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Gerhard Kruip {*}

Taking Action as Humankind Family

Reflecting on the World's Common Property
as Global Future Prospects


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 9/2012, P. 460-465
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    From climate change up to water scarcity, the world is exposed to increasing risks. Humankind would be definitely able to do something against them, if it would do it together. States, however, act out of self-interest. So how is it possible to protect the world's common property and just in time to avert, for instance the harmful climate change?


Even a cursory look at the latest "Global Risk Report" (2012) of the World Economic Forum reminds us painfully of the fact that the world is still exposed to increasing risks of various kinds, which are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. They range from climate change, which implicates water scarcity, decline in arable land, food shortages and loss of biodiversity, up to economic risks, such as instability of the financial markets, political risks, as e.g. more and more 'failing states', and technical risks due to the vulnerability of networked computer systems. Further population growth, above all in Africa and South Asia, will exacerbate these problems. The increasing migration may mean relief for some regions but for others social conflicts and integration problems.


Are only Nationalization and Privatization able to protect Common Property?

Humankind could definitely cope with all those problems, if it would do it together. But this apparently fails at the prisoner's dilemma structure of these problems: In international negotiations, as e.g. recently at the "Rio+20" in June 2012, it is time and again evident that the States in the global competition behave as selfish individuals. They are at best willing to agree on compromise formulas and non-binding agreements, because all of them are initially concerned about their national self-interest.

Everybody tries to adopt the "free-rider position". Virtually no state wants to make advance concessions, because there is no confidence that the others go along with you and do not exploit your readiness to cooperate. It seems that those times are over: when relatively successful agreements such as the Montréal Protocol to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1987 were possible. Although it must be admitted that the danger of an increase of the ozone hole was clearly foreseeable, the potential damage due to the increasing UV radiation very high, and the costs of preventing relatively low.

The egoism of states has of course to do with the fact that the politicians are elected by their respective national voters, who are often not sufficiently aware of the global problems. You even get the impression that the average citizen is even the more prone to constrict nationalistically his horizon the more the symptoms of the global crisis are directly felt by him.

Even though politicians are fond of blaming sweepingly the economic globalization as a whole, "the financial markets" or "greedy bankers" for the worsening crisis, so this is just one side of the coin.



For it was politics that since the nineties of the last century greatly promoted the globalization: It ensured a global market integration without creating correspondingly assertive political institutions that control it. It is therefore similar to the Euro: If you embark on a monetary union, without creating the respective institutions of a political union, you needn't be surprised that this currency is plunged into a crisis when the participating countries develop away from each other. The economic theory of optimal currency areas has precisely predicted these difficulties.

The lacking joint action of humankind reminds strongly of the 'tragedy of the commons', as it was already in 1968 described in the famous essay (The Tragedy of the Commons) by Garrett James Hardin (1915-2003) and became formative for the understanding of "public goods". When a group of shepherds leads their sheep on a public pasture that belongs to them in common, then everyone of them, says Hardin, will out of rational self-interest take care that as many of his sheep as possible are grazing there - with the for everybody unfavourable result that the pasture will be destroyed relatively soon.

Many people have derived from it that public property would inevitably be destroyed if it was not nationalized in due time, or even better privatized. Privatization or nationalization were consequently the mostly proposed solutions, in order to protect such goods. However, there are many empirically proven examples where the joint management of common property does work very well. People who jointly use a public property are normally not so "stupid" that they simply accept its destruction.

Elinor Ostrom, who in 2009 had won the of the Bank of Sweden in memory of Alfred Nobel donated Prize in Economics, died on the 12th June this year. She has empirically explored what enables groups of people to manage common property in such a manner that it is preserved in the long term and brings high benefits for everybody.

