Nine Policy Shifts Necessary for a Global Commons Policy

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Letter to the Secretary General of the U.N. by the Association of World Citizens.


(version without notes, for full version, request from [email protected])


"The well-being of people and nature are our real inherited wealth that must be passed on to future generations. This real wealth has become increasingly well-known by the name the global commons since Elinor Oström won the 2009 Economics Nobel Prize for her work on the commons. Such a global commons-based economy would be linked to real value, human, and earth rights.

It would consist of:

1.those aspects of nature and society that all people require access to in order to survive

2.a set of principles that would allow these to be stewarded by and held in trusteeship for the benefit of all

3.a set of appropriate values and norms

This will require that the global community:

1.change the concept of ownership of nature to stewardship and trusteeship of the global commons

2.modify the jurisdiction of the global commons

3.price its (ab)use

4.generate funds for the new rights and values-based global economy

5.create a currency based on the value of the global commons

6.shift our economic indicators and basic values and norms

7.shift from win/lose and win/win to all-win values and norms

8.look at legal aspects of a rights and values based economy and

9.move forward without procrastination

Much of the above is already taking place.

1. Changing the concept of ownership of nature to stewardship and trusteeship of the global commons

Recently the Co-Chair’s Summary of Prepcom 1 for Rio+20 (CCS) noted:

“Reservations were expressed by a number of delegations about a particular interpretation of the concept of a green economy which was equated with “marketization” of nature and natural resources… [and] that unregulated markets have been a contributing factor to environmental degradation and thus their contribution to a solution is questionable” (58 CCS).

All people contribute to the health of our natural environment and the capacity of societies to support their people, and all people (including those working in the private sector) experience the consequences of its degradation so that all people must share the jurisdiction of the global commons with the help of their national and local governments. Elinor Ostróm points to the success of fishermen to restore lobster stocks to health after hovering on the brink of extinction. Transition Towns, Geocities and Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia, are just a few of a rapidly growing number of examples where people are managing their natural and social environments for the well being of all. The Treaties of Outer Space, Antarctica and the Law of the Sea are also movements toward global stewardship of the global commons.

2. Modifying the jurisdiction of the global commons, pricing its (ab)use and generating funds for the rights and values-based global economy

Even though much can be said for ownership of the global commons by all people, private ownership of parts of the global commons need not be ruled out, nor its use for private gain, provided that:

i.the health of the commons is carefully monitored and it is stewarded and held in trusteeship for the benefit of all

ii.use and access remain open to all

iii.this is guaranteed by enforceable international, national and local laws.

3. (Ab)use of the natural global commons by individuals, organizations (including business and industry) and nations would be taxed according to their ecological footprint.

The revenue would be used for restoration and care of the global commons and the well-being of the people who are linked to those parts of the local, national, regional and global commons.

In the Chair’s Summary of CSD 18 (CS) and the above mentioned CS, a number of financing mechanisms were proposed, including:

“Ecological tax reforms” (77 CCS).”Polluter pays” (77,139,281,282 CS), “extended producer responsibility” (127,131,139, 258 282 CS), “internalization of external costs” (59, 77CS), “rehabilitation funds for mining” (158 CS); and “public investment in… natural capital to restore, maintain, and where possible [to] enhance the stock of natural capital” (77 CCS). The social (including cultural and intellectual) commons gain in value with use. Mechanisms to cover the (ab)use of social and other aspects of the global commons are equally important.

Instead of levying taxes on people’s productivity (and thereby, as it were, penalizing them), Governmental income would also be generated from taxes from the use of commons within their countries. Local authorities and communities would similarly benefit from the use of the national and local commons. Monies from the commons—once nature has been restored to health and its capacity to thrive guaranteed—could be used for a basic income for all people. This would increase creativity and thereby increase the value of the social commons, increase harmony between people(s) and further protect the natural commons from abuse by those desparate to survive while enhancing harmony between people(s).

