If non-renewable resources are privately owned, they are in danger of being destroyed. For example, somebody owning a piece of forest might be tempted to just cut down and sell all of the trees or burn them to use the land for agriculture, eventually leaving just a desert. He might buy a piece of forest just for that purpose.
If the resource is owned by no one, somebody ruthless enough will just grab it to exploit it. If it is owned by a government, its fate is in danger. If the government is corrupt, it might just treat the public property like private, exploitable property; if it is not, it might still privatize it or destroy it to produce money for other purposes, or it might be forced to destroy the resource, e.g. by its creditors.
Such resources, therefore, should neither be privately owned nor should they be owned by governments or be free for all. Instead, to prevent their destruction, they must be transferred to non-governmental organizations that are, by their by-law or constitution, obliged to preserve them and only allow sustainable use. Such organizations should, in the best case, be international.
The scheme suggested in some other articles on this blog, namely to create new money to buy such resources and then to transfer the resources to such foundation-like custodian organizations, is just one way to achieve this, but which way ever it is done, we must create such institutions.
Our growth-based economy will find and exploit every resource that is there. Since the resources of our planet are finite, the result is destruction. In order to arrive at a sustainable system and preserve the resources, like ecosystems, genetic diversity, land and soil, sea, water resources, mineral resources and even the air, we must think about the concept of ownership and about the rights that go along with it. We normally think it is the right of the owner to exploit and even destroy what he owns. If a resource like land is owned by a custodian organization, on the other hand, somebody can use that land but only in a limited, non-destructive way or else he will lose his licensee to use it.
This will, of course, set limits to economic growth, but if we don’t set such limits, the growth will eventually be limited in a catastrophic way, by the exhaustion of the resources that are there, leaving the remaining people with a desert. This would not necessarily lead to the extinction of human beings, but it would lead to the collapse of our civilization and most people would perish. So we must replace the growth based economy with a sustainable steady state economy in order to survive, and one crucial step in that direction is the rethinking of the concept of ownership and the rights connected to it.
(The picture, showing land erosion following deforestation in Madagascar, is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Madagascar_erosion.jpg.)