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Defending the Global Commons

I cut my civic action teeth in the mid-1960s in New York City, organizing Citizens For Clean Air. We passed local ordinances to prevent trash burning in millions of incinerators; got TV, radio, and press to release the City's primitive Air Pollution Index in weather reports; and fought the auto industry to speed installation of catalytic converters. All the while, our 40,000 members knew we were only scratching the surface, offering Band-Aids. While we released praying mantises and lady bugs in pesticide-sprayed Central Park to teach about natural methods of insect control, many of us knew the problems were national and international, involving fossil-fueled industrial methods, faulty technologies, and pursuit of the American Dream of keeping up with the Joneses via mass consumption.

I ended up realizing that too few people and resources were focused on-let alone defending-the global commons, the heritage of all humans: oceans, atmosphere, satellite orbits and electromagnetic frequencies that carry communications and commerce, and the rich genetic library of ecosystems.

Any foray into the international arena must begin with some understanding of nation-states, their politics and their competitive behavior patterns set in motion by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Until the transnational challenge, national sovereignty was nations' holy writ, fostering patriotism and armies to defend their respective territories, echoing the ecosystem-spacing methods of our gatherer/hunter ancestors. Can such deeply rooted nationalism and patriotism, usually based on patriarchal social structures, be transcended? Can human awareness expand and societies restructure democratically to embrace planetary ecological realities in time to avoid disastrous collapses, more species die-backs and extinctions-including possibly our own? Most environmental activists, working on local, regional, national, or global issues, think such thoughts continually.

The United Nations

As I jumped into defending the global commons in the early 1990s I rediscovered the United Nations. I attended the first UN Summit on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, where I participated with Stewart Brand, Stephanie Mills, Margaret Mead, Paul Ehrlich, Jerry Mander, Teddy Goldsmith, Barry Commoner, and others in a series of enlightening dinner conversations. The UN (in spite of much opposition from national governments) subsequently convened a series of summits on the real agenda of "We the Peoples," on such topics as food, shelter, population, health, children, human rights, science and technology, poverty and unemployment, cities, environment, and women and development.

The contemporary struggles over the global commons are just the latest in the fifty-three-year history of the United Nations, one of the major social innovations of the twentieth century. Few in the US understand that networking, convening, brokering, and facilitating standard-setting, treaties, and agreements among the 186 member states constitutes the bulk of UN activities. Agreements on universal human rights, work place and health standards, education, child development, the status of women and indigenous peoples, consumer and environmental protection, the promotion of the arts, sciences, and culture, as well as the UN's more visible peace-keeping roles, have been painstakingly achieved since the UN's Charter was signed in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1945.

Despite the UN's severe limitations as a deliberative body that can only recommend to nation-states, many of its international agreements work anyway. Sometimes this is due to countervailing forces and creative coalition-building between countries, e.g., the Canadian-lead, NGO-driven "Ottawa process" which lead to the treaty to ban landmines in 1997. Sometimes, NGOs have assumed the role as monitors and enforcers of UN Charters (see "Neptune's Manifesto,"). Maybe a third reason agreements work is that playing fair creates a more predictable market which benefits all the parties. It reduces the cost of bickering (at the World Trade Organization or a world court), and of negotiating and renegotiating many bilateral agreements.

Civic society organizations (CSOs) or NGOs are now one key to defending the global commons and making the UN more effective. (I no longer like the acronym NGO, since the World Trade Organization uses it for multi-national corporations; e.g., it designates General Motors and Microsoft as NGOs!) The UN, since Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali's 1992 initiative, has been creating ever more space for CSOs and making them partners in many of its programs, culminating in the People's Millennium Assembly to be held in New York in the year 2000.

Between National Sovereignties and Transnationals

Dealing with today's accelerating destruction of our global commons requires the UN-as the only international body with the mandate of "We the Peoples" and the broadest membership of all the nations. If the UN were not there, we would truly have to invent it. In large part because of its success, the UN is suffering a backlash. National governments and corporations do not like to be upstaged. Both often resort to the popular pastime of demonizing the UN.

Because the mass media cover UN summits, justice, equity, and sustainability issues become hot topics in many countries, where reluctant politicians are pressured to deal with them. No wonder the UN is in such a crossfire, as its nation-members alternatively use the world forum as a fig leaf for their policies (as George Bush did in the 1991 Gulf War) or as a scapegoat (as both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole did as presidential candidates in 1996-both erroneously, and shamefully, portrayed US command failures in Somalia and Bosnia as the fault of the UN). Such policy disinformation, along with deceptive advertising and media campaigns, are now a major block to the UN's contribution to a sustainable future.

Of course, it's impossible to deal with the global commons without paying salaries to do it. The current financial crisis at the UN is due largely to one sovereign nation-the US's non-payment of some $1.3 billion in back dues. With dues payments stalemated in Congress by Senator Jesse Helms and other conservatives, isolationists, and fundamentalists, and, in addition, a notable absence of leadership from Democrats and the White House, the UN is enmeshed in US political cross-currents. Since 1996, the fifteen countries of the European Union have offered to support a cut in the US share of UN dues from its current twenty-five percent to fifteen-to-twenty percent and from its thirty-one percent share in the peace-keeping budget to twenty-five percent. Helms rejected this offer, yet still makes such a reduction one of his forty onerous and often irrational "conditions" for the US to meet its arrears obligations.

