Managing Earth in Common

Management of natural resources through a fee on release of pollution and taking of resources would produce a monetary representation of the value of the earth’s air and water, biota and minerals. As these resources can be thought of as public property, as belonging to all, we can rightly share the proceeds of the pollution fees and resource fees among all people equally. Such a sharing of the wealth of the commons would secure each and every one of us against the threat of abject poverty. A system that combines equal ownership of the commons with free markets and private ownership of man-made capital would include essential elements of both capitalism and communism.


The magnitude of the challenge we face, the stakes involved, and our democratic principles all point to the need to secure the participation of the largest portion of our society in deciding what human impacts on earth we will allow. We cannot and should not expect that levels of resource extraction or pollution will be much in excess of what most people would consider as acceptable. Neither should we expect to hold emissions or taking of resources to levels below what the people will accept. A democratic society would set limits on environmental impacts such that about half considered the levels about right or somewhat too strict while the other half considered the limits about right or somewhat too lenient. If some of us believe that we know better than most what human impacts should be judged sustainable and acceptable, we will have the instruments of change in a free society to bring our fellow citizens around to our view: Reason and sustained pressure, education and the free flow of information. John Champagne (2001)



1 How many people?


The world population is the totality of all living humans on planet Earth. As of today, it is estimated to number 6.986 billion by the United States Census Bureau.  According to a separate estimate of the United Nations, it has already exceeded 7 billion. The UN estimates that it will reach 12 billion around the middle of the 21st century.  A predicted figure of 9 billion is being used in futures modelling.  Any of these figures may be taken to support the idea that the planet is overpopulated, because the environmental consequences of the excessively high human population and its continued growth are already destroying the Earth’s life-support system. The evidence is climate change, wildlife extinction, soil erosion and desertification.  All economic activity occurs in the natural, physical world. It requires resources such as energy, materials and land. In addition, economic activity invariably generates material residuals, which enter the environment as waste or polluting emissions. The Earth, being a finite planet, has a limited capability to supply resources and to absorb pollution. A fundamental question is how different economic activities influence the use of natural resources and the generation of pollution. This leads to the question of how many people can the Earth really support.


The modern debate was started in 1971 by Paul Ehrlich:


“There are 3.6 billion human beings on the face of the Earth. According to our best estimates, there are somewhere between three and seven times more people than this planet can possibly maintain over a long period of time.”


The best estimate now for a population that can live sustainably with a North American standard of living, good health, nutrition, prosperity, personal dignity and freedom, is 1 to 2 billion people. To achieve this goal, the global population has to be stabilised and then gradually reduced to achieve a sustainable society in terms of both economics and environmental resources.  It has been calculated that if this policy were implemented, more than 100 years would be required to make an equitable adjustment through global governance.


With the current world population at around 7 billion, the obvious question is how are we currently supporting this much larger population? The answer is that most people have a lower standard of living than the one enjoyed by North Americans.  Their environmental impact is lower.  So we come to this inescapable question: “What kind of world do we want?” If we want a world where everyone can have a Western lifestyle, then the global human population has to be substantially less than it is now. If we wish to keep the current Western standard of living where it is, while allowing the rest of the world to grow substantially in numbers, the consequence is to doom that “other world” to perpetual misery and lost expectations, while doggedly holding on to the fringes of a Western way of life as desperately as possible. On the other hand, what would be the situation if resources were to be spread evenly across a world population rising to 12 billion during the next fifty years?


Regarding food production, a report, titled Agrimonde, published in 2009 by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and the Centre for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD), concluded that the world will be able to feed a predicted population of nine billion in 2050.  This came from consideration of two scenarios. One stresses economic growth but gives low priority to the environment, whereas the other emphasizes feeding the world while preserving ecosystems. The second scenario, based on a food intake of 3,000 kcal per person per day in all regions of the world, including 500 kcal per day of animal origin, would require an increase of 30% in farm output — compared with 80% for the first scenario — and would mean a substantial cut in food consumption in some countries and a big increase in others.


With respect to allocating material resources, ultimately, the quantity of non-food materials consumed currently by 7 billion of us on the planet will need to average out to six metric tons per year per person, requiring a steep cut in the resources currently enjoyed by people in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S.  As it stands now, an average American uses 88 kilograms of materials per day. Also our modern gadgets require at least a steady supply of 60 different elements, ranging from the toxic to the treasured, such as gold.  The scarcity and expense of providing limited materials points to a future gadget-free world.


