Cosmopolitics: Global common goods and new international institutions

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Gaël Giraud, SJ

 Gaël Giraud, SJ / Environment / Published Date:27 July 2021/Last Updated Date:16 August 2021


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One indisputable lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic is that the only sensible response to such a phenomenon must be cooperative and universal. As long as there is even one country where the virus can multiply and mutate – no matter which country it is – it will keep coming back. We will be facing a pandemic that will recur over time, just like the flu. We will need new vaccines, perhaps every year, depending on how quickly the virus mutates.

Masks, distancing, even lockdowns and home confinement will become part of our lives, fragmented lives because without human relationships, without a common space to meet and touch faces and bodies, what is left of our humanity? And what is true for the virus is also true for the Earth, our ecosystems and natural resources: only a cosmopolitics of cooperation will allow us to face the ecological challenges, posed, for example, by our dependence on fossil fuels.

There is no alternative to solidarity and cooperation, both within each of our societies and between nations. This is the only way humanity was able to eliminate smallpox in 1980. We must repeat the same feat with Covid-19 and the other viruses that may appear in the coming decades due to global warming and deforestation.[1] Perhaps the great news today is that solidarity is no longer a utopia, a matter of good feelings or individual ethics; it has become a necessity in the interest of all.

La Civilta Cattolica

Is Europe creating an agency to manage health emergencies? If this is so, it is good, but it is not enough. It is at the global level that we must learn to talk to each other, prepare for the future, bracket our strategic power relations, keep our selfishness at bay, and enter into a true apprenticeship of learning what “global solidarity” means.

The golden rule

As we have said, what is true of Covid-19 is also true of ecological disruption: global warming, the erosion of biodiversity, the destruction of ecosystems by pollution. We will not be able to address the dangers to which these disasters expose us without everyone’s cooperation. The United States recently committed to halving its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. This implies the disappearance of all vehicles using combustion engines in the next few years. American industry is not always a model, but in terms of ecological ambition we can only hope that it will now be imitated by all. Even if there are only a few countries that continue to emit a significant amount of CO2, in a few decades we will not be able to avoid global warming, which will threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Of course, realpolitik still governs most international relations. A kind of “piecemeal third world war,” as Pope Francis has called it, has been ravaging an alarming number of countries for many years. However, even in the tense relations between the world’s two superpowers, China and the United States, ecology is becoming a kind of sanctuary in which these two giants agree to lower their weapons and negotiate.

Why? Because both have realized that they have no chance of guaranteeing a future for the younger generations if they refuse to enter into a true partnership to avoid disaster. Joe Biden brought the United States back into the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, where the Chinese are actively present. During the stormy meeting between U.S. and Chinese diplomatic delegations in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18, one of the few topics on which the two countries reached some form of agreement was global warming. Sino-American cooperation is also foreseen by the World Health Organization, to which the United States has just returned, in particular to support the Covax global vaccination program against Covid-19.

This means that the ecological crisis certainly threatens catastrophe, but also provides an unprecedented opportunity for our humanity. It is an opportunity for a cosmopolitics based on international cooperation. This was the dream of Immanuel Kant[2] and the Enlightenment, a dream that the League of Nations in 1919 and the United Nations after World War II promised to realize. Now our backs are against the wall. The future belongs to us only if we agree to enter into a process of global deliberation designed to enable everyone to learn to respect the Earth and each other.

This should be the ultimate goal of true globalization: not the leveling of all cultural differences and the plundering of our natural resources, but the establishing of the grounds for a discussion in which, perhaps for the first time, it becomes clear that individual interest is not in conflict with the general interest, thus effecting a radical change in our relationship with the Earth and with each other. Over the past 50 years, commercial globalization has done exactly the opposite, imposing a consumerist model that destroys our societies and is culturally unacceptable.[3] By eliminating the forms of elementary solidarity within our societies, this model has also fostered tribal withdrawal, fear and hatred of others that today inflame so many countries.[4]

What is the secret of a deliberative mechanism capable of producing the institutions necessary to facilitate this kind of cooperation? It is the biblical golden rule: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31). This ethical rule, universally recognized like the prohibition of rape, is an appeal to the infinite openness of desire: “whatever you would have them…” It is an invitation to dare to put yourself in the place of others without leaving your own.[5] Am I ready to accept, in negotiation, this experience of decentralization that consists in trying to espouse, from within, the other’s point of view? Do I believe that this experience, far from being a cause of  alienation, is, on the contrary, the possibility of an encounter? It is only on this condition that true collective discernment can take place, such as the one Pope Francis tried to establish during the Synod for the Amazon.[6] This is the one with which humanity must now engage to find solutions to the immense challenges imposed on us by the multiple ecological crises already underway. It also represents the essence of the spiritual experience that underlies the synodal Church that Francis envisions and proposes.

