Ed. Note: This post is Chapter 2 of the new Feasta publication Sharing for Survival.
This chapter aims to highlight the continued existence of the ‘Commons’, a viable alternative to the socio-economic system which is driving climate change. It explores strategies for supporting and restoring the commons at the local, national and global levels.
The premise of this chapter is that there is a proliferating movement of initiatives seeking to defend the commons (mostly in the Global South) or restore the commons (mostly in the Global North), to ensure our survival and well-being. This chapter is also premised on the notion that we still have time to act to restore our socio-ecological sustainability. Adding together the temperature rise industrial society has already caused since the start of industrialisation – 0.8oC – and the unavoidable temperature rise in the pipeline from the last 30 years of emissions -: 0.6oC, we arrive at a likely rise of around 1.4oC. The first point of no return where tipping points could become irreversible is estimated to be somewhere approaching 2oC.
Kevin Anderson (of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research) has argued that current international negotiations, even if successful, would be likely to take us to 4oC . To hold at 3oC (if hold is possible at that temperature, with arctic melt, forest fires, and methane release feedbacks underway) would – he argued – require a 9% cut in emissions per year. Anderson argued that the only way we know to cut emissions rapidly is economic recession: the collapse of the Soviet economy cut emissions there by 5% a year, half the rate of reduction needed now .
So to not pass the 2oC tipping point we clearly need to stop the industrial economic growth machine in its tracks, farm in a way that improves the fertility of our soils, and enable the regeneration of our forests. This is clearly completely unrealistic and impossible from within the mainstream mind-set and policy options. The only way we can do this is if we understand, defend and recreate ways of meeting our needs which ensure sufficiency for all without devastating societies and ecosystems. Such commons systems have always persisted beyond, within and despite the dominant economic system, so what are they?
1. Introduction: Holding the land in common
The morning mist obscures the mountain, and smoke rises through the thatched roofs of the round or oblong earth and wood walled huts, as people, goats, sheep and cows wake…
Cows munch on the nearby grass, their bells tinkling, goats call from their little huts on stilts where they have slept overnight, defecating through the slatted wooden floor, and sheep emerge from the room they have slept in at the end of the oblong houses. There are two other rooms in these homes: one for the family, and the other a large room that acts as kitchen and living room with its firepit in the middle of the earth floor. There were ten of us sleeping on that floor after talking, music and laughter late into the night.
This is one of the villages where the Ogiek live in their ancestral homeland of Chepkitale on the slopes of Mount Elgon, Kenya. We are here to assess whether their ways of living are compatible with conservation’s stated aim of conserving the high moorland they live in, and conserving the forests on the lower slopes that they use for their cattle in the dry season, for honey and for gathering fallen wood. I am working for a human rights NGO that the Ogiek have asked to help stop them from being evicted. We have brought a team of conservationists and local councillors to evaluate their way of living. It quickly becomes clear that they are living in a way that is a million times more sustainable than any of us who are evaluating them. Their knowledge of medicinal herbs is profound, their answers to sceptical conservationists shows a depth of understanding of their environment born out of generations of ensuring that the forest and wildlife and livestock are all kept in balance, since this is the source of their well-being. In such a system, it is clear that there is no contradiction between self-interest and inter-species altruism.
The clearest evidence for the interdependence of the whole system comes from accounts of what has happened when the Ogiek have been forced off their land by a combination of conservation-logic (‘nature is better off without people’) and development-logic (‘people’s lives improve by being embedded in a competitive cash economy’). The result has been that poachers have used the opportunity of their absence to decimate the elephant population, and charcoal burners and illegal loggers have moved in to cut the forest. The Ogiek are very clear that their livestock and the wildlife co-exist happily, that their presence deters poachers, and that they will resist illegal and legal loggers who destroy the indigenous forest on which they, their cattle and the bees depend.
All of that was very clear, and yet when we return to the big meetings in Nairobi the crazy logic of enclosure reasserts itself. Some of the officials in Ministries and large conservation and forestry bodies reassert the notion that the Ogiek are living a miserable life and that pushing them out of their land is for their own good. They reassert the notion that to protect the forests, the wildlife, and the water catchment area, the people must go and the area must be taken over by conservationists (and presumably be off-limits to all humans apart from researchers, guards with guns and tourists with dollars). Thinking back to the high spring where one of the key rivers rises in the moorlands, to the trees that protect it, and the hoof prints of antelope and sheep that had drunk at it – it was clear that we were encountering the biggest lie. This is the lie that humans don’t belong, and that our only hope is to place our faith in separating ourselves from nature, in controlling and extracting from nature, and in controlling and competing with each other.
The Transition back to Sustainability
This example from Kenya is repeated across the world anywhere people are living in sustainable ways, and has been repeated over the centuries as communities have been forced to make the transition to unsustainability. This is a transition most communities in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland were forced to undergo generations ago through enclosures, clearances and internal colonisation, a process that was spread to the rest of the world through colonisation and which is still underway. The power of the transition to unsustainability relies on the threat of physical force backed up by the story that there is no alternative: that there is no way of belonging.