According to Ostrom, special "institutions" are needed to prevent overuse or destruction. They regulate the management of common property, in English, "Commons." There must be clear boundaries with regard to the question of who is allowed to use the commons, and which goods are concerned. There must be clear and fair rules for production and use. As experience teaches, they work all the better the more they are adapted to local conditions, especially if they have been established by the users. Of course, the compliance with the regulations must be controled, and in case of their contravention there must be graduated sanctions. In order to cope with its concomitant conflicts, effective mechanisms are required. The entire set of regulations should be integrated in a national legal system, as well as the use of the commons should be embedded in a (definitely also market-oriented) economic system. And this requires a "polycentric governance." The sustainable use of common property, which consequently very differs from "public goods", does therefore by no means happen "by itself" but is socially, institutionally and normatively very demanding.

It would therefore also be naive to think that the extension of the "commons" will solve all problems - as some of her enthusiastic supporters apparently do. Many questions have still to be clarified. This is currently leading to a gratifying expansion of research activities and institutions. Ostrom has founded the "International Association for the Study of the Commons" (IASCP), which also publishes the "International Journal on the Commons." Since 2003, there is a special "Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods" in Germany. The Heinrich Böll Stiftung has dealt with this topic in several publications, together with Silke Helfrich, who runs also the inspiring blog: Also the works of Inge Kaul ( are useful.


Who Cares about the Public Goods?

In economics, goods are differentiated in terms of exclusivity and rivalry. There are goods where others can be excluded from their use, as e.g. when I order a meal in the restaurant and forbid others to eat from my plate (with regard to peace in the family this needn't always be wise). With other goods, it is impossible to secure these exclusive use: When a group of coastal dwellers build dykes against inundation, also those residents are protected who do not participate in its construction. Such non-exclusivity applies to many environmental goods such as clean air, an atmosphere not overloaded with carbon dioxide, and much more.

With the criterion of rivalry it is about the question of whether an item is consumed when it is used or not. A publicly accessible encyclopedia, like Wikipedia, does not lose records when they are read by many. And the protective function of the dike is not impaired when it protects several residents at the same time. These goods are "non-rivalrous."



But our atmosphere can not unlimitedly absorb carbon dioxide, if we want to prevent a harmful climate change; and too many cars cause congestion of a public road. Exclusive and rivalrous goods are mostly privately owned. Non-exclusive and non-rivalrous goods are also referred to as "public goods". There is no problem when they are used, but certainly when they are made available: because you may also use them, if you are not involved in their provision.

The experience of Wikipedia shows that there are nevertheless often enough volunteers (in English "Commoners") who take care of such a good (in German, they are therefore often labelled "Kümmerer"). If not, it needs agreements about who is responsible for which tasks, and who bears the costs for the production of such goods. It is often the State that goes here into action. In "contractarian" models one even has recourse to the necessity of providing "public goods" (as e.g. internal and external security) in order even to justify that we need the State.


Whether a Good is a Public, Private or Common Property ...

What is particularly interesting are goods that are non-exclusive but rivalrous. Both qualities for example apply to the common pasture of Hardin: All herdsmen have access (non-exclusivity). But this quality is not "inherent" in this good, it is therefore also possible to change it. And the grass which has been eaten by a sheep is no longer available to others (rivalry). This applies to most environmental goods such as climate, fish stocks, biodiversity, water resources, and more. Everyone benefits from their use but is also affected if they are damaged.

Since it is about rivalrous goods which are jeopardized by exploitation, solutions must be found in order to prevent the "tragedy of the commons". Economists often recommend the creation of property rights, i.e. the privatization of these goods: on the assumption that the owners will better care for a sustainable use of their property. The pasture could be divided among the shepherds, and emission rights could be sold for the atmosphere.

The problems that are easily overlooked are, firstly, that many items can be used in quite different ways; and some of these uses have grave external effects. A private owner of rainforest may maintain it with its diversity; but he may also deforest it and use the land for soybean cultivation or livestock breeding. In his benefit calculation, he needn't take into account the devastating environmental consequences, for he needn't pay for the damage. This example shows that in certain cases privatizations cannot solve the tragedy of the commons but exacerbates it, precisely because the external effects are not considered.

On the other hand, where it is about "natural monopolies" (as e.g. electricity, water and gas networks), the privatization of goods may lead to monopolies, in which the benefits of competition in a market economy have certainly no effect, and the private owners therefore can siphon off unjustified monopoly profits. Often, however, also the nationalization of such goods is not optimal, because bureaucracies unfortunately work mostly less efficient; and there is corruption and personal enrichment by the politically powerful, at least if democracy and the rule of law does not really work well. As the research of Ostrom proves, the joint management of common goods by local organizations is then actually often the best solution.

In any case, the question whether a good is a public, private or common one can not be decided solely on the basis of certain qualities of this good, but is ultimately a political question. And the perspectives mingle. Private property, too, is subject to social responsibility, and the management of common property needs incentives and rights of disposal. For the sake of the common good, it is useful to regard some goods as private, others as public and yet others as commons, and accordingly to develop appropriate solutions for their provision and use.


The Moon is Already Common Heritage of Mankind

In view of the failures of markets and governments, it is undeniably appealing to apply these considerations to the global commons, which are important for the future of the entire humankind. For the nationalization cannot be demanded, for the sole reason that a world state does not exists (and for specific reasons it should probably never exist). And the nation states would not be above suspicion to use these goods only in national self-interest. In fact, the idea of global commons is not that new. Already in 1967 Arvid Pardo (1914-1999) proposed to regard the sea floor as a "common heritage of mankind." - It was even possible to implement this in the international Convention of the Law of the Sea. In the "Moon Treaty" of 1979 is also determined that the moon and its resources are the common heritage of mankind. This implies that no one can privately appropriate the Moon or parts of it, that its possible use is only allowed if it takes place cooperatively in joint management, and that the entire present and future humankind must benefit from its use.



So we are in the peculiar situation that humankind protects legally the moon better than its own atmosphere.


God's Primal Gift

There are parallels between the idea of the "commons" and the Catholic social teaching that repeatedly resorts to Thomas Aquinas' theory of property. In the papal social encyclicals, the "common destiny of earthly goods for all people" is repeatedly emphasized: The encyclical "Rerum Novarum" (1891), due to its anti-socialist gist, about the justification of private property by natural law only says that the common bestowal of earthly goods would not be opposed to "private property" (No. 7), whereas "Populorum Progressio" (1967) clearly puts the emphasis on a different point. According to it, the right of property must not hinder the implementation of the principle of common bestowal (22), so it could not be an "absolute and unconditional right" (23), and therefore also expropriations might be right, if private property is "detrimental to the common good" (24).

By using the efficiency argument, already Thomas had justified private ownership of goods which originally were bestowed to everybody. All things admittedly belong ultimately to God and are for all people. But the goods would be managed better, and the peace more easily preserved if the use of those goods would be given into private hands. But the argument at the same time implies that private property is then no longer appropriate when the goods are not administered better by it than in common ownership.

Also in the encyclical "Centesimus Annus" of John Paul II (1991) this "universal destination of goods" is emphasized (30 ff), and explicitly connected with the environmental problems, "Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God's prior and original gift of the things that are" (CA 37). However, this "universal destination" is predicated of all goods. It relativizes all private property and emphasizes its social obligation. In the church's social teaching remarkably little thought is still given to the different types of goods (private, public, common ...) and, accordingly, to different institutional designs for managing them.



Ostrom has won the characteristics of long-term sustainable institutions for the management of common goods mainly from local and relatively manageable social communities. This raises the question of whether similar criteria may work at all with regard to global commons.

Ottmar Edenhofer, inter alia acting director of "Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change" (MCC) has repeatedly emphasized one should not hope that the shortage of fossil fuels would in time enforce an energy transition towards renewable energy sources, i.e. that the prevention of global warming could be left, so to speak, to market mechanisms. There would admittedly be price increases in oil, gas and coal, but these would entail that even the exploitation of until now not reasonably usable reserves would become profitable.

