The Commons

Making the Great Adjustment | Coalition for the Global Commons

The Public-Private Dichotomy

Our current international economic system is a great advance over the bipolar politics and economic nationalism that existed prior to the Second World War. Rapid global economic integration has led to more connections among markets, people and ideas than ever before. Yet our multilateral rules and institutions have not adjusted to this increasing interdependence, which is creating seismic disruptions for humanity. There are now deeper divisions globally and within societies-between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, the privileged and unprivileged- than ever before.

Our crisis has deep historical roots. Nature, culture, and society have been subsidizing the private and state sectors for several centuries. During this period, the Market State-the strategic partnership between private enterprise and government-has freely extracted vast resources from the natural world and created a relative abundance of goods and services through the marketplace. At the same time, the relentless quest for cheap labor and raw materials by producers and financers-driven by the laissez-faire ideology of economic freedom and property rights-has created a scarcity of natural capital (the common goods produced by nature), which continues to marginalize a large segment of world society and destroy the natural resources on which we all depend. Because these common resources provide the basic support systems of life, neither the market nor the state is sustainable in the long run without them. So long as the Market State is unable to internalize the harmful side-effects resulting from its economic activities and territorial enclosures, we all pay a huge price for these externalities through the loss of our sociality and culture, our spirituality and ecology. The costs that we have displaced over the past few hundred years must now be paid forward to the world’s people, to coming generations, and to the planet itself. This is the beginning of a Great Adjustment.

We are massively unprepared for this pivotal event because we continue to define the economic problem of resource allocation using old, entrenched concepts. The longstanding and often rancorous debate over how much governmental regulation should be permitted in the market economy misses the deeper issue entirely. The great folly of the market-state complex has been to leave nature and society out of the equation, framing the answers to all global problems in terms of business or government solutions-with an emphasis on one or the other (or a balance of both). This has helped create the stultifying view that environmental sustainability, social ecology, international development, or any programs for progressive social change should be tackled primarily through corporate production, technology and investment, or governmental financial assistance. Most of us are still stuck in this false dichotomy-of public-private sectors, liberal-conservative politics, developing-developed nations, local-international economics-believing that only governments and markets are capable of providing funding and creating solutions for major global activities.

Markets and nation-states obviously provide crucial functions and benefits and will remain primary global actors, but neither sector has interdependent authority or legitimacy. Strategic planning and cooperation for the economic future of the planet are desperately lacking. Our multilateral economic structure-created with vibrant hope and vision from the smoldering ashes of the 1940s-is now breaking down because nation-states resist pooling their sovereignty to cooperate with one another more effectively, and market-driven solutions have proven incapable of addressing the critical problems that transcend national borders.

Although the need for balanced economic governance has been evident for many years, a global economic crash or a war over world resources would make the creation of an equitable global operating system a matter of supreme urgency. Obviously, the development of global governance is an enormous challenge, particularly because we have not fully realized that such a transformation must both include, and reach beyond, business and government-neither of which are designed to spearhead, organize, and absorb such a fundamental, structural shift. Yet we can all help to shape this decisive change by reframing the actual problem, transcending our public-private dualities, and organizing a powerful countervailing force that is dedicated to the global common good.

The Third Sector: The Commons

A new dimension of collective action is emerging which could provide a crucial adjustment from the present stage of globalization and multilateralism to a more stable and orderly world. This third sector is neither public nor private, yet underlies both. It has autonomous life because it exists at the intersection of society and nature; is grounded in our cooperation and will to survive; predates our modern rules of private property; transcends our present political boundaries, yet strengthens the duty of the nation-state to protect its citizens; reflects the interdependence of all issues and all groups; arises from the prior unity of humanity; belongs to no one, and thus to everyone; is intergenerational (from our ancestors, to us, to our children and future generations); is rooted in human and cultural potentials; expresses diversity, hope and trust; invites participation and dialogue; empowers people with a specific framework of action; redefines the balance between freedom and responsibility; reflects shared ownership, management and distribution of resources; promotes both efficiency and sustainability in a global open society; thrives on transparent communication and networking; is inherently spiritual, ontological, and simultaneous in world time; reveals our sovereignty as world citizens

This third sector is the commons-the catalyst of the Great Adjustment. We may begin to see this third way more clearly when we distinguish between the role of natural resources as a commercial commodity (private sector) and as a source of life and sustenance (common sector). A second crucial distinction may be made between the role of resource management as a social mandate (public sector) and as an expression of mutuality and collaboration (common sector).

