Have you ever wondered why some park-like appearing places are called commons? In the days of the Roman Empire, by the law of res communes, things used by everyone were held in common and could be owned by no one. In 17th century Europe, England, and the New World certain agricultural, grazing and forestlands that uniquely benefitted everyone were held as “commons.” Every family had an equal right to graze their cow and other cattle on the commons. As western societies’ food production became more industrialized and capitalized, the need for commons dwindled and those left were used primarily for recreational purposes. The rise of the conservation movement and the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt in the US saw a renewed use of the concept in the rationale for protecting national natural treasures, biological and geological, as parks, refuges, and sanctuaries and thereby removing them, in perpetuity, from commercial exploitation. The current US Administration aligned with powerful coal, mineral and logging interests, is currently applying strong pressure to privatize these parks, refuges and sanctuaries so they may be opened to commercial use. Similar trends may be found in Canada. Lost in the lust for markets are res communes and the common good.
Writing in the 2012 publication Wealth of the Commons: A World
Beyond Market and State1, Ugo Matte,2 explains: The commons are not concessions. They are resources that belong to the people as a matter of life necessity. Everybody has a right to an equal share of the commons and must be empowered by law to claim equal and direct access to it. Everybody has equal responsibility to the commons and shares a direct responsibility to transfer its wealth to future generations. The commons radically oppose both the State and private property as shaped by market forces, and are powerful sources of emancipation and social justice. However, they have been buried by the dominant academic discourse grounded in scientific positivism.
Dr. Graham Daborn, our guest editor, brings the more philosophical discussion home as he puts forward a compelling case as to why the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy should be so designated. The Maritimes and New England share these vital and biologically rich water resources. They, he argues, fit well the original purpose of res communes. Natural ecosystems, he stresses, “… do not adhere to political boundaries. These waters are shared between Canada and the USA, and between three states and two provinces. Demand for increased services related to aquaculture, energy, and tourism, and concern for endangered species and habitats engenders new conflicts with existing resource use and users.” It is clear from his discussion that the Gulf and Bay are of importance worldwide in sustaining marine life and as a source of food and recreation.
Dr. John Colton’s, article narrows the focus to a growing controversy in the Bay of Fundy: tidal energy development. The approach was developed several decades ago relevant to the mining industry, and has since expanded. “Social license is intangible,” writes Dr. Colton, “ and “associated with acceptance, approval, consent, demands, expectations, and reputation. It is not a statutory framework but rather a concept that implies that developers and government will do the right thing in moving a project forward.” Very familiar with tidal energy politics, he clearly explains how conflicting vested interests make getting a balanced and fair social license agreement difficult, and implementing that agreement even more so. Where the approach differs from res communes is the in the designation of developers and governments as the main stakeholders and the assumption they will end up doing the right thing. One has to ask, where are the “people” here? With adaptations, however, the approach may be very useful in moving the conversation effort forward. While defining the common good may be a reasonably manageable intellectual exercise, getting to a fair and representative solution is not. Public support is essential.
The tipping point in favor of a contemporary res communes designation will occur when the general public recognizes the consequences of human exploitation of the Gulf and the Bay. Included in the implementation would need to be legal authority to ensure sustainability in perpetuity. The Gulf of Maine Council, had as its vision something akin to this, however, the Council lacked the political and legal authority to achieve the vision. Dr. Daborn suggests the Council may yet be able to play a very important role by convening an annual open forum to exchange ideas and work on a method for collective stewardship. This seems both elegant and wise. The Council is the most credible entity to convene such a forum, which would have public outreach as a priority. That outreach, from a GOMI perspective, would include youth. Youth are, after all, the future stewards. It could encourage more consensuses building locally and bioregionally. Such a forum could facilitate the discussion on how we educate ourselves and our progeny to be more civically and environmentally engaged citizen stewards. How do we sustain the bioregion we deserve?
1. A collection of 73 essays that describe the potential of the commons in conceptualizing and building a better future, edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfinch and published in 2012 by Levellers Press, Amherst, MA>
2. Ugo Mattei is Professor of International and
Comparative Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.
John P. Terry, founded the Gulf of Maine Institute in 1999. John was Editor-in-Chief, CYD (Community Youth Development) Journal from Aug. 1994 to Nov. 2002. John has broad teaching and administrative experience at the university level including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1969-1984, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, 1985-1992, and Union College, Schenectady, NY, 1964-1969. John received national recognition in 2006 when selected as Civic Ventures,’ Lead with Experience Program 2006 Purpose Prize Fellows. He is also a 2008 recipient of the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment Visionary Award.