Managing the Global Commons - Applying the Oneness of Humanity

Submitted by admin on 28. May 2011 - 19:07
Karlsson, Sylvia


Sylvia Karlsson
Linkoping University, Sweden

Paper presented at the
2nd International Conference of the Environment Forum,
6-8 November, 1998, De Poort, The Netherlands

[This paper is as presented at the Conference, and has not been subject to editorial review by the IEF]

(this presentation is a slightly shortened version of a paper presented at the ISARD conference Oxford, 31 October, 1998)

The emerging view of the global commons as the common property of mankind has implications for possible management strategies. These implications are elucidated by studying the theory developed for creating successful management regimes of local common property resources. States need to perceive protection of the global commons as being in their own interest. This can be achieved either by expanding the concept of security or expanding the area of responsibility for states. The paper argues that the only realistic approach proper management of the global commons is the more wide adoption of the principle of the principles of the oneness.


The environmental issues, and the degeneration of the global commons in particular, are in my perspective one of issues where the need of the adoption of the wider loyalty of man to encompass the whole of humankind is most obvious. Therefore I will use the global commons to explore what role the principle of the oneness of mankind The global commons pose unique challenges to the international community since they are in dire need of more governance at global level. This article argues that much can be learnt about the nature of such global governance and requirements to achieve it, from the study of local common property resource management.

Local commons as the model

The "global commons" is the term used for those areas that no state has jurisdiction over and includes e.g. the oceans and seabed beyond national jurisdiction, Antarctica, the atmosphere and outer space. All are areas which are impractical for any one nation to lay claims on and can thus be seen as belonging to all nations in common.

Local commons, more referred to as common property/pool resources, can be governed in these different regimes (Berkes and Farvar, 1989):
- open access
- communal property
- state property
- private property

It is when the resource is subject to a communal property regime that the we can refer it to being a local common property resource.

From the extensive literature on common property resource (CPR) management, it is clear that this form of collective ownership and many times successful management of a local resource (such as pasture, fishing grounds, irrigation canals etc.) has been widespread around the world (Bromley, 1992; McKean, 1992; Feeny et al, 1990; Ostrom, 1990; Berkes, 1989). The global commons facing imminent degradation urgently need to be subject to similar successful management.

Can lessons for management learnt at local level be applied at global level? I will attempt to test some of the concluded requirements for successful management of local common property resources on the global commons.

Theory on CPR theoretical models have been developed for resources in local settings, usually in a rural environment in developing countries (but not exclusively), where the number of people involved are small, and the immediacy of dependence on the resource is high. I and others argue that it is both possible and fruitful to apply these models for common resources at other scales, both regional and global (ref Karlsson, 1997). All resources at each scale share the characteristic that that it is difficult to exclude outsiders from gaining benefit from the resources and each user is capable of use the resource at the expense of the welfare of other potential users, in today's or tomorrow's generations (Berkes, 1989). Transferring conclusion across such different scales is without doubt difficult, but could be fruitful and has been encouraged as an interesting research agenda (Young, 1994).

Naturally many other situations are different, the geographical scale, what kind of resource it is, decision making institutions available etc. But focus in transferring across scales is the processes of interaction in the system and the system properties.

The global commons emerge

The global commons can fall under governance systems of three general kinds (Young, 1992):
- world government
- extended national jurisdiction
- restricted common property

Today, despite the attempts to create a regime of CHM for certain of the global commons that were referred to earlier, they are not generally subject to any governance system, except for isolated fragments, and the situations is thus one of open access.

