Restoring the Commons

A large part of our work is concerned with restoring the commons—including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil that gives us food and life—and the rebalancing of the climate and the biosphere. This is the source of all wealth, yet we don’t ordinarily pay people to contribute to its integrity or wellbeing. On the contrary, what we typically “pay for” is the amassing of private value at the expense of the commons. We are therefore promoting new kinds of currency—which belong to a class of currencies we call “commons credits”—to pay for the acts that restore and enhance the shared and regenerative wealth of the public realm.

Dealing with the real “tragedy of the commons” is one of our most pressing challenges, and one of our greatest opportunities. Restoring the fertility of the Earth is a matter of regenerating our biosphere’s intricately interwoven ecosystems, all of which are part of our common heritage as inhabitants of the planet.

Our true wealth is that which we share with everyone else: the entire cosmos is in fact one vast commons, a shared universe that is filled with energy, with life, with meaning. We used to feel this way about the land, as well as the oceans and the sky: in indigenous traditions (which were once our traditions) it belonged to all of us, and had been granted to humans by the Great Spirit. Only with the advent of Western civilization did we begin to enclose it, to privatize it, and to defile our public spaces with our private wastes.

The current estimate of the value of global “ecosystem services” is between $125 and $145 trillion annualy (compared to approximately $80 trillion in global economic output). We’re also losing $4 to $20 trillion of ecosystem value each year due to “land use change.” Restoring and expanding this value is, in fact, the only sustainable growth path for our economy. Adding to our natural capital, which means increasing the biodiversity, resiliency, and capacity of our ecosystems to serve our needs, is usually also profitable and worth investing in.

What’s needed, however, to incentivize this kind of economic activity is to recognize additions to, and subtractions from, the value of the commons. We could, collectively, recognize these contributions and detrimental actions through an alternative currency, of a type we’re calling  “commons credits.” These credits could be issued through a central bank or through a distributed system of suitably-designated institutions in order to reward and ultimately pay for repairing the damaged systems of the Earth: the deserts, the agricultural mono-crops, the toxic waste dumps and polluted sites and so on. Though we may well blame specific people for causing the harm in the first place, repairing it is in the interest of everyone. Biointensive agriculture, sustainably-harvested fisheries and forests, carbon sinks, and flourishing wildlife provide value for everyone that is a collective economic benefit and not a burden.

The “commons” originally referred to the common lands in England which were shared by local sheep and cattle herders before the Enclosure movement that took place during the 16th century, which privatized what had until then mostly been shared property. In 1833, William Forster Lloyd used the hypothetical example of the commons (which remained a nostalgic element of English village life) to suggest that “rational decision-making” on the part of each individual would inevitably lead to over-grazing. In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin took up this thesis in a famous article in the journal Science entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in order to make the argument that “The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality.”

The “population problem” is no longer a problem; it’s simply a reality of modern life that the Earth will soon need to sustain more than ten billion of us. But for Hardin,

The commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.

First we abandoned the commons in food gathering, enclosing farm land and restricting pastures and hunting and fishing areas. These restrictions are still not complete throughout the world.

Somewhat later we saw that the commons as a place for waste disposal would also have to be abandoned. Restrictions on the disposal of domestic sewage are widely accepted in the Western world; we are still struggling to close the commons to pollution by automobiles, factories, insecticide sprayers, fertilizing operations, and atomic energy installations.

In other words, as long as we allowed human beings the freedom “to breed,” the individual’s instincts to reproduce “will bring ruin to all.”

Fortunately this is not the whole story. It turns out that human population growth does level off as societies become more prosperous and better-educated. It also turns out that humans are better at managing various “commons” than Hardin imagined. The problems are real, but they’re not what Hardin believed them to be. And they do require “a fundamental extension of morality.”

Hardin’s article was the beginning of the modern use of “the commons” as a term referring to a shared resource. While most economists shared Hardin’s gloomy view of our treatment of our common resources, in 2009 Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work showing that users are often able to work out arrangements that maintain the commons at optimum efficiency over very long periods of time. Nevertheless, the most destructive kinds of “market failures” are those concerning environmental goods and services. King & Mazzotta write:

various types of market failure are are associated with natural resources and the environment.  Market failures occur when markets do not reflect the full social costs or benefits of a good.  For example, the price of gasoline does not fully reflect the costs, in terms of pollution, that are imposed on society by burning gasoline.  Market failures related to ecosystems include the facts that: (i) many ecosystems provide services that are public goods; (ii) many ecosystem services are affected by externalities; and (iii) property rights related to ecosystems and their services are often not clearly defined.


In short, our work is designed to counterbalance the existing, unsustainable economy with an economy of regeneration, regenerating the systems that support us all. The fact that these are public goods makes them all that much more valuable and more important. We find ways—e.g., clean energy financing—to invest in these goods profitably. We invite you to join with us in expanding the scope of regenerative financing to meet the need and the opportunity that exists today.

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