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Professor reviews Global Commons

Christian Myers | Monday, February 25, 2013

Questions of property and ownership are central to human history, and Leo Burke, director of Integral Leadership at the Mendoza College of Business and the Global Commons Initiative, said he believes the concept of common ownership will be increasingly important in the future.

Burke gave a lecture entitled “Global Commons” as part of the “10 Years Hence” lecture series Friday in the Jordan Auditorium of the Mendoza College of Business.

Burke said it was important to understand the idea of commons, goods and resources shared by communities for common benefit, in order to make informed decisions regarding global issues with major consequences.

“The world 10 years from now is going to be dramatically different, you’ll barely recognize it,” Burke said. “One of the questions as a business school, as a university, as citizens that we have to face is: What kind of world do we want to unfold? Do we want a world that works for everyone? Do we want a world that is restricted?”

Burke said the role of the commons in shaping this future lies in finding ways for the commons and the current capitalist, free-market system to work in concert.

“Things that we share together are commons, things with historical laws and traditions of private ownership can be owned privately,” Burke said. “Some stuff we need to own, some stuff we can’t own and some stuff we need to talk about. The commons have characteristics that you might say complement the market. That will be important going forward. We have to be able to have commons structures that coexist with private property.”

In explaining the concept of commons, Burke structured his presentation around five key words: ancient, diverse, commoning, stewardship and enclosure.

He said the first two are attributes of commons – commons are ancient and diverse. He offered water as one example of an ancient commons, citing the Roman law of water usage under the Code of Justinian. As examples of the diversity among commons, he mentioned languages, family recipes, MIT’s open courseware, Linux and community gardens.

Burke said the next word, commoning, is the action of sharing together in commons. He said the modern examples of commons demonstrate that commoning is found in collaborative efforts for common benefit.

“People are finding common grounds to serve the common good,” Burke said.

Stewardship relates to using commons and resources generally in a sustainable manner, he said.

Burke said mankind uses 50 percent more of the world’s resources than it naturally produces each year. He said if humans continue on this trajectory of increasing resource consumption, the yearly usage will reach three worlds’ worth by the year 2050.

Burke said humanity is more aware of this need for stewardship than ever before because technological advancement has increased mankind’s ability to monitor consumption.

“This is the first time in human history when humanity can see itself in totality,” he said.

The final word Burke discussed was enclosure. Burke said the term comes from the enclosure acts passed by

Parliament during the Tudor period in England. Burke said, for his purposes, enclosure means privatizing commons.

“Enclosure is the expropriation and commercialization of shared resources for personal gain,” he said.

Burke said two current examples of enclosure are the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, as well as other efforts to extend copyright protections, and the 1981 patent on a microorganism awarded to General Electric.

Burke said in the future it may be the case that water goes through the same process of being made a commodity rather than a commons.

He said our modern way of thinking about property reflects this idea of enclosure.

“We tend to think of enclosure as the only way to manage things,” he said. “Right now, if you can’t put a price on it, it doesn’t have value.”

Contact Christian Myers atcmyers8@nd.edu