The attempts made to establish governance systems for these started in the 50s and 60s. It was suggested during the 1960s that the concept of "common heritage of mankind" (CHM) should be applied to the areas beyond national jurisdiction. Several international treaties in the 1950s and 60s implied the use of the CHM concept for the global commons It is now being realized that an open access regime, i.e. absence of a governance system, is not acceptable. Extended national jurisdiction is practically impossible for most of the global commons. From the Baha'i writings we are ascertained that world government will be the ultimate answer to the plight of humanity, including the management of the resources upon which her very survival depends. In the period however, pending the establishment of such a government, which is presently not seen as a realistic or even desirable endeavour, the community of states are striving to find substitutes of governance without government for global issues including the global commons. This is for example propagated by the Commission on Global Governance (ref). Awaiting a world government, the only alternative left is some form of global level communal property regime.

Escaping the tragedy -- prerequisites for successful management

Scientists of different disciplines have tried to characterize the key elements in those local CPR regimes that have been successful. One general point that has been referred to is that such local CPR regimes are based on cooperative rather than competitive attitudes (Jacobs, 1989). The sense of communalism is more prevailing than in current western societies. The regimes do not depend completely on altruistic behaviour of people in the community however. There is a recognized need for some level of mutual coercion such as monitoring and graduated sanctions (Ostrom, 1990; Gibbs and Bromley, 1992).

Successful management necessitates that individual strategies of action are replaced by coordinated action. For this to happen a forum for communication is needed where these coordinated actions can be discussed and eventually agreed upon. This forum will have to develop into some kind of organization for the members of the regime - the appropriators - but it can vary from informal regular meetings for discussions to formal organizations with written rules, staff, office etc. On a local level, less formal structures may be sufficient but that a permanent, formal organization is necessary for creating a CPR regime for the global commons, should be rather obvious. Frequent interaction and a meeting place for negotiations and arbitration are needed. To achieve that without a formal organization in a world of more than 185 states is unrealistic. The United Nations is the only truly global inter-governmental organization that can come into question for managing the global commons.

From independent to coordinated action

The Universal House of Justice calls for "global cooperation of the family of nations in devising and adopting measures designed to preserve the ecological balance this earth was given by its Creator...Until such a time as the nations of the world understand and follow the admonitions of Bahá'u'lláh to whole-heartedly work together in looking after the best interests of all humankind, and unite in the search for ways and means to meet many environmental problems besetting our planet, the House of Justice feels that little progress will be made towards their solution..." (Universal House of Justice-104-105 Conservation of the Earth's Resources.)

Ostrom has outlined some key variables for the creation of an organization of appropriators, and switching from independent to coordinated action at local level (Ostrom, 1992). The four situations required among appropriators in the organization are:
- Common understanding of the problem
- Common understanding of alternatives for coordination
- Common perceptions that decision-making costs do not exceed benefits
- Common perception of mutual trust and reciprocity

1. Common understanding of the problem

Local communities often have a long history of living with a scarce common resource and individuals are the primary actors. In the global community states are the primary actors and they are just recently starting to realize that some of the global commons contain scarce resources. Scientists have discovered the threats to the global commons and brought them to the attention of states and policy makers. But not even scientists have reached a common understanding of exactly how big the threats are, and the uncertainty of future scenarios of further degradation of the global commons is substantial. Notwithstanding disagreement between scientists in magnitudes and time-scales of threats to the global commons, a common understanding of the problem is emerging among states. The peak in the process of reaching common understanding was at the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 where the Rio Declaration and the plan of action, Agenda 21, was endorsed unanimously. The Rio Declaration contains the precautionary principle which states that lack of full scientific certainty should not prevent action if there is a risk of serious or irreversible damage.

2. Common understanding of alternatives for coordination

Earlier sections have briefly described successes and failures in reaching agreement on strategies for the common management of the global commons. Agenda 21 constitutes a bench-mark also in the process of reaching a common understanding of alternatives for coordinated action. It covers suggested courses of action for all sections of the environment including the global commons. The suggested strategies of action in Agenda 21 were not only for the national and local level but also for international coordination. Recommendations in this area were, however, expressed in vague language. There were no far-reaching proposals for reforming the UN system in Agenda 21 as anticipated and hoped for by many since the need for such reforms was stressed in the report "Our Common Future", which was the guiding document for the UNCED process (Gordon, 1994).

