The Tragedy of Our Planetary Commons: Climbing Out of the Abyss

Glen T. Martin

Our “planetary commons” is a description of the spaceship Earth on which we all live. Our planet has a common ecosystem, a common atmosphere, and common ocean-system, circulating in gigantic currents around a common set of continents, whose mountains and forests have long modulated the planetary climate to make it stable, moderate, and hospitable for human and other forms of life. The whole of the Earth is our planetary commons. It belongs to all of us because it takes the stability and proper functioning of that whole to support each of us and our communities.

The tragedy of the Earth is that we are destroying our planetary commons in multiple ways as I will describe momentarily. I argue that the destruction of our planetary commons is directly related to the fragmentation by which we have operated on our planet for the past several centuries. Politically, we have divided our planet into nearly 200 fragments with absolute borders—militarized, sovereign, and autonomous—all working on the basis of national self-interest, without much thought for the commons.

Economically, we have divided our planet into competing corporations, businesses, communities, and individuals all working for individual self-interest without serious thought for the commons. This chaotic system functions as (what one social scientist calls) “a headless horseman, this driverless…behemoth which is almost certainly hurtling us all toward the precipice.”[1]  I argue that we can only climb out of the abyss of planetary destruction through humanity uniting under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.[2]

Tragedy of Our Planetary Commons

For half a century people of intelligence and intellectual integrity have known of the climate crisis happening everywhere around the Earth. They have even named the age in which we now live the Anthropocene, indicating that the geophysical processes of the Earth that produced the stable Holocene Age have now been replaced by human activity as the central driver of planetary climate change and its immense dangers for all living organisms on our planet.

The predictions and warnings of 50 years ago have gone unheeded and no major changes in the global political-economic system have taken place to address the accelerating disaster of climate change. This change is already transforming life everywhere on Earth. This paper will not go deeply into these interacting modes of disaster because they are well-known and well documented in book after book, including many of the books in the endnotes below. I will simply mention 12 disasters befalling the Earth (as we speak) that have been growing rapidly in intensity over that past half century.

(1)  Killer heat waves.  Summer seasons have brought repeated, record heat waves that only very rarely occurred during the previous centuries of the Holocene period. Entire regions within every continent have experienced prolonged heat waves that have made being out of doors unbearable, that have stopped all work outside for any reason, and that have resulted in the deaths of many within these regions. These are repeated every year with increasing record-breaking heat and with no prospect of a future that will not continue this same pattern.

(2) Droughts. Secondly, these killer heat waves are often accompanied by droughts, sometimes multiple-year droughts, effectively destroying agriculture and leading to food shortages, malnourishment, hunger, and death. Major agricultural regions on all continents are threatened with the end of their food productivity and the world’s population is threatened with growing food shortages that negatively interface with a rapidly growing planetary population—ever more mouths to feed and ever-less food production with which to feed them.

(3)  Running out of fresh water. Some of these areas affected by drought may rely ever more heavily on irrigation, but this may only delay disaster and exacerbate our problems, because the world is running out of fresh water on every continent, a process stemming from climate change and the Anthropocene impact on the world’s natural processes. The glaciers and snows that provide fresh water for half the world’s population are melting faster than they are refreezing.  The giant underground aquifers that much of the world draws upon for irrigation and fresh water are rapidly declining, the rate of withdrawal is faster than the rate of recharge provided by nature. Cities are rationing the water use of their citizens and people in poor, rural country-sides are often walking miles to find a little fresh water to bring home for their families.

(4)  Floods and superstorms. The warming atmosphere of the planet holds more moisture than a cooler atmosphere. The oceans themselves expand in volume as they become warmer, and the combination of these factors leads to more storms and often superstorms. Every continent is being battered by hurricanes, typhoons, or monsoons of increasing frequency and severity, leading to billions of dollars in damages annually, millions of displaced persons, and many deaths. Floods from tidal surges and storms that were once “100 year” phenomena, now happen regularly.  Coastal lines are eroding as the oceans rise both from expansion and from the melting of the planet’s ice caps, producing ever more refugees or permanently displaced persons. While many experience drought and water deprivation, many others are flooded out and drown. All these phenomena are the direct result of climate change.