2 Common pool resources


Equal justice cannot prevent and indeed always supports growth in population and personal consumption. Such growth, though not inevitable, is a constant environmental threat. If continual growth should ever occur, it eventually causes the breakdown of the ecosystems which support civilization. Henceforth, any viable ethics linking culture and ecology for living sustainably must satisfy the following related requirements:

(1) An acceptable system of ethics is contingent on its ability to preserve the ecosystems which sustain it.

(2) Biological necessity has a veto over the behaviour which any set of moral beliefs can allow or require.

(3) Biological success is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for any acceptable ethical theory. In summary, no ethics can be grounded in biological impossibility; no ethics can be incoherent in that it requires ethical behaviour that ends all further ethical behaviour. Clearly any ethic which tries to do so is mistaken; it is wrong.


These requirements are Herschel Elliott’s summary of a general statement on the ‘tragedy of the commons’.  They are aimed at establishing an ethical basis for a common global property regime based on conservation management.


The first behavioural adaptations of human primates were associated with having local access to a common pool of natural resources.  This pool consisted of the products of a local ecosystem.  The harvest was obtained through cultural adaptations to the environment as a source of goods collected from lands or waters over which no one individual had exclusive rights.  Such community or family resources are known generally as common pool resources (CPRs), or simply the “commons”. Common pool resources exist in many different ecosystems and under a variety of public or community ownership regimes. Typical historical examples include village pastures and woodlands, state or community forests, waste lands of valleys and uplands, coastal waters, rivers, lakes, village ponds, and the like.  At a family level, materials gleaned from CPRs consist of a wide range of items for personal use and sale, including food, fodder, fuel, fibre, small timber, manure, bamboos, medicinal plants, oils, and building materials for houses and furniture. For the most part, these resources held in common were not always managed for sustainable use.  This is evident from particular case histories such as Easter Island. The story of the Easter islanders is tragic, but at the same time a good lesson for all of us. As colonists, they had a highly developed civilisation for about 600 years, but neglected the destructive effect of their lifestyle on the island’s ecosystems, and ended in a cultural catastrophe having exceeded the island’s carrying capacity.  Dutch sailors who landed in 1722 found a primitive society with about 3,000 people living in squalid reed huts or caves, engaged in almost perpetual warfare in a desperate attempt to secure a portion of the meagre food supplies available on the island and its surrounding marine ecosystems.


Ecologists define ‘carrying capacity’ as the population of a given species that can be supported indefinitely in a defined habitat without permanently damaging the ecosystem upon which it depends. However, human technology can support different consumption patterns and, also trade, by which a community can import goods from far-distant ecosystems.  Therefore a simple territorial head-count cannot apply to measure the carrying capacity of human beings. Human carrying capacity must be interpreted as the maximum rate of resource consumption and waste discharge that can be sustained indefinitely without progressively impairing the functional integrity of local ecosystems. The corresponding human population is a function of per capita rates of material consumption and waste output or net productivity divided by per capita demand. This formulation is a simple restatement of Hardin’s ‘Third Law of Human Ecology’:


(Total human impact on the ecosphere) = (Population) x (Per capita impact).


Throughout history, when access to common pool resources was unrestricted it was difficult to keep them from being overexploited. Degradation of open access resources in the form of over-fishing, deforestation, and over-grazing is an increasing burden on the poor – a trend that leads away from wealth.


Nevertheless, even today, throughout the world, rural families with access to large areas of forest or aquatic commons – both rich and poor – are still able to benefit from CPR income.  The commons are of particular importance to landless households, for whom they provide a major fraction of total income. In contemporary Indian society it has been estimated that common pool resources provide about 12 percent of household income to poor households.  The economic value of such resources held in common was, at the beginning of the present millennium, estimated to be about $5 billion a year, or double the amount of development aid that India received at that time.  This is just one example of how often the tragedy of the commons had been averted thanks to ingenious local institutions and customs for equitable sharing.


3 Tragedy of the commons


Generally, in the past, the supply of natural resources exceeded any demands that humans placed on them. There was no need for markets to manage the harvest. Natural resources were treated as a free good. The abundant supply meant that there were no shortages. People could take what they wanted when they wanted because the supply always exceeded the demand.  But a ‘free for all’ cultural interaction between people and a limited CPR leads inevitably to what has been called ‘the tragedy of the commons’.  It develops in this way. Imagine a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.


