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How We've Proved the "Tragedy of the Commons" Wrong

If we are to somehow ward off the coming catastrophes, we have to figure out how to cooperatively own and protect the single most important feature of our planet.

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The most crucial commons, perhaps, is the one now under greatest siege, and it poses a test of whether we can pull together to solve our deepest problems or succumb to disaster. Our atmosphere has been de facto privatized for a long time now—we’ve allowed coal, oil and gas interests to own the sky, filling it with the carbon that is the inevitable byproduct of their business. For a couple of centuries this seemed mostly harmless—CO2 didn’t seem to be causing much trouble. But two decades ago we started to understand the effects of global warming, and now each month the big scientific journals bring us new proof of just how vast the damage is: the Arctic is melting, Australia is on fire, the pH of the ocean is dropping fast.

If we are to somehow ward off the coming catastrophes, we have to reclaim this atmospheric commons. We have to figure out how to cooperatively own and protect the single most important feature of the planet we inhabit—the thin envelope of atmosphere that makes our lives possible. Wrestling this key prize away from Exxon Mobil and other corporations is the great political issue of our time, and some of the solutions proposed have been ingenious—most notably the idea put forth by commons theorist Peter Barnes and others that we should own the sky jointly, and share in the profits realized by leasing its storage space to the fossil fuel industry. For that to work, of course, we would have to reduce that storage space quickly and dramatically. Barnes’ Cap-and-Dividend plan offers one way to make that economically and politically feasible.

But for this and other necessary projects to succeed, we need first to break the intellectual spell under which we live. The last few decades have been dominated by the premise that if we privatize all economic resources it will produce endless riches. Which was kind of true, except that the riches went to only a few people. And in the process they melted the Arctic, as well as dramatically increasing inequality around the world. Jay Walljasper performs the greatest of services with this book. It is—choose your metaphor—a bracing slap across the face or the kiss that breaks an enchantment. In either case, after reading it you will be much more alive to the world as it actually is, not as it exists in the sweaty dreams of ideologues and economics professors.

The commons is a crucial part of the human story that must be recovered if we are to deal with the problems now crowding in on us. This story is equal parts enlightening and encouraging, and it is entirely necessary for us to hear it.

This article is excerpted for YES! Magazine from  All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons by Jay Walljasper and On the Commons (The New Press). Noted environmental author Bill McKibben is scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College and one of the founders of the 350 campaign to curb climate change. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet . “The Commons Offers a New Story for the Future” by Bill McKibben originally appeared in All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons: How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities, and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us Copyright © 2010 by Jay Walljasper, published by The New Press, Inc. and reprinted here with permission.

 
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