Introducing the Global Commons

by Harlan Cleveland

Harlan Cleveland is President of the World Academy of Art and Science and Professor Emeritus of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota; he served as United States Ambassador to NATO, as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, and as President of the University of Hawaii.


The Physical Commons

Four environments, physically huge and still mostly unexplored, are treated in international law and custom as parts of a global commons. The four commons -- oceans, outer space, atmosphere (including weather and climate), and Antarctica -- are geophysically and biochemically related to each other, but each has its own history of relationships to humankind.

Oceans have the longest human history. Because they were accessible to a few intrepid seafarers, but a dangerous mystery to most land-dwellers, the oceans have long been an unregulated highway for those with the technological prowess to travel it. As useful natural resources were discovered and perceived to be potentially scarce, nations have tried to make up rules for their exploitation. The difficulty of regulation increases with the mobility of the resource (fish) and with distance from the shoreline (offshore oil, seabed minerals).

Under the most recent (but not fully accepted) Law of the Sea Treaty, the deep ocean and its ocean floor is still clearly a commons -- "the common heritage of mankind." (The Holy See, without explaining from whom mankind received the inheritance, spoke in 1978 of the "universally accepted" principle that the seas are "the common heritage of mankind.") The obligation of sovereign states in "exclusive economic zones" within 200 miles of their shorelines is somewhat unclear, but the resources even in these zones are still in some limited sense part of the ocean commons.

Outer space was declared in 1967 to be "the Common Province of Mankind," in the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space. (The chief U.S. negotiator for the Outer Space Treaty called this language a sort of "freedom-of-the-seas" provision.) The same instrument characterized astronauts/cosmonauts as "envoys of mankind." The implicit assumption is that human exploration from Earth will be unique, and thus establishes a monopoly on which human decisions will be definitive.

The concept of "common heritage" has not yet been tested against the "freedom-of-the-seas" analogy when it comes to ownership and control of the products of space activities and information derived from earth satellites launched for resource sensing, communication, weather observation, and military reconnaissance. Nuclear weapons deployed in orbit, and anti-ballistic missile (ABM) weapons, have been banned by treaty.

Atmosphere, weather, and climate ("climate" is long-term weather) have not been claimed as the exclusive province of states; they are, indeed, inherently global. Clouds, winds and storms, unlike human artifacts such as aircraft, move through "national air space" without picking up any of the attributes of national sovereignty. A global data system to facilitate weather forecasting (the World Weather Watch) and much major international weather research has proceeded without provoking claims that weather belongs to anyone.

Some short-term weather can be modified at human command, but even where this has been done for many years (for example, cloud-seeding by Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean, which enhances rainfall not only in Israel but in Jordan and Syria), it has not yet produced international conflict. In his 1965 Report to Congress on Weather Modification, President Lyndon Johnson said, ". . . it is clear that large-scale weather or climate control schemes cannot be contained within national boundaries."

Atmospheric pollution is, however, generating international conflict (acid rain), international cooperation (to avert further damage to the ozone layer), and international concern (about the "greenhouse effect" of atmospheric gases traceable to human activities).

Antarctica was established as a special kind of commons when in 1959 a dozen nations (most of whom had been claiming pie-shaped slices of the empty continent) signed the Antarctic Treaty. Twenty years later this action was described by a delegate to the Tenth Consultative Meeting on the Treaty: "For the first time in history, a whole continent was declared a zone of peace and international cooperation among countries . . . .The Treaty has been functioning successfully for two decades, and it has become a clear example of how it is possible to solve complex international issues." Any nation with the technical capacity can conduct scientific research anywhere on the icy continent; military operations are not allowed and nuclear weapons are banned.

A Mandatory Cooperation
These four kinds of commons in our global environment are very different from each other -- in their physical characteristics, in their perceived usefulness to humankind, in the origins of their legal status, and in the institutions thus far developed to limit conflict about them and regulate their exploration and use. Yet there are [three] striking similarities that cry aloud for us to think about them together.

1. The four environments are for practical purposes indivisible: they are bounded by each other, affect each other's behavior, must take each other into account.

