The Commons

Explore our archive of articles on The Commons.

Commons Action for the United Nations

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All of us share sources of wealth that are beyond market goods and monetary prices but critical to our survival and quality of life.The global commons consists of these shared resources, as well as the committed people who work for the common good and serve as stewards of our collective resources. Neither today’s problems nor their solutions exist without people. Appreciating the valueof a commons is as old as humanity itself, yet as forward-looking as our most advanced technology.

What, Really, Is the Commons?

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The term may be unfamiliar, but the idea has been around for centuries. The commons is a new use of an old word, meaning “what we share”—and it offers fresh hope for a saner, safer, more enjoyable future. The commons refers to a wealth of valuable assets that belong to everyone. These range from clean air to wildlife preserves; from the judicial system to the Internet. Some are bestowed to us by nature; others are the product of cooperative human creativity. Certain elements of the commons are entirely new—think of Wikipedia. Others are centuries old—like colorful words and phrases from all the world’s languages. Anyone can use the commons, so long as there is enough left for everyone else. This is why finite commons, such as natural resources, must be sustainably and equitably managed.

The Spirit of the Commons

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Long ago, the ‘commons’ simply meant the place we villagers shared and the resources of which we all partook. Here we pastured our small flocks, gathered herbs and mushrooms, and hunted game. And we were protected by an unspoken and unwritten understanding. No individual or group could draw down the resources of the commons to the detriment of the community. It was a simple but binding covenant.

Commons for Peace

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Although the term ‘human security’ has various meanings, two have predominated. Following the Cold War, several major studies—including the UN Secretary-General’s 1992 report, Agenda for Peace; the 1994 World Development Report of the UN Development Program; and the 2003 report, Human Security Now, by the UN Commission on Human Security—proposed peaceful alternatives to military security.

The Healing Logic of the Commons

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Economics is the science of generating wealth. The only problem is that it is interested only in a certain kind of wealth—wealth that comes encased in private property rights and has a price attached to it. This standard economic narrative doesn’t have much to say about the great stores of value that don’t have price tags. How much is the Earth’s atmosphere worth? What about the human genome? Fresh water supplies? Our inheritance of scientific knowledge and culture? Parks and open spaces? The Internet?

Toward a Common Theory of Value | Part One: Common Being

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Riddle of the Commons: Does Property Have Properties? Thus begins an inquiry on the meaning of value in economic philosophy. This series of articles will attempt to reconceptualize the social and natural order of economics through an analysis of the commons—the natural, genetic, physical, social, cultural and intellectual resources which people manage by negotiating their own norms and rules. (For brevity’s sake, Part One uses the term ‘commons’ loosely to refer to both self-organized commons and unorganized common pool resources—a distinction which will be spelled out in subsequent articles.) The recurring theme in these writings is the creation of a commons-based economy which expresses a more inclusive type of value than in traditional economics.

Spirituality and the Global Commons

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Long ago, the 'commons' simply meant the place we villagers shared and the resources of which we all partook. Here we pastured our small flocks, gathered herbs and mushrooms, and hunted game. And we were protected by an unspoken and unwritten understanding. No individual or group could draw down the resources of the commons to the detriment of the community.

The Failed Metaphysics Behind Private Property: Sharing our Commonhood

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Garrett Hardin is often cited for his 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In this classic critique of common property management, Hardin gives the example of herders grazing their cattle on a shared parcel of land. He observes that these individual herdsmen, acting out of self-interest, will put more and more cattle in the pasture.

Sharing the World’s Resources

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As the 21st Century unfolds, humanity is faced with a stark reality. Following the world stock market crash in 2008, people everywhere are questioning the unbridled greed, selfishness and competition that has driven the dominant economic model for decades. The old obsession with protecting national interests, the drive to maximise profits at all costs, and the materialistic pursuit of economic growth has failed to benefit the world’s poor and led to catastrophic consequences for Planet Earth.

Protecting Natural Ecosystems and the Commons

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Maude Barlow gave this stirring plenary speech, full of hope even in the face of ecological disasters, to the Environmental Grantmakers Association annual retreat in Pacific Grove, California. Barlow, a former UN Senior Water Advisor, is National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and founder of the Blue Planet Project.