29 May 2005

Earth - a common treasury for all

By Marguerite Finn

"The fault is great in man or woman
Who steals a goose from off a common;
But what can plead that man's excuse
Who steals a common from a goose?"

(The Tickler Magazine 1 February 1821)

When a friend shouldered his spade recently and went off to fill in a ditch that a landlord had dug around a Norfolk common to keep people off it, I thought of the age-old struggles against the enclosure of common land.

In 1649, when Gerrard Winstanley and his band of twenty Diggers peacefully occupied St George's Hill in Surrey and proceeded to cultivate it, the Law was definitely not on their side. The communal activities of the Diggers alarmed the Commonwealth government and roused the hostility of local landowners who were rival claimants to the common lands. But Winstanley saw the practice of extending private property rights to common land as fundamentally flawed. He believed passionately that the Earth was: "a common treasury for all, both rich and poor - not enclosing any part into any particular hand, but all as one man."

In the early 1980s, latter-day Diggers occupied the unfenced, disused airfield at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire when it was about to be given by our government to the Americans, to house their nuclear cruise missiles. These lorry-mounted weapons were supposed to "melt into the countryside" undetectable by the enemy, in order to be first to fire their genocidal pay-load. The Diggers bullock-ploughed the airfield, hand-sowed and hand-reaped it and sent wheat to help relieve famine in Ethiopia.

Readers may recall that Defence Minister Heseltine, resplendent in flak-jacket, led a sizeable military force to Molesworth to uproot the campers and fence in the land against further encroachments - an operation which earned him the nick-name 'Tarzan'! The missiles were duly installed. The up-rooted Diggers morphed into a 'Cruise Watch' team and thenceforth every cruise missile convoy in England was successfully followed and logged by them, and the only "melting into the countryside" occurred when the missiles were furtively recalled to the United States. There was little publicity about this at the time!

The ecologist Garrett Hardin identified a trend he called: The Tragedy of the Commons; Suppose that five commoners have rights to graze a certain number of sheep on a common - all rights carefully allocated to sustain the common's resources. If one of the commoners cheats by grazing one more animal than agreed - a fateful imbalance is set up which leads irreversibly to the destruction of the whole common. The detriment to each of the commoners is shared between them; each suffers from the extra grazing to the extent of one fifth of an animal. Yet the cheat profits by one whole animal, so the tendency to cheat is greater than the individual tendency to object. Even when the land becomes overgrazed, people will continue to put their animals on to the damaged common and may even add to their flock or herd.

So it is with the 'Global Commons' and the problems of globalisation and the accompanying environmental degradation. Individuals - or countries - see no point in making a sacrifice if others continue to use a common asset. Even if everyone is aware that selfishness, competitiveness and unregulated exploitation will eventually make the land unusable for all, once having acquired a disproportionate share of the world's common resources - there is a danger that countries may feel driven to "defend their vital interests" with disproportionate power - even to the point of threatening the global commons with nuclear annihilation.

Who in our One World, will defend the dwindling global commons?

In 2002, Indian scientist and activist Dr Vandana Shiva, identified two key areas requiring urgent defence; one to reclaim the 'water commons', the other to reclaim the 'genetic commons'.

Vandana Shiva sees privatisation, based on exclusive rights of corporations to vital resources like biodiversity and water, as an enclosure of the commons. She believes that reversal of this enclosure requires a combination of actions at local, national and global levels - putting water and biodiversity beyond monopoly, private ownership and 'commodification'.

This week we learned of the collapse of a "flagship" water privatisation scheme in Tanzania. The World Bank and the UK Government supported the scheme with £76.5 million but Tanzania claims that no new pipe-work had been installed and water quality had declined - not a good advertisement for the privatisation of a common resource.

Some 40% of the world's population now live in countries with water shortages; millions of children die of water-borne diseases that could be eliminated with improved sanitation. It is time to recover the commons.