As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.


1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.


2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of the total productivity of the commons.


Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing the commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in an ecosystem that has a limited productivity. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.  In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but social selection favours the forces of psychological denial. The individual benefits, as an individual, from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.


Only education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed and eventually codified in a system of fair allocation.


Common-pool, resources share two characteristics: (1) exclusion or the control of access of potential users is difficult, and (2) each user is capable of subtracting from the welfare of all other users. These two universal characteristics of commons are referred to as the “exclusion problem” and the “subtractability problem,” respectively. In this sense common-pool resources may be defined as those “in which (i) exclusion of beneficiaries through physical and institutional means is especially costly, and (ii) exploitation by one user reduces resource availability for others.”


In theory, and often in practice, a group using a CPR can solve the exclusion problem and the subtractability problem. The key is the ability to limit the access of outsiders and to self-regulate its own use. Common property management works through incentives. If members of a group are assured that future harvests would be theirs by right, and not end up being harvested by others, then they have the economic incentive to self-regulate through a system of conservation management.


Exclusion means the ability to exclude people other than the members of a defined group. Evidence suggests that successful exclusion under communal property is the rule rather than the exception. However, stresses of population growth, technology change, and economic transformation may contribute to the breakdown of communal property mechanisms for exclusion. The creation of open access by external forces, such as colonialism, warfare and globalization, limits communal property controls for exclusion.


Subtractability refers to the ability of social groups to design a variety of mechanisms to regulate resource use among members. In many cases, resource users have been able to avoid “tragedy” by devising rules for self-governance, monitoring mechanisms, and sanctions that rely neither on government control nor private property rights.  Much of the common property literature addresses this issue, and the conditions for effective self-governance. Regulation is not easy and it has been estimated that there may be as many as 40 critical enabling conditions that may be important for the success of commons institutions.


In many cases, community-based management systems are inferred to be successful, not because conservation or sustainability can be shown, but because they have survived for long periods through various crises. Such successful commons institutions have received special attention for theory building, precisely because they are long-enduring. Many of them have historical roots such as in the English village greens, Swiss Alpine commons, Japanese village common lands, and Japanese coastal fishery commons. However, is the long-term survival of a community-based management system a good indicator of its sustainability?


Resource management systems tend to go through cycles of crisis and recovery and of institutional renewal. Societies are rarely, if ever, in balance with their resources, and commons institutions are rarely stable for long. Instead of equilibrium, one may expect crises and cycles of change, thus shifting the analytical emphasis from stability to resilience, and to increasing the capacity of management systems to learn from experience and to adapt to change and live in harmony with nature. Ancient English village greens and new ones recently created are exemplars of how local biodiversity can be maintained as a community good.


4 Lessons from the seashore


The concept of communities living in harmony with nature, was popularized in the 18th century. It refers to the idea of people who have not adopted a market economy.  By-passed by modernity they have retained the uncertain livelihoods associated with harvesting local ecosystems in perpetuity.   Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped spread the idea, when, in Émile, he wrote: “Everything is good in leaving the hands of the creator of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.”   The theme was articulated by poets and painters imbued with the sounds and pictorial patterns of what were thought to be ancient ways of life.  In his 1992 book Nature’s Metropolis, the environmental historian William Cronon gives an empirically rich description of how the cultural ecology of the American Midwest and its native population were remade through the operation of the market: Bisons and pine trees had once been members of ecosystems defined mainly by flows of energy and nutrients and by relations among neighbouring organisms including humankind. Rearrayed within the ‘second nature’ of the market, they became commodities: things priced, bought, and sold within a system of human exchange. From that change flowed many others. Sudden new imperatives revalued the organisms that lived upon the land. Some, like the bison, bluestem, and pine tree, were priced so low that people consumed them in the most profligate ways and they disappeared as significant elements of the regional landscape. Others, like wheat, corn, cattle, and pigs, became the new dominant species of carefully tended agro-ecosystems. Increasingly, the abundance of a species depended on its utility to the human economy: species thrived more by price than by direct ecological adaptation. New systems of value, radically different from their native American predecessors, determined the fate of entire North American environment and the culture of hunter-gatherers of the Great Plains was destroyed.