(The challenge of adequately managing the global commons has been one major motivation to review the United Nations. In recent years the call for increased global governance has been raised more frequently, especially on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.).

3. Common perceptions that decision-making costs do not exceed benefits

A common understanding that decision-making costs do not exceed benefits seems to be limited. If calculating costs of decision-making can be made with traditional economic methods, it is not at the moment possible to calculate the benefits. Some economists are trying to develop methods to calculate the costs of environmental damage. Progress in the area is slow and methods tried so far are insufficient and much criticized. It appears to be rather impossible to reach a common understanding in detail in this area. What should be possible, is to agree that experience has shown, that preventive action is cheaper than mitigating action. It only depends on what time-frame the costs and benefits are calculated. The dominant theme of Agenda 21 is the challenge it raises for the unsustainable short-term economic growth patterns. The concept of sustainable development is in itself a sign of a switch to not ignoring effects for future generations.

The raising frequency of international law making processes for environmental issues, despite the costs implied indicates an understanding that the approach is to coordinate actions and cooperate. The proposal of Trusteeship Council is not met by acclamation.

4. Common perception of mutual trust and reciprocity

Local communities have had to interact closely for centuries in cooperating for scarce resources. Close observance of each others behaviour and close reciprocal dependence which facilitates trust were developed over long periods. The global community is very young and has had little time to knit social bonds across the globe. But that it is high time to do so is ascertained in the Baha'i writings. Loyalty has in previous ages been confined to smaller units, the family, the local community or country (ref Shoghi Effendi) but the Baha'i writings unequivocally states that the fundamental principle of solving issues in a global society is the widespread acknowledgment of the principle of the oneness of humanity. That trust is a fundamental principle which members of society, whether individuals or states, must learn to develop towards each other is explicit from the Baha'i writings. Also studies on the importance of trust as part of social capital confirm this.

"Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquility and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend on it" (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas" p.3)

Applying the oneness of humanity

The increased frequency of broad international summits in recent years, which have been open for many different groups of civil society as well as governments, shows that there is an understanding that the first step of solving global problems is reaching a common understanding of the problems and strategies for solving them.

"These events are as capstones to the myriad activities taking place in different parts of the world involving a wide range of non-governmental organizations and networks in an urgent search for values, ideas and practical measures that can advance prospects for the peaceful development of all peoples. In this endeavor can be discerned the gathering momentum of an emerging unity of thought in world undertakings, the realization of which our sacred scriptures describe as one of the lights of unity that will illumine the path to peace..." (The Universal House of Justice - Letter to the National Spiritual Assemblies, 23 January 1995, In "Prosperity of Humankind")

But clearly, common understanding in the four areas discussed above at international level is not yet deep enough to lead to a substantial switch from independent to coordinated action.

A key element that is lacking for states to further common understanding, is that states do not perceive it to be in their own interest to act in coordinated ways, the current assumption in society is that "All decision-makers need a private reason for collective success" (Bromley, 1992:10). One does not see any prospect that individuals or states can act for any self less interest. In this aspect the definition of governance by the Commission on Global Governance is interesting:

Governance is the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs. It is a continuing process through which conflicting or diverse interests may be accommodated and cooperative action may be taken. It includes formal institutions and regimes empowered to enforce compliance, as well as informal arrangements that people and institutions either have agreed to or perceive to be in their interest (Commission on Global Governance, 1995:2)

Stronger governance relating to the global commons is accordingly dependent upon states perceiving this to be in their interest. If they do not, what could enhance their insight? Broadly speaking I see two ways in which the latter might be realized:

(1) The state and its citizens are faced with more acute and visible negative effects, catastrophic in nature, resulting from continuous degradation of the global commons. A parallel to the choice humanity has on establish world peace voluntarily or out of pure force to survive (Baha'i writings)

(2) States' perception of what consists a threat to their security are widened in content, time and geographical scope.

