The Commons – a Formal Definition

What are the commons?

The commons are our shared wealth without which people cannot survive and thrive. This wealth is comprised of common goods which we have inherited or created, are entitled to use, and are obliged to restore and pass on to our children. What are some examples of common goods?

• Social, Cultural & Intellectual >– indigenous culture and traditions, community support systems, neighborhoods, social connectedness, voluntary associations, labor relations, women and children’s rights, family life, health, education, sacredness, religions, ethnicity, racial values, recreation, silence, creative works, languages, words, numbers, symbols, holidays, calendars, stores of human knowledge and wisdom, scientific knowledge, ethno-botanical knowledge, ideas, intellectual property, data, information, communication flows, airwaves, internet, free culture, sports, games, playgrounds, roads, streets, sidewalks, plazas, public spaces, national parks, historical sites, museums, libraries, universities, music, dance, arts, crafts, money, purchasing power

• Solar, Natural & Genetic – solar energy, wind energy, tides, water power, oceans, lakes, springs, streams, beaches, fisheries, agriculture, forests, wetlands, ecosystems, watersheds, aquifers, land, pastures, parks, gardens, plants, seeds, algae, topsoil, food crops, photosynthesis, pollination, DNA, life forms and species, living creatures.

• Material – the elements, rocks, minerals, hydrocarbons, technological hardware, buildings, inorganic energy, atmosphere, ozone layer, stratosphere. What is the interrelationship among these various commons? The vital link is that all are necessary for our
• sustenance and livelihood
• individual expression and purpose
• social cohesion, quality of life and well-being

What distinguishes common goods from private and public goods?
• private goods are produced and sold by businesses to consumers
• public goods are regulated by governments for their citizens
• common goods are preserved or produced for the use of everyone

Why are common goods unique? Unlike private and public goods, common goods involve
• peer participation, inclusion and cooperation
• equal access, free and fair standards, and transparency
• social creativity and innovation, mutual benefit and long-term sustainability.

Should every commons be managed?
Common goods may be local, regional and global in scope — and, of course, many resource areas overlap. Many commons are best left ungoverned, but an absence of management can lead to the overuse and depletion of resources — a ‘tragedy of the commons’. Although a variety of commons are owned and operated by the private and public sectors, in many cases they are not managed effectively. Various commons — seas and seabeds, atmosphere, outer space — are beyond the jurisdiction of the private and public sectors with no one to administer them.

What prevents us from immediately seeing or understanding our commons? Since common goods are not part of our modern frame of reference or worldview, society is grappling now to understand their meaning. Although we often perceive them, we have lost the specific language for acknowledging and defining our traditional commons. And even for emerging commons like the internet, we are still developing new concepts and vocabulary.

How did we lose the meaning of the commons?
During the past few centuries, as physical space became increasingly quantified and commercialized, our mental categories for resources and goods were gradually oriented to that new social and economic system. Common goods were devalued and shrouded through
• private enclosure of property and legal enforcement
• commodification into private goods and accumulated wealth
• domination by — and dependence on — the private and public sectors

Is this changing now?
Yes. Although common goods still represent an evolutionary challenge to the economic and political status quo, humanity has begun to think differently about its commons. We are reorienting our perception of the world and developing new ways of understanding resources, interrelationships, governing structures, values and standards. This is creating a new consciousness around our commons.

How can a commons be reorganized and revalued?
The reorganization and recovery of a commons is a long-term process. There appear to be three developmental stages, including
• co-governance and co-production — communities of interest or stakeholders manage and create value from a commons
• social charters — stakeholders of a commons make a formal declaration OF their rights to protect, use and produce these common goods
• commons trusts — trustees appointed by the stakeholders undertake legal and fiscal responsibility for the long-term preservation, use or production of a commons.

 So is this a new paradigm?
Yes. It’s the story of how we have forgotten our traditional commons and are now taking responsibility to reclaim and restore them. The story also involves the rapid development of different types of commons, many of which are driven by technology and social innovation. Full recognition of people’s rights to their commons requires a new system of economic exchange in which both streams of common goods — traditional and emerging — are preserved or created independent of commercial and financial pricing. In such a system
• common goods are protected to the extent possible for future generations
• some portion of these resources are rented to businesses for the production and consumption of private goods by the present generation
• taxes attached to the usage of a commons are redistributed by the state as public goods, to provide an income for those who have been negatively affected by the extraction and production of their common resources, and to repair and restore the depleted commons


What Global Changes are Necessary for Human Survival?
Threats to human survival are the result of the individual actions of people across the world. For humanity to survive and to thrive it is important that we undergo the following shifts:
• from a consciousness that sees the individual as primary to one that sees each person as an integral part of humanity and nature
• from governance by and for the few to power-sharing for the benefit of all
• from an economy that destroys human lives and depletes nature to one that allows human beings and nature to thrive through sustainability, prosperity and peace.
These shifts can be brought about through the formation of commons trusts.

