The Commons

Global Commons Goods | Civil Society as Global Commons Organizations

Effective management of global resources is not possible under our
present multilateral system. Because national jurisdictions and
institutions rarely line up with the actual geographical regions that
contain ecosystems and social and cultural groups, many of the world’s
transboundary resource areas lack responsible public oversight. Even the
international treaties and conventions that supervise our global
resource regimes (for telecommunications, the atmosphere and oceans, for
example) are shaped by the political compulsions of sovereign states,
rather than the people who actually use these resources on a local

This is a poor way to administer world resources. In fact, without
well-balanced transnational capacities through which to offer access to
the public goods of states, many ‘public bads’ are created instead. Such
cross-border externalities include world hunger, economic deprivation,
wealth disparity, resource depletion, destruction of the rainforests,
overfishing, species loss, ozone depletion, global warming,
environmental pollution, infectious diseases, cross-cultural conflicts,
cyberattacks, terrorism, weapons trading and war. 

Most of us recognize the differences between the private goods created by businesses (commercial products and services) and the public goods provided by sovereign governments (sanitation, disease control, education and legal systems, to name a few). The concept of common goods
offers an intuitive way of redefining the various resources, services
and values we share outside of the public and private sectors (ranging
from forests and fisheries to social volunteering and child care at
home; and from scientific knowledge, technologies, and human genes to
arts and music). Unlike public goods, common goods are 

  • non-jurisdictional, since they often transcend private properties and national borders.
  • subtractive, because what one person takes from a
    particular resource cannot be used by others (except in the case of
    intellectual and cultural resources).
  • depletable (and often non-renewable), because their consumption rates exceed their replacement rates.

Historically, the privatization and enclosure of our commons has led
to massive overuse, inefficient management, community and state
violence, environmental degradation, and dispossession of people from
their own resources. Today, as a result of globalization, many types of
common goods—along with the people and communities who use them—are
endangered. For growing numbers of us, the protection and renewal of our
vulnerable commons have become a matter of personal survival. 

Over the centuries, commoners have evolved various forms of local
self-governance. Some still celebrate the decentralization and
spontaneity of our community commons and look upon broader regulation as
a suppressive encroachment upon our individual freedoms. But the
accelerating loss of our personal sovereignty to external global forces
should not prevent us from embracing the larger possibilities of the global common good,
which can also re-empower us locally. That’s why many of us who live,
work and depend daily on the commons have recognized that to reverse the
damaging excesses of the private and public sectors and regenerate the
commons, we must organize across the world through our own forms of
collaboration, governance and mutual action. 

While watching markets and states mismanage the world’s
cross-boundary problems, it has dawned on many individuals, communities
and civil society organizations that the specific objectives we are
pursuing—whether they are food, water, clean air, environmental
protection, energy, free flow of information, human rights, indigenous
people’s rights, or numerous other social concerns—are essentially global commons
issues. It is also becoming clear that we would gain considerably more
authority and responsibility in meeting these problems by joining
together as global commons organizations.

Having developed this overarching identity apart from the private and public sectors, our new legitimacy and power as a commons sector
could then be used to work more dynamically with businesses and
governments, creating greater transparency, trust and cooperation across
borders. This may take the form of partnerships. It may also involve
our political opposition to new or existing claims on resource domains
to prevent their further enclosure, commodification and
deterioration—protecting ourselves as well as the interests of poor
nations and future generations. 

Together, we must create new rules, methods of monitoring,
enforcement and conflict resolution, and funding for the management and
protection of our environmental, genetic, social, intellectual, and
cultural commons. Since every common good and resource domain is unique,
and because many of them overlap, the ownership and management of each
resource must be sorted out legally through local, regional, and global
policy negotiations. In balancing the principles of (private) property
rights, (public) sovereign rights, and (common) sustainability rights,
we will be inaugurating a new kind of multilateralism, setting political
priorities for the access to—and allocation of—global common goods in the 21st century. For civil society groups today, the first steps in this epochal transformation are greater awareness of the global commons and global common goods, and the alignment of our shared goals as global commons organizations.