Claiming the Commons
Notes on Ways to Share and Care for Our Earth
[2011 / Alanna Hartzok is Co-Director Earth Rights
Institute, and author of The Earth Belongs to Everyone and the
Land Rights Course (www.course.earthrights.net)]
This paper lists several commons domains, both natural and social,
and proposes ethics, practices, and policies for assuring that they
are both fairly shared and responsibly cared for in perpetuity.
- Surface Land Site Value
- Lands Used for Timber, Grazing, Oil and Mineral Extraction
- Control Of and Emissions Into Air and Water
- Electromagnetic Spectrum, Satellite Orbital Zones, and Outer
- DNA, the Deep Commons of Inner Space, and Intellectual Property
- On Commons Governance, Earth Rights, and Who We Are As Human
1) Surface Land Site Value - Land value is a price or
monetary measurement accruing to surface land that increases as
population grows and development proceeds.
(a) When surface land is treated as a market commodity for
speculation and profiteering, land prices further increase, and faster
than wages and the return to productive capital. Classical economists
called this process "the law of rent" with the term "rent"
meaning a socially created value (a commons). Land value or "rent"
is thus an "unearned income" when privatized. Those engaged
in the productive economy must then assume ever increasing debt in
mortgage payments in order to gain access to the surface land commons
for housing, business locations, sustainable small farm agriculture
and other "real economy" activities.
(b) Surface land ownership is highly concentrated worldwide as a
result of enclosure, colonization, and rent-seeking behavior. Even
more highly concentrated is the control of the most valuable surface
land sites in urban areas. In addition to paying land rent and
mortgage interest to private sector rent-seekers and profiteers, the
ordinary citizen now pays taxes on wage incomes and/or small business
(c) As a consequence of the two above problems we now have an extreme
concentration of wealth and private financial sector control of the
global Economy to the detriment of ordinary people, the productive
economy, and the environment.
A) Rent"- the unearned income accruing to surface land and other
natural commons - is socially created and therefore should be "captured"
or "returned" to society as a whole in order to finance
common basic needs for education, sanitation, public transportation
and other social goods.
B) The policy known variously as "land value capture", "land
value taxation" or "site value rating" removes taxes
from houses and other buildings as well as from wages and other earned
incomes (thus increasing purchasing capacity on the "demand"
side) and shifts the tax base to a simple "pay for use"
charge on surface land according to the accurate assessed value of
sites (thus maintaining land value stability and affordability on the
C) Research of leading land economists indicates that surface land
rent is sufficient to pay for needed public goods. Thus there is no
need to tax wage labor and the private production of goods and
services of the "real" economy. This public finance method
provides the proper incentives or signals necessary to maintain
genuine market freedom while assuring fair wealth distribution.
D) Reclaiming the "surface land rent commons" while
relieving taxes on the real economy provides the proper balance of
public and private sectors. This policy is recommended by the founding
documents of UN HABITAT and is a key to poverty eradication. It
correctly harnesses market incentives for affordable housing for all,
assures good use of valuable urban lands, and promotes rural land
reform. This approach to "people/planet finance" is
essential for building a new economics beyond both the "old right"
and the "old left."
2) Land used for Timber, Grazing, Oil and Mineral Extraction
A) As with surface land, the access and control of these commons
domains are also concentrated in the hands of a few individuals and
conglomerates. Even when these activities occur on state owned lands
which are considered to be in the public domain, those gaining access
frequently pay substantially less than full rent into public funds.
B) The terms of access to these resources often are not conditioned
upon legally enforceable agreements or codes that fully protect and
sustain these lands.
C) The combination of the two above stated problems means that the
public is not receiving a fair return for use of these resources (fair
share rights) nor are these resources being utilized in a sustainable
manner (responsible use). Timber lands are too often monocultures;
grazing lands are over-grazed; oil and minerals extractive most often
do not internalize the full environmental and social costs of resource
a) Contracts and conditions for use of land for timber, grazing, oil
and mineral extraction should be negotiated, written, and legally
agreed upon via a process of open, transparent, and sufficient input
by citizens in the locality or regions impacted by these activities.
