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Enclosing the commons

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the English Parliament passed the Enclosure Acts, converting land formerly held in common by all, to a privately owned commodity — and stripping the livelihood from "commoners," those who had been farming on it.

In the older parts of the U.S. we still have Town Commons, remnants of that tradition. But the value of resources held in common is now disregarded by economic theory that the market is the source of wealth. Privatization extends to much we used to consider in the public domain. For example patents on genes in agricultural plants mean seed must be bought every year, instead of planting some from last year’s harvest — a devastating expense for Third World farmers. Similarly, patents on medicines the World Health Organization has identified as “essential for priority health care” make them out of reach for many people.

Science itself used to be a commons; scientists were proud to share information openly, in order to advance the progress of knowledge. In a 2005 survey of scientific researchers, 40% complained that patent issues were hampering their work.

Now the National Park Service wants to sell to private corporations the knowledge resulting from research on specimens from the parks. (Not the specimens, but the knowledge.) They used to just give it away, but now they want “benefits-sharing.” I certainly think the parks should benefit from such research, but I don’t think participating in the privatization ethic is appropriate for an organization charged with preserving part of our national commons.

Although the NPS has received protests about this, they responded that "intellectual property law" is "outside the scope" of their concern. But they'd already admitted that the scope of the problem extends beyond just the physical environment to a social one. I think they simply did not take that far enough, and need to consider ethical impacts.

In one NPS document they say their mission includes the conservation not only of park resources, but also of "park values." What are these? In another place they emphasize that conservation is for "the common benefit of all the people of the United States." Any action the NPS takes on this issue will impact the larger culture. Each time we give our commons to corporations, we get further locked in to the market mindset. Can we be more creative than that, find a solution that will foster the common good?

Next: A 21st-century Commons

© Copyright 2006 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 15 December 2006

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