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We Need A New Social Contract For Our Global Commons, by Naoko Ishii

May 18, 2021 |

Humanity is facing the unprecedented challenge of global environmental destruction undeniably driven by human activity. We must urgently transform the way we live if we are to continue to prosper within planetary boundaries. It’s time for a new social contract to transform our economy and protect our global commons.

Global commons such as climate, biodiversity, oceans, freshwater and land are resources shared across the world that provide essential benefit to society. These commons form the foundation of human health and prosperity, but – as the tragedy goes – nobody is tasked with their management, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. Our economic systems have now exploited them to breaking point.

We may have three Rio Treaties, 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 20 Aichi Targets, but it has become obvious that they alone are not enough to arrest the downward spiral of environmental degradation. It has likewise become clear that we need to radically transform our economic systems if we are to conserve the commons and safeguard our future. The question is how?

Local to global

At a local level, many communities – particularly indigenous communities – have been skilled at managing local commons for centuries. They know how not to overuse commons such as water, pasture, and forest based on local rules, and recognize intuitively that by damaging the commons they ultimately damage themselves.

But, as economic activities have become increasingly globalized, and decisions made on one side of the planet affect commons on the other, we have become detached from the impact of our decisions and to the value provided to us by the commons. This means that too often our decisions damage them and erode the wealth, health, happiness and identity of those who depend on them.

We need to learn from the stewardship of the local commons to build a new social contract for the global commons. The most fundamental, systemic and holistic approach to rewriting this contract is a capitals approach.

Global commons and natural capital

The global commons can also be conceptualized as stocks of natural capital that provide a flow of benefits or value to people. Framing the commons in this way can illuminate the complex and systemic relationships between nature, people & economies that are often lost when making decisions at a global scale.

While ‘capital’ is often thought of only as money, capital can describe any resource or asset that stores and provides value to people – such as the global commons. When invested in and managed responsibly, the asset creates value. If we erode it, as we have with our commons, we limit its ability to provide value, and if we degrade it too much, it can stop providing value all together or even become a cost.

The Capitals Coalition advocates for a capitals approach where decisions are based on more than just money – they’re based on value. Understanding the value of their impacts and dependencies on natural, social and human capitals can be a watershed moment for many organizations who realize that issues they had considered to be immaterial – or had never considered at all – in fact directly underpin their success.

A capitals approach provides organizations with a holistic understanding of the system in which they operate, enabling integrated decision-making with broad benefits across the capitals. Our new social contract must be grounded in this approach and based upon what we value.

Systems, not silos

This systemic approach to decision making also sits at the heart of the mission of The Center for Global Commons. We recognize that we can no longer have a conversation about nature, people or economies alone. We desperately need to break the inertia and silos in a current economic system and instead address these issues as parts within a deeply complex and interconnected global system.

Among numerous exciting projects, we are developing a Global Commons Stewardship Index to measure countries’ contributions, positive and negative, to steward global commons. At the core of this work is the development of science-based scenarios that account for the interplay between human society, planetary boundaries and socio-economic systems. A capitals approach is crucial in the development of this framework to help conceptualize and contexualise these interconnections across the system.

I am deeply excited about the clear synergies between the Center and Capitals Coalition, and I am indeed extremely lucky to serve on the Capitals Coalition’s Board. This is a pivotal time for humanity but I am hopeful that through continued collaboration and strong ambition, we will seize this moment and safeguard our commons.

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