Torn page of a dictionary that reads the definition of "what"

July/August 2002

The atmosphere. The oceans and fresh waters. The land itself, and the fruits and grains our forebears bred and cultivated upon it. The broadcast spectrum. The attention spans of our children.

Does such a list adequately evoke "the commons," and the stakes we face in trying to save it—both for itself and as the foundation of our common future? Or must we add yet another, more shocking example? Perhaps we must put the human genome itself on this endangered commons list, and note that if this genetic commons too is lost to partition and privatization, if it too becomes the privilege of the affluent, then none of us on either side of the divide can be sure of retaining the "humanity" we like to think we've achieved.

The biotech boosters, of course, don't see things this way. Many of them insist that any conceivable application of human genetic engineering is essential to medical progress, and that the possibilities, no matter how speculative, trump all other considerations. Thus they shrug off the likely outcome of embryo cloning—that it will...