Defending the Global Commons




The global commons is the set of natural resources, basic services, public spaces, cultural traditions, and other essentials of life and society that are, or should be, part of a public trust to be enjoyed by all people and cherished for the planet’s well-being. Another way to conceive of these assets is how it is said in Spanish: el bien común, the common good. Behind the commons is the fundamental idea that life, information, human relationships, popular culture, and the earth’s riches are sacrosanct and not for sale.

A short list of wonderful elements of life in the U.S. which are actually protected parts of our commons includes: Social Security; Medicare; libraries; national forests and rivers; the cultural treasures within the Smithsonian museums; city bus, subway, and highway systems; the Internet; public schools and state universities; town parks, playgrounds, and sidewalks; and the postal service. That we have collective use and enjoyment of these resources and services may seem so normal that we take it for granted. In fact, that most of the institutions and sites listed above are public has only happened through hard-won fights.

Today, all over the world, pieces of our commons are being commodified and/or privatized by the powerful and rich, in deals made possible by corporate trade accords and government. Being snapped up in the giant tag sale now underway is, well, pretty much everything: the creation of babies, health care, indigenous or shared knowledge, public radio and television, schools, human organs, genetic mapping, control of the use of plants and animals, water, and air. (Yes, air. Beyond the recent fad of oxygen bars, carbon trading is the buying and selling, effectively, of air). And that’s a limited list.

Naturally, people aren’t just taking this sitting down. They are inventing ways to ensure that society’s and nature’s wealth remains for the use of the community and for the sustenance of the earth. Collectively, the endeavors can be seen as the global commons movement. In some ways, all of the alternatives highlighted in this report are part of it.

One area in which we the people have had some victories is with 'intellectual commons' or 'indigenous knowledge' - what the WTO and some others call 'intellectual property'. These victories include protecting from commercialization living things, ideas, and artistic and literary creations – areas fundamental to humanity and the planet. Two of the areas that we’ll address here are seeds and creativity.

Why in the world would seeds be part of this discussion, you might ask? Seeds became ‘intellectual property’ under WTO provisions that allow the patenting of life forms. Villagers may be required to pay to plant the seeds and grains which they have grown and shared from time immemorial, or to use animal products which they have always employed as medicine. Resourceful profiteers have slapped down patents on everything from ancient Indian Basmati rice to Mexican yellow beans. (The latter case is the epitome of bio-piracy: Larry Proctor, the president of a Colorado-based seed company, bought some dried yellow beans in Sonora, Mexico, in 1994. Proctor applied for, and was granted, a U.S. patent and a U.S. Plant Variety Protection certificate on the bean, which he renamed Enola. The patent made it illegal for unlicensed sources in the U.S. to grow, sell, import, or use the Enola bean. Proctor then sued 16 Colorado-based farmers and small seed companies for illegally growing and selling 'his' bean. Some years later, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office revoked the patent.)

Farmers and gardeners the world over are protecting and sharing their common inheritance. They are growing seed libraries (“We refuse to call them ‘banks',” one Native farmer told us) to save and share native and heirloom seeds with all who want to grow them. Most international gatherings of peasants and small producers involve elaborate seed ceremonies, where people from one region give their native varieties to others: sweet tamarind seed from Thailand, for example, or dinorado rice from the Philippines. Sometimes they create a little piece of the commons on the spot, planting a garden together with those repositories of life from their collective homelands.

One seed-protecting initiative is the Bija Satyagraha movement in India. Bija means 'seed', and satyagraha refers to non-violent resistance, a term made popular by Gandhi during the Indian freedom struggle. This movement is shielding farmers’ traditional seed rights from genetically modified seeds and private patents. Beyond the aforementioned seed libraries and exchange programs, the movement also organizes seed fairs to share information and strategies. In the spirit of the 1930 Salt Satyagraha, or salt march, when thousands of Indians walked 240 miles to the sea to collect salt and thus defy the British salt tax, Seed Satyagraha also calls on farmers to boldly declare non-cooperation with Indian seed patent laws. Five million peasants have done so. Furthermore, Bija Satyagraha sponsors tribunals against WTO-model copyright policies and laws which deny farmers their seed rights; in these, farmers and researchers present testimony on the damning impacts of these laws on their livelihood. 

In order to further preserve a seed commons, the U.S.-based Organic Consumers Association has organized a Millions against Monsanto campaign. They have launched legal and policy challenges to the agribusiness giant that now holds almost 650 seed patents. Each patent means that farmers are no longer legally entitled to plant and save that seed variety, but instead must buy it anew each year from Monsanto. While the fight against the corporate super-power is an entrenched one, the activists have scored some victories, such as the 2007 revocation by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office of four Monsanto patents on genetically modified seeds. (The reason is that Monsanto had used those patents to intimidate, sue, and in some cases bankrupt, farmers for the crime of saving seeds from a crop to plant the following year, a practice that goes back to the beginning of agriculture.) In 2007, the European Patent Office revoked Monsanto’s species-wide patent on all genetically modified soybeans, after a legal challenge filed by Greenpeace and others

In another important sphere, activists are working to shift the concept of intellectual property to intellectual freedom. One of numerous vehicles is “copyleft,” an expansive form of licensing allowing the protected material - literature, arts, computer programs, etc. - to be shared and reused as long as it is credited and no one makes a profit off of it.

Creative Commons is one copyleft tool. Creative Commons’ licensing lets the creator/writer/artist decide how others may reuse the work, allowing the options of “some rights reserved” or “no rights reserved”, instead of “all rights reserved.” The non-profit Creative Commons encourages collaboration and the free use of knowledge, arts, and inventions. The goal of all of these tools is to encourage collaboration, innovation, and creativity, rather than the intellectual hoarding encouraged by traditional copyrights. 

Another means of encouraging an intellectual commons is through the creation and distribution of open source software (free software giving users rights that would otherwise be prohibited by copyright).  The GNU General Public License is one license for free software. Software developers can license their products with GNU to be free software and remain free forever, regardless of how the program gets changed or distributed. GNU employs copyleft, not to restrict users, but to empower them with what it calls ‘freedoms.’ GNU defines these as: “the freedom to use the software for any purpose, the freedom to change the software to suit your needs, the freedom to share the software with your friends and neighbors, and the freedom to share the changes you make.” This system allows a wide range of programmers, tinkerers, and hackers to adjust programs to run better, shore up security weaknesses, and meet peoples' needs in new and unexpected ways.

Other innovations include creating city-wide wireless networks and nurturing Internet institutions like Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia supported by a non-profit foundation, collaboratively written by volunteers, and open to editing (and monitoring of that editing) by any reader. These advances have trumped corporate monopolies on computing and the Internet,. They have been democratic and often free or affordable venues for sharing, informing, and educating – not to mention strengthening, in unimagined ways, the power of the movements behind many of the alternatives you are reading about.

There’s so much more to be done in reclaiming and sustaining the global commons, where the market is overtaking the world like that voracious yellow Pac-Man. But step by step, we will establish the commons as our right. You’re going to be hearing a lot more about this in the coming years, because the fight for the global commons is the fight for life itself.