In some cases it can be expected that citizens would decide that "no
use" for these purposes would be deemed "highest and best
use" of these lands.
b) When citizens, via processes of participative, deliberative
democracy, agree that land should be utilized for the purposes of
timber cutting, grazing, oil or mineral extraction, they should be
fully informed by non-partisan experts as to the potential "rent"
that could be captured for the public fund via land use fees or
royalty payments. Alternatively the price for access could be arrived
at by public auction.
c) Broad based citizen input should also determine the conditions for
use of the land for these purposes, meaning that in addition to fees
or royalty payments, contracts will detail the requirements for
environmental protection and full sustainability in perpetuity.
d) Contracts determined by citizens for the use of their commons for
timber, grazing, oil or mineral extraction need to contain clear
methodologies and formulas for adequate financing for both monitoring
and enforcing the contract agreements.
e) Furthermore, citizens should, again via processes of
participative, deliberative democracy, determine the expenditure of
public funds received via land use fees or royalty payments for
timber, grazing, oil and minerals extraction. For instance, citizens
might decide that a certain portion of these funds would be directed
to financing renewable energy technologies and/or that a portion would
be distributed directly to each resident as a "citizen dividend"
representing a "fair share" return for use of the commons.
3) Control Of and Emissions into Air, Water, or Soil
a) Currently the full cost of industrial production is not
internalized by those using our air, water and soil commons but
instead is externalized onto the citizenry as a whole. As a result the
health and quality of life for humans and other life forms is at risk,
as are the interconnected ecosystems of the entire planet.
b) Current economic structures are based primarily on the drive for
private profit by large scale industries and entities who wield power
and control which is disproportionate and out of sync with the needs
and benefits of the people as a whole.
c) The strong push worldwide for further privatization of these
commons and their capture and control by an elite few desiring profit
over people and planet is cause for growing alarm among the world's
a) A first step is to bring full awareness to the world's citizens
that current forms of industrial and economic production are in too
many cases causing more harm than good to our families, friends and
neighborhoods. This broadening of collective consciousness concerning
the common heritage domains of air, water and soil and how they are
currently being used and by whom is an essential for reclaiming the
air, water and soil commons. Again, this is a call for participative,
deliberative democracy with a focus on our fundamental physical
b) As stated above regarding timber, grazing, oil and mining
extraction, enforceable codes and covenants for the fair share and
sustainable use of our air, water and soil commons need to be
established from the local to the global levels. Fees for use, not
abuse, of these commons need to be set forth. Pollution taxes need to
be sufficient to incentivize steadily decreasing the damaging use of
these commons and to instead shift to benign and regenerative forms of
c) Since pollution taxes and fees are often passed on to the end
user, meaning the citizen as consumer, it is essential that taxes on
wage earners eliminated in order to increase overall purchasing
d) In that overall improvements to the social order also increase the
desirability and thus the land value of particular land sites and
locations, not only for towns and cities but also for countries that
have cleaner environments than others, it is essential when
implementing pollution taxes and other commons use fees that the
consequent increase in surface land values be socially captured and
placed in common funds for the benefit of all (as described in #1
above). The "claiming the commons" paradigm thus will be
holistic and integrated in its approach to the various commons
4) Electromagnetic Spectrum, Satellite Orbital Zones and Earth's
a) There are high real estate values in both spectrum and space. The
access for information transmission to the commons of the
electromagnetic spectrum, worth multi-billions of dollars, has
literally in most countries been given away to a few large media
b) Satellite orbital zones are regions of outer space where
satellites are balanced in equipoise between the gravities of the
earth and the moon. These are highly desirable nature-created
locations, and are yet another form of commons for which the world's
citizens are receiving no fees for use. Not only this but these
regions are now littered with defunct satellite and other debris,
space junk for which there is as yet no garbage collection services.
c) With great alarm we note the new race for space for purposes
likely to be antithetical to the peace and safety of our planet,
people and other precious life forms of our earth. Powerful new
systems (such as HAARP - high frequency active auroral research
program) have harnessed the capacity of the ionosphere in order to
create weather events and locate valuable mineral resources. These
systems are now capable of inflicting massive destruction upon those
who would challenge current constellations of power and privilege.
a) A mass awakening is required. Artists, writers, intellectuals,
military leaders, people in government and the media along with
ordinary citizens need to work together beyond political and partisan
lines to convert the use of the electromagnetic spectrum, outer space
and the ionosphere from malevolent to benevolent purposes.