2. It is not practical for a person, corporation, or even a sovereign nation to appropriate the "commons" environments -- that is, to claim exclusive ownership of the physical areas involved. It is possible for a person, corporation or nation to control exclusively some of the resources these commons environments may contain. But to establish and hang onto rights to use the commons depends on the acquiescence (or at least the apathy) of all the other potential stakeholders.

3. Widespread international cooperation is therefore required to explore these four environments and exploit their usable resources.

The global weather is already under daily surveillance in a coordinated system involving most of the world's sovereign nations. Study of the global climate has already been undertaken by some of the most far-reaching international research work in human history.

International science is now undertaking to understand Global Change through what a National Academy of Sciences panel has called "a new effort to study the Earth and its living inhabitants as a tightly connected system of interacting parts." This effort (the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme: an Interdisciplinary Study of Global Change, sponsored by the International Council of Scientific Unions -- ICSU) "must be truly international, for the concerns of the program are those of the entire globe," according to a National Academy of Sciences report which touched off the ICSU initiative. "Considerations of access alone will require the participation of scientists and technicians from both the advanced and the developing countries representing all areas of the world. But a need equally great is that of the active involvement of the nations and the governments that must ultimately use the knowledge gained to make economic and policy decisions."

Information as a Commons
Modern information technologies, fast computers married to reliable telecommunications, have made it possible to explore and use the "common heritage" environments at a rapidly accelerating pace. Combined with earth satellites for picture taking, resource sensing and global communication, the new technologies have speeded up the human use of the oceans and Antarctica, provided a great leap forward in measuring and modeling the atmosphere, and brought space travel, space industry and space settlement out of the realm of science fiction and into the places where plans are laid and policy is made.

Indeed, if the mark of a global commons is that it cannot readily be divided or appropriated and that it requires an unusual degree of international cooperation to be explored or used at all, there is another candidate for treatment as a global commons: the worldwide flow of information and especially digitized data. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the envelope of knowledge around us as the "noösphere"; he added it to the natural "biosphere" and the "technosphere" of human artifacts, to make a complete picture. Kenneth Boulding defined the "noösphere" as "the totality of the cognitive content [and] values, of all human nervous systems, plus the prosthetic devices by which this system is extended and integrated in the form of libraries, computers, telephones, post offices, and so on."

The accumulated lore of civilized humanity, not only "recorded history" but the know-what of scientific inquiry, the know-how of technology, the know-why of values and the know-who of social institutions -- not to mention our hunches from unremembered subconscious learnings -- is certainly part of the "common heritage of mankind." New information technologies have quite suddenly multiplied our capacity to store knowledge about the past, to communicate present knowledge, and even to simulate future knowledge.

Colin Cherry's writings remind us that our concept of "communication" derives from the Latin communicare, to share. Though our still primitive arrangements for managing the information commons require us to pretend that information can be owned, it is really only the delivery service that is owned and exchanged; the information ("message") delivered is the subject of a sharing transaction, for the person sending the message still has it too.

So while we are puzzling about the governance of the shared environments in the waters and the sky around and above us, we had better reserve some of our imagination for that other ubiquitous, fluid, shared environment, the global flow of information.

The Tragedies of the Global Commons
In the commons environments, the issue is not ownership -- not even whether they belong to no one or everyone. The issue is how to generate the incentives to explore and use the shared resources (those that are scarce, such as fish and some minerals and parking places in geostationary orbit, and those that are abundant, such as ocean energy and some -- not all -- kinds of information), and how to distribute the benefits: Who is going to reap what proportion of the benefits at what cost?

In earlier times sharing arrangements for a common resource were customary, for example in tribal ownership and nomadic practices. Vestiges of the idea survive in such concepts as the Boston Common and the system of U.S. National Parks, and in the way many waterways in Europe and North America are managed. For people in old England the commons, as Ivan Illich defines it, was "that part of the environment which lay beyond their own thresholds and outside of their possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage." The commons "was necessary for the community's survival, necessary for different groups in different ways, but . . . in a strictly economic sense, not perceived as scarce." The resource (pastureland for sheep or cattle) was finite, though, and when too many of those entitled to graze their livestock exercised their rights on too small an area of grass, the resource was used up to the detriment of all: Garrett Hardin's classic "tragedy of the commons." (It was to avoid the classic tragedy of the commons that the coastal states around the Mediterranean Sea agreed in the 1970's to reverse its degradation through cooperation even among sworn political foes. The "Med" is already blue again in some places where it used to be brown.)

