The Commons

Nov. 18, 2016

The commons is taken to mean any shared resource such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or wildlife. Apparent modern examples of exploiting the commons is the depletion of fish stocks in international waters and reduction of biodiversity due to deforestation. Commons also include the internet and publicly supported resources such as roads, schools and local clinics. But this will focus on environmental global commons.  

Throughout history, commons issues have arisen over grazing and water issues. In many cases, individuals or a group maximize the use of common resources for their own benefit while the cost of exploitation becomes the burden of the whole community. If we all share grazing pastures or water resources and I have more livestock, I use up more of the resources and personally benefit while the resources are stretched thin for all. Free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. The rate at which depletion of the resource is realized depends primarily on three factors: the number of users wanting to consume the common in question, the consumptiveness of their uses, and the relative robustness of the common resource.

There are many examples of exploitation of the commons by corporations. By utilizing resources of the commons and not taking care to be sure the commons is not impacted by their activities, companies can externalize costs to communities and show greater profits. Fracking natural gas provides profits for the corporations that sell the gas, but destroy water and land resources in the community. Coal company CEOs line their pockets with profits, while mining communities suffer with lung disease and water pollution. An estimated 1,200 people in the US still die from black lung disease annually. And some of the holding ponds for mining byproducts are minutes from elementary schools if the earthen dams break. The pollution created by industry degrades water sources reducing the quality of water supplies for any community downstream. Pollution includes: mercury, lead, sulfuric acid, caustic soda, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and other toxic chemicals. There is a huge area at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico that is called the dead zone. Few organisms can live there due to toxicity and lack of oxygen. I used to fish off the Texas City Dike in the Gulf of Mexico. Refinery Row is visible from the dike, pipes covering the sky line. When we started bringing in fish with tumors, we quit fishing there.

Industries also emit air pollution reducing air quality for everyone. Coal is the fossil fuel most used to produce electricity all over the world. It is cheap and occurs in large quantities in many countries with large populations. It is cheap to mine, but we don’t really pay the full price for burning the coal. The chemicals and gases released through burning coal is not good for our lungs and the carbon dioxide is causing the balance of gases in our atmosphere to change. Because carbon dioxide traps heat energy, it increases the kinetic energy of the particles that make up our atmosphere causing extreme weather events. The health costs and the cost of extreme weather events is in the billions of dollars. These costs fall onto the citizens who suffer, while the industries and corporations make huge profits from exploiting the commons.

These same companies have the resources to hire lobbyists and influence our politicians to reduce regulations. Government regulations are there to protect the commons, but propaganda produced by the so-called corporate think tanks influence popular opinions to fear the economic implications of regulation. The fear of economic consequences is greater than the fear of ecologic and environmental degradation. Add that to the lack of ecological literacy and disconnect from nature and we have an uninformed majority who vote for candidates who will not protect the commons in favor of corporate interests. This is one of the reasons why so many people will vote against their own best interests.