b) We must secure only peaceful uses of outer space and make certain
that funds and subsidies are not directed to those engaged in
projects, technologies, or endeavors which seek to use these commons
for destructive purposes. Those individuals, companies or governments
that persist in the use of the spectrum or space for anti-social
purposes must be boycotted, embargoed, shunned and shamed. If they do
not stop and redirect their efforts to benevolent, life promoting
purposes they must be subpoenaed by courts of law and put on trial for
crimes against the earth and humanity.
c) The world's citizens, connected via local-to-global parliamentary
and deliberative democracy movements, must claim their commons of the
spectrum, satellite orbital zones, the multiple layers of our
atmosphere, and outer space. Similar to the previously stated commons
solutions, use of these commons should be based upon transparent and
enforceable agreements, codes, contracts and covenants which set forth
conditions for both socially and environmentally responsible use of
these commons, along with substantial and sufficient fees for their
use, to be placed in a global common fund and utilized for the
well-being of all people, other life forms, and the planet in its
5) DNA, the Deep Commons of Inner Space, and Intellectual
a) Humans privileged with high technology, time, talent, and funding
have penetrated deeply into the building blocks of life itself,
deciphering much of the DNA helix as well as the constructs of
molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. Knowledge about these
realms and others throughout the ages has been used for both "good"
purposes which further the evolution of life and "evil" ("live"
spelled backwards) purposes which impede, block, obstruct, or deviate
from the evolutionary path. In our current era these discoveries are
too often used for power, profit and control over other humans and
b) Claiming the right to these commons by "discovery" is
not a sufficient rational for vesting the power of this knowledge in
the hands of a few over the many. Doing so would be similar to
European claims to the land and natural resources of the Americas and
Africa during the times of colonial conquest when the "new lands"
were deemed to be "terra nullius" or empty lands devoid of "civilized
inhabitants." Discoveries made which unlock the secrets of DNA
and the deep inner space commons, if not transparently made and
claimed on behalf of all humanity, cannot be considered legitimate
claims. Use of these discoveries to modify life forms, as is done with
GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the patenting of seeds and
other life forms for private profit, is anti-social and will not be
permitted under enlightened governance of, by, and for the people and
c) The "genie is out of the bottle" regarding for-profit
patenting of DNA for life form modification, the use of the deep
commons of atomic structures for the creation of weapons of mass
destruction, and privatized intellectual property rights over commons
knowledge and resources.
a) Most so-called "intellectual property" derives from and
builds upon multitudes of human scientific and cultural explorations
and endeavors generated throughout the ages. We need to bring forth
ethics and policies that carefully decipher what belongs to
individuals and groups due to their particular efforts and what in
fact belongs to humanity as a common heritage to be utilized for the
benefit of all.
b) It is unrealistic to imagine that we can put this genie back in
the bottle. Our challenge is to now honor and recognize the power of
this genie so that he/she can truly serve the evolutionary path, the
unfolding journey of life on planet earth. All explorations and
discoveries that delve into the deep commons of inner space need to be
exposed to the sunlight of transparent, open public knowledge. The
right to undertake such explorations can only be granted on this
c) There can be no secret laboratories pursuing such knowledge for
power, profit and control by the few over the many. We the people of
the planet need to know who is doing what and where in these
explorations into deep inner space. Our universities and public think
tanks can then focus on the ethical considerations of these activities
and how discoveries made can best serve the common good.
d) Similar to our approach to the other common resource domains,
codes, covenants, and contracts regarding inner space commons need to
be developed in participatory and deliberative democracy civic
processes. The right to use this knowledge should be based upon a full
understanding and acceptance of the clear benefits of this knowledge
(along with resultant new technologies) and a full and fair sharing of
the benefits. Those individuals, groups or companies whose labor made
possible these discoveries should then be fairly compensated for their
singular contributions. Any and all patents issued should contain a
sunset clause of no longer than an average human lifetime.
6) On Local-to-Global Commons Governance, Earth Rights, and Who
We Are As Human Beings
The needs of the people and the needs of the planet are one and the
same. How we hold the earth is how we hold each other. We belong to
the earth and the earth belongs to us.
Most of our urgent social and environmental problems stem from a
forgetting, or lack of fully affirming, these fundamental truths. We
now need to not only recall and proclaim these truths, we need to make
them the basis for building communities that care for and protect
mother earth and her many life forms. We need to put forth new rules
and establish institutions of governance whereby limited natural
resources are stewarded in such a manner as to create a world of
abundance, a world wherein each precious and unique human being,
secure in his or her ability to provision basic material needs, can
evolve and fully develop in mind and spirit.