Institutional creativity

What might be the fruit of such discernment? And how will we know if it is a good fruit? It is a question of renewing existing international institutions or inventing new ones. This is symptomatic of the fact that, among others, the “international community” in the form dreamed of by our grandparents in 1945 has come to an end. Or, more precisely, that the project has been gradually emptied of its substance by the globalization of markets, which seeks to replace enlightened discussion with violent power struggles caused by the commodification of everything and the inequality in the distribution of wealth that allows a few to acquire without limit at the expense of everyone else.

There are examples of other forums in which true discernment has sometimes taken place: COP21, which led to the signing of the Paris Agreement in Le Bourget in December 2015, is certainly one of them. The 2020 Amazon Synod is another example. Moreover, we have long known how to organize our relations in a peaceful and mutually beneficial manner: the international management of airspace or the international postal service bear witness to this.

Now, among the things that require our inventiveness, the issue of common goods[7] holds a privileged place. The pandemic has shown that the health of one family in Wuhan may affect the entire world. We are all interdependent, and there is no desert island to where we can retreat, separated from the rest of humanity. Privatizing health care is the best way to fail to ensure global health: if access to anti-virus health care becomes fee-for-service – no matter how little the cost– there will always be poor people who are excluded. This will allow the virus to spread again, putting everyone, including the most privileged, at risk.

Given these conditions, it is evident that health cannot be treated as a commodity. Nor, moreover, can health understood in this way be considered a public good, because this would require the existence of a super-state and a global government to manage it. On the other hand, the way in which some states have dealt with the pandemic clearly shows that even the absolute sovereignty of the state, as we have understood it since the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648, today needs to be relativized and limited.

Health is therefore a universal good, but a fragile good, because its privatization destroys it. It is a global common good, which we all aspire to share and whose care requires the cooperation of all. It requires a cosmopolitics.

The case of climate or biodiversity is different. The latter has been erroneously considered to be linked to the territory and local conditions involving the abundance of living organisms in order to have a global character. In truth, it is the globalization of the market that makes it a global common good, so that, for example, decisions made by a French company whose value chain originates in Indonesia may mainly affect the Sumatran rainforest.[8] The IUCN World Conservation Congress 2020, scheduled for September 3-11, 2021 in Marseille, will only confirm this.[9]

Our global common goods

What kind of institutions will allow us to manage this kind of situation? The UN has become a very fragile body. The institutions of the European Community have not fared much better. The World Health Organization has not been listened to. Therefore, we have to think of something else.

That is why we need institutional creativity.  We must establish rules that allow all stakeholders to gather around the negotiating table and engage in this much-needed collective discernment: nation states, of course, will be involved, but also representatives of civil society and the private sector.

In one specific area of health, such a “miracle” has already become a reality. This is the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi).[10] Founded in 2003 by French doctors, this platform organizes dialogue between governments, NGOs and representatives of Big Pharma. What does this seemingly unlikely consortium manage to produce? Precisely what none of these three actors could or would have wanted to do alone: low-cost therapies for diseases neglected by private healthcare due to the lack of a financial user base. We are talking, for example, about hepatitis C, visceral leishmaniasis, and trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness).

This is a good way of recognizing health as a global common good: establishing a new type of hybrid actor on an international scale, one that goes beyond the sterile comparison between state and market to which so many economists have frequently reduced the social dynamic. Of course, the therapies that DNDi distributes are not free: the scourge of health privatization has not yet been completely healed. But DNDi is proposing an interesting way forward. What once seemed unthinkable is now possible. And to be successful, there is no doubt that negotiation between states, NGOs and private companies requires each party to take risks and apply the golden rule.

The climate, biodiversity, the seabed, fish stocks, space: there are so many common global goods that are just waiting for us to imagine adequate institutions and rules to take responsibility for them and, in particular, to save them from the destruction they would be condemned to if reduced to the status of commodities. What is envisaged are institutions that must give a voice to all the countries of the Global South and not be content with merely giving formal legitimacy to a violent power game favorable to the West and China. This will involve rules that must make it possible to aim at the good of the most disadvantaged in every country. Because the “cry of the earth” and the “cry of the poor,” as Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’, are a denunciation of the same suffering.