Here in Scotland (as I am sure elsewhere) that story has been given the lie over the last 15 years, as communities on the west coast have taken back their land into community ownership. What began with Assynt and the Isle of Eigg reclaiming their community lands from absentee landowners in the nineties, was then taken up by the new Scottish Parliament which – through the 2003 Land Reform Act – provided the framework, and for a while the financial support, to enable communities to reverse the clearances, the enclosures, and to reassert community control of their lands. Over 500,000 acres is now back in community hands, before the funding faltered and the movement slowed, awaiting a resurgence of community and political leadership that is beginning to step forward as the reality of the economic crash hits home (for example, on 20th February 2012 the Scottish Government committed £6 million over 3 years to a new Scottish Land Fund to support community buy outs). We are reminded that real wealth lies in resilient communities not in bank balances that can vanish overnight.
Here in Portobello, Edinburgh, we started our local transition initiative – PEDAL – in 2005 before the word ‘Transition’ had emerged, inspired by what Rob Hopkins and his students were doing in Kinsale in Ireland. PEDAL stands for ‘Portobello Energy Descent and Land Reform Group’, and it was clear from the start that land reform is as crucial to making the transition back to sustainability as is the focus on energy descent, on reducing our dependence on oil. In an economy that isn’t growing, one person having more than their fair share means someone else going without: and since land is the source of all wealth, sharing this fairly is fundamental to ensuring sufficiency for all.
Like other Transition initiatives we have been finding the gaps and cracks where we can make the difference: finding derelict land we could turn into an orchard, spaces behind shops where we can start community gardens. Like others we have had to negotiate with powerful landlords to try and get agreements for more ambitious projects, such as negotiating with Scottish Water to seek agreement for a site for Portobello and Leith’s proposed community turbine. This is all very good, but is it enough?
Land Reform – Should it be Occupying Transition?
As we face the interconnected crisis of ecological destruction (soils, oceans, atmosphere, forests) and resource depletion; and as our system alternates between economic growth that destroys the planet, and economic collapse that destroys livelihoods – surely what is needed is to recover the commons approach that Transition embodies, and to take it to a new level.
On the downside:
Global oil production has been flat since 2005, removing the magic ingredient that made growth seem as though it could last forever. The sale of luxury goods goes through the roof, as the wealthy get wealthier even as the rest of us face cuts and unemployment. The Climate negotiations at Durban failed as we all expected and emissions continue to rise, while orthodox ‘solutions’ to climate change get slammed even by their most ardent backers. For example, the Swiss Bank UBS’s November 2011 report states that: “By 2025, the European Emissions Trading Scheme will have cost consumers 210 billion euros. Had this amount been used in a targeted approach to replace EU’s dirtiest plants, emissions could have dropped by 43%, instead of almost zero impact on the back of emissions trading.”
On the upside:
North Africa and the Arab Spring, creative protest across Europe, and the Occupy Movement insisting that we find solutions that include us all. Scotland likely to be independent by 2015 and potentially demonstrating a much more community focused response to economic and ecological crises. That community-focused approach may look unlikely now but so much that has happened these last few years has been unforeseen by the so-called political and economic experts – it makes you realise they may be experts in the dominant paradigm but not necessarily in reality.
So, what is the reality we need to be thinking/ making/ being?
Is there a way of fusing Transition’s focus on the primary importance of place, and the Occupy movement’s focus on the crude fact that the very few are destroying the planet we all depend on? Is there a way of stepping forward and making clear that there is and always has been an alternative, not just at the local level but at the society-wide and global levels? That alternative is evident in the community-focused way humans have always done things until forced into submission by an ideology that believes we don’t belong here, and that uses force to make that seem true.
Should we be thinking much more strategically about seeking agreements with councils and corporations but, if that is lacking, then peacefully Occupying the spaces needed for food growing, for energy production, for ensuring the basic needs of care for each other are met? This may seem outlandish to suggest now, but way back in 1940, Priestley suggested that “We must stop thinking in terms of property and power and begin thinking in terms of community and creation”. As the gambling financiers take home their winnings, and as the economy unravels on the back of declining oil supplies, we may well be faced with the kind of choice Italy and Greece have recently faced. And they ultimately had no choice because they had no alternative. Having a clear society-wide alternative to ecology-busting growth and people-smashing austerity (boom and bust) may be one way of making the transition to the next level: branching out without losing the deep roots in place we all depend on.
2. What is the commons? What is its power?
‘The commons’ refers to resources that are owned in common or shared between or among communities’ populations. Globally, between 1 and 2 billion people define their right to the land through what the community says, which means that the commons estate is huge.
For example, in sub-Saharan Africa 1.6 billion hectares (or 75% of the land area) is held by communities under customary law. Around 1.4 billion hectares of this is land that is not cultivated but is collectively held forest and rangeland, used to hunt, gather or graze animals on. In most of Africa, private title covers only on average between 2 and 10% of the land. The colonial legacy led to the rest of the land being considered ‘without owner’, when in fact these vast areas were and are held by communities under common ownership systems. By describing this land as ‘without owner’, colonial powers justified expropriating it – a situation that has been maintained by many African states after independence.
To continue with the example of Africa, the vast majority of forest, pastoral, farming and other land has been managed by communities in accordance with their customary law, which is a dynamic approach to the management of natural resources that continues to develop and respond to modern realities, including issues of population growth and movement, shifting resource use, and food sovereignty.