4. Pricing of the natural global commons is being undertaken by researchers working for the URSULA-project.

According to their web site,, URSULA stands for Unified Rating System, Universal Lifecycle Assessment. It allows data from different systems to communicate with and relate to one another. Using a standard of universal global sustainability enables us to do an "apples-to-apples" comparison of all kinds of data whether it reflects social, economic, environmental, legal, technological or political elements of nature and humanity.

Fees and taxes on (ab)use of the natural commons can be assessed according to the ecological footprint i, each entity – countries, people and organizations – would be assessed. Monies from nations would go to an international fund that would be administered by the UN. This could be used to restore the global commons from its present degradation and increase its ability to thrive.

5. Currency based on the health of the natural and social commons

Quoting international economic consultant James Bernard Quilligan ii, Mary Beth Steisslinger iii writes in Our Global and Local Commons: The New Narrative for Justice, Peace, Environmental Security and Shared Prosperity for All. 4.0-Economics for the Commons:

Since the money system and individual purchasing power are social commons, there is a way to both stabilize and democratize money. The world community could create a form of monetary reference—belonging and accountable to everyone—that is not dependent on the economic or political decisions of a single state or the money nationalism of currency-issuing states. Global commons representatives could collaborate to produce an international currency, backed by a new kind of reserve asset, to provide a stable and usable exchange credit for business, trade and other social transactions. This new system would generate a broad measure of common wealth and well-being that is not based on productivity, profit or interest, but on the perpetual vitality and continuous adaptation of local resources to support a good quality of life for all human beings. It would mean turning the present system of private credit—including banking and finance—into a commons utility through conversion of debt to equity across all sectors of society. It would mean using our commons-based capital—cultural, social, intellectual, natural, genetic, and material—as collateral for a resource-based global reserve system.

Using this new reserve system, commons assets would form the basis of a composite standard of value. For example, a Reserve Basket of Global Common Goods could include indicators for cultural resources such as indigenous wisdom, household work and the arts; special resources such as health, literacy economic output and income distribution; intellectual resources such as scientific knowledge, intellectual property and information flows; natural resources such as air and water quality, ecosystem health and biological diversity; genetic resources such as living creatures, organs and seeds; and the material resources such as gold, oil, water and the atmosphere.

Rather than convert commons assets into a market value, these indicators would generate a unique index based on the sustainability of the global commons and the value that these common goods have to our natural and social quality of life and that of future generations. By continually measuring and averaging the indices of each resource in this basket. Trustees of the commons reserve system could decide the proportion of those commons resources that should remain untapped as principal.

At the same time, the commons reserve system would replace the present interest rate mechanism with a sustainability rate. This commons reserve currency would function through the creation of co-credit—a participatory unit of value used in trading, investment and decision-making. As co-credits are lost or gained in each transaction, the deficit or surplus would be accounted with reference to the sustainability rate—a real-time measure reflecting the capacity of the global commons to provide and sustain the well-being of present and future generations. At any given moment, if the sustainability rate is low, the co-credit is worth less relative to its value in an exchange, which may cause a buyer to spend less, and if the sustainability rate is higher, the co-credit will be worth more in the exchange, which may convince the buyer to spend more. (See attached document 4.0 Economics of the Commons)

6. A global shift in economic indicators has been recommended by the UN, including in the UNDP Development Reports starting in 1990. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index is well-known.

7. A fundamental shift from win/lose and win/win to all-win values and norms

We must learn to see that assuming power over our fellow human beings and the rest of nature (win/lose) and seeing people as central to the wellbeing of the planet (win/win) are both threatening our ability to survive. Our survival depends on recognizing our interdependence with our fellow human beings and the rest of nature (all-win). This can be brought about through:

i.formal education by, for instance –

-changing the perspective from which physics, chemistry, history, geography, biology and other subjects are taught iv

- introducing as mandatory subjects at schools, the art of relating: how to communicate with others in all-win ways and solve conflicts peacefully, and how to reawaken the instinctive and intuitive connection with nature v

- courses on the UN so that students realize that all people are interrelated beyond our separate cultures, religions and nationalities and that the necessary structures are being developed and are already partly in place to allow all people to live in a mutually beneficial spirit of cooperationvi and that there are mechanisms for civil society to give input into global policies

ii.Through informal education via the media and new standards in advertizing, for instance, by making it mandatory to mention the global footprint of products and by taxing the sale and purchase of products accordingly

iii.By introducing economic indices that relate to human well-being rather than to GDP.vii

8. A look at legal precedents

The right to access and use of the natural and social commons of the general public has existed throughout history and is increasingly being adopted today.viii There is also a long tradition and much in favour of the people themselves taking full responsibility for the commons.

