Building Community Wealth by Expanding the Public Domain
Although many think of the "commons" as the common grazing land of medieval towns, the concept is much broader than that. Indeed, the United States is full of everyday commons management systems including public libraries, the Internet, blood banks, and parks. In addition, over 150 million acres are held in trust by states; much of this is leased for timber, grazing or oil production, with revenues going to public schools. For instance, proceeds from offshore oil and gas leases finance The Texas Permanent School Fund.
Of course, today, commercial intrusion into previously public or “common” space is widespread. In recent years, however, new efforts to both preserve and expand what is held to be in the public domain have emerged. Three factors, in particular, have helped spur this development: First, efforts by some environmentalists to revive the traditional idea of the environment as a commons to develop policy solutions to global warming and declining open space; second, the emergence of an “information commons” made possible by computer technology; and third, globalization, which has sparked interest in organizing to preserve non-commodity values such as family time.
Those seeking to preserve the traditional (or physical) commons have largely focused in two areas: responding to global climate change and protecting open space. With open space, one of the most notable achievements has been the growth of conservation land trusts, which preserve open space by creating restrictions on private deeds that preclude destruction of the natural environment. In the United States alone, land trusts have conserved 37 million acres of land so far.
On global warming, those arguing for “commons” approach contend that stopping climate change requires ending the practice of giving away common resources such as “the sky” (atmosphere) to private polluters. Instead, these advocates urge that those who pollute pay fees; these fees, in turn, can support a fund that distributes dividends to individuals to offset the higher cost of energy that the pollution fees would create. This proposal combines two successful policy models. The first part, a “cap and trade” system, was used to reduce acid-rain causing sulfur dioxide emissions in the 1990s, but the financial costs were borne largely by consumers.
The dividend part is modeled after the Alaska Permanent Fund. Since 1976 the Fund has distributed a check to every resident of the state based on state oil revenues—in good years, this has approached $2,000 for every single man, woman, and child in the state. Potentially, a similar dividend system financed by carbon pollution permit payments could help offset the income-reducing effect of higher energy costs. Peter Barnes has labeled this proposal a “sky trust,” since the income generated from the fees would be held in trust and distributed in like amounts to all citizens. From a community wealth standpoint, such payments have a strong income-equalizing effect, since each individual gets the same amount, regardless of income. Indeed, Alaska is the only state in the United States to have experienced an increase in income equality since 1980.
To date, efforts to develop a “sky trust,” though stymied at the federal level, have made progress at the state level. In the Northeast, nine states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont—have joined together to form a regional cap-and-trade program covering carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in the region. In May 2006, the Vermont legislature passed House Resolution 860, endorsing the Sky Trust principle of distributing income raised from permits as dividends to state citizens.
A second area of “commons” activism focuses on protecting intellectual and creative freedom, particularly in the arena of information technology. Efforts such as Wikipedia, a collectively written on-line encyclopedia, the Linux operating system, and publicly available “open source” software are three visible products of this activism. In addition, there has been a proliferation of discussion about non-market mechanisms to encourage the freer flow of information, such as the Creative Commons license, a mechanism that allows sharing of information for non-commercial purposes while still restricting commercial reproduction.
A third area of commons activism springs out of a desire to rebuild local non-market institutions to contain the homogenizing effects of globalization. On the one hand this involves advocacy efforts that seek to resist the encroachment of commercialism on the public sphere. On the other, these efforts also involve rebuilding public spaces in a number of areas, including the growth of local community gardens, bartering (and local currency systems), and the expansion of community-supported agriculture.
The modern-day call for people to “restore the commons” is little more than a decade old. Yet it is already having an impact on national and international politics. One example is at the United Nations' World Health Organization, which in April 2006 issued a report calling for compulsory licensing to protect public health, particularly in poorer countries. Within the United States, movement activists have developed new norms and institutions, such as the “creative commons” license, which allows for free, non-commercial reproduction while enabling authors to retain commercial use rights. To date, more than 50 million works carry such licenses.