Elinor Ostrom, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics for her work on how commons regimes function, outlines why such commons regimes have ensured security for community members and maintained an abundant environment. She writes, “When local users of a forest have a long-term perspective, they are more likely to monitor each other’s use of the land, developing rules for behavior. It is an area that standard market theory does not touch.”
This standard theory follows Garrett Hardin’s famous ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ parable in which commonly held land is inevitably degraded because everyone in a community is allowed to graze as much livestock as they want to there. But Ostrom’s research refutes this abstract concept with real life experience from all over the world, showing that the number of livestock you are allowed to graze in a commons regime is decided by the community as a whole, since although each individual may want to graze as many as possible, the community as a whole knows it needs to ensure the well- being of the environment upon which they all depend. Meanwhile Garrett Hardin himself later revised his own view, noting that what he had described was actually the Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons, or the Tragedy of Open Access regimes; and one of the best examples of which is capitalism.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz, also a Nobel winner, commented, “Conservatives used the Tragedy of the Commons to argue for [private] property rights, and that efficiency was achieved as people were thrown off the commons… What Ostrom has demonstrated is the existence of social control mechanisms that regulate the use of the commons without having to resort to property rights.”
However, it is crucial to be clear that customary commons regimes, such as those that regulate land ownership and use in most of Africa, are based on highly developed and evolving property rights systems which can include the recognition of individual or family rights to certain areas and resources, but always within a larger frame of rights which are community-derived, and which the community adapts to respond to circumstances.
The commons are often mistakenly understood to refer to resources which are intended to be shared as widely as possible, or to refer to resources – such as oceans and the atmosphere – which it may at first sight seem impossible to limit access to. In fact, whether in relation to a stretch of river or coast for fishing, to an area of forest or grazing land, common resource management systems require a very clear demarcation of who is included in, and who is excluded from, using the resource. It is on this basis that a system of rights and responsibilities evolves, even if one aspect of such systems tends to be their ability to flexibly incorporate new members who are willing to abide by the reciprocal rules required to maintain the commons.
Ostrom usefully distinguishes 8 design principles underlying successful commons regimes:
- Group boundaries are clearly defined.
- Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
- Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
- The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
- A system for monitoring member’s behaviour exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
- A graduated system of sanctions is used.
- Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
- For Common Pool Resources that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.
Today the term ‘the commons’ is used to refer to a far broader range of resources that are “held in common”, and can include everything from the community commons that is the focus of this chapter, to the cultural commons that animates so many today. The community commons can include natural resources and shared community institutions (such as those for resource allocation and dispute settlement, child care and care for the elderly, health care and community provided education) while the cultural commons can include literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, open source software and collectively created and maintained internet resources such as Wikipedia.
These two experiences of the commons can run along side each other, be mutually supportive, or run into conflict. For example the community commons tends to focus on – first and foremost – ensuring sufficient resources for all within the resource limits of a particular locality, and sees community ownership as the key to ensuring this sufficiency. In contrast, the cultural commons approach often sees the commons as infinitely abundant. One place where the clash between the two approaches has become apparent has been where well-intentioned northern NGOs have established internet protocols for people across the world to be able to use indigenous knowledge from particular places respectfully, while the communities themselves argue that the use of their knowledge requires not an abstract impersonal protocol but the establishment of real face to face relationships of trust.
From one point of view the government and public services in a democratic society could be considered part of what the members of that society collectively hold in common. From another point of view there is a clear gradation from the libraries and parks and pavements that we collectively use, the elections and jury service through which we can make decisions, the free health and education provision to which we are entitled, to the experience of government, financial institutions and corporations as forces over which we have no control, forces which appropriate the commons rather than protect them. This is nowhere clearer than in corporations legal responsibility being to increase shareholders profit rather than social or environmental well-being; or in the way the UK planning system makes no provision for prioritising community resilience, and always gives the last appeal to external developers who argue that any local disturbance is far outweighed by the public good of economic growth which their money making is seen as inevitably engendering.
The most important point to make about the commons regimes through which a vast number of communities across the world meet their physical, social, cultural and spiritual needs, is that their institutions are not derived from the state or the market but from long-standing experience that people in community can robustly – through discussion and debate, disagreement and consensus – self-organise their affairs; that we do better when we don’t have a supposed ‘higher authority’ to impose its will on us, but when we learn from experience and decide for ourselves.
While between 1 and 2 billion people – especially in the Global South – continue meeting their needs through commons regimes in ways that sustain their environments for future generations, there is a resurgence in commons regimes in the Global North as well.
Commons systems of land ownership and resource use – such as in the forests of Scandinavia or the crofting farming systems in the Highlands of Scotland – have persisted despite the centuries of enclosure during which commons regimes have been forcibly appropriated by the wealthy, their inhabitants being forced to either work for a pittance for the new ‘owner’ or pushed off their land to search for work in the factories of the cities or to emigrate, often joining the military of Empires which have then been used to take over the land of other communities that have been operating on commons principles elsewhere.
In places like Africa and Australia the colonial expropriation of common lands happened through legally describing them as ‘wastelands’ or ‘empty lands’ (terra nullis) and claiming that they were held in property systems that were not defined by private ownership and therefore were not admissible. In the same way, Andy Wightman describes the dispossession of common property regimes in the Highland and Islands of Scotland as being carried out through the power of the state acting on court decisions which were determined by the wealth of the powerful. These were court decisions which the poor could not oppose since – in the title of his most recent book – ‘The poor had no lawyers’.
