November 23, 2014

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The Tragedy of the Market, The Promise of the Commons

A new book lays out the framework for an international legal framework for the ecological Commons - and a new paradigm for governing sustainability.

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By Francesca Rheannon

“Another World is Possible,” has been the cry of anti-globalization activists since at least the inaugural meeting of the World Social Forum in 2001. Over the past several years, a new movement for the Commons (and its adherents, the self-described Commoners) has been building the vision of that new world brick by conceptual brick.

One of the seminal architects of the Commons movement is writer David Bollier, whose work describes a trajectory from critiquing the overuse of intellectual property rights (in Brand Name Bullies) to discussing the new digital Commons (Viral Spiral) to his current concern: developing an international legal framework for protecting the ecological Commons we all depend on.

Together with human rights lawyer and professor, Burns Weston, Bollier has come out with the new book, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons. Bollier spoke with CSRwire about his vision of the ecological Commons and how it fits into an alternative paradigm for economics, political sovereignty and culture.

The Ecological Commons

Could you first of all define the “ecological Commons” for us?

The idea of the ecological Commons is about trying to devise new mechanisms for managing resources in truly sustainable ways that can help protect them over the long-term.

There are all sorts of natural resources in the world, from water to forests to fisheries to wild game. We know most governments and economists think that private property and markets are the only way to govern these resources effectively. This has led to what I call the “tragedy of the markets,” meaning that resources are overexploited because people are only interested in the financial gain from those resources.

By contrast, the Commons is a group of people, usually with a local base, who have a deep commitment and love for a resource: a lake, a forest or a certain area that has special history for that town or community. Sometimes it’s simply a big tree that’s been there for centuries.

The Commons is about devising ways to collectively manage those resources for intergenerational Green Governance-Bollierstability and for not destroying the carrying capacity of those resources: for example, not overfishing the fishery or taking too many trees from the forest.

The Tragedy of the Markets

Your use of the term, “the tragedy of the markets,” refers to the trope “the tragedy of the Commons.” How are the two terms related?

The “tragedy of the Commons” is the notion that any shared resource ends up becoming overexploited and ruined. But, it really doesn’t describe the Commons, but rather an open access regime where anything is free for the taking and there are no rules; there is no community, and there’s no monitoring or enforcement of those rules.

In fact, as social science researchers have confirmed, around the world there are all sorts of stable, successful commons that do not overexploit natural resources, precisely because people have gotten together and seen that they have a shared interest in finding ways to prevent overexploitation and overconsumption, by creating culture and rituals to respect nature.

And that’s what we, in the highly developed market culture of the United States, need to learn. We need to rediscover the Commons and learn to make it real, both in law and social life.

Commons, Past and Present

What kind of governance has been successful in the past for taking care of the Commons?

There are many successful examples that point to the importance of identity, culture and social practice as a way to establish limits. That’s something the market and the regulatory state have been quite unsuccessful in doing. So, I think that we should study the successful Commons in developing countries around the world.

But in our own culture, I think of models such as land trusts, which are a form of property treated as a Commons because people can use them and they are protected over the long-term. You can even think of something like the Highline Park in Manhattan, where a group of citizens got together and said, “We want to preserve this,” and they took the initiative independent of government to establish such a Commons.

The digital world is also giving us new tools for creating management of natural resources. There’s the use of what is called “participatory sensing.” People will take water quality or air quality measurements and feed them into what is essentially a wiki. This provides more real time, reliable information than what the EPA has.

The Commons and Human Rights

Your co-author is a human rights lawyer. What is the relevance of human rights to the ecological Commons?

Professor Weston and I agree that one problem with human rights is that it requires the vindication of those rights through the nation state, which, typically, is in deep alliance with market forces. We call it the market-state duopoly. And because the market and state are so dependent on each other, they Commons-two-termsdon’t care about enforcing human rights when it might interfere with their market goals.

So we wanted to see how the Commons could be a better way to actualize human rights over the long term by giving people genuine sovereignty and control over their resources and livelihood in a way that the market and the state do not.

The market and the state cultivate dependencies: dependencies on being a consumer in the market, and dependencies on getting permission from bureaucracies or legislatures that are often remote and unaccountable. The Commons is a way of empowering people to basic human rights for their livelihood, respect, dignity and control of local resources that they depend on for their lives, as opposed to gain or profit.

The Corporation and Public-Commons Partnerships

You talk about giving people genuine sovereignty, but we live within the context of a globalized economy and a State that seems ever more willing to exercise this power on behalf of that globalization. How would Commons-based sovereignty work?

Well, obviously it is not going to be sovereignty in the fullest sense of the word; the nation state is not going away anytime soon. However, we have seen how the nation state delegates powers to collectivities of shareholders, known as “the corporation.”

I don't see why the nation state couldn't similarly delegate powers by chartering Commons. We've heard of public-private partnerships; in Italy, municipalities have entered into public-Commons partnerships, an interesting way of empowering people.

How do these public-Commons partnerships work?

In Italy, the term “Commons” has a mainstream political legitimacy because several years ago, there was a national referendum on whether to privatize local water systems. And it was defeated by an astonishing 95 percent of the vote, using the word “Commons” as the alternative.

A lot of people see the Commons as a way of dealing with some of the deep dysfunctions and pathologies typical of government bureaucracies because it brings power back down to a level where people can truly deliberate about and manage in a way that makes sense, rather than having the individual dealing with remote bureaucracies that are dominated and controlled by lawyers and lobbyists.

So in Italy, one municipality has entered into contractual agreements with collectives of citizens to manage a park, where the citizens have certain authority – working within parameters set by the municipality and certain performance metrics – to manage that park.

I think that is similar to what is done with the corporation, where the state charters the corporation to perform certain functions, ostensibly in the public interest. Why not charter certain Commons to take cheers-public-watercare of certain functions, where the goal would not be to maximize profit but to carry out the long-term stewardship of all sorts of qualitative values beyond money and profit?

Private-Commons Partnerships?

New forms of corporate governance such as the B Corporation are increasing, where benefitting social goods is written into the charter of the corporation. Do you see a role for private enterprise through Benefit Corporations to enter into partnerships with the Commons as well?

Absolutely. Business has an important role to play. And I think the Benefit Corporation is a very interesting hybrid model – one could even say, a transitional model – of trying to get out of the catechism that the corporation has only fiduciary responsibilities to maximize profit. As many smaller, privately owned companies have shown, you can be a perfectly successful competitor in the marketplace while serving certain social and environmental goals.

Markets, as we've seen with the local food movement, play an entirely constructive role when they are answerable to a community in a meaningful way. The problem is, markets so often are not answerable. They become global capital and global finance that are simply rip-and-run exploiters of localities. Therefore, the genius of the market isn't really harnessed; it's simply a tool for concentrating and accumulating money and power.

So, yes, let's have a bigger conversation about how markets and the Commons can interact constructively.

Readers: As business begins to develop new models of socially responsible capitalism, what kinds of partnerships do you see evolving between corporations and the Commons? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below or connecting with us on Twitter, Facebook or G+!

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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