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Regional Commons Initiatives

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 9: Building the Commons Sector (pages 135-154)

Some commons are regional in scale and require regional management. The examples that follow are in the early stages of conception, design, and implementation.

While the federal government dallies on climate change, several states are taking action. Most advanced is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, launched by seven northeastern states from Maine to Delaware. Their plan will limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and require utilities to hold emission permits. Still undecided as of mid-2006 is a crucial question: will polluters pay for their permits, or will they get most of them for free?

Dozens of citizens’ groups are calling upon the states to auction emission permits and use the proceeds to reduce costs to consumers. “Historically, polluters have used our air for free,” says Marc Breslow of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network. “But there’s no justification for allowing them to keep doing so. The atmosphere is common property.”

As this is written, some politicians are listening. The Vermont legislature voted to auction 100 percent of the state’s emission permits, rather than give them free to polluters. In Massachusetts, a key committee approved a five-year transition to full auctioning — though the state’s governor, Mitt Romney, abruptly withdrew Massachusetts from the regional initiative. In New York, the state attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, announced his support for 100 percent auctioning. This could be especially significant if Spitzer, as seems likely, becomes governor in 2007.


In the 1930s, there was the Tennessee Valley Authority. Its main job was to control floods and bring electricity to a seven-state region. Today a watershed trust’s missions would be different: to protect rivers and fish, and to promote sustainable agriculture. Consider our largest watershed, the Missouri-Mississippi-Ohio, which drains water and waste from twenty-five states into the Gulf of Mexico. In the mid-1980s, fishers in the Gulf noticed a growing “dead zone” during summer months, when fish and crustacean populations plummeted. According to the EPA, the dead zone has now swelled to some five thousand square miles. The problem is hypoxia, or absence of dissolved oxygen. The proximate cause is overabundant algae growth that triggers a cascade of effects that ultimately sucks oxygen out of the water.

What causes aquatic plants to grow so fast they overwhelm an entire ecosystem? In a word, nutrients — the same nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) that farmers feed to their terrestrial crops. Excess nutrients run off the soil and are washed down the Mississippi. In 1997, an interagency task force was created to study the problem and recommend solutions. In 2001 it called for “voluntary, practical, and cost-effective” actions by industry and government. Unfortunately, so far not much has happened.

What if we considered the topsoil and flowing waters of the Mississippi basin as a commons to be preserved for future generations? We might, then, create a Mississippi Soil and Water Trust. The trust would hold all rights to introduce fertilizers (and perhaps pesticides and herbicides) within the basin. Its job would be to reduce chemical inputs to safe levels and to reward farmers (and others) for proper stewardship of their land.

Each year the trust would sell a declining number of tradeable soil input permits; manufacturers would bid for these. It would then recycle revenue from permit sales to landowners who meet stewardship guidelines. This would raise the cost of chemical-intensive agriculture while rewarding farmers for being good land stewards.

Farmers’ crop yields might decline for a while, but their incomes wouldn’t. In a decade or two, the Gulf would come back to life, and farming in America’s heartland would be a lot more organic. The transition time would depend on the rate at which the trust decreases the number of permits it issues.


The Great Plains have been called America’s lost Serengeti. Once, millions of bison, antelope, and elk roamed here, sustainably hunted by native tribes. When European settlers arrived, so did cattle, wheat, and fences. Soon the big wild animals were all but exterminated. The Great Plains boomed for a while, but declined after the 1920s. By the 1980s, population had plunged, soil erosion was at Dust Bowl levels, and the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of much of the region’s water, was dropping fast. In 1987, geographers Deborah and Frank Popper proposed a long-term restoration concept they called the Buffalo Commons.

The metaphor sparked the region’s imagination. Meetings were held, studies conducted, task forces formed. What emerged is a movement to reestablish a corridor large enough for bison and other native wildlife to roam freely. This unfenced prairie, perhaps ten or twenty million acres in size, would not only restore some of the bison’s lost habitat; it would turn the whole region into a high-quality place to live. The Nature Conservancy and similar entities are now trying to build this commons piece by piece. ... read the whole chapter



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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper