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Respecting the Commons

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The natural environment is widely referred to as a public good or commons. This chapter examines the meaning of this metaphor and some consequences of its use. From an economics viewpoint, the commons is seen as a collection of (market) imperfections bound to face a ‘tragedy’ because of the lack of individual incentives to protect and maintain it. It should, as far as possible, be transformed into private goods, to make the market work. I will, however, argue that the notion of the commons implies a genuinely ethical meaning. In this approach, the commons does not simply signify an area where the coordination mechanism of the market is somehow imperfect, but it has an intrinsically normative content. So privatizing it is not necessarily a solution but a source of new problems.

A public good is a good that is collectively consumed; we call this non-rivalry in the consumption of the good in question. A second criterion of a public good is non-excludability, which means that nobody can be excluded from the consumption of the given good. The global environmental commons, like the atmosphere, the ozone layer, the biological diversity and the deep seas, seems to comply with the definition of a public good because the non-excludability and non-rivalry criteria accord almost perfectly. It is difficult to exclude anybody from enjoying the fruits of these assets, and ‘consumers’ are not competing with one another – at least, not in the short run. In the long run, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin 1968) may come about: the collective good is overconsumed and destroyed as an effect of non-excludability. Everybody can freely use it as either a resource or as a waste depository. Apparently, this is what is happening to the global environmental commons.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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