In mid 19th century Europe, a similar search was undertaken by urban dwellers for contact with superstition and simplicity of rural peoples who had managed to maintain close to their supposed equilibrium with nature.  This was the quest of Paul Gauguin in 1886 when he travelled to Pont Aven on the coast of Brittany, where he thought that by being among primitive Bretons he could live in harmony with nature.  He was just one of many painters who sought to escape the burgeoning culture of mass production by planting themselves in European coastal communities.  Here the daily lives of families was determined by old skills of boating and fishing that had evolved to enable the shoreline communities to survive, albeit precariously, with what was essential a hunter-gatherer culture, harvesting the marine commons. Gauguin discovered that the culture he valued in Pont Aven was the result of recent expressions of local kinship, with a newly emerged ethnic pride and solidarity.  He continued his quest by moving to the French colony of Tahiti only to find the balance between native and ecosystem had been disrupted for ever by French colonialism. 


The small fishing communities, like Pont Aven, who, in the mid 19th century made a subsistence living by fishing the continental shelf of Western Europe, continued to evolve a mass-fishing culture that was necessary to satisfy ever increasing markets.  In the United Kingdom this distinctive industrial culture of fisher folk, from Scotland to the tip of Cornwall, finally became extinct in the 1980s when the marine commons upon which their economy depended had to be reduced and shared under law through the adoption of a common European fisheries policy.  The extinction of British communities, which the French called ecomenes, that evolved by adopting methods of industrial fishing was only partly the outcome of sharing by law.  Actually, the fish stocks of the North Sea had begun to decline by the beginning of the 20th century and since then no amount of political wrangling has been able to restore the productivity of the North Sea commons to their fecundity at the dawn of the era of mass trawling. The English town of Grimsby at the mouth of the Humber was the amazing phenomenon at this time. In the space of 100 years, from 1800 to 1900, its population increased sixty fold. It was created from a small medieval community on a tiny muddy creek by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company and it rose to become the premier fishing port in the world. In Grimsby’s heyday it was a prosperous and thriving community, with a population of around 60,000 composed of fortune-seekers from across Britain and the world. The town was self-made in the great tradition of Victorian England. Now, as the result of the European common fisheries policy and over-fishing the size of the fishing fleet has shrunk from over 500 trawlers in the 1950s to only 12 today.  But Grimsby still processes just under 1 million tonnes of fish a year. To put that figure into context, it is almost five times the UK’s EU fishing quota.  However the fish Grimsby adds value to by cooking and packaging comes mostly from Iceland and the Faroe Islands, two countries which are not involved in the EU’s fish quota system. Grimsby’s food processing economy is not sufficient to support a sustainable culture, however, and in 2011 the town was one of Britain’s worst blackspots for youth unemployment, having a quarter of its young people aged 16 to 24-years not in education, employment or training; a group marker for economic unsustainability known as ‘NEETs’.



5 Ecological footprints and ‘fair shares’


Starting with Agenda 21 of the Rio Environmental Summit in 1992, the idea that all people on Earth belong to one global community sharing atmosphere, seas and forests in common has gained ground.  In particular, a global culture of conservation management is emerging with the goal of organising the planet’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases arising from the spread of all kinds of mass production.  Management of the biosphere under a common property regime is an appropriate worldwide strategy for avoiding a global tragedy of the commons.  However, the adoption of such a strategy of sustainability by the international community at the predicted population of 12 billion by 2050 would inevitably entail the Western countries consuming less to meet the needs of the future. To do this requires the promotion of values that encourage consumption standards that are within the bounds of the ecologically possible and to which all could reasonably aspire. So far there have been two ways of measuring what that level of consumption has to be. One such measure is our ecological footprint; the other entails calculated what a fair share of the world’s resources would be for every one.


An ecological footprint is the sum of those areas of ecologically productive space needed to sustain the lifestyle of each person. This would be the area of cropland necessary to produce the food we eat; the area of grazing land for producing animal products; the area of forest to produce wood and paper; the area of sea to produce the fish and seafood we consume; the area of land to accommodate housing and infrastructure; and the area of forest necessary to absorb the CO2 from our energy consumption of fossil fuels.