(5)  Our planet is burning up with wildfires. As the planet warms and dries out, the vegetation becomes dryer and more suspectable to fire caused by lightning or some human activity.  Thousands of fires around the world annually burn out of control, themselves pouring ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and thereby increasing the warming properties of the thickened atmospheric blanket covering the Earth. These fires contribute to deforestation, thereby exacerbating the carbon in the atmosphere and diminishing the ability of forests to absorb carbon and modulate the climate.  Every year the fires become worse as the world gets hotter and dryer.

(6)  Air pollution. These fires, like the widespread cooking of food by burning wood, cause major air pollution.  The complex air quality index for many cities around the world finds that the air quality is dangerous and damaging, full of particulates and other poisons. Yet, of course, the residents have no choice but to breathe that damaging air, while driving fossil fuel burning cars by the millions that contribute to the air pollution and while using products produced in fossil fuel driven factories that contribute to that same hazardous air quality.

(7)  Epidemics and Plagues. The respiratory illnesses, cancer cases, and cognitive damage caused by air pollution are compounded by the spread of dangerous disease organisms that flourish in warmer environments, flooded areas, and polluted water systems. Yellow fever, Typhus, Malaria, Ebola, Zika virus and many other known and unknown diseases are rapidly spreading into ever larger areas of the Earth and threatening the public health systems set up by countries to protect their populations. Plagues and epidemics are becoming more common as the totality of the planetary climate changes makes human protective measures inadequate and vulnerable to collapse.

(8)  The Oceans of our planet are dying.  If they die, we die.  A large part of the carbon dioxide that we pour into the atmosphere annually is absorbed by the oceans, causing ocean acidification: they are becoming more acidic.  We know this is damaging to creatures that form shells but there are likely other immense consequences for the one third of the Earth’s population that draws on the oceans for food. Vast dead zones are appearing in the oceans around the world, zones starved of oxygen, without which most ocean creatures cannot survive. 75% of the ocean’s fisheries are already being fished at or above capacity.  Fish harvests are rapidly declining, mirroring the agricultural harvests on land that are also rapidly declining. Meanwhile the planet’s population continues to explode.

(9)  Militarism destroys the environment and wastes resources. Militarism remains rampant on the Earth, pouring one and a half trillion US dollars per year down a global toilet while all these other crises continue to mount. More and more this militarism (itself highly destructive of the environment in both the manufacture of weapons and in their deployment and use) is directed toward conflicts caused by climate disasters.  A drought within one country may destabilize the government and radicalize groups leading to civil war.  Foreign military aid pours in depending on which side the military powers take. These conflicts spell disaster for the environment, produce innumerable refugees, and waste the world’s resources that should be directed toward addressing climate collapse.

(10)  Refugees. The mounting millions of climate refugees and climate-related war refuges is increasing annually, causing major refugee problems and immigration problems for nearly every country on Earth.  As ocean levels continue to rise, as super-storms continue to devastate entire regions, as wars erupt everywhere, the world is awash with persons needing to survive.  The global climate crisis becomes everyone’s crisis.[3]

(11)  Economic collapse. Finally, there is the pending and on-going collapse of the global economic system.  As sustainability economists have been saying for half a century: You cannot have unending growth on a finite planet.  The economy is a subset of the interdependent, holistic planetary ecosystem and not separate from it.  Yet traditional capitalism has always operated as if these ecosystem limits simply did not exist. It was predicated on endless growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as if the Earth had endless resources and a limitless capacity to absorb our wastes.[4]

Yet at the end of the second decade of the 21st century this relentless growth pattern is beginning to falter. There are some who argue that the collapse of 2008 was the last economic bubble to burst before a steady planetary decline of GDP becomes inevitable (as well as necessary if we want to survive). Under the ideology of capitalism, all problems were supposed to be addressed by growth.  Global poverty was to be addressed by growth; even environmental problems were said to be insoluble unless there were “free market solutions” to these problems.

Mainstream economists ignored the fact that the nexus of problems described above have been mostly caused by the planet wide fossil fuel driven economy and its ideology of limitless capitalist growth. We now realize that fossil fuels must stay in the ground and that economics must focus on the quality of life rather than on increasing quantity of consumer goods, industrial growth, and increasing profits.

