What belongs to no one, belongs to everyone

Citizens: shareholders in our common wealth

Anke Welten | March 2004 issue

Each year every resident of Alaska looks forward to receiving a cheque for a hefty sum from the government. The money is not some kind of compensation for living in an extreme climate. Rather it represents a share of the profits from trade in a commodity that the state constitution stipulates belongs to them all: oil.

The payments are handled by the Alaska Permanent Fund, which was set up by the state in 1976 using the proceeds from the sale of oil exploration rights. To avoid leaving future generations out in the cold when the oil runs out, the government has since deposited 25% of each year’s oil revenues in the fund. A committee of ‘ordinary citizens’ manages and invests the money. For the residents of this American state, the annual cheques represent their dividend, or share, of the fund’s profits.

Alaska considers the oil on its land as public property, part of the ‘commons’, as they say. That which belongs to no one, belongs to everyone. Most of these common goods – water, air, sun, public space, language, culture, quiet – have no price tag. In their strategic plans and annual reports, companies and governments only speak of ‘external effects’ with no economic value attached.

To demonstrate what happens when you do attach a value to such ‘external effects’, last October the California-based Tomales Bay Institute issued its State of the Commons report. The report is designed like a conventional annual report, but places special emphasis on ‘external effects’ tied to human health and well being.

‘The value of “the commons” in the United States is difficult to determine,’ according to the editors, ‘but based on the prices for our common wealth that has been privatised (water, air – ed.), we assumed it would amount to trillions of dollars. That surpasses the value of the sum of all the country’s private holdings by far.’ According to the report, if the profits that companies currently make on the use of commons were distributed among all Americans – as Alaska does with its oil revenues – the quality of life for the country’s residents would be higher and more evenly distributed.

The report describes how the value of six common domains – air, radio waves, water, culture, science and silence – have fluctuated and what is being done to protect them. For example, shortly after America became independent more than 200 years ago, regional courts decided that the country’s rivers and springs no longer belonged to ‘everyone’ but to whomever first laid their hands on them. With water resources out of sight of government regulations Americans became the biggest water consumers in the world. The results were predictable. Groundwater sources are being pumped dry faster than nature can replenish them, the ground surface is subsiding, farmland is drying up and Americans are increasingly dependent on imported drinking water.

Comparable results can be seen in the realm of culture. For ages, copyrights not only served as a temporary means of protecting artists against misuse of their work, but also as a guarantee that in time the cultural good would become freely available to the public at large. But the terms attached to copyrights changed and with them their significance. In 1790 a copyright was valid for a maximum of 28 years, while currently the work of an author or artist is protected up to 95 years after his death. This enabled the Walt Disney Company to rework many well-known traditional fairytales and then copyright the revisions. The outcome? Stories that once belonged to everyone now belong to Disney. This development is leading to the increasing homogenisation of culture and an increasingly difficult position for independent art.

Broadcasting has been affected as well. Since 1934 issuing rights for the use of free radio waves – transmission rights – has been a practical way to prevent stations from interfering with one another and to guarantee the quality and diversity of radio programmes. But the recent explosive growth in demand for mobile telephones, has seen broadcasters selling their frequencies for large sums to telecom companies.

As always, there is hope. The Tomales Bay Institute report points out that the emergence of emissions rights trading is a positive development towards curbing increasing air pollution. (Although it has also been argued that the issue of emissions rights could end up becoming an excuse to continue polluting.) And the Internet is increasingly becoming a refuge for cultural expression and exchange. However, according to the report, the total value of the six commons is steadily declining.

In order to prevent further damage to the public domain, the Institute calls for stricter regulations and better supervision of compliance. This will require the establishment of property rights and attaching values to as much of the commons as possible. Then, those wishing to exploit or pollute commons for profit would have to pay for the privilege.

The Tomales Bay Institute has little faith in governments when it comes to protecting the commons. The report therefore seeks solutions in line with the example of the Alaska Permanent Fund. Representatives of the people assume the government’s protective role and manage the earnings from the rights to use and pollute. Requiring these representatives to be completely open about their dealings means they will work more effectively, give more priority to the commons, and will be more democratic than the government. And not only should the revenues from the commons be reinvested in those public goods, but also – in line with the Alaskan example – be returned to the people in the form of dividends. The essence, according to The State of the Commons, is to reawaken awareness of the fact that the value of the commons is essential to society.

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