The older commons have long since disappeared through "enclosure." But the vast new commons -- the watery two-thirds of the earth's surface, its atmospheric envelope, the mostly empty space beyond, and the common heritage of human knowledge -- is not going to be fenced in.

In the traditional earthly commons (the sheep grazing in a common pasture), the potential "tragedy" was always conceived to be the inherent shortage of the resource. The dangers to the huge physical environments we call the global commons are of three kinds.

There are some shortages, even in outer space. Technologically optimal low earth orbits are a finite resource: a "parking problem" is already developing at geosynchronous orbit.

There is clutter, which is already becoming a serious problem. At a meeting in Paris, there were stories of the "garbage without a country," the Long Island barge looking for a place to drop its load. A parallel problem is developing in space.

At least in outer space, said someone at the Paris meeting, there would be plenty of room for garbage. Not so, said Apollo astronaut, Ed Mitchell. If there was only one gram of debris per cubic kilometer, out to 1,000 kms from Earth, the average useful life of a satellite (with a 10 m2 cross section), orbiting in that space would be no more than seven hours. How much is one gram per cubic kilometer? About the equivalent of one Apollo stack sitting on its launching pad.

The emptiness of outer space is filling up fast. There are 4 million pounds of debris out there, says NASA expert Donald Kessler; this includes some 48,000 objects of marble size or larger. At space velocities, several miles per second, they're mighty dangerous projectiles. We evidently need a space sanitation program. Trouble is, as Mitchell said, a vacuum cleaner won't work in a vacuum. So, we had better prevent the damage, not just try to control it after it happens.

For the most part, in the now-and-future global commons, the most serious danger is mismanagement, not depletion of the resource as a whole, but, as John Craven puts it in a study of Pacific marine resources: ". . . the tendency to chop the commons into manageable pieces, thereby risking its resources not being exploited for the benefit of humankind, but instead being wasted, intensifying preexisting inequities and providing a whole set of new occasions for international conflict."

Such a doctrine, optimum use of shared resource, would obviously be advantageous to those nations (or other aggregations of economic power) with the technological prowess to explore the global commons, retrieve any usable materials, or use the commons as a base for scientific research, energy production, communications, observation, or military purposes. (In like manner, "freedom of the seas" was advantageous to those nations with strong navies and merchant fleets, "freedom of trade" was most helpful to the big traders, and "free flow of news" is strongly supported by the main processors and distributors of news.) So there is yet another potential tragedy of the global commons: exploitation of mankind's "common heritage" without due attention to fairness. That was the issue over which a regime for the deep oceans seabed eventually broke down in the Law of the Sea negotiations.

In a policy declaration about the U.S. space program a generation ago, President John F. Kennedy spoke of "setting sail on this new sea." Both the oceans and outer space are hostile environments and also common areas shared by all people. What can we learn about the management of exploration, the development and the use of outer space as we study international conflict and cooperation in the ocean commons?

Judging from the struggles (1967-82) to develop a comprehensive Law of the Sea, we (whoever "we" turns out to be) will need to learn in outer space (a) "how to allocate revenues derived from exploration and use of the commons," (b) how to protect scientific research, (c) how to protect the environment and avoid "technological pollution," and (d) "what functions and powers to grant to any international organizations given jurisdiction" over the commons.

Does the very vastness of the global commons help to reduce agreement about its management?: "The farther away, the easier the consensus." The enlargement of the context also will speed the movement "beyond governments to nongovernments." I have often observed in politics and government that courage is directly proportional to distance from the problem. But electronic telecommunication now makes remoteness less important. Consensus in the commons will have to rest on more solid foundations than distance.

Management of the Global Commons
In each part of the interconnected global commons, issues of governance arise. They cluster around three questions: Who will explore? For what uses? For whose benefit?

Can we define a "global interest"? In the case of the atmosphere, "three basic assaults -- acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming -- are driving nations toward cooperation, if not to find a global commons at least to define a common interest."

Can we use science to refine our fears and hopes? At the least, "we can assign probabilities to future events, then calculate what it would take to achieve 'freedom from fear'."

