In 1968, Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons predicted that land and resources shared in use by individuals would eventually be degraded or destroyed. But as we celebrate Earth Month 2011, we are seeing something far worse: private corporations (at times working hand-in-glove with governmental bodies) plundering the commons for private gain, with catastrophic results. Since January, the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster, further damage from the BP oil blowout, groundwater supplies poisoned by hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, the USDA’s approval of Monsanto’s genetically-engineered alfalfa as “organic,” over a million dead or dying from Chernobyl radiation, and the environmental devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining have all made headlines.

Author Jay Walljasper’s All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons cites a 17th Century folk poem criticizing the practice of enclosure, in which the wealthy fenced off common land, rendering it and its resources private. The rhyme is as instructive now as it was then:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine

For example, consider hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for natural gas. In 2005 Halliburton and Baker Hughes’ BJ Services successfully lobbied the Cheney-Bush administration to exempt natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under the ’05 Energy Bill, gas drillers are not required to disclose any of the hundreds of chemicals used for fracking, but researchers have found benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene – all disease-causing – in samples of drilling fluid (the formula is proprietary). Wells can be fracked up to 18 times, with each frack using millions gallons of water. Wastewater is off-gassed, releasing volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, then trucked to taxpayer-funded water treatment facilities. Fracking also permanently destroys separations between gas deposits and aquifers, and the earth’s ability to purify water. Though Congress introduced the FRAC Act to regulate fracking in 2009, and re-introduced it again last month, no action on the bill has been taken. Meanwhile, drilling – and Halliburton and Baker Hughes’ profits – continue unabated.

Sandy Lejeune

Whether it’s fracking, genetically-engineered crops, oil pumped from the ocean’s floor, or coal mined by blowing the tops off mountains, the result is the same. Like the “greater villain” of the folk poem, modern-day corporations and their government supporters are stealing our water, oceans, seed, air, soil, and ecosystems from the commons, and keeping the profits while passing the costs of their theft on to the rest of us.

Too often, we focus solely on the immediate damages caused by such raids on the commons. Too rarely do we ask more fundamental questions: whose air, whose water, whose soil, whose seed is being appropriated? Who gave TEPCO, Fukushima Dai-ichi’s operator, permission to dump radioactive water into the world’s ocean, or Halliburton license to poison water it doesn’t own – and then use publically-funded treatment facilities to “un-poison” it? How can Monsanto declare a seed it never had the genius itself to conceive, but which it lifted from the common wealth, to be “proprietary?”

Against steep odds, pockets of concerned people around the country are rising up to defend the commons. Mt. Shasta, California’s 3500 residents have developed an ordinance to protect their aquifer from water bottler behemoths Coca Cola and Nestle. The ordinance recognizes the rights of the community and local government before the economic interests of corporations. Since 1998, over 100 municipalities in Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Hampshire have voted for citizens’ rights above corporate interests. In February, Kentucky Rising and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth rallied hundreds of citizens to the state capitol to protest mountaintop removal coal mining, including eleven who, for three days, occupied the governor’s office. They have vowed to return every year until mountaintop removal mining stops. In a local version of reclaiming the commons, groups such as the Surfrider Foundation, the Environmental Defense Center, the Naples Coalition, and the Gaviota Coast Conservancy continue their decades-long efforts to preserve the last remaining 20 miles of undeveloped coastline in southern California – the Gaviota Coast’s beaches, creeks, and water and viewsheds – from development.

There is a third stanza to the folk poem which people around the country are taking to heart:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Until they go and steal it back

It’s our earth, too. We should act like it.


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