(12) Negative Synergistic Explosion. The final and unspeakably huge disaster befalling the Earth is the synergistic effect of the first 11 disasters.  Each of these disasters and their causes, terrible as they are, intensifies and exacerbates all the others to produce a near absolute tragedy for our planetary home and commons. Our future will inevitably be scarred by the immense on-going destruction that is the synergistic effect of all these climate disasters and their interlocking causes. The only real question is: Can we transform ourselves and our world system in time to prevent the extinction of humanity and all higher life forms? There is an immense momentum in the causal nexus that created these disasters.[5]

Tipping point after tipping point is being passed. We are regularly exceeding points of no return within the whole interlocking momentum of destruction. CO2 in the atmosphere is not going to go away, and its effects will continue to cascade into the future.  The melting of the polar caps cannot be stopped and will continue to cascade into the future. The same is true of all the other phenomena discussed above. How do we climb out of this abyss?   What is our most promising course of action that can possibly obviate the pending tragedy of the extinction of all higher forms of life?  The answer to that question involves the ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.[6]

Climbing Out of The Abyss

This is not at all a “simplistic” solution to an immensely complex problem, because the Earth Constitution is the key means to solving the problem. The fact that it is a deeply green constitution mandating across the board action on climate change is perhaps not the most fundamental factor here. The fundamental factor is that the Constitution provides human beings with a tool for uniting and taking action in the face of climate change.  No such tool is available now because the dominant institutions of the world have divided humanity into nearly two hundred sovereign fragments and into thousands of economically competing units.

Unless we truly unite against climate collapse, the immense synergistic cloud of destruction will continue to grow and engulf us all to the point of extinction. The Earth is rapidly becoming uninhabitable. The government of the Earth Federation is designed for action. It was designed for bringing together the great diversity of human beings into an effective focal point whereby we can take effective collective action to save our planet. It does not abolish the nations but joins the nations together with the grassroots people of Earth to form a truly democratic, unified and effective global momentum for saving our planetary climate to the extent this is still possible.

The six functions of the world government in Article 1 reveal an alternative synergy at the heart of the Constitution. These six functions end war and disarm the nations, protect human rights, diminish social inequality, regulate the global economy, directly address climate change, and address all global problems beyond the scope of the nations. The Earth Federation is built on the understanding that the whole must be transformed. You cannot address climate collapse in isolation from these other functions. Together this focusing of the whole of humanity into the process of transformation of our planet to a livable home for everyone produces a human synergy (as Buckminster Fuller pointed out a half century ago), giving humanity the effective capacity to deal with the most extreme threat to human existence ever in history.

The Constitution is not only a tool for action. It is not only designed for bringing us all together in a dynamic unity within diversity. It is also a crucible through which to unite humanity and move our entire species to a higher level of holistic consciousness.  Climate change will be addressed by the combined force of humanity working together on behalf of the common good of all.  There is no other effective option for addressing this monster at our doorstep. The very fact of this unified undertaking will raise the level of human consciousness significantly. Without taking this crucial step, today’s humanity under a fragmented world system will inevitably fail. Like our global institutions, our consciousness also remains deeply fragmented.

As a green document designed for action, the Constitution directly responds to our planetary tragedy of the commons.  Article 4.18 directs the organs of the world government to address the whole problem in a comprehensive and synergistic manner:

4.18.  Plan for and regulate the development, use, conservation and recycling of the natural resources of Earth as the common heritage of Humanity; protect the environment in every way for the benefit of both present and future generations.

Here we see the focus of the immense collective authority of the people of Earth. The commons of the planet belong to us all, and the central function of the Earth Federation is to protect and preserve that commons. Following from Article 4.18 are specific powers of the planetary government to protect and govern the commons. For example:

Article 4.21. “Develop and implement means to control population growth in relation to the life-support capacities of Earth.”

Article 4.22. “Develop, protect, regulate and conserve the water supplies of Earth.”

Article 4.23. “Own, administer and supervise the development and conservation of the oceans and sea-beds of Earth.” 

Article 4.24. “Protect from damage, and control and supervise the uses of the atmosphere of Earth.”

The UN system is predicated on the “sovereign independence of its member states.” That means that all environmental agreements are substantially voluntary on the part of the world’s nearly 200 autonomous fragments. The UN has developed a new agenda for “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) to be accomplished by the world between 2015 and 2030. These replace the failed “Millennium Development Goals” that were in place from 2000-2015, which in turn replaced the failed “Agenda 21 Goals” that were promoted from 1992 to 2000.

The Sustainable Development Goals document uncritically assumes both capitalism with its economic growth obsession and autonomous militarized nation-states. One of its 17 main goals is “peace.” However, the description of peace there entirely omits the immense militarism of the planet pouring some 1.5 trillion US dollars down this sewer annually. The document assumes the present fragmented world system and poses a holistic goal (sustainability) that it magically pretends can somehow emerge from a fragmented system.