Should we impose our values on still-vacant environments? The answer seems to be: How could we do otherwise? "What we love results in what we do." And if in the oceans and the skies we don't "impose values such as environmental prudence, protection of diversity, and a balance of human rights and responsibilities, then we would replicate in the commons the earthly conflicts that would make the commons merely a new theatre of war." In the global commons above all, "mankind has a right to peace." By "governance of the commons" do we imply:

  • that the commons is like a "garden," where everything is "managed?" One Paris participant spoke of the commons as a string of "global parks." But do we know enough to organize a Global Park Service? Can we develop the doctrine required to train ourselves as global park rangers?
  • that we had better arrange not to touch it because we may upset what millions of years of evolution have created? "Nature knows best." This is the "wilderness" approach, driven by a paralyzing sense of our own ignorance and a healthy respect for the "foul-up factor" in human affairs.
  • that the commons won't be left alone, but a world consensus is required to exercise restraint in these "nobody in charge" environments -- balancing our appetite for adventure and our ambition to expand civilization's physical frontiers with a sober awareness of "our ignorance, our dependence on the wilderness, and our shared need to protect the 'uncommons'?"

Mission to Planet Earth

Ever since the space shuttle Challenger exploded, the U.S. government has been trying to figure out what to do next. Some folks want to get on with exploring Mars -- before any other country can get there. Astronaut Sally Ride's commission suggested that we should learn to live and work on our own Moon, then go to Mars later.

NASA has come up with the most sensible strategy of all; they call it "Mission to Planet Earth." Along with whatever farther-out space missions are authorized, the Earth mission would put into space the kinds of machines and the types of people likely to be most useful for studying, managing, and peacekeeping down here where most of us are going to be living, working and maybe fighting in the centuries to come.

Using space to improve conditions for human life on Earth has been by far the most important result of the space program so far.

Weather forecasting is partly science, partly intuition, and (on television) partly histrionics. The World Weather Watch, with its picture-taking satellites, communication satellites, and supercomputer simulations of the atmosphere, has enormously improved the science part of the mix. The World Weather Watch is one piece of the U.N. system that works, which is why you never hear about it. It makes global international cooperation possible -- and, because possible, necessary. Each of us benefits, every evening on the TV news and every morning in the newspaper, from this active daily cooperation among more than a hundred countries.

Navigation satellites are the key to our submarine-based strategic deterrent, the world's most quiet and most effective peacekeeping enterprise. Reconnaissance satellites have made arms control possible, by substituting up-front facts for latent distrust.

Remote sensing satellites look for minerals; their non-optical images "see" how fast tropical forests are felled and how crops are getting along. They have even mapped the trackless Amazon Basin, leap-frogging the Lewis & Clark phase of cartography in which people trudged laboriously along the ground in areas to be newly charted.

Role of the Soft Sciences
The science establishment is now gazing in awe at what space satellites, combined with computers plugged into worldwide telecommunications networks, make possible -- what a recent scientific report called "a broader view and more holistic comprehension of the Earth as a living planet."

Coupled computer models are "linking atmosphere, ocean, soil and biospheric processes." Scholars who have thought of themselves as oceanographers, meteorologists, biologists, chemists, physicists, agronomists, geophysicists, geneticists, or computer scientists are newly excited about something called "earth studies" that includes, and needs, them all.

The governance of the "global commons" -- the oceans, Antarctica, the atmosphere and outer space -- is to social science and the humanities what "global change" (the experts call it "geosphere-biosphere interaction") is to the natural sciences. In a word, it's the next frontier. Whatever we do about "managing" the commons environments and their usable resources, wherever people settle in groups they will give rise to issues of governance. The need for regulation can be foreseen in three kinds of human and societal relationships: "the governance of societies in outer space; the governance of space societies' interaction with earth societies; and the governance of the transitions between earth societies and space societies."

At the Paris meeting to discuss the global commons, an international lawyer made this arresting comment about our self-governance in outer space: "The first 'extraterrestrials' we meet will be our own sons and daughters." How will we deal with them? A thoughtful Apollo astronaut, Rusty Schweickart, answered that question with a question: "Are we going to colonize outer space or civilize it?"