As a long delayed reaction to these Highland Clearances, the new Scottish Parliament passed legislation – the Land Reform Act (Scotland) 2003 – which provided legal routes for (and, for a while, financial support to) communities in the Highlands and Islands seeking to bring back their land into common ownership and out of the hands of landowners who had long since dispossessed them. This legislation was in large part a consequence of communities taking the matter into their own hands and finding the collective will and the means to buy back their land (as happened for example in Assynt and the Isle of Eigg), but many other communities have followed suit helped by the legislation (places like the Isle of Gigha, Lewis and South Uist) and such communities now own 500,000 acres of Scotland.
This statutory legal recognition of the (often unwritten) customary ownership systems underpinning commons regimes is critical to the protection and resurgence of commons regimes in the Global North and South. Just as communities in Scotland who have regained community control of their land, their shared buildings and other resources, are demonstrating an ability to attract people back to their communities and to develop environmentally and socially sound approaches to livelihoods and land management, so in Africa and other parts of the Global South, study after study demonstrates that customary land tenure provides a secure foundation for sustainable development providing that it is protected under statutory law.
In places like Africa, the alternative is to continue with an out-dated colonial-derived system that makes communities squatters on their own lands. In this context, the biggest driver of social conflict, and in extreme cases civil war, is the denial of rights to land and resources. We have seen conflict of this kind in recent times in both Central and West Africa where 50% of civil wars resume within 5-10 years when such issues are left unresolved.
A critical role for the modern state – whether in the Global North or South – is to establish ways of recognising and incorporating customary land tenure into national law, recognising that it is fair, adaptable, dynamic and legitimate. Some countries such as Tanzania and Scotland are moving ahead with this, however many countries are far behind and have an urgent need for reform.
The recognition or restitution of customary land tenure provides a route to food sovereignty and a secure basis for development, particularly in the context of large-scale land and asset acquisition by domestic and international actors, resource depletion, population growth and climate change. These may appear to be issues which are far more relevant to the Global South, and less relevant to the Global North where governments are expected to provide a framework for us to meet our needs through selling our labour on the market and buying what we need on the market. However, we are increasingly becoming aware that such a system not only has huge environmental costs, but is also highly divisive and economically unstable.
It is in this context of larger threats – in particular climate change, resource depletion and the potential for financial meltdown – that a third force has emerged which is increasingly pushing for the restoration of commons regimes in the Global North and South. It often begins – as the Transition Town movement began – by trying to reduce a communities’ impact on the environment through trying to build its local resilience (its capacity to meet its needs itself), but as such initiatives seriously try to grapple with re- localisation they inevitably come up against those forces which appropriated the commons in the first place.
Such movements see humans as being most at home in ‘commons’ rather than in ‘capitalist’ or ‘command and control’ social forms. They assume that we will be far wealthier with less if we end the extraordinary levels of inequality and if we ensure that we all have sufficient to meet our needs, at the same time ensuring that we do not destroy the environment on which we and our children’s futures, let alone the future of other species, depends.
3. Can we apply commons principles to the global climate commons?
While use of community commons is regulated by members of the community to ensure that resources are available and replenished for current and future generations, there is clearly a severe problem with the fact that the atmosphere and skies are a commons that are not local, that are essential to all, and that are being polluted and destroyed by some actors to the detriment of all.
The current global response to this predicament focuses on establishing international institutions that can develop, oversee and bring sanctions to bear on countries and corporations who are responsible for – for example – emitting pollution that is causing temperatures to rise year on year, something which the science recognises will become an unstoppable process if not rapidly dealt with. The difficulty is that these international institutions – for example the UNFCCC – are dominated by governments and corporations who have a (short term) vested interest in an ever expanding economy that increases rather than decreases the throughput of carbon from fossil fuels through the economy and into the atmosphere.
Chapter 5 examines whether and how a ‘Global Climate Trust’ based on a ‘Climate Charter’ could provide the organisational means for us to be able to protect the Global commons, and similarly Peter Barnes has proposed a ‘Sky Trust’ to deal with this issue.
This chapter seeks to outline how Cap and Share could be part of a commons approach to the climate and related crises, and how it is likely to be introduced not through government diktat or international agreement but through individuals, communities and networks pressurising their individual governments to adopt such an approach – perhaps in order to address the climate crisis but more probably as part of a strategy designed to rapidly reign in finance as people insist on a different response to the extortions of the financiers.
Elinor Ostrom writes that:
“Currently, efforts to address climate change are being orchestrated primarily by global actors, but waiting for international solutions is wasting valuable time. Conventional wisdom tells us that there are only two options to deal with managing resources: either privatization or management by the state. This view is hindering progress. To successfully address climate change in the long run, the day-to-day activities of individuals, families, firms, communities, and governments at multiple levels—particularly those in the more developed world—will need to change substantially. Encouraging simultaneous actions at multiple scales is an important strategy to address this problem.”
