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Handbook of Global Environmental Politics

Edited by Peter Dauvergne

The first Handbook of original articles by leading scholars of global environmental politics, this landmark volume maps the latest theoretical and empirical research in this young and growing field. Captured here are the dynamic and energetic debates over concerns for the health of the planet and how they might best be addressed.
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Chapter 4: Studying the Global Commons: Governance Without Politics?

John Vogler


John Vogler Propelled by bargain prices in an increasingly deregulated and competitive industry, the increase in air travel may seem inexorable. There are many implications, not least for globalization, but the consequences in terms of atmospheric pollution are often represented as a ‘tragedy of the commons’. The global commons are conventionally defined as areas and resources that do not fall within the sovereign jurisdiction of states. This would include the oceans, the seabed beneath and the airspace above, as well as Antarctica, outer space, the radio spectrum and, latterly, the global atmosphere itself. Although the idea of the commons is very old, it has become inseparable from Hardin’s (1968) well-known metaphor of tragedy. This is based, not upon extensive historical evidence, but upon assumptions about individual human acquisitiveness and inability to sacrifice immediate gratification in the interests of longer-term sustainability. Left to their own devices, villagers in a hypothetical open-access commons will, if unrestrained, have an incentive to over-graze or over-pollute and the ultimate consequence will be the degradation of the common resource and the ‘ruin of all’. It is this outcome that is the ‘tragedy’. In Hardin’s fable the solution is to institute private property rights (enclosure) or to import some external authority to regulate access and use. When applied to air transport the problem is not the congestion of international airspace but the high levels of carbon dioxide emitted by aircraft and their contribution to the enhanced greenhouse effect and thus to climate change. At...

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