Looking for novel ideas for protecting the environment? Bolivia is way out ahead of any other nation.  In January it enacted the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, to recognize natural resources as “blessings” and enumerate eleven specific rights of nature. As reported by The Guardian (UK), these rights include “the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.”

The law declares, “She [Mother Earth] is sacred, fertile and the source of life that feeds and care for all living beings in her womb. She is in permanent balance, harmony and communication with the cosmos. She is comprised of all ecosystems and living beings and their self-organization.” Mother Earth is also granted the right “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.”

While such legal language is often seen as symbolic and aspirational, the Bolivian legislature has given some substance to its enactment. The new law establishes a Ministry of Mother Earth and an ombudsman position to advocate the rights of Mother Earth in legal proceedings. Perhaps as significant, communities were granted new legal powers to monitor and control polluting industries.

The Sun Shines for Everyone

A small group of innovative commoners in Phoenix is closing in on an innovative breakthrough:  a commons-based revenue model for photovoltaic solar energy development in cities.  It’s called the Solar Commons, which sports the tagline, "The sun shines for everyone." 

The idea is to use the public rights of way in cities and towns to collect solar energy, and then channel the revenue to a community trust.  The trust will manage the solar panels and electricity sales, and distribute the revenues to help the community.  In this case, the Solar Commons will support low-income housing and commons education efforts in Phoenix. 

It sounds simple enough, but the Solar Commons has taken considerable out-of-the-box thinking and operational innovation to get on track as a demonstration project.  Among the challenges:  the city-commons relationship, legal liability and project maintenance and management.  At this stage, the Solar Commons is on track to becoming a demonstration project.

The Environment as Our Common Heritage

The post below is excerpted from James K. Boyce's acceptance speech, "The Environment as Our Common Heritage," for the Fair Sharing of the Common Heritage Award, presented by Project Censored and the Media Freedom Foundation in Berkeley, California.  It originally appeared on the TripleCrisis.com website, on February 10, 2011.  Jim teaches ecological economics, among other things, at UMass Amherst, and has been a long-time defender of the commons.

What does it mean to say that the environment is our “common heritage”? On one level this is a simple statement of fact: when we are born, we come into a world that is not of our own making. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the natural resources on which our livelihoods depend, and the accumulated knowledge and information that underpin our ability to use these resources wisely – all these come to us as gifts of creation passed on to us by preceding generations and enriched by their innovations and creativity.

Yet once we take seriously – as I do – the proposition that this common heritage belongs in common and equal measure to us all, we move beyond a positive statement of facts to a normative declaration of ethics. We move beyond an understanding of what is to an assertion of what ought to be.

To say that the environment belongs in common and equal measure to us all does not mean that we have inherited a free gift with no strings attached. For our common heritage carries with it a common responsibility: the responsibility to share the environment fairly amongst all who are alive today, and the responsibility to care for it wisely to ensure that our children, our grandchildren, and the generations who follow will share fairly in our common heritage, too.

Freedom From Harm: The Civilizing Influence of Health, Safety and Environmental Regulation

Public Citizen and Democracy Project, 1986.  Co-authored with Joan Claybrook.  This book surveys the neglected, life-saving, civilizing benefits of health, safety and environmental regulation, which are typically understated or ignored by cost-benefit analysis and corporate adversaries of regulation.  In particular, the book focuses on the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

The Enclosure of the Gulf of Mexico

The noxious gusher of oil flowing from one mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico is an unprecedented environmental disaster, no doubt about it. But will we learn the right lessons from it?

There are any number of narratives that are starting to take root, and all of them are true as far as they go: the incompetent and corrupt regulators at the Interior Department, the incompetence and arrogance of British Petroleum; the lackadaisical response by President Obama weeks after the spill began. The implication is that a different regulator, CEO or President would have done things differently.

Perhaps. But the real problem here is structural: There is no adequate governance structure for the commoners to protect their shared resource, the Gulf of Mexico, and all that depends upon it. These sorts of "accidents" are almost becoming routine: the Massey Energy coal mine disaster, the Toyota "stuck accelerator" safety hazard, the Wall Street abuses of derivative financial instruments.

Our Psychic Connections to Nature

We’ve all seen the bumper sticker, "The Earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth." A pithy tagline meant to point out that human culture must align itself more closely with ecological imperatives. But is that a simple moralistic claim or a scientific, demonstrable fact?

A handful of psychologists are starting to conclude that human consciousness has a deep interconnections with nature — and that interfering with our sense of place and love of nature can cause severe emotional distress.

A few years ago, Glenn Albrecht, a philosopher and professor of sustainability in Perth, Australia, coined a word to describe a phenomenon that he has seen repeatedly when people’s local natural environments have been damaged or changed — "solastalgia." The word is a combination of the Latin word solacium, which means comfort, and the Greek root algia, which means pain. To him, "solastalgia" means "the pain experienced when there is a recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault." It is "a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at 'home’."

What is the Earth Worth?

One of the virtues of a commons-based economics is that it would help sweep aside some of the foundational fallacies of neoclassical economics.

Currently, the actual value of the Earth as an input to market activity (raw materials) and as a waste dump for market activity (the air, water and soil) is generally ignored. The hidden subsidies and the noxious “externalities” (as economists primly call them) are secondary to the main action of “wealth creation,” market exchange. By the reckoning of economists, all the value that resides in the commons doesn’t really seem to matter — and the costs of subsidies and pollution somehow never get properly tabulated on the balance sheets of corporations and in the Gross Domestic Product.

Now the United Nations Environment Program is taking steps to estimate just how big the environmental externalities of the world’s largest corporations really are. In conjunction with the Principles of Responsible Investment initiative, the UN has commissioned a report that looked at the environmental impact of the world’s 3,000 largest public companies.

The Ginseng Commons of West Virginia

Sometimes it’s easiest to see a commons when it exists in a bounded geographic space that incubates a distinctive culture and set of social practices. That can certainly be said about the mountainous areas of southern West Virginia, where people’s interactions with the landscape have bred communities whose lives revolve around their interactions with the landscape.

Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia is an impressive collection of essays and hundreds of sound recordings, photographs and manuscripts documenting traditional uses of the mountains in the Big Coal River Valley of southern West Virginia. The materials — from the American Folklife Center’s Coal River Folklife Project — are a wonderful tour of all sorts of commons in that region. (A tip o’ the hat to Michael and Carrie Kline, of Talking Across the Lines: Worldwide Conversations LLC, for alerting me to this remarkable collection of materials.)

Could Professor Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize for Economics betoken a shift in development policies used in Africa? Korir Sing’Oei, an international human rights lawyer with a focus on indigenous and minority rights law and policy, believes Ostrom’s Nobel could have a significant impact on Africa’s poor.

Sing’Oei is co-founder of CEMIRIDE, the Centre for Minority Rights Development in Kenya. Writing in the Pambazuka News, a pan-African website, Sing’Oei points out that Garrett Hardin’s "tragedy of the commons" parable was responsible for spurring the privatization of land rights over the past generation. Development authorities favored access and use of agricultural lands under market-based policies. Sing’Oei writes:

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