Who Owns the Sky?

Reviving the Commons

David Bollier

UE endorsed the call for BDS at its August convention, making it the first national union in the United States to support the boycott. (Adrien Fauth/ Flickr)

Former Interior Secretary Walter Hickel once explained: If you steal $10 from a man’s wallet, you’re likely to get into a fight. But if you steal billions from the commons, co-owned by him and his descendants, he may not even notice.”

Not since the Gilded Age of the 1890s has so much public wealth been shoveled into private hands with such brazen efficiency. Timber companies, corporate ranchers and foreign mining companies with cheap access to public lands are plundering our national patrimony. Congress obligingly turns a blind eye to the accompanying pollution, soil depletion and habitat destruction. Companies are rushing to patent our genes, privatize agricultural seeds and stake private claims on plots of the ocean. Broadcasters — who for decades enjoyed free use of the public’s airwaves, a subsidy worth hundreds of billions of dollars — are attempting to exploit an equivalent amount of electromagnetic spectrum for digital TV. We the taxpayers pay billions of dollars to sponsor risky path-breaking federal drug research, research that too often is given away to pharmaceutical companies for a song. Then we pay a second time — as consumers, at exorbitant prices — for the same drugs.

And so on.

The privatization of public resources is not a new story, to be sure, but the current rapacity is truly stunning. Much of the immediate blame must go to the Bush administration, which has rewarded corporate contributors with one of the most sweeping waves of privatization and deregulation in our history. But while Republicans are the most aggressive cheerleaders for privatization, many Democrats equally enthuse about the free market” as an engine of progress and deride strong government stewardship of resources. 

This bipartisan support is why fighting privatization is so difficult. American political culture has a strong faith in the efficacy of markets and skepticism in the competence of government. Critics bravely cite individual episodes of privatization gone bad, but there is no compelling philosophical response or alternative grand narrative to the logic of privatization.

A new framework rises

An embryonic force to counter the push to privatize is gaining momentum, however: the concept of the commons.” The language is still rudimentary and people who rely upon the country’s multiple commons have not yet built a shared philosophy, but even so a remarkably broad groundswell of activism is emerging.

The commons describes the many resources we collectively own that are being mismanaged by government or siphoned away by corporations. Some commons are physical assets, such as the global atmosphere, ecosystems, clean water, wildlife and the human genome. Some commons are public institutions such as libraries, museums, schools and government agencies. Still other commons are social communities, such as the gift economies” of people who contribute their time and expertise to create valuable resources. Examples include scientific disciplines and Internet communities, both of which depend on the open exchange of information.

The point of talking about the commons is to reassert a basic truth: Power does not reside in government and markets alone. It also belongs to we the people.” This is not just a rhetorical point. The commons has its own moral authority, social effectiveness and political power — which is why leaders of government and corporations routinely invoke the concept. Power in a democracy must constantly justify its moral and political legitimacy by associating itself with the people.” 

To be sure, government often does act as a trustee for the American people, and markets can be efficient tools for material progress. What is too often ignored, however, is that the commons is a sovereign force in its own right. Sometimes the interests of the commons are best protected through its own institutions rather than through government or markets. Such institutions can take many forms: stakeholder trusts, land trusts, professional communities, civic associations, online networks, and cooperative arrangements like blood banks and libraries. 

The Alaska Permanent Fund is a terrific example of a stakeholder trust. Every year, the Fund gives every Alaska citizen an equal slice of revenues from oil drilling on state lands. Now with some $27 billion in assets, the Fund generated dividends of about $1,107 for every state resident in 2003.

One reason that public libraries, parks and land trusts serve the commons is because they are institutionally designed to serve everyone. Unlike markets, which cater to those with money, a commons generally aims to provide equal access to a resource. Access is a civic or social right, not a privilege reserved for those who can afford it.

An evolving moral economy

Surely the biggest, most robust commons in history is the Internet, which has enabled an unprecedented type of bottom-up creativity and control. The Internet has spawned countless collaborative Web sites, online discussion forums, peer-to-peer file sharing communities and instant messaging networks. Interactions on such commons are not governed by contracts or money changing hands, but by social trust and reciprocity.

The commons, in short, has a different moral economy” than the market. As any economist will tell you, a market is based on rational individuals maximizing their utility through economic exchange. By contrast, a commons tends to be based on a community of shared values managing a resource according to agreed-upon moral or social norms. The resource may or may not be recognized as saleable property.