Global warming can therefore only then be limited to a bearable degree, if the atmosphere is not regarded as no man's land that may be polluted by everyone but as global commons of humankind that must be jointly managed by all people. This requires a fair distribution of emission allowances of carbon dioxide (CO2). But it is by no means easy to clarify what "fair" means, because the industrialized countries are responsible for most of the CO2 emissions, and the poorer countries may rightly claim a certain pent-up demand.

In addition, if no longer all fossil fuels are allowed to be used, these reserves are devalued. This raises the question of compensation for non-use of such resources, except when you regard also these resources as the common heritage of mankind; and so, according to Thomas Pogge, the countries that have them at their disposal actually even must pay a kind of commodity dividend. Peter Barnes has proposed a global trusteeship for our atmosphere. Such "Sky Trust" would auction clearly limited CO2 emission rights, and refund the means to the citizens of the earth. It would be best, if incentives would thus created for energy conservation and the development and use of renewable energy.

But it applies also to this idea: What has initially be brought about is that States submit to such a regulation. And even if this could be achieved, it would still remain unclear how the compliance with targets could be checked and those states that do not abide by agreements could be called to account. In plain terms: Who would be able effectively to force the U.S., Russia, China and India really to abide by signed agreements?

In his book "Why cooperate?" (2007), Scott Barrett, an economist at Johns Hopkins University and former adviser to the "International Task Force on Global Public Goods" asks about the incentives for states to cooperate for global commons. The imminent destructions can be so severe that it, from pure self-interest, could be worthwhile already for individual states, at least for the larger and more potent among them, to provide the means to eliminate the risks, even if other countries which do not cooperate had also a benefit.

However, we have not such a structure with regard to climate change. The problem of missing incentives for cooperation is even exacerbated by the fact that in the assessment of just those countries that emit the most CO2 (for example, U.S., Russia) the problems are not so dramatical, whereas particularly severely affected countries (such as low-lying islands in the Pacific) already contribute little to global warming, and can therefore do little to avoid it. Add to that the large uncertainties in the precise impact assessment, especially if the turn-about phenomena, as e.g. a short-term cessation of the Gulf Stream, are taken into account, and the long time horizon over which the impact stretches: The worst consequences will affect generations not yet born.

Whether at all and to what extent we can use these future damages as an argument to demand sacrifices from the present generation will be dependent on the controversial question of whether and, if so, at which instalment future damages are allowed to be discounted. The so-called Montreal Protocol on the reduction of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had, as a possible sanction, relied on restrictions for trading with CFC-containing products, and implemented this as a very successfully impending sanction. But for CO2 a similar means is hardly possible.


Ultimately, it Therefore Depends on All of Us as Individuals

Although Barrett all in all is rather skeptical regarding the prospects of success in the fight against climate change, he in principle reckons with the possibility that States do not act only out of self-interest, but because they feel accountable for the global common weal, and want to make a fair contribution. This would be particularly effective if it would happen in the large and economically powerful states. However, these have better opportunities to mitigate the consequences of climate change for their citizens, rather than to fight its causes. Just the commitment of the larger and wealthier countries requires citizens who in democratic processes bring themselves to implement such a solidary policy.



Ultimately, it therefore depends on all of us as individuals and on the by us created national and international civil society organizations, whether we are willing consistently to adopt a global perspective, and feel as part of the "humankind family". The latter has to manage the common heritage in a fair cooperation - and must become able creatively to find better institutional regulations for it. The "tragedy of the commons" and a harmful climate change may perhaps be averted only if as many people as possible reflect on the "Commons". It is obviously not realistic to hope for a situation in which states get together for more cooperation - out of pure self-interest. You have therefore realistically to say that the fate of humankind depends on whether it is able to allow to be motivated morally.


    {*} Gerhard Kruip (born 1957) is Professor of Christian anthropology and social ethics of the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Mainz. He is inter alia consultant to the Commission VI and the Sub-Commission for Latin America contacts of the German Bishops' Conference and a member of the working group Fundamental Politcal Issues at the Central Committee of German Catholics.


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