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Published on June 22nd, 2006 | by Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

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Taking Back the Commons

Over the years, I’ve subscribed to many email newsletters, and I’ll bet that I deleted about 95% of them after, at most, a quick glance at the content. That’s definitely not the case with Seventh Generation’s Non-Toxic Times: this once-a-month e-publication is always filled with interesting and substantive articles on a range of topics. I got the latest issue today, and one article that caught my eye dealt with the new “Law of the Commons of the Natural World.” While some readers will inevitably say something like “those damned pinko commies are at it again,” this document doesn’t argue against private property. It does, however, claim that many of our resources constitute common property of all citizens, and that “privatization” usually squanders such property for the benefit of the few:

Created by Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science & Environmental Health Network in Ames, Iowa, the new Law of the Commons of the Natural World is a counter-balance to prevailing attitudes that increasingly tend to favor corporate privileges and private property rights over community assets, public safety, environmental health, and the ability of future generations to secure a just and sustainable future.

The Law of the Commons is based on the ancient doctrine of public trust, which says that governments hold certain resources in trust for the people they govern. You’ll find the doctrine of public trust lurking in all kinds of documents and laws, from international maritime conventions to America’’s own Constitution.

In introducing her new document, Raffensperger writes, ““It is no secret that we face increasing environmental and social degradation. All indicators suggest that prisons are expanding (even as crime rates drop), poor children suffer disproportionately from toxic chemicals, global warming and pollution threaten to make the planet uninhabitable, and biodiversity is being shredded and homogenized. The old rules enabled the rich to get richer at the expense of the commons — ostensibly so benefits could ‘trickle down’ to everyone else. There may have been a time when those rules made some kind of sense, but now the world is a different place. It is time to change course. We can create a political and legal agenda based on equitable sharing — sharing the bounty of the Earth in such a way that we increase the commonwealth and common health for this generation and those to come, that we give substance to the universal declaration of human rights, and fulfill the promise of America. These ten tenets are a place to start.”

Are these tenants radical? Yes, but only in society that believes private owners should control the commons. Keep in mind that within the US’ history (which really isn’t that long), we once held to the notion that corporations and other large institutions received access to the commons in order to promote “the general welfare” — remember that phrase? While many businesses are voluntarily returning to missions that consider the well-being of the whole community, a push to get our business leaders to sign onto principle like this, and for our political leaders to endorse them, could go a long way towards revising our perceptions about the best use of our natural resources, and the proper relationship between the public and private sectors. I encourage you to share these principles, and discuss them…

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About the Author

Jeff McIntire-Strasburg is the founder and editor of sustainablog. You can keep up with all of his writing at Facebook, and at



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