The moral economy” of the commons can be so efficient and creative that it sometimes outperforms the market on its own terms. The GNU/​Linux operating system, now in use on one-third of the nation’s servers, is perhaps the best proof of this fact, along with hundreds of other open source software communities. Countless Web communities achieve valuable types of coordination and collaboration that a market regime, with its expensive legal, marketing and payment apparatus, could not easily match. 

This is a key reason online enterprises based on social networking — open source software, Friendster, peer-to-peer file sharing, instant messaging, viral marketing — are thriving, while conventional enterprises that seek to manipulate and control online consumers are less successful. Online sharing and collaboration is cheap, easy and socially convivial — a reality that does not compute” in the neoclassical economic model.

Enclosure of the commons

It can be difficult to argue against privatization when the conventional wisdom holds that government is an inept bumbler. Part of this stems from three decades of relentless government-bashing by politicians and corporate PR firms. Government’s image also has suffered from its basic obligation to serve everyone, including difficult, high-cost customers” (Medicaid patients, rural postal patros), while companies are free to capture the most profitable customers for themselves. Government bureaucracies are hobbled in other ways — personnel rules, budget limits, no market access to capital — that make them less able to respond nimbly to changing needs.

In the face of such rough currents, opponents of privatization should therefore identify the people, and not the government, as the victim of privatization. Talking about threats to these many commons helps to make a stronger, affirmative case for reclaiming the public’s wealth.

A language of the commons more clearly identifies who is being betrayed and offers a richer understanding of what happens when a resource is privatized. In this regard, enclosure of the commons” is a useful term. In 18th and 19th Century British history, the aristocratic classes prevailed upon Parliament to seize the meadows, forests and wild game that common people relied upon as a matter of custom. Enclosure is the term used to describe the appropriation of a resource that belongs to all and its conversion into private property owned and controlled by a wealthy few.

When the commons is enclosed, prices generally rise and people must ask for permission to use a resource previously available to everyone. Enclosure also changes the management and character of a resource. The goal for resources governed by the market is to maximize financial return. When a resource is managed as a commons, the goal is to secure sustainable long-term benefits for everyone who belongs to the commons. The resource — wilderness, scientific research, genetic information — does not need to be turned into property and sold; it can be managed in its non-property” form for everyone.

A report on the commons

The Tomales Bay Institute and other defenders of the commons recently prepared a first annual report on The State of The Commons.” The report, which can be ordered or downloaded at www​.friend​soft​hecom​mons​.org, describes the scope of our common wealth, surveys the state of six important commons and makes some recommendations for the future.

The good news is that the market value of the broadcast spectrum has increased as the technology for cell phones, pagers and other wireless communication has advanced. So many companies want to use the public’s airwaves that the federal government can now extract a great price for it — and put those funds to public use.

There also are opportunities to curb pollution of the global atmosphere while establishing a commons trust fund. A new Sky Trust” proposal is gaining momentum to require companies to bid at auction for the right to release their carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The money would then be placed into a Sky Trust owned by all citizens. Under this scheme, companies would have financial incentives to reduce their pollution, and the public would reap dividends from the Sky Trust that could be used for public purposes or rebated to individual citizens as dividends, in the style of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

The point of any commons solution” is to protect our shared resources from expropriation and mismanagement. This means that we need to begin to assign legal rights to our common wealth — our airsheds, aquifers and ecosystems, pressured by markets. We also need to breathe new life into the public trust doctrine,” a legal rule that since Roman times has declared that certain parts of nature belong to the public and cannot be given away by governments or seized by private parties. 

Many activists are starting to recognize the strategic value of the commons paradigm, including defenders of fresh-water supplies, wildlife and indigenous cultures. Libraries are talking about saving the information commons,” and a new nonprofit group, the Creative Commons, now offers licensing alternatives to copyright to promote the sharing and re-use of music, film and writing. Residents in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont have organized themselves as the Kingdom Commons to fight a windmill farm in a pristine wilderness area. Advocates of sustainable fisheries, parks and open spaces, and the public’s airwaves are invoking the commons as a way to fight corporate enclosures.

The growing popularity of commons-speak is a hopeful sign. Not only does it reconceptualize the privatization issue in more advantageous terms, it gives people a way to assert a moral and social connection to resources that belong to us all. Disparate progressive causes that now labor in isolation could begin to recognize their political affinities, and begin to hoist up a new public philosophy with its own powers to combat privatization.

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David Bollier is author of Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth; the co-founder of Public Knowledge, the advocacy group for Internet and intellectual property issues; and a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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