The Gnat Is Older Than Man: Global Environment and Human Agenda

By Christopher D. Stone | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
Managing the Global Commons

MUCH of the most serious damage to the biosphere falls on the global commons—the high seas and atmosphere, in particular.* In some cases, the injuries result from activities that take place within sovereign territory but whose influence extends upward and outward into the atmosphere and high seas; these are the State-to-Commons cases. In another group, the Commons-to-Commons cases, typified by overfishing and ocean incineration, both the activities and the injuries take place on the commons. In the Commons-to-State situations, activities conducted on the commons, such as testing weapons in the atmosphere or dumping ship wastes at sea, have effects that directly and quickly migrate out of the commons to invade areas within national jurisdiction.

If the pronouncements of the most abstractly authoritative legal doctrine are to be believed, there is no legal distinction between these cases and the transboundary cases we have already discussed. The same general principles that admonish nations not to cause unreasonable harm to one another through transboundary pollution typically reprove harming the commons areas in the same voice. 1 But in practical fact and in diplomatic expectation, each of the three com-

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*
Harm to the commons areas may ultimately cause damage within national territories. For example, overloading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases may eventually lead to the submerging of an island nation. But as suggested in chapter 3, from the island nation's point of view the peril is too remote and contingent, proof too complex, and the potential defendants too indefinite a class to expect it to be able to fashion legal and diplomatic relief out of customary principles of international law. Hence, focusing on degradation of commons areas, as such, has the virtue not only of protecting commons areas for their own sake and that of the community of nations, but can be a prudent means of heading off damage that eventually would fall within some nation's jurisdiction before the conditions have ripened to the point of perhaps irreparable harm.

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