Global Commons

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1. Wikipedia:

"Global commons is that which no one person or state may own or control and which is central to life. A Global Common contains an infinite potential with regard to the understanding and advancement of the biology and society of all life. e.g. forests, oceans, land mass and cultural identity and hence requires absolute protection."
(Wikipedia: Global commons)

2. UNEP:

"The ‘Global Commons’ refers to resource domains or areas that lie outside of the political reach of any one nation State. Thus international law identifies four global commons namely: the High Seas; the Atmosphere; Antarctica; and, Outer Space. These areas have historically been guided by the principle of the common heritage of humankind - the open access doctrine or the mare liberum (free sea for everyone) in the case of the High Seas. Despite efforts by governments or individuals to establish property rights or other forms of control over most natural resources, the Global Commons have remained an exception.

Historically, access to some of the resources found within the global commons, except for a few like fisheries, has been difficult and these resources have historically not been scarce to justify the attempt for exclusive control and access. However, with the advancement of science and technology in recent years it has made access to resources in the Global Commons easier, leading to an increase in activities in these resource domains, some types of which lack effective laws or policies to control and regulate such uses.

Antarctica is facing rapid environmental degradation due to human pressures such as pollution, and the effects of global warming. Furthermore, the doctrine of mare liberum (free sea for everyone) allows for the dumping of wastes and over fishing in the high seas. The indication of this trend is that the impact on the resources and the environment of the Global Commons will also most likely worsen in the not distant future if a business as usual situation prevails. Such a trend of environmental degradation will take its toll on sustainable development and poverty alleviation."


Charlotte Hess:

"Global commons are the oldest and most established “new commons”. There is a large body of literature on the global commons and the foci are broad—from climate change to international treaties to transboundary conflicts. For instance, a search on “global commons” in the Comprehensive Bibliography of the Commons (Hess 2007) results in 4183 hits. I am just going to give a very brief overview of this vast terrain in this paper.

Some of the early works on global commons are those by Christy and Scott (1965) looking at competition for the fisheries of the high seas which “are the common wealth of the world community;” Boot (1974) examining global commons and population and economic inequity; Bromley and Cochrane (1994) discussing global commons policy. Soroos has been researching and writing on the global commons for over thirty years. Oran Young is a leading scholar on global governance and international regimes. Buck (1998) is a respected commons scholar who has written one of the best introductions to the global commons. Other general works surveying global commons are Cleveland (1990); Dasgupta, Maler and Vercelli (1997); Bromley and Cochrane (2004); McGinnis and Ostrom (1996); Young (1999); Baudot (2001); Barkin and Shambaugh (1999); Karlsson (1997); Bernstein (2002); Byrne and Glover (2002); Cairns (2003, 2006); Vogler (2000); and Joyner (2001); Nonini (2006a)." (

Source: Charlotte Hess. Mapping the New Commons,2008 [1]

Typologies of the Global Commons

From James Quilligan in People Sharing Resources" [2]

  • Noosphere: indigenous culture and traditions, community support systems, social connectedness, voluntary associations, labor relations, women and children's rights, family life, health, education, redness, religions and ethnicity, racial values, silence, creative works, languages, stores of human knowledge and wisdom, scientific knowledge, ethnobotanical knowledge, ideas, intellectual property, information, communication flows, airwaves, internet, free culture, cultural treasures, music, arts, purchasing power, the social right to issue money, security, risk management
  • Biosphere: fisheries, agriculture, forests, land, pastures, ecosystems, parks, gardens, seeds, food crops, genetic life forms and species, living creatures
  • Physiosphere: the elements, minerals, inorganic energy, water, climate, atmosphere, stratosphere


On the contradictions in defining the Global Commons

Paul Hartzog writes:

"My paper logics its way to the conclusion that we cannot define global commons of things like "air" and "sea" without also acknowledging "land" which destroys the notion of the territorial sovereignty of the nation state. In other words, as long as there are states, no acknowledgment of global commons can happen.


"The current international gathering of nation-states cannot afford to recognize the atmosphere and the oceans as global commons (using scientific criteria) because to do so would immediately and irrevocably destroy land as private property, since land would qualify as a global commons. There is no escaping this conclusion; either the global commons are all interrelated in a single system or they are not. We cannot change our thinking about some of the parts and not others. Furthermore, since the entire paradigm of nation-states is predicated on the acceptance of bounded excludable territories, it is likely that we cannot construct global commons without de-constructing the nation-state system.

The nuts and bolts of it is that we currently define global commons using political criteria and not scientific criteria, because, as said above to use scientific criteria would force the inclusion of land, and the consequent de-construction of territorial boundaries, both private property and territorial sovereignty."

Successful Global Commons need Social Capital on a global scale

By Kaitlyn Rathwell:

"We can start now building trust, reciprocity, shared and enforced rules and norms and social networks that can cross scales (e.g. local, regional, National, global) as necessary. Doing this could help maintain community cohesion and create transparency and accountability for managing shared resources.

In an era of globalization, there are many resources that we share with the entire globe. For example, air quality and fish in the oceans. Increasing the scale of the common resource issue to the global scale also increases the complexity of the issue (Ostrom 1999). The management of resources necessarily occurs at the local scale, but in some cases (e.g. climate change) this accumulates to create a global impact. Therefore we must poor energy into building both our social capital at the community scale and at the global scale.

We need to build social capital at the global scale (difficult to do with our colonial history and ongoing international power differentials). Reciprocity and trust can be fostered by commitment to and enforcement of treaties and international agreements. At the same time we need transparent and elaborate social networks so information can be exchanged from the local to the global scale and back again. We need to ask important questions like who will be in charge of enforcing rules are followed at the global scale? What kind of social networks can we create to maintain transparency and accountability for enforcing global rules? What are the rules and norms that we want for management of the global commons?

This is of course an incredible challenge! So how can you be an agent of social capital in your communities and our global community? Lets take it back to my water example and the freshwater from the Aberfoyle Aquifer that I love to drink. I have to take action to build the social capital of the community that manages my water. I will have to be an active participate in decision-making and actions on the ground to build trust and reciprocity through action with others influencing water. And I will have to put pressure on institutions above me to be supportive of our attempts as community water management.

I have started doing this, and so can you! I am a volunteer for the local WellingtonWaterWatchers NGO here in Canada, I have sent a letter to the government here with my concerns about Nestle’s request, and I am building a network and communicating the issue by writing about it here and sharing it with you. Thus, I continue my pursuit as a ‘shameless optimist’ with the belief that we can dodge Hardin’s famous tragedy by working together to build social capital in our communities and for our globe." (

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