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Global commons

How do we protect the earth's oceans, forests and the atmosphere—otherwise known as the global commons? Can there be places in the world that are not subjected to the laws of one specific country? If so, how do we protect these places from exploitation?

Submitted 3/21/2006 By Tashio6 Views 106715 Comments 2 Updated 1/25/2007

Photographer : Stuart Palmer

What does global commons mean?

The term 'global commons' refers to the areas of the world that aren’t owned by one country and may be viewed as shared international spaces. For example, deep seabeds, the stratosphere, the troposhere, outer space and some areas of land (such as Antarctica) are all global commons. The concept can also be extended to the larger biosphere, such as forests, oceans, the atmosphere and climate.

Global commons not only refers to physical areas of the world but can also include cultural and local areas. For example:
  • Cultural commons—which can include literature; music; performing and visual arts; film, television and radio; design and community arts; and areas of heritage.
  • Public goods—such as public education and health; and infrastructure (eg water and electricity systems).
The idea of the commons is an all-encompassing term that includes everything from the arts and education to the oceans.

What is the issue?

These areas of global commons are controversial because they do not belong to any country or anyone in particular. The issue of global commons raises questions like:
  • Should these areas be protected by international or national laws?
  • How do we regulate and protect the global commons?

Global commons is also a contentious environmental issue. It is difficult to define which country is responsible for land-use when the commons are multinational. The other problem related to this is the cost of finding solutions and creating regulations to monitor the use of commons. Is it the responsibility of one country or more? Or, is it the responsibility of the United Nations (UN)?

Another problem with the concept of global commons is recognition. How can the cultural commons be acknowledged? How do we educate and inform the public about their existence?

The history of global commons

Global commons first arose in medieval Europe where certain places were marked as common land for use by the community. This practice also occurred in Africa and Latin America. Shared land spaces were used by households for animal grazing or growing crops. The 'commons' were passed down to future generations and were subject to community regulation. The commons were public goods not subject to market laws or private exploitation.

The decline of commons was related to the rise of private property and market rules. Environmentalists revived the notion of commons in the 1970s to describe the concept of global responsibility for the environment.

Currently, global commons usually refers to the environment and regions that do not belong to a certain country. Since there are no property rights governing a particular person or group’s use of the commons, no one state is responsible for the regulation of these areas. As a result, these areas may be subject to exploitation like overfishing, overgrazing and excessive use.

What are the latest developments?

Environmental problems

The United Nations lists three major impacts on the global commons:
  • increasing levels of carbon dioxide
  • massive use of fertilisers
  • exploitation of marine fisheries.

One suggested method of protecting the global commons from greenhouse gas emissions or other environmental pollution is through multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs)—an MEA is an agreement between two or more countries. MEAs raise the issue of who is responsible for taking action against polluters, enforcing regulations or imposing penalties. These are problems that can affect the international economy and also damage relationships between nations. However, if the terms of MEAs were agreed and adhered to, perhaps enforcing them would be possible.

A second option, is using trade measures to achieve environmental objectives which would be agreed to internationally. However, possible infringements on World Trade Organisation members could result.

Recently, the United Nations called for more research into ecosystems, the evaluation of current environmental policies and assessment of the state of the environment. This included investigating how different regions use the physical landscape and how it might affect the sustainability of the global commons.

The cultural commons

One of the major reasons for the decline of the commons was the rise of private ownership and a market-based society. Most of us are so used to privatisation and ownership of resources that we are unaware of the concept of the commons. In today’s society there needs to be greater recognition of the commons and more public education could achieve this.

A major global movement is working to “reclaim the commons”. The reclaim the commons movement seeks to regain community ownership of public spaces that are overrun by advertising and corporate ownership. Groups like Reclaim the Streets organise protests against the privatisation of public spaces. They are trying to restore community street culture away from the billboards and advertising.

Many communities are also trying to reclaim the commons by creating new cultural and public spaces. Reclaiming the commons can vary from establishing community gardens to defending public education. The reclaim the commons movement shows that we are beginning to recognise that everything does not need to be divided, individually owned and commodified.

How do I know this?

Global Commons Institute,

Mathiason John R, Managing the global commons: reform and the role of the United Nations beyond the nation-state,

Snape D and Gunasekera D 1997, ‘The Countdown to Kyoto: The consequences of mandatory global carbon dioxide emissions reductions’, APEC Study Centre, Canberra 19-21 August

The Commons Institute, More about ‘Explaining the commons,

United Nations Environment Programme, Global Ministerial Environment Forum May 2000,

United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Global Environment Outlook 2000,

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adrienne 07-Jan-2008

i agree, this was really interesting and concise, a lot of information to think about



Chadorama 13-Dec-2006

I liked your article, you summed up a massive amount of info so well.

I just want to mention that the commons exists practically everywhere in life. What you notice though, is that these commons get trashed by people who get the benefit of using them, but they don't have to bear the costs of cleaning it up [see Garett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons"].

Here are some examples - public toilets, the dishes at my house, a bowl of chips between 3 hungry friends. The result is that no one but the virtuous will clean up, or spare some of what's available.

I take the view that environmental commons must be turned into private property if it cannot be regulated by an official body. I don't think humans can look after an environmental commons otherwise.