Just as Western societies have been developing complex distinctions between the private and public realms of ownership and management for several hundred years, one of our great tasks in the 21st century will be to define new global legal jurisdictions and responsibilities among:

  • the private sphere-the proprietary market mechanisms involved in the allocation and distribution of goods and services through business and finance
  • the public sphere-the hierarchical bureaucracies of government that provide hospitals, schools, parks, roads, utilities, physical security, and other services
  • the commons-the direct democracy and collaboration involved in the safekeeping of social and cultural resources and natural ecologies that extend beyond our enclosed spaces

This common sector must be actively identified by the world’s people to create new checks and balances on the public (government) and private (corporate) sectors. The more we differentiate the elements within these three areas, the closer we come to creating democratic global governance-a dynamic tri-partite world of checks and balances between the private sector, the public sector, and the common sector. Only in this way can we manage our growing interdependence and create rules and institutions based on the norms of justice, fairness, generosity, and love that flow from the whole of humanity living as one Earth community with a common destiny.

Recognizing the Global Commons

Outside of the oceans and the skies, most of us scarcely recognize what global commons means. The unconscious conditioning of the Market State-our unquestioning acceptance of arbitrary property rights and political borders in return for security and order-casts a specious veil over our everyday perceptions and prevents us from seeing the commons as it is. Yet many people have begun to realize that the global commons includes many interrelationships-environmental, cultural, social, political, ideological, economic, or technological-that transcend these spatial barriers. It thus encompasses the many activities, transactions, and conditions that impact our lives across territorial properties and boundaries, involving matters of shared international space and overarching concern. In many instances, these priorities have not even been identified as global commons issues, although they are largely familiar problems. Seen through the lens of the Market State, we usually treat these cross-border issues as matters of international development or international relations between states, but they are actually broader and more inclusive in scope.

Planetary Sovereignty

In the accompanying chart we have identified many common areas through which a Great Adjustment could take place. But is there the political will to do so? Is there an international democratic organization or movement with the authority and legitimacy to give voice to our popular global interests and the legitimate needs of future generations that lie beyond the decision-making province of markets and governments?

The answer is; not yet. But this could happen if an existing entity such as the United Nations or a new mass movement were to acquire that power and legitimacy, giving the global commons its own representative voice. The people of the world have never before had the ability to organize effectively. Yet an international referendum is now a distinct possibility because of the personal growth and transformation of growing numbers of people, a greater international understanding on global issues, advanced communication technology, and new levels of networking-enabling world citizens to elect members to our own global decision-making bodies and councils for the first time.

The sovereignty of nation-states is becoming increasingly problematic since the authority and legitimacy vested by the people exclusively in our national governments have been co-opted by corporations, banks, and international organizations. Many people are now realizing that we can only recover our lost sovereignty at the global level, since authority and legitimacy must be endowed by the world’s people in something that fully embodies our collective values of equality, freedom, security, and sustainability, and which also guarantees the subsidiarity of our decision-making at the local level. The custody and care of the global commons is ultimately the responsibility of everyone, which is why our sovereignty must be vested in a global people’s trust for the management of these common assets. Only the global commons provides an objective repository for the individual and collective values of humanity, which can revitalize our public and private spaces through social and natural rights and cultural significance, and ensure a world society in which every life is truly precious.

Most of our local people’s groups have not identified global sovereignty as their mission. People’s groups are often characterized by a focus on single issues, differences in organization and philosophy, divergent personalities and jurisdictional rivalries, and reliance on business, government, or philanthropy for funding. Many of our groups are suffering from an identity crisis resulting from our co-dependence with the Market State, which sometimes leaves us dispirited and cynical. By adopting the disempowering view of ourselves as ‘non-governmental organizations’, or the innocuous banner of ‘civil society organizations’, we cannot be proactive in the pursuit of global goals because we lack a shared global identity. (Better to identify myself in terms of what I am for, rather than by what I am not or by what I will tolerate.)

Yet none of these deficiencies are major difficulties in the long run. In face of the major global problems that effectively unite us, our differences challenge us to recognize the strength and legitimacy that is inherent in our diversity. Since virtually all of the issues for which we stand are actually global commons issues, people’s groups have enormous potential to connect and coalesce by redefining our relationships with business and government and reframing our group identities as Global Commons Organizations. The name alone will inspire the world’s people with new meaning and purpose, emboldening us to proclaim our sovereignty as global citizens, organize into a morally effective superpower, and take powerful collective action for the well-being of everyone on the planet.

