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Post 2015 Submission

Post 2015, a Commons Approach

Below is the entire Commons Cluster proposal for the UN to adopt The Commons Approach,  submitted by Rob Wheeler, Jan 15, 2013 for the NGO Thematic Consultations on Environmental Sustainability and Sustainable Development.  Official posting: at 


The UN is Urged to Adopt  “The Commons Approach”
at All Levels Of Government and Throughout Society to Achieve

MDG goals and Sustainable Development


Global Commons Based Approach to Sustainable Development

We urge the United Nations to adopt a “commons approach” at all levels of government and throughout society to achieve MDG 7. Such a Commons Based Approach would focus on environmental sustainability; link economic, social and environmental sustainability; address cross cutting issues; honor the Rio Principles and Declaration; and ought to be included as a Topic of Discussion in this consultation.

Core Ecological Principles of the Commons Approach

A commons is a community of independent interests that prosper by collaboration, like people with different talents that make a business thrive or species that occupy different niches making an ecology thrive. The responsiveness of each interest to others, whether intentionally in a thriving nation or co-op or naturally as in a culture or economy, is what creates “a whole far greater than the sum of the parts”.

A commons approach would steer the new development goals toward our common self-interests, to create communities that collaborate and work together to create environmental, along with social and economic, sustainability.

Innovative methods for linking the needs and abilities of diverse groups of stakeholders can enable them to solve their problems for mutual advantage with less “rule making”, and more listening to each other and to the science, This is a development plan from nature that can really work.

Global commons-based solutions 

Solutions exist wherever groups or networks of people produce, manage or steward natural or social resources in an inclusive, democratic manner to benefit all stakeholders without harming others or nature. Commons also exist as ecologies, where unrelated communities form strong partnerships by seeking their own interests in being responsive to each other.

Commons resources can be natural, social or cultural resources that are produced or managed collectively because of their intrinsic importance to all stakeholders–those most motivated to restore and sustain them.

As the UNDG Thematic Paper on Environmental Sustainability states, “the international community has not committed the necessary investments to achieve MDG7 while the ecosystem’s capacity to sustain human development is increasingly compromised.” To remedy this, a Commons Approach to Environmental Sustainability and a Green Economy is urgently needed:

A) Global Public Goods, ranging from watersheds and forests to the atmosphere and oceans must be protected and restored for the well-being of humanity and nature using a commons approach from local to global levels. Local stakeholders need a say in the use of local resources.

B) Major Groups should be fully and actively included in all UN decision making processes and their role in the new High Level Forum on Sustainable Development strengthened, returning to what it was earlier in the CSD process.

C) Green Tax Policies are urgently needed to get the incentives right to transition to a green economy; protect and restore the natural environment; allocate the proceeds from commons resources equitably and sustainably while developing smart markets that protect the commons; and to fund and achieve all of the multi- national goals and agreements.

A popular way is to shift taxes off of labor and productive capital and onto land and natural resource rents. Thus, municipalities can collect the surface land rents within their jurisdiction. Regional governing bodies the resource rents from forest lands, minerals, and water resources. And a Global Resource Agency should be established to collect user fees on such transnational commons as satellite geostationary orbits, minerals mined or fish caught in international waters, and the electromagnetic spectrum, etc.

D) The Sustainable Development Goals, Targets and Indicators need to be human centered, scientifically based, comprehensive in scope, focus on making a complete transition to full sustainability, and measure aspects that may not be immediately visible in order to fully implement MDG 7.

World standards for Comprehensive Sustainability Reporting (CSR) and Economic Liability Assessments (ELA) would give businesses, consumers, governments and investors solid information on what their choices would cost the future, environmentally and financially, thus helping to make global sustainability self-regulating and more profitable.

E) All Local and National Sustainability Strategies; Action Plans; and the 10 YFPs on Sustainable Consumption and Production should be integrated with the efforts developed under the UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development and be based on a Commons Approach – thus including all stakeholders in development, management and implementation.

F) A commons approach is needed to implement Rio Principle 10 and to adopt the Access Initiative. Significantly more funds are needed to include civil society as a primary actor in implementation; and rather than halving poverty all people’s basic human rights and needs should be fully met.

G) Our global atmosphere is one of the largest commons on the planet. Under a proposal for a Feasta Sky Trust emissions permits would provide the right to use of the atmosphere. Current schemes like the Emissions Trading System (ETS) assume carbon scarcity rent should go to polluters or governments – but it should provide for the well-being of all of humanity instead. See:

H) UN General Assembly resolution 64/292 of 28 July 2010 “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” It is therefore imperative that:

-water sources, springs, headwaters and aquifers be held in common by those cultivating and protecting them;

-we connect water quality to industry, access, and land stewardship to ensure that all water is kept clean and available; and

-the same status be urgently accorded all other commons goods as well, so people can survive and prosper.


Commons communities bring people together to discuss, negotiate, design and implement solutions to community problems. Commoners take personal care and responsibility for their natural and social resources, thus better managing and sustaining them.

Commons are ubiquitous. Their value has been stressed by Elinor Ostrom recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. They include intentional commons like Wikipedia, geocities, ecovillages, transitions towns, cooperatives, indigenous communities, open source software, and the multi-stakeholder resource partnerships arising from the environmental movement.