Although Ostrom’s writing is very helpful, it is perhaps a mistake to think that “efforts to address climate change are being orchestrated primarily by global actors”. Global actors are exactly those who are failing to address climate change, and very often deliberately so, since addressing it would mean reigning in the economic system driving climate change, the very system that has given ‘global actors’ their prominent position. Rather, efforts to address climate change are happening at the very local level and in peoples’ movements and networks that are also trying to reign in the system driving climate change.
Part five of this chapter will examine the proposition that Cap and Share is most likely to be introduced in particular places as part of a package in which communities are seeking to defend or restore commons ways of limiting resource use so that all can have sufficient to meet their needs. Indeed, this is how radical change has always happened: it happens through example, through the leadership of innovative people not through the imposition of government or international agreement.
Having a global framework in place (for example the ‘Global Climate Trust’ based on a ‘Climate Charter’ as proposed in Chapter 5) is crucial in order to provide an essentially non-governmental global framework to enable this radical grassroots and country-by-country reclaiming of the commons to converge at the global level. The network of people with ecological values that Jopling writes about in Chapter 5 already exists, what is needed is for such networks to strengthen in depth and breadth. Jopling writes that:
“This [Global Climate Trust] initiative can only take off if there are people sharing the same values around the world to make it happen. We are confident that there are. The participants in this task will be the millions of people around the world who understand the peril we are in and who put their responsibilities as world citizens ahead of other loyalties and interests.”
Perhaps, though, such people will act to do this, less out of a desire to “put their responsibilities as world citizens ahead of other loyalties and interests” but more out of a desire to ensure their localities are resilient and able to meet their and their children’s needs. For this resilience to be defended, restored or maintained requires change at a society-wide and global level – but the impetus for this social and global change may well come from the very immediate need to feed families and ensure the safety and well-being of communities in their localities.
Part five of this chapter will return to the movements for land reform and re-localisation in the Global North, and examine the role that Cap and Share could play in their attempts to reclaim their localities and thereby (wittingly or unwittingly) defuse the causes of climate change and resource depletion. The next part, though, focuses on the Global South.
4. Redirecting policy to defend Commons Regimes from Climate Change ‘Solutions’
This section argues that the most efficient and reliable way to ensure that carbon emissions from deforestation in the Global South are stopped is not to pour a vast amount of public money into establishing policies like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). It is quickly becoming apparent that REDD will be dependent on a carbon trading scheme that is precarious anyway because carbon trading is levelling off. Worse, it is likely to systematically exclude the very people who have been protecting their forests for generations. Instead, it would be better to use public money to directly support the recognition of customary land tenure and the protection of sustainable land use in the forests of the Global South by local people.
Across the Global South indigenous peoples commons systems are being threatened by enclosure, and potentially by policies such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation).
Given the refusal of governments and corporation to make the necessary dramatic cuts to emissions in industrialised countries and sectors, the dominant policy response to Climate Change since Copenhagen has been to focus on REDD.
Tackling the causes of deforestation would be a welcome move both globally and from the point of view of those peoples – most of them in commons regimes – who rely on the forests for their livelihoods. However REDD, does not address the real drivers of deforestation. Instead it would enable polluting corporations in the North to buy carbon credits from governments and institutions in the Global South which can ‘prove’ they are reducing emissions from forests and thereby gain the right to sell carbon credits. The credit is calculated from the difference between projected deforestation rates and the actual rates that are supposed to follow when these governments and institutions intervene to protect forests. However these interventions are based on the totally mistaken notion that it is local people who are the primary drivers of deforestation. So proving that governments and institutions are stopping them using their forest, means that they can claim to have reduced deforestation and thereby gain carbon credits to sell.
It has long since been proven that the drivers of deforestation are not poor farmers, pastoralists or hunters and gatherers but the clearing for large scale logging, commercial farming, ranching and plantations which force local people off their own land. Often, once forced off their land by these concessions and protected areas, they are unable to use the forest resources sustainably as they have in the past (which is why the forest was still there). Unable to pursue small scale rotational shifting cultivation, or small scale harvesting from the forest, they can then indeed become part of the process that is destroying the forest, whether through working for the concession holder or extracting what they can from the resource before these more powerful others destroy it completely. However it is important to differentiate between this reaction in pursuit of some form of livelihood for their families and the driver of deforestation that needs to be checked. Securing forest peoples land tenure and requiring real accountability, transparency and the necessity of companies negotiating with local people on an equal playing field would begin to address this.
In contrast, the McKinsey Report’s cost curve has famously sought to compare how much it costs to stop deforestation in different contexts in a way that suggests that stopping local people costs little but has a high benefit (so this is the option that should be pursued) whereas the cost of trying to stop a palm oil plantation, for example, is very high but the benefit is not huge. This is a clear example of preferring to address a symptom in a way which fuels the cause: further marginalising local peoples’ ability to use their forests sustainably, and further strengthening the hand of those who cut the forest to create permanent industrial plantations.
In any case – the weakness of the carbon market means it is no solution. 
An additional problem for REDD, based on the carbon market, is that the latest World Bank Carbon Market Report paints a clear picture of a global carbon market that is levelling off, and has failed to reduce emissions. The global carbon market is worth $145 billion, but 97% of this is either the EUTS (the European Union Trading Scheme) or led by EUTS credits. In effect, there only really is the EUTS carbon market, and it explicitly excludes forests because to include them would make far too many credits available in its system. REDD isn’t in there, and can’t be until at least 2020 when the second period of the EUTS finishes.