The phrase "earth rights" points to an emerging new form of
local-to-global governance that understands and affirms both the
rights of the earth to her biological and ecological integrity and the
human right to equitably share the earth as a common heritage. Clarity
concerning these emerging new roles of governance, or "earth
rights democracy," can be found in growing numbers of consensual
statements as follows. Here are three examples.
The International Declaration of Individual and Common Rights to
The exercise of both common and individual rights in land
is essential to a society based on justice. But the rights of
individuals in natural resources are limited by the just rights of
the community. Denying the existence of common rights in land
creates a condition of society wherein the exercise of individual
rights becomes impossible for the great mass of the people.
Delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental
Leadership Summit held on October 24-27, 1991, in Washington DC,
drafted and adopted 17 principles of Environmental Justice. Since
then, The Principles have served as a defining document for the
growing grassroots movement for environmental justice. The Preamble
WE, THE PEOPLE OF COLOR, gathered together at this
multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, to
begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples
of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and
communities, do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to
the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of
our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our
roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to
promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the
development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our
political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for
over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the
poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our
peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental
The UN HABITAT II Action Agenda, endorsed by all UN member state
delegates at the Istanbul global conference on June 15, 1996, in
Section B 55, states:
Access to land and legal security of tenure are strategic
prerequisites for the provision of adequate shelter for all and for
the development of sustainable human settlements affecting both
urban and rural areas. It is also one way of breaking the vicious
circle of poverty. Every Government must show a commitment to
promoting the provision of an adequate supply of land in the context
of sustainable land-use policies. While recognizing the existence of
different national laws and/or systems of land tenure, Governments
at the appropriate levels, including local authorities, should
nevertheless strive to remove all possible obstacles that may hamper
equitable access to land and ensure that equal rights of women and
men related to land and property are protected under the law. The
failure to adopt, at all levels, appropriate rural and urban land
policies and land management practices remains a primary cause of
inequity and poverty. It is also the cause of increased living
costs, the occupation of hazard-prone land, environmental
degradation and the increased vulnerability of urban and rural
habitats, affecting all people, especially disadvantaged and
vulnerable groups, people living in poverty and low-income
Earth rights mandates for governance will establish clear and
enforceable covenants and contracts for the fair sharing and careful
stewardship of the commons. Citizens joining together -- "commoning"
-- are already transcending partisan politics and arriving at common
objectives. They are forming powerful movements capable of building a
world that truly works for everyone as well as for Mother Earth.
Elites and governing structures unwilling to follow the lead and
decisions of the majority of the people, united in their earth rights
vision and praxis, will eventually and inevitably, sooner or later,
have to yield their power and privilege.
LOCAL-TO-GLOBAL COMMONS and COMMONING
Non-governmental organizations like Global Education Associates and
others working for a more peaceful and just world suggest we imagine
the shape of the emerging world as a pyramid with three basic levels:
a small tier at the top for global institutions, a greatly slimmed
down second band of national governments, and a vast sturdy base of
Actions for claiming the commons can readily be integrated into such
a three-tier system of local-to-global governance. Percentages of the
fees collected from charges for the use of the various commons domains
could be disbursed up or down these tiers based on criteria of equity,
as some nations and regions of the earth are better endowed with
natural resources than others. Freedom to live or work in any part of
the globe would also further equality of entitlement to the planet.
Appropriate commons domains to fund cities, regions, states and
global levels can be delineated as follows:
Surface land values, such as sites for homes, businesses and
industrial activities, are well-suited to finance cities and towns.
Combined with the removal of taxes on wages and sustainable
production, fees for use of valuable surface land sites prevent land
speculation and profiteering, thus keeping land affordable while at
the same time enabling workers to keep what they have earned. Fees for
surface land use would be helpful for rural areas also where they
would promote non-coercive land reform. The capacity for citizens to
directly access affordable rural land will further the transition to
sustainable, organic farming and a revitalized rural 'eco-village'
State, regional, or national bodies may be best constituted to
collect user fees for forestry, mineral, oil and water resources.
Precise configurations for the allocation of resource use fees between
state, regional and federal levels would vary according to the
situation of particular nations. In any case, Commons Funds would be
established upon deliberation of those living in any particular state,
region or nation.