In this regard, it is perhaps worth noting that the debate on common goods in recent years has unfortunately focused on the redefinition of a collective property right distinct from public property. While it is important to argue that both private and public property must be subject to limits, the fact remains that the international community, particularly the legal community, is still unable to provide an agreed definition of res communis.

It is therefore imperative that we must turn our energies and inventiveness in another direction: that of establishing rules for the governance and use of the resources we wish to share, but which do not necessarily have to be the subject of a new type of property right.

This can be seen in the current stalemate in international negotiations over the status of the ocean floor. Some would like to make it a global common good, but have failed to propose a legally acceptable definition. Yet the international community could agree on shared rules for the use of the seabed without creating a new legal category.

The spirit of Philadelphia

Elinor Ostrom’s research[11] suggests that rules for managing a common good must also satisfy a number of internal criteria. One of these is the existence of a “meta-rule” that allows, at little expense, for the resolution of conflicts of interpretation of the basic rules. These hermeneutic conflicts never fail to arise, no matter how carefully the ground rules are established. We must therefore learn that sort of “architectural wisdom” which enables our institutions to perform the service we expect of them: to endure over time, with the passage of  generations.

Is it so difficult? Actually, managing common goods is not new; it is part of humanity’s oldest sapiential heritage. We have been managing common goods long before Roman law invented private property. And the web, the digital world, is now one of the places where new forms of property (in culture, the arts, computer programming) are subject to experiment, testifying to the incredible superabundance of our collective intelligence. The organization of our relationships through peer-to-peer[12]  interaction is also a new way of relating to each other that makes possible a collective management of the common goods we hold dear, far from the hierarchical relationships inherited from violent patriarchal societies.

On May 10, 1944, in the course of World War II, the General Conference of the International Labor Organization (ILO), meeting on the east coast of the United States, adopted the so-called “Declaration of Philadelphia,” which affirmed, among other things, that work is not a commodity and that social justice is the surest guarantee of peace. We must treasure this “spirit of Philadelphia”[13] to draw on the political and spiritual resources that we need in the face of today’s challenges that will enable us to envision the institutions that will make our planet hospitable tomorrow. None of our global common goods are commodities. Caring for them collectively is the surest guarantee of peace among nations.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 8 art. 5, 0821: 10.32009/22072446.0821.5

[1].       Cf. G. Giraud, “Starting anew after the Covid-19 emergency”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed. April 2020, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/starting-anew-after-the-covid-19-emergency/

[2].       Cf. I. Kant, Per la pace perpetua. Un progetto filosofico, Rome, Editori Riuniti, 1985.

[3].       Cf. G. Giraud, La transizione ecologica, Verona, Emi, 2015.

[4].       Cf. Id., Composer un Monde en commun. Une théologie politique de l’Anthropocène, Paris, Seuil, forthcoming in January 2022.

[5].       Cf. C. Theobald, “La règle d’or chez Paul Ricœur: une interrogation théologique”, in Recherches de Science Religieuse 83 (1995/1) 43-59.

[6].       Francis, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, February 2, 2020.

[7].       Cf. Beni comuni, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2015; G. Giraud, “A Universal Wage: An urgent social debate”, in Civ. Catt. En. June, 2020, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/a-universal-wage-an-urgent-social-debate/

[8].       See A. Wolff, Responsabilité sociétale: quelles contributions des entreprises à la conservation de la biodiversité? (https://tel.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-01695744v2), PhD thesis, 2017.

[9].       See www.iucncongress2020.org/. Also worth following is the International Conference on Environmental Justice, scheduled for August 29-September 2, 2021, sponsored by Georgetown University and the Lasalle Institute (Switzerland), and dedicated this year to biodiversity (see https://bit.ly/3oyGWcU).

[10].     See https://dndi.org

[11].     Cf. E. Ostrom, Governare i beni collettivi, Venice, Marsilio, 2006.

[12].     Cf. M. Bauwens, Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives, in https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/Michel_Bauwens

[13].     Cf. A. Supiot, L’esprit de Philadelphie: la justice sociale face au marché total, Paris, Seuil, 2010.