A second point is that the voluntary carbon market is worth a tiny fraction of this amount, $450 million, of which only 30-40% relates to REDD (roughly $145 million) and half of the people investing in the voluntary market have only been doing so because they are expecting the compliance market will take off. If they wish to pursue the chimera of a global carbon market, the UK and others are going to have to continue pumping money into creating the framework for a market that is levelling rather than taking off.
To understand why the market is failing it is useful to look briefly at the European Union Trading Scheme on which it (almost) entirely depends.
The EUTS is failing in terms of actually reducing carbon emissions, partly because €2 billion worth of permits were given for free to the largest and most polluting companies while the renewable companies received nothing. Looking back, carbon traders say these permits should have been auctioned. The reason they weren’t was entirely due to the fact that the most heavily polluting companies had too much clout. This has had the consequence that other measures – which could have been undertaken to actually reduce emissions – are unable to be introduced because they are seen as potentially interfering with the EUTS.
From a carbon trading perspective, the EUTS simply doesn’t work. It has given out far too many permits, and has proved itself very susceptible to many different types of frauds – from hacking into member states’ systems, to the stealing of permits, to people selling permits twice. Thus there is no delivery of reductions, no security of price, and no security in the system. The EUTS has been described as being successful only at: dramatically increasing the profits of the largest polluters; increasing energy prices for consumers; and increasing emissions.
The broader political context is shifting rapidly
People in the global north have watched as their Governments have poured their public money into the major financial institutions. These institutions were on the brink of collapse because they were trading in bundles of debt where no one could distinguish between debt that might be repayable and debt that could never be repaid.
To pour public money into setting up the infrastructure to enable financial institutions to trade in a commodity, carbon permits and credits, the very existence of which entirely depends on being able to make a convincing distinction between schemes in terms of the degree to which forest loss is projected to be less than expected due to that schemes’ activities, would seem very unwise to say the least.
In terms of deforestation and tackling emissions there are three clear reasons why this is unwise.
Firstly, the money REDD schemes make arises from the difference between projected deforestation and the rate of actually occurring deforestation. One of the easiest ways to intervene to try to prove they are lowering the rate of carbon emissions projected for a particular forest is by visibly stopping local people making use of their customary resources.
Secondly, this is an approach that demonstrably drives deforestation rather than curbs it. In Guyana the baseline projection of business as usual assumed that 0.45% of the forest would be deforested each year, (even though when the estimate was made only 0.02% was being deforested each year). This meant that Guyana could increase deforestation 20 fold and still get REDD money. Clearly with REDD payments, the worse you can portray yourself as being the more payments you can get, and if you have been and intend to continue being a good custodian of your forest then you will get nothing. Dyer and Counsell comment that “there is a danger that these high-deforestation scenarios could become self-fulfilling prophecies and encourage tropical governments to pursue destructive practices in order to increase their expected compensation”. The incentives in the system have perverse effects.
Thirdly, just as the EUTS distracts us from far more effective measures to reduce emissions in Europe, REDD distracts us from the need to address demand reduction in the Global North. Instead the prospect of REDD, the existence of the EUTS and a focus on building the carbon market in general, enables countries and industry in the Global North to avoid having to make the dramatic cuts required by buying permits/ credits. The fact that these permits/ credits seek to ‘prove’ that a REDD scheme is reducing the level by which global emissions are INCREASING means that this whole approach is logically not about making deep cuts but about reducing the speed at which global emissions are rising, while providing a means by which countries and corporations in the Global North can postpone making the deep cuts themselves.
What concerns us here is not just the logical impossibility of a carbon market system achieving it’s stated goal of helping to decrease global carbon emissions. That is increasingly obvious to even the most central institutional players and is something that should be thrashed out between citizens and their governments in the global north. What concerns us here is also the impact of this system on people in the global south.
What forest people in Cameroon ask is: why don’t you – instead of pushing REDD – address the cause of these emissions: your industries in the north? They would like public money from the global north to help them to ensure that their ownership of their forests is recognised – in other words to secure their customary land tenure systems – so that they can continue to manage, protect and sustainably use their forests. In the enduring absence of such offers from the global north, many will also be willing to gain some forms of development compensation in return for losing their forests to conservation and other actors, since otherwise they think they will be left with nothing: neither rights to their land, nor compensation for those rights being denied.
The amount of public money from the global north that is required to support communities in the global south to do this (to achieve security of tenure over their customary forest lands, and to protect or establish sustainable ways of their benefiting from being in the best position to protect those forests), the amount of money required for this is finite, laws once changed can endure, and the projects required are visible, tangible and of immediate benefit in helping to end poverty and support democratisation in some of the poorest countries of the world.
The evidence is amassing (from World Bank, academic and NGO studies) that the people best placed to protect forests are forest peoples’ themselves.
Clearly the cheapest, most efficient and most reliable way to ensure that happens is not to pour a vast amount of public money into establishing a highly questionable commodity and a precarious trading scheme based on projects that are likely to systematically exclude the very people who have been protecting this forests for generations. The best way to use that money is instead to directly support the recognition of customary land tenure and the protection of sustainable land use in the forests of the Global South.