Naturally occurring and intentionally organized commons follow many of the same principles: interdependence and equivalence of the individual parts fostering collective creativity in relation to one another and the whole. A collective sense of responsibility toward the commons can end warring over these life giving basics, eradicate poverty, and unleash the creative potential of a mature human species.

UN sponsorship of the study of commons and implementation of the principles of commoning will ensure that the creative potential of world citizens is utilized to address local to global problems. In 2025, the majority of voters globally will be 25 and under. A visible change is already underway at the grassroots level, a great turning is being fueled by young people already skilled as “social entrepreneurs” making collaborative choices in work, learning and social relations.

The people are not waiting for governments to resolve their challenges. However the UN’s leadership is crucially important and a commons approach needed to support collective creativity and decision making.


Adopting a global Commons Based Approach to environmental sustainability would build on much that is already in place: One billion people are members of cooperatives — most of which are thriving during the economic downturn while the traditional global economy is failing.

The Danish agricultural sector; Norwegian Pension Fund; Alaskan Permanent Fund; Raiffeisen and other Banks and credit unions; insurance companies; farmers markets and forest management in Nepal use commons approaches.

In 2008, Ecuador incorporated the rights of nature in their new constitution. Rather than treating nature as property, these laws affirm that nature has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles. And the citizens have the legal authority to enforce these rights and protect these commons resources. Electricity revenues pay for watershed management; and in Colombia taxes on petroleum and charcoal support activities of the National Environmental System.

Ethiopia and Barbuda have thousands of small agricultural commons or village clusters that increase market products and food production and lift rural people out of abject poverty.

Many Hawaiian communities still rely on the ancient Ahupua’a system, an early sustainable model of permaculture. Each community holds an interest in the natural resources and gives its people access to sources of food production. Their interests are held in common and the bounty is shared by the stakeholders.

With a commons approach natural and other resources are collectively managed to benefit all people and are sustained in a healthy manner. Water resources can thus be priced to sustain the resource while ensuring it equitably benefits and is easily available to all.

In the developing world 90% of waste water flows back into the watershed untreated. Many examples show how we can collectively manage water and wastes using biological methods; clean up our water bodies; and use waste resources in a circular manner providing much needed nutrients for agriculture.

With green tax policies we can raise the revenues needed to invest in infrastructure development. We can then set a target that is not to halve the proportion without but to ensure that all people have access to the basic services mandated under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, HR Conventions, Rio Principles and UN Charter.

The 370 million Indigenous People, many living in marginalized conditions, also have much to teach us about how the governance structures of commons can work well.

In addition a Commons Abundance Network (CAN) is being set up to help commons communities and networks learn from one another and form stronger unity in diversity. CAN has the potential to enable a commons-based economy to form bottom up and top down, will encourage natural alliances to form, and support the development of public/private/civil society partnerships.


A. Why do we persist in maintaining the inequities that lead to the degradation of the environment and the destruction of life?

B. How does a commons approach promote environmental sustainability, restore our right relationship with the earth and others; and how can it be embraced and shared with the world?

C. How widespread are commons and what types of commons exist? How can they help us achieve the new Sustainable Development Goals?

II.  Attached Reference Papers

  3. Longer early version of the proposal for reference, without later edits, for reference and to retain sections removed in reducing the text to fit the UN submission requirement of 1500 words
  4. Measures to Finance the Shift to a Commons-Based Economy – CAUN financing suggestions for Rio+20
  5. UNDG MDG’s Good Practices Booklet – Case Studies – Chapter 4 of  the UN Development Group’s Good Practices Booklet on Environmental Sustainability that Demonstrate the Successes that can come from a Commons Approach to Sustainable Development
  6. Report of the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Environmental Sustainability, 2005, Excerpt’s from the report showing why a Commons Approach to Sustainable Development is essential for achieving Environmental Sustainability

  7. Models of Common Interest, Introduction to three proposals for “commons based institutions”, defining general principles, a design for a self-regulating financial system and a design for a financial balance sheet for business impacts, CAUN members, Helene Finidori & Jessie Henshaw proposals from 2012 RioDialogues
  8. Earth Rights Economic Policy Vision Statements Earth Rights Institute, Policy Vision for a Green Economics Tax Shift Primer & UN Habitat I and II Action Agenda on Land Access and on Taxation
  9. Room for Improvement? Can the Alaska model be applied on a worldwide basis? Report on the Alaska Permanent Fund and its general validity for financing sustainable social developments, by Alanna Hartzok

III. Endorsing Organizations

All Win Network, Institute for Planetary Synthesis (IPS), Commons Action for the UN, UN major groups Commons Cluster, Earth Rights Institute, 12/29/12 Climate Change Network, Nigeria, Kosmos Associates, ECOJURE, Eco Foundation for Sustainable Alternatives (EFSA) India, CAFSO-WRAG for Development, Campaign 2015 and International Campaign 2015, Civil Society Coalition on Migration and Development, Women’s Rights Action Group, Maria Ebun Foundation, Planning Alternatives for Change, LLC., Uganda Environmental Education Foundation (UEEF), Prof. Robert Ulanowicz, emer.University of Maryland


Commons Action for the United Nations (CAUN) and the Commons Cluster Major Group

Authoring Team: Rob Wheeler; Myra Jackson, Jessie Henshaw, Helene Finidori, and Lisinka Ulatowska   –  Contact lisinka.ulatowska @