway fashion would be less prevalent. Emphasis would be placed on repairing and reusing rather than constantly replacing. Furthermore, there would be a requirement to share what would otherwise go to waste: for example, supermarkets would be urged to donate their surplus perishables to a food bank or other community project where it can be put to good use, rather than rendering it inedible in a skip. Practical guidance on living up to these principles can be found in the work of a number of projects currently operating around Southampton, for example CURB – The Real Junk Food Project (, Southampton Repair Café ( and Southampton Clothes Swaps ( The issue of property ownership – specifically land and buildings – is more contentious, since Locke imposed no outright limits on how much of each resource an individual could own. However, there would likely be de facto limits on how far an individual’s or company’s holdings could impinge on the surrounding community: of particular concern here are ‘investment’ properties which are left deliberately empty in situations where house prices are unnecessarily inflated and housing shortages are rife as a result.


In short, although there is a significant gap between Locke’s political views and those of many people actively resisting environmental and austerity-related crises, he can nonetheless provide some useful principles for improving the situation.

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