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Public Goods: a global challenge

In economics, the tragedy of the commons is the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long- term best interests. The concept is often cited in connection with sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental protection, as well as in the debate over global warming. “Commons” can include the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, national parks, advertising, and even parking meters.

In view of the ecological crisis, the knowledge economy, new forms of governance and production, reflection on the commons has become essential. Long ignored by economics or law, it is yet in its infancy.
The question of the public goods and commons have long been ignored by economics, politics, law, social movements, and yet is becoming a key challenge of this new century. In view of the ecological crisis, the knowledge economy, new forms of governance and production, the notion of common are just beginning to be explored.

1. Theory of the commons
The main feature of the commons is that anyone in a group of people can use and give a particular resource without that it cannot be appropriated and exclusive control the part of an individual. In other words, ” are common goods on which no social unit (individual, family, company) has exclusive rights, whether property rights or rights of use. This is an example of communal property (wood or pasture) of medieval Europe that served as historical reference to this debate (1). ” In the Middle Ages , in fact , land was open to all crops : anyone could go collect firewood , mushrooms, farmers could graze their sheep … This is the thirteenth century in England that the king John and the barons appropriated exclusively these common , this policy of enclosure caused large popular movements that gave rise in 1215 with the Magna Carta and the Charter of the forest , a new law regulating the use.

The notion of joint returns to the front of the scene including being a famous critic from the biologist Garrett Hardin in an article entitled “The tragedy of the commons”, published in 1968. Considering common pastures where shepherds are trying to feed the greatest number of animals, significantly reducing the amount of grass available, he concluded that the free use of common led to the ruin of all. For Hardin, the commons are therefore only available resources, or the great merit of Elinor Ostrom have shown that this design was based on a common abstract design with little to do with the actual common collectively managed for millennia (such as irrigation or fisheries) . It is common that are linked to communities, and therefore a sense of community, where people communicate and negotiate in a perspective that is not confined to the immediate interests.

Indeed, the subject of governance that is imposed either by the market or by the state, the concern of the commons is always reconciled with the right to use the conservation of resources. However, this reconciliation, as shown in the management of complex public goods (such as irrigation canals) , is made possible by shared by members of the community values. These values are used to overcome the difficulties of management, convey collective knowledge and «awareness of the importance of adaptability and flexibility of the institution (2) .” Production of public goods is therefore a social and political construct that depends on the arbitration community between what she can or will endure for the benefit of all and the production of goods free access. This is the community to set the cursor: the road may be, for example, free access and free and open access highways but pay. 

The commons can be classified into four categories according to two parameters: the former is open to all or only to a specific group character. If air or road networks are open to all, this is not the case of pastures or irrigation networks that are restricted. The second parameter specifies whether the system is regulated commons: if the air we breathe is not regulated, it is different from the air is rejected and pollution, i.e there a range of regulatory commons will vary for many reasons (accessibility, political choices, etc. .) . The rules for the governance of the commons are varied but in all cases, no higher authority can dictate. They regulate themselves by creating their own control systems. According to Elinor Ostrom , encourage better cooperation through institutional arrangements adapted to local ecosystems rather than trying to run everything from a distance, which does not prevent governments or international organizations to play a decisive role in the recognition of commons.

2. News of the commons
The theory of public goods has regained news particularly since the late 1990s, when the Internet was seen as a new joint. Unlike the digital common property ( also considered ” common knowledge “) with the natural common good, the use of one does not undermine the possibility of use of the other . While common knowledge may seem like unlimited, it nevertheless they are likely to be the subject of new enclosures, including with the private appropriation of knowledge and methods ( software patents or knowledge) . Knowledge, although intangible, is thus one of the main issues that revived the debate on the commons. Pierre- Joseph Proudhon and Victor Hugo had already argued in the nineteenth century that the production of ideas is possible only to the extent that the authors drew them through the company. For them, the text becomes a common good when the author, who loses his copyright in favor of a public right, distributes its text. Today, this utopia seems to be possible from the time when knowledge is decoupled from its broadcast medium that is freely accessible through the digital form. Thus develop many platforms open-source, open scientific knowledge with the creation of the Public Library of Science in 2000 and the open access journal Biology, Creative licenses commons ( 3).

The advantage put forward regarding these common is to allow innovation to move without colliding with vested interests. The commons, therefore, are conducive to strong growth in non-market production, especially for the information economy and culture via the Internet. Software, drugs, genes, agricultural seeds are however subject to a struggle between those who want to make universal common good and those who would take ownership thanks to patents. This poses many problems, such as the patenting of life. John Sulston for example, Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2002, provides the following light on the link between common good and genome: The genome sequence is a discovery, not an invention. Like a mountain or a river, it is a natural object that already exists, not before us, of course, but before we realize his presence.

In my opinion, the earth is a common good, and even if we erect barriers, it is preferable that does not belong to anyone. If an area becomes important because the landscape is particularly beautiful or because it is home to rare species , then yes, it should be protected as a common good “(4) . Here Sulston raises particular problems for the common good as a natural or human production as it is actually a good product can be a common property such as roads or some digital goods.

Other species of property are likely to reach common, which is not without cause controversy in the political, economic and legal implications. In a context of globalization, the economic crisis calls into question the ways of managing the property, where the environmental crisis calls for new management of natural assets ( such as water) , and where the crisis the technique requires the composition of new relationships with the living space and the reflection on the commons becomes unavoidable.

(1) Daniel Mate , “Biodiversity between private ownership claims of sovereignty and international cooperation,” Sustainable development and territories , File No. 10 “common goods and property,” , posted March 7, 2008 .

(2) Giangiacomo Bravo Beatrice Marelli , “shared resources” , Journal of Alpine , 96-3 , 2008 , posted March 4, 2009 .

(3) These licenses provide a legal alternative for those not wishing to protect their works using the intellectual property rights standards in their countries. The aim is to encourage simple and legitimate way traffic works , exchange and creativity ( especially in the sense that , with some licenses , a work may be supplemented or modified by a third party) .

(4) John Sulston , Le Monde Diplomatique , December 2002 , p. 28, 29 .

– Aigrain , Philippe , Common Cause : Information between common good and property , Fayard, 2005.
– Collective ” Common goods and property,” Sustainable Development and territories , File No. 10 , 2008, available at
– Hardin, Garrett , “The Tragedy of the Commons ” , Science , vol. 162, No. 3859 , 1968 , p. From 1243 to 1248 .
– Ostrom , Elinor , The Governance of the commons , Editions de Boeck , 2010.
– Petrella , Riccardo , Water , common public good , Alternatives to ” petrolisation ” water , Editions de l’Aube , 2004.
– Young, Oran R., “Managing the global commons “, International Review , No. 9 , October 2000 , p. 147-161 . 


Sandra Berthelot #611


Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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