Intergenerational Commons – Our Children’s Heritage

Our planet as a whole is a common good, a “Planetary Commons.”1 We have inherited it from our parents and we need to preserve it for the next generation. And while negotiating and enforcing rules on the use of common resources in the present is already difficult, its equitable management spanning ourselves as well as our children (the “intergenerational commons”) is an even greater challenge.

While working on this topic I found it difficult to find a systematical overview of what this commons entails. For example, the MCC Research Institute in Berlin provides this overview:

It is a nice illustration, and like every good illustration, it needs to simplify. Still, “forests, exhaustible resources, water, land, atmosphere, social commons, oceans” appeared a little bit too random to me. Let me try to sort things, if only for myself. I will first present a brief overview, followed by a longer annotated version as an appendix.

Our planetary commons consists of:

  • 1. The social, cultural and knowledge commons (ethics, values, laws, governance procedures, traditions, culture, scientific, technological, and indigenous knowledge, etc.)
  • 2. Races and varieties of organisms bred by humans for human use (e.g., as food, medical, building, entertainment, etc.)
  • 3. Physical infrastructure built by humans for humans (Housing, transportation, water management, energy, information infrastructures, etc.)
  • 4. Natural resources which are in practice (i.e., within several hundred human generations) inexhaustible (renewable energy resources such as wind, solar, and geothermal energy sources; iron, aluminium, etc.)
  • 5. Natural resources renewable within decades (forests, fisheries, renewable groundwater, landscape partitioning, ecosystem services, desertification, etc.)
  • 6. Natural resources which, renewable only within a very high number of human generations (fertile soils, biodiversity, fossil water sources, and waste storage – including greenhouse gases, long-living chemicals, nitrate, microplastics, nano-fibers, phosphates, radioactive waste, etc.)
  • 7. Natural resources which are tied to the entire history of Earth and are virtually non-replenishable (concentrated deposits of minerals and fossil fuels)

Does this make sense to bring structure into the diversity of intergenerational commons? What may I be missing?

And clearly, labeling a separate version of the MCC graph with: “Social, cultural and knowledge commons; human infrastructures; inexhaustible resources like renewable energy; non-renewable mineral deposits and fossil fuels; slowly renewable resources like genetic diversity, soil fertility, forests, fisheries, groundwater and ecosystem services; absorption capacity of atmosphere, soils and oceans for waste, pollution, and greenhouse gases”may be too complicated for some use cases. But would it be useful in others? What do you think?


This is an annotated version of the “planetary commons” classification above, which I have created during the process. I very much welcome criticism, but I am aware that this version is work-in-progress and not fully consistent.

Our planetary commons consists of:

1. The social, cultural and knowledge commons, which can in principle be shared and thus used by an unlimited number of people at the same time. Examples are:

  • Our ethics, values, theistic or atheistic believe systems, laws, mores, governance procedures.
  • Our traditions and culture. This includes a wide range of heritage, from the use of language, over dreams, childhood stories, arts like music, literature, movies, to design, architecture, city and landscape planning, cooking, crafting, handcrafting, etc.
  • Our scientific, technological, and indigenous knowledge (scientific in a sense including academic knowledge about languages, cultures, etc.) is knowledge which has been accumulated, corrected and improved over many human generations.

Cultural and knowledge resources can, in principle, be used by an unlimited number of people. However:

  • While some resources can be systematically preserved in memory institutions, others are necessarily tied to living humans. Languages may no longer be spoken, traditions (including musical or dance) may no longer be lived.
  • Access to knowledge and culture may be monopolized by simple ownership restrictions (paintings in private ownership, museums not willing to share digitized reproductions).
  • Access may be monopolized by intellectual property rights like patent laws (mostly limited to 20 years) or copyright (lasting for 70 years after the death of the last co-creator). If copyright is abused by science publishers to monopolize scientific knowledge, severe challenges for the intergenerational commons (as well as within generations) arise.
  • Some resources may increase or decrease. People often pass on what they experience in childhood, be it sexual abuse and violence or love for culture and knowledge. A society experiencing a prolonged civil war may strongly deplete its resources in trust, compassion, honesty, believe in fairness and altruistic behavior.

2. Races and varieties of organisms bred by humans for human use (e.g., as food, medical, building, entertainment, etc.).