The first alternative is highly undesirable, but could very well become a reality if the second alternative is not consciously chosen by states. In the second alternative the awareness of the underlying interconnectedness of all parts of humanity and its ecological processes can depend, and states come to realize that inevitably the consequences of their and other state's action will fall back upon themselves. Enlightened self interest would thus facilitate the need for action. But this is not enough.

"Recognition that creation is an organic whole and that humanity has the responsibility to care for this whole, welcome as it is, does not represent and influence which can by itself establish in the consciousness of people a new system of values. Only a breakthrough in understanding that is scientific and spiritual in the fullest sense of the term will empower the human race to assume the trusteeship toward which history impels it" (Baha'i International Community, Prosperity of Humankind p. 17)

But already in this approach, longer time horizons for their concern are implied, since visible effects may be subtle today but increase in the future. The ability to include future generations and the marginalized members of present society in their country are thus implied. To go a step further and make the fate of all humanity your own, thus expand the geographical area of a state's responsibility is only more radical and far-reaching. This discussion leads to the conclusion that coordinated management of global resources is impossible with out striving to enlarge the area of responsibility for states. Oneness of mankind is the inescapable principle to be adopted.

"Let there be no mistake. The principle of the Oneness of Mankind - the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh revolve - is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope...nor does it aim solely at the fostering of harmonious cooperation among individuals and nations. Its implications are deeper, its claims greater than any which the Prophets of old were allowed to advance..." (Shoghi Effendi WOB p. 43)

The end of sovereignty

The global commons, it seems from the previous exploration of the CHM concept, have lead the way in challenging the salience of sovereignty. The principle of full national sovereignty does not seem to be realistic from a management perspective in a world where the behaviour of people affects the global commons no matter what country's name is stamped on the soil upon which they live. It could work if sovereignty entailed full responsibility in that the actions in ones own territory did not affect neighbour states. States seldom take such responsibility.

The fact that international negotiations for creating soft and hard law are taking place in continually increasing magnitude on environmental issues, and the global commons, points to countries asking for some kind of regulation or governance of their neighbours' behaviour. If they want other countries to take action for the benefit of not only their own nation, but for all nations, it means that in the end they have to accept such governance for their own country too.

The development of international law in the environmental realm affords ample demonstration of the situation of states holding on to the sovereignty principle, while acknowledging the ethical standpoint of the common responsibility of all states. Discussions on the global commons have also been widened to include other forms of natural resources that are found within the territory of states. The question has been raised as the responsibility of states not only to its own people but also to the rest of humanity.

"The unification of the whole of mankind is the hall-mark of the stage which human society is now approaching...The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world, growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human relationships, and establish once and for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life" (Shoghi Effendi, WOB p. 202).

Governing the global commons without a world government empowered to enforce the law, implies depending largely on ethically motivated behaviour from states. Without law enforcement, compliance to international treaties or soft law is dependent upon the goodwill of states. The Commission on Global Governance formulates it as "The emerging global neighbourhood needs to live by a new ethic that is underpinned by a culture of law" (p. 331). Paradoxically even more so than if a world government were in place. This is then an indication that governance without government is not a solution that will work for the sustainable management of the global commons.

(move and elaborate, on the theme of parallel to the Baha'u'llah's concept of collective security and provisions for a world order where any violator of the order, any breaker of the laws against aggression towards neighbouring states will elicit the unified action of all other states, making this isolated breach of order unsuccessful. While working towards the implementation of the principle of the oneness of humanity, and that all peoples should develop a sense of loyalty encompassing the whole human family, it is not idealistic as not to provide for the instances where individuals or groups will oppose this universally uphold principle. Universal altruism is not assumed but striven for. Also for the management of common resources, whether local or global, provisions have to be made to secure that isolated actions of free riding and egoistic behaviour will not break down the management regime and endanger the resource itself. The Commission has several suggestions on how to streamline, coordinate and increase the priority of environmental issues in the UN system, one of which is that the global commons should be referred to the Trusteeship Council which fulfilled its mission of administering territories during the process of decolonization, and could therefore be given the global commons in their trust, to administer and manage. The body would act as trustees for all nations and future generations. The Commission envisions that this Council could be the forum for negotiating international conventions and deliberations on environment and related matters. The Commission on Sustainable Development would report to the Trusteeship Council instead of ECOSOC.

