The commons is a generic term embracing all that we hold and use in common. It is most readily understood as our shared lands, spaces, natural resources and systems. But it also includes our culture and institutions, our economics and politics, our accumulated and co-created knowledge, the human and social capital of our communities and relationships.
The emerging economics recognizes and puts a high value on the commons - broadly defined - and institutes ways of ensuring it is sustained for common benefit (or, as the US Constitution would have it, "the general welfare"). It is viewed as the ultimate form of wealth - the common wealth - even to the extent that some consider society and all it is involved with to be the commonwealth.
The existing economic order treats too much - and ever more - of the commons as a resource to exploit for private profit, often degrading it in the process. The emerging economics turns this on its head: If you wish to use the commons for profit or degrade it in any way, you must pay a fee that supports the common good or stewards the commons. Damage to - and enhancement of - the commons should be accounted for, and that accounting should shape the behaviors of consumers, citizens, corporations, and governments. Instituting such changes will result in economic activity enhancing instead of degrading the commons, so that its common wealth is available to all and increases over time, ultimately being thoroughly appreciated for the intrinsic wealth it is and the quality of life it brings.
|Kids to U.S. Court: Who Owns the Air?|
|RUSSELL MCLENDON - Mother Nature Network|
If you enjoy public beaches, state parks or fishing piers, you can thank the sixth-century Roman emperor Justinian. He's credited with introducing the public trust doctrine, a legal concept that forbids private ownership of certain natural resources, instead preserving them for public use. This idea has spread worldwide since then, protecting everything from beaches and streams to oyster beds and fish stocks.
It was an early tenet of English common law, later encoded in the Magna Carta, and also has a long history in U.S. courts, dating back to at least 1842's Martin v. Waddell. During a 1983 case about water use at California's Mono Lake, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically quoted this section of Roman law to explain public trust:
"By the law of nature these things are common to mankind: the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea."
- Justinian Code of Rome, c. 534
The court ultimately added its own, slightly more specific wording:
"[T]he public trust is more than an affirmation of state power to use public property for public purposes. It is an affirmation of the duty of the state to protect the people's common heritage."
- U.S. Supreme Court, 1983
This is all well-established by now, leaving little doubt about the state's duty to maintain public resources. But there is still some fuzziness about what exactly counts as a public resource - and how far a government must go to protect it.