Meanwhile, the US still uses its veto in the UN Security Council as if it were a paid-up member, and attempts to influence the UN in countless ways. This has lead to increasing frustration among the Europeans and other US allies, many of whose leaders have commented that there should be "no representation without taxation," as the UN Charter states. The war of words continues with sloganeering about "reforming" the UN and its "bloated bureaucracy." The reality is that the UN's annual budget is only about four percent of that of the City of New York, while its core functions cost much less than the yearly budget of the Tokyo Fire Department.

The lack of US funding has pressured the UN into seeking funds from and partnerships with businesses. Such partnerships-especially with green businesses-should be encouraged. But, what standards will a corporation partnering with the UN be required to meet? The UN Development Programme, whose mission is poverty eradication and sustainable human development, is seeking partnerships with corporations-provided that they meet its high standards. Any contracts with polluting, employee-exploiting, or otherwise irresponsible companies could harm UN credibility. Any partnerships that avoid corporate transparency and external auditing will be questioned. Some CSOs and smaller companies suspect that the UN favors the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and other corporate giants of the industrial era. Yet the UN will never offer its "brand name" to the highest bidder.

These questions have not been allayed by the realization that powerful global corporations have captured the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization (WTO)-all originally within the UN's mandate-and succeeded in shutting down agencies they opposed, including the UN Center on Transnational Corporations, and in crippling UNESCO, UNCTAD, and UNIDO (seen as controlled by developing countries ) and marginalizing the International Labor Organization and the UN Environment Program.

Championing The UN

Contrarian that I am, I decided the best way to call to account those currency speculators, tax evaders, bio-pirates, drug dealers, arms traffickers, transboundary polluters, toxic waste dumpers, and child exploiters was to champion the UN and its time-honored standard-setting and treaty-negotiating process. This meant that I had to defend the UN from anti-abortion foes, various militia groups, and isolationists within the US and Congress. Their numbers are small in spite of the noise they make; surveys show most Americans still support the UN and actually trust the UN more than their own politicians in Washington.

In 1994, I launched a civic group with friends and allies in many countries, the Global Commission to Fund the United Nations. The Global Commission functions as a virtual organization, with members from over forty countries, ranging from ambassadors, parliamentarians, and a Nobel Laureate, to leaders of civic organizations.

The Global Commission produced a report showing how defending the global commons could also raise money to conserve such resources, and to fund the UN and many other humanitarian and development activities around the world. The Commission's report clearly demonstrated that the stumbling block to equitable, sustainable, human development is not money. Although the Agenda 21 agreements signed by 170 nations in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 estimated that shifting priorities to sustainable development would cost $650 billion, the Commission showed the truth. If governments just stopped funding some $750 billion worth of subsidies to unsustainable development (i.e. pork-barrel projects), there would be plenty of money left over. The Commission's report also advocated defending the global commons by encouraging international agreements, so that countries could (1) levy user-fees on all commercial exploitation of oceans, atmosphere, the electromagnetic spectrum, space and the newer commons of financial cyberspace, and the global casino, and (2) exact fines for abuses such as arms trafficking, polluting, and currency speculation.

Other proposals included a UN Security Insurance Agency (UNSIA), a new global commons system of political risk management that is now possible. Employment of UNSIA could reduce the world's military budgets by using insurance instead of weapons. UNSIA would be a public-private-civic partnership among the UN Security Council, the insurance industry, and the hundreds of civic, humanitarian organizations which engage worldwide in conflict-resolution and peace-building. Any nation wanting to cut its military budget and redeploy its investments into its civilian sectors could apply to UNSIA for a peace-keeping insurance policy. The insurance industry would supply political-risk assessors and write the policies. The premiums would be pooled to fund both properly trained peace-keepers and a rapid-deployment online network of existing civic and humanitarian organizations to build trust and confidence on the ground. The UNSIA proposal is now backed by several Nobel Prize winners, including Dr. Oscar Arias and other leaders, and risk-management insurance is taught at the London School of Economics and other major institutions. UNSIA was debated in the UN Security Council in April, 1996, the first time that body had considered the need to bring civic humanitarian organizations into peace-keeping operations. In May 1996, the Security Council called on the Secretary General to investigate the feasibility of a rapid-deployment humanitarian force and, in October 1996, the Norwegian government pledged $1 million to this project.

I am now a working investor on a new project: global, multi-cultural, public access TV. I've always dreamed of this global way to counter consumerist disinformation from commercial sources and give prominence to emerging trends that favor sustainability and a more ethical marketplace. I do not expect to see the fruits of any of these initiatives in my lifetime-but my grandson may-as our societies evolve toward planetary ecological awareness and we remember the difference between common money and the wealth of the commons.