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Global Commons: Understanding Exploitation and Conservation

  • 24 May 2024

“None of the threats to the global commons will be solved by building walls.”

— James G. Stavridis

'Global commons' can be understood from two perspectives: geopolitical and economic. Geopolitically, global commons are areas and resources beyond national jurisdiction, such as the atmosphere, the high seas, Antarctica, and outer space. Recently tropical rain forests and biodiversity have been included in the global commons as well. Economically, the term refers to shared resources that can be overused by some at the expense of others, regardless of national boundaries. Both perspectives highlight the international interest in their governance and protection. This essay will explore how these areas are crucial due to their universal significance and susceptibility to exploitation and environmental harm.

Significance of the Commons

The global commons contribute effectively to the planet in varied ways. The High Seas, beyond national jurisdiction and outside the Exclusive Economic Zone, are crucial for marine biodiversity and global climate regulation. The atmosphere, essential for climate regulation and life support, plays a key role in weather patterns and air quality. Antarctica, governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, is dedicated to peace and scientific research, offering invaluable insights into climate change and earth sciences. Outer space, encompassing celestial bodies and orbital environments around Earth, is vital for communication, navigation, and scientific exploration. Biodiversity, encompassing the variety of ecosystems, species, and genes, underpins ecosystem services, food security, and resilience against environmental changes, making it indispensable for global sustainability.

A third of the global population relies on these 'Commons' for survival, with 65% of the world's land area classified under various forms of commons. These areas play a crucial role in carbon storage, holding at least 293,061 million metric tonnes of carbon in the collective forestlands of indigenous peoples and local communities. Additionally, the global value of pollination supported by commons is estimated at $224 billion annually. Commons also contribute to water regulation, soil fertility, and climate resilience. In India, the extent of common land ranges from 48.69 million to 84.2 million hectares, making up 15-25% of the country’s total geographical area. These common-pool resources contribute $5 billion annually to the incomes of poor Indian households. Moreover, 77% of India’s livestock is dependent on grazing-based or extensive systems supported by commons, fulfilling 53% of the country's milk and 74% of its meat requirements. Therefore, sustainable management of these commons is essential to preserving biodiversity, supporting livelihoods, and mitigating climate change.

Understanding Global Commons

As previously discussed, the Global commons refer to parts of the planet not owned by any single entity but shared among nations and peoples. Susan J. Buck (1998) in her book “The Global Commons: An Introduction”, delves deep into the concept and explains how these common pool resources are in ‘high subtractability’ and ‘low exclusion’. While exclusion is the possibility of excluding others from using any resource, Subtractability is the extent to which use of the resource by one diminishes the amount left for the others. For example, resources in a village forest are common pool resources. Every villager is allowed to collect fruits (or other resources) in limited quantities, so exclusion is low. However, once a villager collects some fruits, those fruits are no longer available to others, which shows high ‘subtractability’. In the context of global commons, this assertion is entirely applicable.

Challenges in Protecting Global Commons

Several challenges complicate the protection of global commons:

  • The Tragedy of the Commons: This concept given by Biologist Garrett Hardin (1968) illustrates how individuals acting in their own self-interest can deplete or spoil shared resources, to the detriment of everyone’s long-term best interests.
    • For instance, National Sample Survey Office data of India revealed a 1.9% quinquennial rate of decline in the area of common lands, though micro studies indicate a much more rapid decline of 31-55% over 50 years.
    • This decline has jeopardized the health of systemic drivers such as soil, moisture, nutrients, biomass, and biodiversity, exacerbating food, fodder, and water crises.
  • Jurisdictional Issues: Jurisdictional issues present a complex challenge in governing global commons, as they lie beyond any single country's jurisdiction, making enforcing laws difficult.
    • The spread of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity reduction, overfishing, and the accumulation of plastic waste further compound these challenges within the scope of global commons.
      • However, ensuring that laws are universally respected and followed poses an additional challenge, as every nation differs in its capacity to effectively address these problems.
    • Moreover, coordination and cooperation among nations are crucial for tackling global commons issues, yet achieving consensus and collective action on a global scale remains an ongoing challenge.
  • Environmental degradation: This poses a critical threat to the health of global commons, with pollution, overfishing, and climate change leading to significant ecological damage.
    • For instance, pollution from industrial activities and agriculture contaminates water bodies and affects air quality, impacting marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
    • Overfishing depletes fish stocks and disrupts marine food webs, endangering biodiversity and undermining the sustainability of fisheries. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the mismanagement of biodiversity has led to the irreversible loss of 60% of these resources.
    • Climate change exacerbates these issues by altering temperature and precipitation patterns, causing habitat loss, coral bleaching, and more frequent extreme weather events, which further degrade global commons.
  • Economic pressures: Economic pressures often drive nations and corporations to exploit these resources unsustainably, and prioritize short-term profits over long-term environmental sustainability.
    • For example, logging companies often clear-cut forests for timber extraction without adequate reforestation measures, which leads to deforestation and loss of biodiversity.
    • Similarly, mining operations and companies such as Coal India and others, offer employment to lakhs in the country and contribute significantly in reducing poverty and other development and CSR Initiatives.
      • However, these companies may extract minerals from the earth's crust without proper environmental safeguards, resulting in habitat destruction, soil erosion, and water as well as air pollution.
    • These economic incentives can perpetuate a cycle of resource depletion and environmental degradation, compromising the health and resilience of global commons.

International Laws, Agreements and Organizations

To protect the global commons there exist numerous international laws and agreements such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that regulates ocean use and seeks to preserve the marine environment for their sustainable management.

The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 which designates Antarctica as a scientific preserve, prohibiting military activities and promoting international cooperation for research and environmental protection in the region.

Additionally, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in space and promotes the peaceful use of celestial bodies and the Montreal Protocol of 1987 a global agreement that aims to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production of ozone-depleting substances (ODS),thereby mitigating environmental harm.

Additionally, International organizations also play crucial roles in governing and protecting global commons. The United Nations (UN) spearheads efforts to manage and safeguard the global environment through bodies like the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Maritime Organization.

Additionally, the World Trade Organization (WTO), primarily focused on trade, also addresses environmental issues related to trade. Furthermore, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) plays a crucial role in regulating whaling activities and promoting whale conservation worldwide.

Together, these organizations, treaties and laws contribute to international cooperation and action for the protection of global commons and the preservation of the planet's natural resources.

Future Perspectives and Challenges

  • The management of shared resources requires striking a delicate balance between private and public interests. Coordination is essential across different scales of activity, such as empowering local irrigation communities to monitor infrastructure and adapt practices to changing conditions.
  • To effectively manage both global and local commons, it's crucial to support ‘self-governance’ at the local level while implementing safeguards to prevent exploitation and mitigate risks. Rural and urban communities should be empowered to govern their shared resources, with cities and nations taking responsibility for associated risks.
  • Additionally, two specific approaches can enhance resource management: Reinforcing governance principles of 'Commons' approaches and employing creative destruction to innovate resource management practices.
    • Creative destruction, coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter, describes the continuous innovation process where outdated production units are replaced by new ones.
    • This approach is fundamental to capitalism and fosters ongoing progress and adaptation.
  • However, the future of global commons protection relies heavily on enhanced international cooperation, compliance with laws, integration of sustainability into policies and moving away from strictly ‘developmentalist view’, both in developed and as well as in the developing countries.
  • This involves practicing the notion of the 'common heritage of mankind,' as articulated by diplomat Arvid Pardo (1967), which is a legal principle in International law as well.
    • He emphasizes that natural resources are not solely owned by the present generation but are also meant to be shared by future generations.


To conclude, by fostering partnerships, sharing resources, and tackling challenges collaboratively, we can protect the global commons. For this, ensuring adherence to international agreements and strengthening monitoring mechanisms is crucial.

Sustainable practices across sectors like energy and agriculture must be prioritized, and efforts towards ‘Just Transition’ should be maximized. Alongside, public engagement, empowering communities and raising awareness to inspire collective action is also necessary to inspire action at local levels as well. Overall, a holistic approach addressing political, economic, social, and environmental dimensions is essential for safeguarding global commons for future generations.


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