Giving the management of the global commons to a renewed Trusteeship Council, seems to be a logical consequence of the last decades emerging view, that these areas should be jointly managed as a common heritage of mankind. Having one single forum for the soft and hard law-making process on environmental issues, would probably make the process more efficient, more comprehensive and coordinated. To some extent UNEP is attempting to be that forum at present but the Trusteeship Council is situated much closer to the General Assembly, the core of the United Nations system, and this should be advantageous.

From common heritage to common responsibility?

That there is need for values are increasingly stated at in the global discourse "People have to see with new eyes and understand with new minds before they can truly turn to new ways of living." (Commission on Global Governance, 1995:47).

Recognizing the fact that the proposed Economic Security Council have to work on the foundation of universally accepted principles of global environmental governance, the Commission sees one of the first tasks for the Council as being to "ensure a global adoption of an Earth Charter" (Commission on Global Governance 1995:217). Several NGOs and governments are already working on the formulation of such a Charter that could not be agreed upon at UNCED.

"Beyond such technical and political questions as what limits should be placed on greenhouse gases, how can sustainable development be promoted, and who will pay for it all, the fundamental question facing the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) is this: Can humanity, with its entrenched patterns of conflict, self-interest, and short-sighted behaviour, commit itself to enlightened cooperation and long-range planning on a global scale?...The profound and far-reaching changes, the unity and unprecedented cooperation, required to reorient the world toward an environmentally sustainable and just future, will only be possible by touching the human spirit, by appealing to those universal values which alone can empower individuals and peoples to act in accordance with the long-term interests of the planet and humanity as a whole" (Statement of the Bahá'í International Community to UNCED)

Reaching a common understanding of a global ethic for behaviour relating to the global commons, and the environment in general, can be seen as the fundamental requirement for reaching a common understanding in the other four areas discussed earlier. Ethical principles can guide decision-makers who face high degrees of uncertainties in problem description and guide them in choosing strategies for coordinated action. Ethical principles can also guide decision-makers in the process of calculating the costs and benefits of coordinated action and guide them in developing trust among each other.

The global commons have been subject to unsuccessful efforts of management intended to create some form of restricted common property regime. In the paper I argue that elements of the theory developed for reaching successful local CPR regimes can give interesting insights when applied at global level. The exercise brings central issues for managing the resources in focus. It also gives indications of the role the United Nations need to play in this context.

Discussions on stronger global governance are vital for managing the global commons. Those physical areas that belong to no state need to be managed to escape the fate of complete degeneration. I have argued that the only plausible solution is collective governance of the family of nations. In the present world order, the United Nations is the organization available to carry out such collective governance. To realize the latter, some thorough changes to the UN system are required, e.g. in the areas of coordination. Reform efforts in this area alone however, will not suffice. An environment encouraging cooperative behaviour is needed at global level and the international community would be well served learning from local cultures characterized by this. The anarchical international system striving for governance without government, will have to rely more heavily on actions based on ethical principles, if it is to achieve a culture of law at global level and establish a successful management regime for the global commons.

"Let there be no misgivings as to the animating purpose of the world-wide Law of Bahá'u'lláh. Far from aiming at the subversion of the existing foundations of society, it seeks to broaden its basis, to remold its institutions in a manner consonant with the needs of an ever-changing world...It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world..." (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 41-42)


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