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Global Commons: Definitions, concepts and perspectives – Towards a Taxonomy

Author

Jennifer Harper

Sep 26, 2022

Global commons have been traditionally defined as those parts of the planet that fall outside national jurisdictions and to which all nations have access. International law identifies four global commons, namely the High Seas, the Atmosphere, the Antarctica and the Outer Space (1). These resource domains are guided by the principle of the common heritage of mankind. Resources of interest or value to the welfare of the community of nations – such as tropical rain forests and biodiversity - have lately been included among the traditional set of global commons as well, while some define the global commons even more broadly, including science, education, information and peace. To incorporate the potential for overuse by some at the expense of others, they can also include the atmosphere, land, ocean, ice sheets, a stable climate and biodiversity (2).




According to the Global Commons Alliance, there are currently two definitions of the global commons: One is based in geopolitics. In this definition the global commons are areas – and their potential economic resources – that lie beyond national jurisdiction: the atmosphere, the high seas, Antarctica and outer space. The second definition has its roots more in economics than geopolitics and relates to how shared resources can be overused by some at the expense of others, regardless of national jurisdiction.

One of the main characteristics of global commons is that they have a value for humankind and the planet. In some cases they even play a crucial role in the survival of our species. More recently, cyberspace has also been regarded as meeting the definition of a global common. (Luk van Langenhove)


The global commons, comprising the areas and resources beyond the sovereigny of any state, build upon the heritage of Grotius’s idea of mare liberum – an idea that aimed to preserve the freedom of access for the benefit of all (3). However, the old mare liberum idea digressed into ‘first come, first served’ advantages for industrialised countries. Especially at the initiative of developing countries, it has now been replaced by a new law of international cooperation and protection of natural wealth and resources beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.


According to Vogler, global commons can be considered as “social constructs that overlay, interpret and allocate ‘brute’ physical facts such as the gravitational forces in space, marine organisms, or deep seabed features that exist independently of our observation (Searle, 1995). The designation of areas and resources as global commons is evidently related both to technological change and scarcity, and both have combined to shape current definitions of the commons problem. ….the list of candidates for global commons status continues to grow. Cyberspace or the ‘digital ecosystem’, intellectual property and crop genetic resources are all so described with attendant implications for governance and security. The defining characteristic of commons relates to the question of access. One shared characteristic of the global commons is their close association with scientific discovery and developing technological capability (mare liberum 1609, Antarctica 1958, outer space from 1957).


There has been substantial recent interest in the global commons amongst the military and strategic studies communities (Jasper, 2010). Their paramount concern is, as ever, the maintenance of access to strategically significant parts of the global commons. Access is also at the heart of environmental framing of the commons, but here it is the consequences of an open access regime and associated tragedies of resource degradation, depletion or destruction that are usually highlighted.


Towards a Taxonomy of Commons


Drawing on the work of Susan Buck (4), this paper outlines a draft taxonomy of commons, distinguishing between local, international and global commons as well as common pool resources.

Physical

Virtual

Notes

Local Commons

Not exclusionary


Traditional commons concept covering pasture, forests, rivers, rights of way, fishing , lakes, etc

International Commons

Exclusionary


Resource domains shared by more than one nation, such as agreed regimes for spaces bordering states e.g. estuaries, the Mediterranean Sea and Baltic Sea.

Cyberspace – the network of information systems across which information is transmitted, shared and stored.

Cyberspace depends on a range of physical assets that make up the internet, or satellite-based communications, or satellite networks for global positioning. These are all under the direct physical control of states and large corporations, and can readily be controlled (or terminated) by them. Berners Lee and others campaign for it to be recognized as a public good

Global Commons

Not exclusionary


Resource domains to which all nations have legal right of access. 4 are UN recognized: Atmosphere, Outer space; Antarctica; High Seas

They refer to human-made but widely accessible resources.

S&T Knowledge (published) – the open science and open data movements aim to remove economic barriers to access but in principle published knowledge is a common resource. Large amounts of scientific knowledge are privately appropriated for their economic or strategic value.

The geophysical commons can also to some extent be regulated - the oceans are subject to the Law of the Sea Treaty of 1982 (which established substantial Exclusive Economic Zones for countries),

the stratosphere has been regulated, for example, by the Montreal Protocol.


Common pool resources

Not exclusionary


Subtractable economically relevant resources managed under a property regime in which a legally defined user pool cannot be efficiently excluded from the resource domain and resources are shared among them.

According to Susan Buck, commons are resource domains in which common pool resources are found.


“Common pool resources are subtractable resources managed under a property regime in which a legally defined user pool cannot be efficiently excluded from the resource domain.


International commons or global commons are very large resource domains that do not fall within the jurisdiction of any one country.


International commons are resource domains shared by several nations, such as the Mediterranean Sea and Antarctica (although recent United Nations environmental treaties have affected the Antarctic regime so that it has some of the characteristics of a global commons).


Global commons are resource domains to which all nations have legal access, such as outer space. The distinction between the two is important, especially because international commons are exclusionary while global commons are not. “ (Buck)



References:

  1. Distinguishing between global commons, common pool resources and public goods https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/mono/10.4324/9781315086415/global-commons-susan-buck


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