Part of this fragmentation embedded in the UN Charter is the idea that each sovereign nation somehow “owns” the resources that happen to exist within its absolute borders. Item 18 of the SDG document states that “We reaffirm that every State has, and shall freely exercise, full permanent sovereignty over all its wealth, natural resources and economic activity. We will implement the Agenda for the full benefit of all, for today’s generation and for future generations.” [7]

Here we have the planetary tragedy of the commons embedded at the heart of so-called “international law.” Does the atmosphere of the Earth belong to all of us or is it the right of China or the US to pour billions of tons of greenhouse gasses into their skies annually? Article 4.24 of the Earth Constitution cited above says, “no,” the people of Earth have rights to a clean atmosphere everywhere on Earth.  Brazil happens to harbor the “lungs of the Earth,” the gigantic Amazon rain forest that oxygenates and moderates much of the global climate and captures much of its excess carbon. Does Brazil have a right to “develop,” cut down, and destroy the lungs of the Earth?

According to the SDG document and the UN Charter, Brazil has the legal right to destroy the lungs of the Earth. According to the Earth Constitution, Article 4.18, cited above, the people of Earth have the right to protect resources vital to their global common good. In addition, Article 4.30 states that the Earth Federation government will “Place under world controls essential natural resources which may be limited or unevenly distributed about the Earth.”  The lungs of the Earth belong to the people of Earth.

Does Saudi Arabia have the right to pump unlimited quantities of fossil fuels to the surface and sell these worldwide without regard for the climate change that burning these fuels engenders?  According to the UN Charter and Sustainable Development Goals, it has this right. But the Earth Federation government under Article 4.28 (representing the common good of all) has the authority to “Control the mining, production, transportation and use of fossil sources of energy to the extent necessary to reduce and prevent damages to the environment and ecology.”  Those fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. Any use of them needs to be regulated, a course of action that is blatantly impossible under the current world system of sovereign nation-states.

Buckminster Fuller foresaw that the entire world, working together, could create a global power grid in which the sunlight and other sources of clean energy could supply ample power for everyone.[8] The Earth Constitution affirms this same insight. Its mandate to the world government is as follows:

Article 4.27. Develop, operate, and/or coordinate transnational power systems, or networks of small units, integrating into the systems or networks power derived from the sun, wind, water, tides, heat differentials, magnetic forces, and any other source of safe, ecologically sound and continuing energy supply.

The planetary tragedy of the commons is overcome through uniting the world to holistically work together to combat climate change. It is only by institutionally focusing the common knowledge, technological know-how, and sovereign authority of humanity together under the Earth Constitution can this powerful synergy occur.  That is why this Constitution is the key to human survival.

The brilliant unity in diversity design for all organs of the world government created by the Constitution gives humanity the power of holistic, synergistic effectiveness.  The authority over the global commons for the common good of all and the preservation of our planetary ecology is found in the mandates and authority given to the people of Earth, especially in Articles 1, 4, 13, and 17.  Ratification of the Earth Constitution joins humanity into a united front against climate collapse.

Article 17 sets forth the process of ratification for the Earth Constitution and outlines the mandates for the emerging Earth Federation government. Hence, the broad functions given in Article 1, including the grant of powers given in Article 4, as well as the human rights to clean air, water, and a safe environment given in Article 13, are not just passive features Earth Federation institutions. All of them demand action, and Article 13 gives people an “inalienable” human right to a protected environment. All people have the right to:

13.9. Protection of the natural environment which is the common heritage of humanity against pollution, ecological disruption or damage which could imperil life or lower the quality of life.

Based on the dynamic nexus of the broad functions , the specific powers, and the inalienable rights, Article 17, on the founding and first stages of the Earth Federation Government, demands comprehensive action.

Article 17 defines three stages in the ratification process. First, when some 25 nations have ratified. Second, when 50% or more of the nations have ratified, and the final stage when 90% have ratified. But the emerging Earth Federation government is action oriented and mandated to take emergency action to address climate change. Under the first operative stage the government must:

17.3.12.1. Expedite the organization and work of an Emergency Earth Rescue Administration, concerned with all aspects of climate change and climate crises;

17.3.12.2. Expedite the new finance, credit, and monetary system, to serve human needs;

17.3.12.3. Expedite an integrated global energy system, utilizing solar energy, hydrogen energy, and other save and sustainable sources of energy;

17.3.12.4. Push forward a global program for agricultural production to achieve maximum sustainable yield under conditions which are ecologically sound;

17.3.12.8. Push forward programs to assure adequate and non-polluted water supplies and clean air supplies for everybody on Earth;

17.3.12.9. Push forward a global program to conserve and recycle the resources of Earth.

17.3.12.10. Develop an acceptable program to bring population growth under control, especially by raising standards of living.