The healing and unification of global commons organizations will require intentional listening, critical reflection, understanding and discussion, as well as education, organization, networking and communication. The focal point should be the development of a common plan of action. All issues bearing on the global commons must be linked together and discussed in one multilateral agenda by a diverse group of representatives from every sector-government, business, and global commons organizations.

Coalition for the Global Commons

An unprecedented move to gather worldwide input on the global commons was recently announced at a conference in Berlin. An international partnership-called the Coalition for the Global Commons-launched an international consultation process to engage partners across the world in the development of a common global action plan. It is using an interactive website, electronic surveys, personal discussions, focus groups, and international meetings to tap global opinion and expertise on transnational problems.

The dialogue is expected to last two years, with efforts to draw in stakeholders from around the world, including global commons organizations, scientific and religious communities, members of business and government, academia and the media. Thousands of partners from charitable, environmental, educational, labor, activist, feminist and other arenas are expected to add their voices to a plan that will continually evolve throughout the two-year consultation period.

The coalition will be discussing several courses of action:

  • Living the Principles of Global Spirituality, Ethics and Values
  • Achieving the Millennium Development Goals
  • Protecting our Common Global Resources
  • Restructuring Global Economic Rules and Institutions
  • Establishing New Forms of Governance
  • Generating Multilateral Financing through the Implementation of International Standards
  • Realizing Human and Social Potentials
  • Creating a Culture of Peace and Human Security

HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan is heading a group of high-level representatives called the Eminent Council that is serving as an advisory body for the international consultation process. Input from individuals and groups of all kinds is being gathered on the website using an advanced form of wiki software. Changes will be made to the evolving plan by editors and policy decision-makers working with a secretariat, which will manage the consultation process. The dialogue and feedback process is open to all leaders, experts and the public, creating a wide circle of input for the development of a consultation text. The results of this consultation round will be presented at a conference of international stakeholders in 2010, the Convention on the Global Commons. 

Many critical problems must be addressed over the next several years to meet the escalating crises of economic globalization, social inequality, and environmental breakdown. Resolving these issues will be a monumental undertaking. It will require the coordinated efforts of all the world’s people to address these challenges. It is time for us to open and enter unto this global commons, making the Great Adjustment from the old world of competitive nation-states to a new frontier of democratic multilateral cooperation and global governance.

Every person is invited to take part in the consultation process or to become an active partner in this task. For more information on the Coalition for the Global Commons, see

James Bernard Quilligan is Policy Development Coordinator of the Coalition for the Global Commons. An analyst and administrator in the field of international development since 1975, he has served as an economic consultant to governments worldwide and as policy advisor for international leaders such as Pierre Trudeau, François Mitterand, Edward Heath, Julius Nyerere, Olof Palme, Willy Brandt, Jimmy Carter, and Tony Blair.

Global Commons Issues

  • world hunger and malnutrition
  • water access and sanitation
  • disease prevention and public health reform
  • education and unemployment
  • global human rights and civil liberties
  • women’s and children’s rights
  • ethics and values
  • language and culture
  • indigenous heritage and customs
  • agriculture and land reform
  • collective knowledge and wisdom
  • past inheritance and future generations
  • international aid and income
  • global credit and debt
  • global business and production
  • science and population growth
  • cloning and biotechnology
  • energy conservation and energy security
  • arms trading and peacekeeping
  • biological, conventional, and nuclear weapons
  • refugees and displaced persons
  • migration and trafficking
  • terrorism and failed states
  • humanitarian interventions in crises of sovereign states
  • international law and corporate responsibility
  • international treaties and global governance
  • global trade and finance
  • money and currency values
  • technology and patents
  • trademarks and copyrights
  • open source software and wifi access
  • media and the electromagnetic spectrum
  • militarization of space and space debris
  • ozone depletion and climate stabilization
  • global warming and greenhouse gases
  • acid rain and pollution
  • the Arctic and Antarctic
  • oceans and seabeds
  • rivers and forests
  • resource conservation and wilderness preservation
  • the gene pool of human and non-human species and plants

The list is long but not exhaustive-there are many more global commons issues. Nor is it technically rigorous-many of these topics are local and regional, as well as global, so there are areas of overlap. But that is precisely the point: a wide variety of local and regional matters are clearly global commons issues.