Global Commons Initiative

Global Commons Initiative

What Is the Global Commons?

While the term 'commons' has been in use for centuries in one context or another, the 'global commons' is a recent construct signifying the total inheritance of humankind upon which life depends. This includes more than natural resources such as forests, oceans and air. It encompasses our intellectual and cultural heritage—for instance, literature, art and the Internet. Seen in this light, our participation in the global commons is fundamental to being human.More primary than our many societal roles—whether we recognize it or not—we are all commoners.

For simplicity sake, one can think of the commons in terms of both levels and types. Levels connote the scope of impact or activity. For instance, there are commons on the local, regional and world levels. Types include the domains ofmatter (physiosphere), life (biosphere) andmind (noosphere).

The Commons: Tragedy or Comedy?

In 1968, professor Garrett Hardin published his now-famous "Tragedy of the Commons" article in Science magazine. Using a hypothetical example, Hardin theorized that people acting independently and rationally would tend to deplete common assets or shared resources while trying tomaximize personal gains.The example he offered was that of herders allowing their sheep to overgraze in a common pasture. The result is that the pasture eventually erodes and wilts while sheep and herders are left to search for other meadows.

Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, economist Daniel Bromley, and other noted researchers have pointed out that while mismanagement can indeed lead to resource depletion, exhaustion of the commons is not inevitable. In fact, there aremany examples throughout history of people successfully cooperating to manage commonly shared resources such as fisheries, irrigation water and pastures. In some cases sustainable arrangements have lasted for centuries. There is much we can learn today from the lessons of yesterday. Unfortunately, the commons is now under threat as never before. To understand why, let's take a look at how modern life is organized.

Who's in Charge Here?

If the commons is so pervasive, why is it not a conscious and prominent feature of our life and work? In point of fact, the concept of the commons was legally protected by the Romans who differentiated between private (res privatae), public (res publicae), and common interests (res communes). The law of nature, published in 533 AD as part of the Code of Justinian, stated, "The law of nature is that which she has taught all animals; a law not peculiar to the human race, but shared by all living creatures, whether denizens of the air, the dry land, or the sea." In England, two years aer King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, the Charter of the Forest (Carta de Foresta) was sealed by his son, King Henry III. It acknowledged the royal forests as common land that could be enjoyed and used by all citizens including serfs and vassals. This charter maintained statutory force for over 750 years until it was superseded by a new law in 1971.