Regarding ecological footprints, it is estimated that Earth has about 22 billion acres of ecologically productive land. This is comprised of about 3.3 billion acres of arable and cropland, 8.4 billion acres of pasture land, and 10.1 billion acres of forest land. Not all of the arable land is of high quality.  Improving agricultural productivity by use of fertilizers and insecticides, or shifting to monoculture forestry, affects ecosystems in other, often deleterious, ways. Expansion of land use in any of those categories can only be done at the expense of one of the other categories, and development of the land for human structures of all kinds competes for this same area. Not only that, but we have to share this land with the other organisms on Earth who might not be able to tolerate the necessary land use ‘improvement’ measures, or to survive the fragmentation of their habitats.


To live with a population of 12 billion and maintain a current Western footprint humanity would need 13.5 billion acres of land for food production and 14.4 billion acres for wood products on a steady-state basis to be sustainable, and we would have degraded about 3.6 billion acres for human structures. For humans alone, excluding the needs of other organisms, there is not that much land available simply by considering these sorts of personal footprints!


Furthermore, the food footprint calculations cited above used U.S. yields, which are significantly higher than average global yields. If average global yields were used in those calculations, our food footprints would be closer to 3 acres. Earth’s carrying capacity for a population with 3-acre food footprints might be no more than about 4 billion people (12 billion acres of arable, crop and pasture land ÷ 3). Each year more of our most productive farmland is buried under human structures, and both good and marginal farmland becomes unusable due to poor farming practices, so even the estimate of a sustainable carrying capacity of 4 billion people eating and living as Europeans and North Americans may be too high.


Another consideration is that the standard of living enjoyed by the developed world had been achieved at the expense of the developing world and was made possible by an economic system that exploited the poor – both individuals and entire nations. The result is an historical situation we have where the eight richest people in the world earn more than the 600 million poorest together, with certain individuals earning more than even affluent countries like New Zealand. The per capita income of Sweden, for example, is equal to the combined per capita income of the 23 poorest African countries, that of the USA to the poorest 35 African countries.


While some enjoy unprecedented wealth and luxury, 2.8 billion people are living in extreme poverty, earning less than US$2 a day. One in seven people suffers chronic hunger and 45000 die of starvation every day. This inequity is felt at both a global level, between developed and developing countries, and at a national level where there is great disparities of wealth within countries. Judging by the increasing purchase of luxury goods made in the West by entrepreneurs of the Far East, these inequalities of wealth are being perpetuated in the developing nations.


The Fair Shares concept basically looks at the individual’s access to resources – both sink and source. This is calculated on a country-by-country basis as a factor of the national population; as a percentage of the global population; the amount of product produced; and the sink capacity or emissions produced.  It is based on the premise that the total material input into world economy must be halved.  This figure comes from the call to reduce consumption made in 2008 by the Group of 8 — the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Canada, and Russia — for a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  The communiqué does not specify if the 50 percent cut is relative to 1990 emission levels (the Kyoto regime) or to current ones. This makes a big difference because emissions have grown significantly over the past 18 years.


If the cut is relative to current emissions, it is unlikely that it will be adequate to avoid the more dangerous consequences of global warming. Most scientists agree that nations with developed economies (such as the G8 members) will need to cut emissions relative to today by about 70–80 percent by 2050.  The Fair Shares concept also includes the idea that we have to reduce our resource consumption not because we will run out of resources, but because of the environmental impact of extracting and using those resources.


Fair share calculations give us an idea of each person’s fair share of Earth’s resources. For example, it has been calculated that for the European community there would have to be a reduction of the per capita share of primary energy (50%), cement (85%), iron (87%) and aluminium (90%).  Regarding the use of aluminium each person is only allowed 1.2 kg of the metal – that is about 32 drink cans a year. One of the reasons for this is that annually the global production of aluminium uses as much energy as the whole of Africa.


The long and tortuous road necessary to produce a sustainable cultural ecology for human survival is not a quick fix to make a peaceful society. Since the Second World War over 20 million people have died in armed conflict and 31 million people are annually affected by it. These figures do not include crime-related deaths. Of the 2.3 million people reported as killed by conflict from 1991-2000, over three quarters were from countries with a low Human Development Index. At the heart of most of these conflicts lies the issue of who gets to control and benefit from resources, whether agricultural land, minerals, fossil fuels or water. Many countries are already experiencing problems with illegal immigration and an influx of both political and environmental refugees. If the imbalance of wealth and power is not dealt with, this problem will only become worse in the future, when it could become the driver for a catastrophic tragedy of the global commons.

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