Polly Higginsix has written extensively about the need for legal recognition of ecocide to establish a new legal premise of crimes against the planet; applications of trust law doctrine under the UN Trusteeship Council to confer protection, prevention and remedy; and enforcement of natural laws to halt the flow of destruction and advance the flourishing of life. A file is attached with further information.

James Quilliganx suggests that we institute the mechanism of social charters which he describes as follows:

“When resources are mismanaged, the development of covenants and institutions by consumer-producers is a critical step in protecting and sustaining them. A social charter is a formal declaration which outlines the rights and incentives of a community --involving both local jurisdictions and the multijurisdictional environment -- for the supervision and protection of a common resource. The charter describes patterns of relationships between the resource and its users, managers and producers, allowing them all an opportunity to voice the mutual interests and responsibilities emerging from their rights to these common goods. The social charter empowers a geographical group and a broader association of stakeholders to hold a commons in trust for its beneficiaries, thereby safeguarding these vulnerable resources from the growing pressure to exploit them. This ensures that marginalized groups have access to common goods and that the benefits arising from their use are distributed in a fair and cooperative manner for present and future generations. Effective maintenance and preservation of a particular commons is thus generated through the collective action of citizens, customary representatives, social networks, academics, scientists, bilateral donors, development partners, regional organizers, intergovernmental organizations, independent media and other stakeholders -- with limited input from government and the private sector.

By encouraging a range of self-organizing capacities, social charters give substantial discretion to individuals in designing effective institutions matched to the local, regional and global scales of vital goods and services. This enables a diversity of individuals and officials to make rule-based adjustments for the stewardship of their commons through multiple centers of power and decision-making. Social charters have been developed for forests, pastures, irrigation systems, water, fisheries, internet, knowledge, genetic resources, public health, energy, landscapes, historic sites and other domains. Examples of commons-based social charters include Heritable Innovation Trust; Creative Commons; WANA (West Asia-North Africa) Forum; Charter of the Cultural Forum of Barcelona for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge; Praja Foundation; Pacific Youth Charter; Peopleʼs Charter for Health; and the Sky Charter proposed by State of the World Forum. Resource communities like these express the values of democracy, equity and justice by managing a commons as directly and locally as possible. Through their transparent decision-making and decentralized control, such social chartered initiatives generate an entirely new context for collective action.

Social charters are based on commons rights. Commons rights differ from human rights and civil rights because they arise, not through the legislation of a state, but through a customary or emerging identification with an ecology, a cultural resource area, a social need or a form of mutual labor. By expressing the rationale behind a groupʼs collective actions and the importance of understanding who shares what, how it is shared, and how it may be sustained for future generations and species, commons rights affirm the sovereignty of people over their means of sustenance and well-being.

9. Moving forward without procrastination

As mentioned above, we are just beginning to develop solutions. We have no alternative but to gather together what we have now and build on that. This could begin with a collaboration between experts in the UN Secretariat and civil society organizations, including the Major Groups. The Secretariat can work with groups that already have practical experience in stewarding the global commons and living the various shifts recommended above (in values and with regard to the economy) as well as those economists and other experts who are working on the theoretical and policy aspects of a rights and values-based economy (Some of which have been mentioned here). Together with them a step-by-step plan can be outlined both with regard to areas that need further research and input and with regard to expanding existing best practices. The outcome can be reported annually in the SG’s Report to the CSDs and associated conferences with a call for further input, and so, gradually, gaps can be filled in and areas of implementation expanded."