These are the central initiatives of the very first operative stage of the Earth Federation government. They propose an integrated package of initiatives to be addressed all at once, since climate change demands a coordinated, multi-dimensional action of the whole. The resources and sovereign authority of the people of Earth establish an Emergency Earth Rescue Administration, using a new public (not exploitative) finance and credit regime to create a global clean energy system, a global non-polluting agricultural system, a system protecting our planetary water and air in both quantity and quality, a global system of recycling and conservation, and a global program of population control.

How could anything be clearer?  This synergistic, unified response is the way to climb out of the abyss of planetary tragedy. The Earth Constitution is not an additional proposal within the range of possible climate change actions.  And it is not just another proposal within the failed UN system of militarized sovereign nation-states interfaced with global exploitative capitalism.

Its ratification is the key to the entire business. It does not abolish the UN but incorporates the UN into the agencies and departments of the Earth Federation Government. It focuses the immense intellectual and moral power of the united people of Earth to engage the greatest threat to human existence of all time.

It alone provides the fulcrum that can tip the scales on our planetary tragedy of the commons.  If we want to protect our planetary environment, the most effective action we can take is working and organizing to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

 

Endnotes

[1]  Christopher Chase-Dunn, Global Formation: Structures of World Economy. Updated Edition (New York: Roman & Littlefield, 1998), p. 297.

[2]   www.earth-constitution.org.  The World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA), founded in 1958 by Philip and Margaret Isely, organized citizens around the world to write the Constitution for the Federation of Earth through a series of four Constituent Assemblies, held in 1968 in Interlaken, Switzerland, 1977 in Innsbruck, Austria, 1979 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and 1991 in Troia, Portugal.  Since 1991, the Earth Constitution has been considered finished and ready for ratification under the criteria set forth in Article 17.  In addition, Article 19 empowers the people of Earth to begin the functions of the government prior to ratification. Functions initiated so far include the Provisional World Parliament, the Collegium of World Judges, and the Ministry of the Environment.  See also:  www.worldparliament-gov.org     www.worldproblems.net  A recent development has been creation of the World Parliament University (WPU) on-line: www.worldparliamentuniversity.org

[3] There are many books that have detailed and documented these crises in a variety of ways. For example, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells (2019), Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know. Second Edition by Joseph Romm (2018), This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs the Climate by Naomi Klein (2014), Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben (2019). James Gustave Speth has written two highly informed and deeply disturbing books documenting the dynamics behind these 10 crises: Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment (2004) and The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing the Crisis to Sustainability (2008).

[4] There are a growing number of books exposing the ideology of endless growth capitalism and proposing alternatives.  See, for example, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (2011) by Richard Heinberg and Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004) by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows.  For credible alternatives to endless growth capitalism see From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy (2014) by Herman E. Daly and Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist (2017) by Kate Raworth.

[5] One criticism I have of the above listed books on our climate crisis is that this synergistic effect is not often strongly emphasized.  Similarly, in none of the above books on the environment or on economics do the authors call for a real holistic transformation of our fragmented world system. But the synergistic impact of total climate crisis cries out for a similar synergistic transformation of our fragmented human institutions.  My own books have been calling for this holistic transformation since my 2005 book Millennium Dawn: The Philosophy of Planetary Crisis and Human Liberation up to my most recent book Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation (2018).

[6] See Glen T. Martin, ed. A Constitution for the Federation of Earth. With Historical Introduction, Commentary, and Conclusion (2011). See also the Pocket version of The Constitution for the Federation of Earth (2016). The Constitution is found on-line at www.earth-constitution.org and many other locations.

[7]   See my forthcoming article, “Deep Sustainability: Really Addressing Our Endangered Human Future” in the volume, Struggles and Successes in the Pursuit of Sustainable Development. Routledge Publishers.  The SDG quote is found at:

https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld

[8] See my review of Fuller’s Critical Path at:

https://www.academia.edu/40161553/Book_Review_of_R._Buckminster_Fullers_Critical_Path_