3. Physical infrastructure built by humans for humans.

  • Housing, transportation (roads, railway, tunnels, canals), water management (irrigation, drainage, flood control), energy, information infrastructures, etc. Many of these are valuable investments where one generation is providing work the next generation can build upon. No generation can achieve its life quality without relying on such investments of earlier generations. The big question here is how much of these investments will still be beneficial under the circumstances of a sustainable society. Our current motorways, even if they have to be electrified, are likely still an advantage, oversized airports most likely not.

4. Natural resources which are in practice (i.e., within several hundred human generations) inexhaustible

  • Renewable energy resources such as wind, solar, and geothermal energy sources.
  • Some mineral resources like iron or aluminium occur so frequently in concentrated deposits that little change in their availability is to be expected.
  • QUESTION: Which other resources would fall into this category?

5. Natural resources renewable within decades (but still significantly affect intergenerational justice)

  • Forests / timber reserves.
  • Wild food stocks, especially fisheries.
  • Renewable groundwater resources can be either completely depleted or replenished within a long, but still achievable time frame. Replenishment can, however, be slow enough to severely affect one or several future generations.
  • Landscape partitioning includes the presence, abundance and connectedness of important habitats for animals and plants. The location, size, and connectedness of habitats is important for the migration of organisms and their genetic interaction within metapopulations.
  • Ecosystem Services. Many organism and ecosystems provide specific services, such as climate control, pollination, or coastal protecting through mangrove forests, water retaining and drainage function. The foundations for these ecosystem services are frequently altered or even destroyed by humans. Many of these changes are in principle reversible, but doing so may require investments that could overwhelm a single future generation.
  • Desertification – NOTE: I am uncertain where this fits best!

6. Natural resources which, renewable only within a very high number of human generations. Examples include:

  • Fertile soils are a renewable resource which can be replenished only within a long time span. In some cases, another ice age would be required, whereas in many cases significant human investments can lead to the regeneration of soils within the life-span of a human generation. In both case, however, we have inherited given soil fertility and our current action to reduce it will be a severe burden for the next generation.
  • Biodiversity, a resource that is principally renewable, but at a very slow rate. The recovery after past extinctions usually lasted 1-5 million years, about 5 to 25 times as long as Homo sapiens exists. The genetic diversity lost in the current, human-induced mass extinction will not be available to our children. The information and biological solutions may be sorely missed.
  • Waste storage is another limited resource on the planet. Much of the current discussion on climate change focuses on the limited ability of our atmosphere and oceans to act as a sink for greenhouse gases. However, pollution with long-living chemicals like certain pesticides, ozone-depleting organohalogen compounds, nitrate, microplastics, nano-fibers, phosphates in freshwater systems, or radioactive waste fall into the same category. Most of these sinks are dynamical, i.e., the accumulation is reduced over various time spans. The question for our children’s heritage is, whether the time span is short enough to leave sufficient pollution margins for each generation, or whether one generation is already using up the capacity of future generations. In some cases, one generation is producing concentrated forms of waste (toxic landfill, radioactive waste) which burdens future generations with a caretaker responsibility.
  • Fossil water sources.
  • 7. Natural resources which are tied to the entire history of Earth and are virtually non-replenishable. Examples include:

  • Mineral and fossil fuel resources have been created over the entire existence of our planet. In the case of most of these resources the value is not the total amount, but the distribution, i.e., the presence of places on earth where these resources are concentrated enough to be extractable with sufficient economic efficiency. In the case of elemental resources (critical resources are, e.g., cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, molybdenum, nickel, nitrogen, phosphate, platinum-palladium, tin, titanium, tungsten, or zinc), we only change the distribution on earth, not the amount.
  • Footnotes

    1 While studying this, I learned that the term ‘Global Commons’ has a more specific and pre-defined meaning. Instead of the “planetary commons” discussed here, it refers specifically to resource domains that lie “outside of the political reach of any one nation-state.” International law identifies exactly the High Seas, the Atmosphere, Antarctica, and Outer Space as Global Commons.

    The present post is mostly a first attempt to organize my thinking about the different kinds of Commons we should consider for intergenerational justice. Pointers to good publications are most welcome!

    If you are interested in the topic of intergenerational justice, I recommend the following posts:

    (© Gregor Hagedorn 2018, CC BY-SA 4.0, publ. 2018-01-22, updated 2018-02-04. Image by Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), CC BY-SA 3.0)

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