What is a Commons Trust?
A commons trust is a legal entity responsible for protecting a shared asset that is inherited from past generations, or is presently being created, on behalf of current and future generations. Because it is common property — held in trust and not owned by anyone — the commons are insulated from any claims by private individuals, business, government or other trusts.

How does a commons trust function?
Throughout history, community rules for many kinds of commons have been set up to prevent resource overuse while ensuring fair access. Yet the supervision of most traditional common goods — land, forests, and cultural artifacts, for example — has seldom involved the establishment of formal trusts. This is largely because their users and managers were not sufficiently organized to use these commons as collateral to protect them from the encroachment of business and government. Modern approaches to natural resource management, along with the development of new kinds of commons — such as digital information and social innovation — have given rise to a new understanding and methodology in the management and valuation of common goods. In the next generation of commons trusts, each trust will be responsible for
• deciding on a non-monetized metric to evaluate the sustainability, quality of life and well-being of a commons and its community of users and producers
• applying this metric to the preservation of the resource by creating a cap on its usage
• monitoring resource creation, usage and restoration according to this cap to determine whether or not the trust may rent a portion of the resource for extraction or production by the private sector or the state

What is unique about Commons Trusts?
Commons trusts are the only fiduciary institutions in society that are accountable for the long term preservation, sustenance or creation of depletable commons. That’s because neither of our existing property regimes — private nor public — have a mandate to guarantee long-term protection, creation and use of these critical resources and thus ensure the common capital of the planet.
• Commons trusts are also the only social institutions capable of protecting and incentivizing the creation of replenishable commons.
• Commons trusts are able to stimulate and protect the co-production of a replenishable resource because they use measures other than scarcity-based pricing to value these common goods.
• The creation of commons trusts allows the private and public sectors to continue to focus on profit, investment and budgetary appropriations, while the commons becomes a primary means of generating social innovation and stabilizing the principal of commons reserves to maintain the diversity and sustainability of the overall economy.

Who manages a Commons Trust?
The stakeholders of a commons appoint trustees to manage a trust on behalf of designated beneficiaries.

What is the role of these trustees?
• The primary obligation of trustees is to maintain the value created through the commons within the commons to the extent possible, so that the community can hold in reserve the larger portion of its depletable capital (natural, genetic, and material) for the benefit of people and species yet unborn, while generating replenishable capital (solar, social, cultural and intellectual) for current generations.
• A second responsibility of commons trustees is to decide what proportion of their common resources may be monetized by renting them to the private sector (or to state-owned businesses or utilities) for extraction and production. A percentage of this fee on depletable resources is then taxed and redistributed by the state to citizens as dividends — or used for other purposes such as maintenance and replacement of the common goods which are being rented, or mitigation of the negative effects of renting these goods. Commons trusts thus guarantee that those who are unprotected have rights to basic sustenance from their own resources and that the depleted resources are repaired and restored.
• A third duty of trustees is to ensure accountability and transparency in decision-making, particularly in the creation of a resource usage cap, usage permits, the amount of rent assessed for usage, and the taxes paid to the state for beneficiaries and resource restoration.

Who are the beneficiaries of a Commons Trust?
The beneficiaries are the population directly affected by the extraction, production or use of a common resource. Designation of these beneficiaries depends upon the size or extent of the commons community, which may be local, regional or global in scope.

How does a Commons Trust actually work?
Instead of regarding a commons as a source of profit, commons trusts determine their preservation value (the actual worth of passing on what we have inherited to future generations and allowing this stock to be replenished and restored) through the full participatory choice of community members on whether or not to spend this commons capital. Commons trusts thus create a new time signature based on the preservation of common resources and the resilience of the system that manages and produces them — not on the assets of the commons that may have financial value in the market place.

Why should Commons Trusts become part of mainstream social and economic policy?  Through the creation of commons trusts across the world, a new dynamic equilibrium can be achieved. The financial incentives of businesses and government would continue to operate as before: the private sector profits through the extraction and production of resources rented to them by the commons sector, and the state gives equal weight to the interests of the private and commons sectors. The difference is that the long-term wealth guaranteed by commons trusts would not be generated through the potential financial revenue of the commons assets they are managing. At every level of decision-making and value creation — local, regional or global —this social and ecological restructuring would create a far more representative balance of power and wealth between the commons, business and government than currently exists.

