An overview of the issues surrounding the global commons, in relation to globalization, economic justice and the need to create a more sustainable world.
The subtle monopolisation of the global commons began in the middle ages when the rights to land were claimed by the aristocracy and feudalism was common place. The common people and their resources were thus exploited by those who owned the land. Over time, this accumulation of power through resource acquisition allowed cities to plunder the country, taking control of yet more land and resources and thereby establishing ever larger empires. This plunder was enforced through an ever expanding military force.
The same principle of monopolisation currently threatens countless resources, common to the global public, which we hold in trust for future generations. Apart from our global ecological system, our shared resources include all creations of nature and society, including our genes, our shared knowledge, our airspace and indeed outer space.
In their ‘race to the bottom’ for economic dominance, our governments have neglected their responsibility to protect their citizen’s right to their commons, and given free reign instead to private corporations who continue to seize our common wealth by means of enclosure (the ongoing silent theft of public resources for private financial gain). In fact governments frequently give away valuable common assets at no cost to corporations, such as oil and mineral rights. Thus the democratic process has been subtly sidelined by a broad coalition of bureaucracies that include the WTO, IMF and World Bank, which operate undemocratically, economically dominant governments pushing endlessly for economic growth and the corporate interests that fuel this flagrant profiteering. The democratic right to determine through governmental process, how these public resources are controlled, managed and their benefits distributed have been violated. Valid democratic systems require full participation of local, national and global communities in the governance of all essential common resources and services and their distribution, locally, nationally and globally.
Neither the dangers of this approach nor its current prevalence can be exaggerated; ultimately the wealth generated through corporate manipulation of our common resources is being usurped by the minority and is contributing to ever widening global income disparities. As expected, the harshest effects of privatisation and enclosure are felt in struggling economies, such as parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In such regions, citizens already living in poverty are forced to pay exorbitant premiums for privatised essentials such aswater, often without seeing significant improvements in supply and provision. In a number of Latin American countries, such as Argentina, IMF/World Bank imposed structural adjustment programs have been fiercely rejected by angry citizens after years of economic hardship inflicted by neoliberal policies. Increasingly the price and efficiency of utilities and other national and regional services privatised in developed countries also continues to create malaise, often affecting the poor and the elderly.
In addition to the poverty, wars and suffering this usurpation creates around the world, our biosphere has been severely damaged through the lack of its sustainable and responsible stewardship by profit hungry industries. It must be born in mind that multinational corporations, unlike the global public, operate on a hierarchy of values geared solely towards increasing profits. Without a sustainable model for resources management, corporations exploit and consume resources faster than they can be regenerated or renewed, and levels of waste and pollution from production exceed the planets ability to harmlessly absorb them.
Environmental and social effects of corporate operations are not accounted for in their balance sheets, they are simply considered ‘externalities’ and consequences of production, thus perverting the true cost of produce which is paid not by the corporation or the consumer, but initially the local people who depend upon the area and ultimately the global biosphere and the global public. A pertinent example of tremendous devastation exacerbated by careless corporate interest was revealed by the South Asian tsunami disaster in December 2005. Commercial shrimp farming and a massive increase in the tourism industry since the 1960s systematically destroyed the mangrove forests of South East Asia, contributing significantly to the catastrophic loss of human lives and settlements during the tsunami.
The ongoing plundering of our shared resources by those who wish to control and profit from them include such measures as the privatisation of public utilities in some of the least developed countries, often as part of a program of structural adjustments; the corporate race to own the rights to seeds, plants, land, water, oil, medicines, genetic material, air space and e-space; and the list goes on. Economically dominant countries, influenced by business interests and focused through the agency of International Financial Institutions continue to pursue neo-liberal policies internationally, managing to circumvent sovereign, democratic rights of developing nations and benefiting minority, corporate interests.
This neo-liberal aspect of globalisation has furthered itself apace, faster than the global public have been able to comprehend and moderate its effects. As demonstrated by a growing number of Latin American countries, the trend towards furthering economic growth through the corporate control of resources and enclosure can and must be reversed. The wave of enclosure and privatisation can only be brought under public control by the combined efforts of the global public through their governments. In order to create a significant shift in the political and economic ideology, the separation of governments from the influence of corporations must be demanded, and the mandates of the undemocratic International Financial Institutions must be progressively dismantled and brought under the auspices of the United Nations and its specialist agencies.
It is crucial however, that absolute ownership of a given resource is not simply transferred from ‘the corporation’ to ‘the nation’ where it may naturally occur. For there to be a workable, efficient economic system based on sharing that can redistribute essential resources globally according to need, it must be understood that all common resources, where ever they occur on the planet, must be cooperatively owned, managed and utilised equitably by the global public. Without this affirmation of international solidarity, a crucial step toward worldwide cooperation will be missed and confrontation between nations over resources reinforced. Furthermore, given the uneven availability of certain resources around the world (such as oil), without an international shared ownership agreement it would be difficult to ensure needs are secured globally. A new United Nations agency must be established to represent the global public’s claim to these essentials and to coordinate international efforts to catalogue, exchange and distribute these resources globally. This UN Council for Resource Sharing (UNCRS) would initially be responsible for initiating and coordinating an international emergency relief program to prevent the 50,000 unnecessary poverty related deaths that occur daily.
Only through global participation and cooperation can our common assets be reclaimed and their governance shared by society, represented through democratic governments. Critically, we must share the responsibility to protect and sustainably manage the global commons for the benefit of future generations, or face environmental devastation at levels far greater than almost any known threat to our long term survival, apart from nuclear war.