Solution: Redirecting current finance to support commons regimes
The situation is ripe for a re-examination of how public finance is to be directed. Such a re-examination may discover a much worse situation in terms of the consequences of current policies, but a much better situation in terms of the consequences of refocusing finance on direct rights based action to supports modern customary rights and highly adaptable sustainable local use of resources to alleviate poverty in the present.
This does not require an international framework and agreement to get going. It can start from single countries – or indeed cities, regions or towns – in the Global North taking this approach and building a coalition for action in the present. Rather than having to wait for international agreement on a particular financial mechanism that all have agreed on, public finance can happen now and – seen as part of overseas aid budgets – can come from any public source without having to await a seemingly unreachable Global agreement.
From a UK perspective, this is simply about carefully targeting the £2.9 billion the UK has committed to the International Climate Fund for climate related work outside the UK over the next 4 years.
Governments in the Global North are likely to increasingly find it hard to justify spending public money on seeking to reduce global emissions by pumping more and more money into trying to create a global carbon market. In this context, where co-ordinated and effective international action on climate change is unlikely to materialise, what is clearly needed is bold, cost effective leadership from the UK that can involve directing the money we have already committed to this issue in a way that can achieve transformative change.
In the process the UK can help build sustainable systems under local control that can stop deforestation, raise much needed revenue for their governments, and directly address the need to secure carbon not by bringing in companies to clumsily interfere, and incapably count carbon, but by ensuring forest peoples rights to their commons are recognised and they are able to preserve their forests as the basis for their development choices.
5. Restoring the commons, and how Cap and Share is a crucial part of this process
Action in the Global South does not need to wait for a global agreement but can be embarked on by governments, regions, cities or communities in the Global North making common cause to support communities in the Global South to defend their commons. Similarly action in the Global North can be enabled unilaterally at a society-wide level, partly through people pushing for their governments to adopt policies such as Cap and Share.
We need to rapidly de-couple our everyday activities from the economic- industrial complex by enacting an alternative – re-creating commons regimes here like the ones that currently provide sustenance and social organisation for between 1 and 2 billion people elsewhere in the world.
Whether proactively in the context of a booming capitalist economy, or whether reactively in the context of the IMF threatening to pull the plug on loans to Scotland or the UK; whether in order to stave off impending ecological collapse and climate change, or whether to resist blackmail and extortion when the IMF approaches us in the same brutal form it approaches other parts of the world: the underlying paradigm of the commons can enable us to recognise that we are not that ecocidal machine, that we can self-organise, and it can remind us how.
To enact a powerful alternative in the Global North, we need to prefigure the commons at a community level, we need to engage in civil disobedience to stand up to those forces that claim there is no alternative to business as usual, and we need a set of proposals, a route-map, to help us disentangle ourselves from the ecocidal machine we have been convinced we are wedded to. Such a route-map needs to work both within the electoral system as it stands (within a ‘successful’ expanding capitalism, within a party political voting system, within the economic inequalities that exist) and also work within a rapidly transforming situation where people will be rapidly losing faith in the status quo.
At the community level: We need to work to expand the land reform movement from rural to urban areas and we need to work in Transition and other positive local initiatives to create resilient need-meeting structures.
Transition Initiatives as Lifeboats:
There are a huge range of re-localising initiatives in Scotland: from Transition Towns, to Land Reform initiatives or Development Trust Associations – all focused on regaining local control of local resources. Transition initiatives, for example, often seem to exist in a parallel world – developing local currencies, mapping food growing areas, developing energy sources – sketching a different re-localised way of meeting our needs as a result of a strong sense that this system cannot continue.
When you are on a ship that is ploughing full steam ahead, the existence of lifeboats perched awkwardly above the side decks seem completely irrelevant to everything you are doing. If the ship starts to sink then suddenly they are all that matters.
Transition and other similar relocalisation initiatives are like lifeboats being developed on the side of this economic oil tanker. Huge effort is going into keeping economic growth going full steam ahead, other less powerful efforts are going into trying to turn the tanker round, to develop a steady state economics that stops depleting the earths resources. Still others say that we cannot turn it round fast enough; that it is heading straight for the rocks of ecological meltdown. And then suddenly the tanker starts developing gaping holes above and below the water line. Desperate attempts are made to patch it up, billions are poured into a failed financial system: billions and billions are poured through the holes in the ship. What if the ship is holed irreparably? If the lifeboats are ready then the ship being holed may be a lifesaver for us all. Whether there is enough food and water and strength for us to help each other reach the shore, the direction of travel is now entirely different.
Engaging in civil disobedience: Here in Edinburgh, as in hundreds of cities across the world, people have for weeks now occupied a public space and are camping out in it, handing out leaflets, holding discussions and showing films about how the financial system is driving savage social inequality and ecological destruction. The traffic thunders by, and passers by walk on or pause at this collection of tents in St Andrews square where there is as much focus on process – on the challenges and possibilities of living together – as on campaigning. One man who described having slept on other peoples couches for years, described his experience like this:
“I feel at home. We’re having an effect. We’re doing something. It’s the end of bitterness for me. Waking at 4 in the morning on a Friday night to hear the drunks climbing over the fence and being met by the love police [members of the group dealing with security, with ‘love police’ emblazoned across the back of their fluorescent jackets], and just hearing them talk about the state of the world, it makes it worthwhile”.
