What is the Environmental Commons?
by Britt Bailey
We the American people are enormously wealthy.
Who owns all those trees in the national forest?
Who owns all that off shore oil you read about in the papers?
Who owns all of those minerals under the federal lands?
We do, it's public property and all.
But, we elect people to go to Washington...
and they lease off what we own, public property, to private companies to sell us back our own stuff for the sake of a greasy buck
Res communes - "things to common to all." This tenet of ancient Roman law guides and informs an exploration of the meaning of the environmental commons today. Its earliest connotation comprised those things extra patrimoiium (incapable of being possessed) and thus available and necessary to all organisms. These fundamental resources by their dynamic nature include water, air, and biological and genetic diversity.
Today, our common resources are increasingly being threatened. Private industry, once constrained to the buying and selling of manufactured goods, now expands its reach into the commercialization of our commons. For example, our seed supply is being snapped up and patented by a handful of multinational corporations. DNA, the genetic heritage of our ancestors and our future generations, is no longer considered collectively held property. Waters flowing from our rivers and falling from the skies is now sold to the savviest of companies seeking profits from an area's shortage. Instead of democratically managing our vital legacy for the essential benefits it provides to present and future generations, we are permitting corporations to buy, mutilate, and profit from our commons to the detriment of environmental and public integrity.
We are all, to a significant degree, guardians of Mother Earth with an obligation to leave in our passing a sustainable environment that affords opportunities for quality of life comparable to or better than the legacy we discovered on our arrival. The environmental commons, once a tacit notion, is now a statement of hope and belief in a better world.