[Global Commons Trust  215-592-1016]


What is a Social Charter?
A social charter is a declaration of intent to hold a commons in trust for its beneficiaries. The creation of a social charter is an important step in setting up an effective commons trust to protect a community’s common resources.

Why is a Social Charter necessary?< Several legal frameworks exist for the protection of commons, including public domain law, public trust, human rights, and international treaties and conventions. However, these legal frameworks pertain mainly to the provision and allocation of public goods, thus requiring sovereign approval and oversight. Social charters stem from the tradition of customary or natural law, which means that they are created by the users and producers of a commons and are not dependent upon state consent. What does a Social Charter do?
A social charter helps to operationalize the interests and practices of a local geographical group or broader association of stakeholders which manage an commons. It is written framework which outlines the rights and incentives of a community for the management and protection of its common resources. The charter gives all users, managers and producers of a commons an opportunity to voice the expectations and responsibilities emerging from their rights to these common goods.

What are the key elements of a Social Charter?
Given the uniqueness of each commons, there is no universal template for social charters —but a practical baseline is emerging. A social charter for a particular commons would include

1. Vision and Mission Statement

2. Historical Claims
• a description of the existing users, boundaries, power and control of a commons
• a summary of traditional or emerging claims to legitimacy and responsibility for preserving the common resource
• a notice of claims to reparations or re-territorialization of resource boundaries

3. Rights of Fair Access and Use
•  a declaration of the users’ rights to organize and participate in the development of new    institutions and rules
• a statement of the entitlements and responsibilities of users, managers, and producers of the commons
• a statement of equitably shared benefits, quality standards and  safeguards
•  a code of ethics and common values

4. Resource Management
• a quantifiable set of non-monetized metrics for measuring the common  resource
• a means of matching the rules of provision and appropriation to local  conditions
• a framework for democratic and transparent decision-making and participation
• a structure of accountability for conflict resolution and redress of grievances
• a process of monitoring and evaluation

What is unique about Social Charters?
Social charters are based on commons rights. Commons rights differ from human rights and civil rights because they arise, not through the legislation of a state, but through a customary or emerging identification with an ecology, a cultural resource area, a social need, or a form of collective labor. Commons rights affirm the sovereignty of human beings over their means of sustenance and well-being. Social charters generate an entirely new context for collective action. Instead of seeking individual and human rights from the State, people may claim long-term  authority over resources, governance and social value as their planetary birthrights —whether at a community or global level.

Shouldn’t Government create a Social Charter?
We define social charters in terms of commons rights. While many governments have created their own ‘social charters’, state involvement usually delimits the participation of the people of a commons which is needed for the creation of effective commons trusts. Social charters generated by states often disempower those who use and manage a local commons. They put the locus of power in government and function more as a complaint mechanism or quality control procedure than as a means of honoring the rights of people to their commons.

Should the people of a commons create their own Social Charters?
Yes. People who use and manage a commons need covenants and institutions that are not state-managed to negotiate the protection and sustenance of their resources. This ensures that the mutual interests of all stakeholders are directly represented.

Who are the stakeholders of a Social Charter?
Democratic and transparent decision-making for the maintenance and preservation of a particular commons should be developed through the collective action of citizens, customary representatives, social networks, academics, scientists, bilateral donors, development partners, regional organizers, intergovernmental organizations, independent media and other stakeholders — with limited input from national governments and the private sector. The people who create a social charter thus ensure that administrative power is decentralized in order to maintain community access to — and sovereignty over — their own commons.

How would a resource community set up a Social Charter?
• members of a commons set up a task force to formulate a charter for the common goods they wish to protect, manage or create
• they identify the stakeholders of this commons and the services it provides
• a core group of stakeholders is appointed to create and approve the social charter
• the core group consults with all stakeholders
• a draft is prepared
• the draft is circulated for comments
• stakeholder suggestions are used to modify the draft
• the draft is submitted to all stakeholders for approval
• the approved social charter enables the creation of an effective  commons trust.

Would the adoption of Social Charters change the role of Government?
Yes. Through the assertion of people’s inherent rights to their common goods, the role of the state would become much more balanced between enabling the corporate sector and enabling the people of the commons. Instead of regulating commerce and finance in the public interest (while also regulating the commons for the benefit of commerce and finance), the new duty of the state would be to confirm the declarations of the rights of people to their commons, allowing them to manage their own resources by recognizing and upholding their social charters.


Global Commons Trust   

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