Urgently needed is the establishment of a Global Resource Agency or
Global Commons Trust to collect user fees for transnational commons.
This would include parking charges for satellites placed in
geostationary orbits, royalties on minerals mined or fish caught in
international waters, and use of the use of the atmosphere, outer
space and the electromagnetic spectrum.
Other significant global revenue sources are taxes or fees based on
the polluter-pay principle, such as international flights or aviation
fuel, international shipping, or dumping at sea. A tax on currency
speculation has also been proposed. To be considered is whether
international arms trading should be heavily taxed or completely
The Global Resource Agency or Global Commons Trust could also be
responsible for monitoring the global commons (e.g., the ozone shield,
forest reserves, fish, biodiversity), determining rules for access,
issuing permits and collecting resource revenues. Such a body could
also assume substantial authority for levying fines and penalties for
the abuse of common heritage resources.
Revenues raised from access fees for the use of global commons could
fund sustainable development programs, environmental restoration,
peacekeeping activities, or low interest loans for poverty
eradication. Funds are also needed on the global level to finance
justice institutions such as the World Court and the International
Criminal Court and to facilitate policy convergence in areas such as
trade, currency exchange, and human rights.
The Global Resource Agency or Global Commons Trust could be mandated
to distribute resource use revenues equitably throughout the world as
calculated by formulas based on population, development criteria and
currency purchasing capacity.
An integrated, holistic system of nested commons domains, with
clearly defined covenants and mandates to protect and fairly share our
local-to-global natural resources, will give each and every person the
capacity to build a life worth living. There will be no more children
dying from lack of food or clean water, no more destitute, homeless
people, and no more wars over land and natural resources. With basic
needs securely met for all, humankind will be able to advance to
creative dimensions of expression and enlightenment. Our nature as
universal, even cosmic beings will unfold.
Who We Are As Human Beings
While we may not agree as to whether or not human beings have "souls"
or how souls may have been created if we do have them, we know for
certain that the human body is composed of earth elements. The human
body contains carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium phosphorus,
potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, iron, zinc, silicon,
rubidium, strontium, bromine, led, copper, aluminum, cadmium, cerium,
barium, iodine, tin, titanium, boron, nickel, selenium, chromium,
manganese, arsenic, lithium, cesium, mercury, germanium, molybdenum,
cobalt, antimony, silver, niobium, zirconium, lanthanium, gallium,
tellurium, yttrium, bismuth, thallium, indium, gold, scandium,
tantalum, vanadium, thorium, uranium, samarium, beryllium, and
tungsten. Oxygen is the most abundant element in the earth's crust
and in the body. The body's 43 kilograms of oxygen is found mostly as
a component of water, which makes up 70% of total body weight. How
interesting that about 70% of the earth's surface is water. The
human body has an electrical system and the earth has an
electro-magnetic field. We are now utilizing these capacities to link
our individual nervous systems with the global information grid of the
internet. It appears that whatever else we may or may not be, we are
clearly walking, talking, thinking, feeling, sensing and intuiting
bits of Mother Earth herself. We are the earth awakening to the power
of self-reflective consciousness.
We human beings - the individual units of earth awareness itself -
are fast awakening to our deep identity with Mother Earth. And we are
awakening each other. The senses stirred by our earth awareness
connect us to inner promptings which in turn are leading us to act
together to protect and fairly share our planet home. Faced with the
dire potential for destruction and annihilation due to those still in
deep slumber, Mother Earth is calling upon us to save, protect and
share her richness. Ultimately, caring for and sharing the commons is
the greatest gift we can now give to each other, to the Earth, and to
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- This is the ending paragraph
of a statement originally composed and declared at a conference of
the International Union for Land Value Taxation held in 1949. Note
that the term "land" refers to all natural commons as "gifts
of nature". For the complete Declaration go to:
- For the list of 17 points go
to: http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html. The Proceedings to
the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit
are available from the United Church of Christ Commission for
Racial Justice, 475 Riverside Dr. Suite 1950, New York, NY 10115.
Another source of information is the Environmental Justice
Resource Center (EJRC) at Clark Atlanta University.
- For the several points of the
Section B 56 Action Agenda on Ensuring Access to Land to go:
http://www.earthrights.net/docs/un_hab2.html or directly to and
search the UN HABITAT website.
- Elemental Composition of the
- What Percentage of the Earth's
Surface is Covered by Water?