Like the UK Uncut movement, the Occupy movement has mobilised huge public sympathy behind their insistence that the 1% – the financiers who gamble with our wealth and hoard it for themselves – should also be paying their way, rather than pursuing their addiction to a system that extracts wealth and destroys the social and natural world. Following on from the mass mobilisations in Tunisia and Egypt, from the huge gatherings in Syntagma Square in Athens, from hundreds of thousands taking to the squares in entirely unexpected, creative non-violent protest in Spain, from Occupy Wall Street, perhaps we need to be prepared for the fact that as the ecological crisis manifests itself through economic meltdown, there is the opportunity for an extraordinary reclamation of democracy, including through ways of organising protest that demonstrate and seek to prefigure and bring into being the kinder society we want and need.
In the Occupy movement there has been a healthy refusal to be narrowed down to a set of demands, an insistence that we all need to face up to what has happened and find a way through, and in Oakland and elsewhere there are moves towards occupying other spaces where we can care for each other and engage in productive work. That is not to say that there is no need for a clear, albeit flexible, routemap to chart our way out of this mess, it is just to say that the vastness of the transformation required cannot be reduced to a single solution.
For example, at the society-wide level in Scotland: we to need to communicate a clear set of proposals that can reshape the economic and political system so that it supports, rather than blocks, the resilience building happening at the community level, and so that it creates the basis for radical change. There are very clear policy steps that can be taken, including:
- Refusing to recognise agreements reached in tax havens, mutualising and regulating financial services, and ensuring that social and environmental good rather than shareholder dividend is the legal bottom line;
- Supporting the development of community energy and community food initiatives;
- Deciding planning applications not on the basis of economic growth but on the basis of whether a development contributes to community resilience;
- Ensuring that deepening self-determination for Scotland becomes self- determination for communities, including through fundamental land reform that returns power to communities; and
- Unilaterally developing Cap and Share for Scotland.
These last two are the crucial game changers.
In terms of self determination: Being for independence need not be about drawing a boundary on a map and ignoring the rest of the world, it can be about asserting the right of people in a self-defined area to determine their own affairs in a way that enhances the independence, self determination and autonomy of others. People on the Isle of Eigg worked to ensure it gained its ‘independence’ and inspired others to do likewise. People in the Transition initiative in Portobello, Edinburgh, are working to develop local resilience (to halt our destruction of the ecosystem, and to prepare for huge economic collapse) and have helped inspire other communities to do likewise. Scotland can play a similar role in the world: when small places trail-blaze, others can recognise a route they want to follow.
Cap and Share is radical because it takes the climate problem more seriously than governments and corporations do, and is realistic because it is a new way of applying an old, enduring approach to self organising society: the commons. It recognises that we all rely on a stable climate and must treat it with care. It reflects two key aspects of commons regimes:
Firstly, the shared managing of resources in a way that enables all right- holders (all members of a community) to benefit from the resource, and to limit their use of the resource so that all others may continue to benefit from it.
Secondly, although such commons agreements may now need to be embodied in legislation to constrain more powerful actors, their origin, power and legitimacy arise from people, communities and countries unilaterally adopting this approach and recognising that this approach helps to resolve a myriad of other interrelated issues that threaten our well-being.
Most human societies have self-organised the allocation of resources in this way, and in our society such a commons approach to managing resources continues within the family, amongst friends and neighbours, in mutual societies, and in all those aspects of life where the calculus of self-interested money-making has not been imposed – as if it were natural – by the ideology of the Market backed up by the force of the State.
This ongoing imposition of that Market ideology is evident in relation to areas often previously considered inalienable common goods – in the UK the health service and public forests, in the Global South privatised forests, genes and water.
However, in the last year large parts of global society have gone into revolt in a whole swathe of public demonstrations that have sought – and often succeeded – in bringing down governments, whether in Tunisia or Egypt, or in Athens and Madrid. These revolts are examples of an ongoing gathering storm that has swept out neoliberal governments across Latin America over the last decade, and seen the rise of a powerful indigenous movement across the world.
Both movements have begun to intersect not just in places like Bolivia where an indigenous government has rejected the useless market response to the climate crisis but also in a Global movement to protect and reclaim the commons – whether evident in the Canadian Cree protecting their forests from loggers, Indian farmers stopping their land being turned into car factories, or Scottish crofting communities regaining collective ownership of their common resources including land.
Up against this movement is the ideology that insists that growing the economic cake is the only possible way of maintaining public order as the number of people who share it increases. Yet if economic production is divided fairly its size can be reduced. In other words: if the amount of extraction and consumption, of industrial activity and resulting emissions, can be reduced the vast majority can still experience their living standards as increasing. They can balance their needs with others and with the environment in a way that ensures the greatest possible sense of well being: the assurance that our children’s lives will not be ravaged by the consequences of climate change, and the assurance that our actions in the present are not ravaging other humans, other species, and our shared ecosystem.
In The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provide the evidence to demonstrate how a more equal society benefits all and a more unequal society impoverishes even the wealthiest. We should extend their argument to include future generations and people in other societies. This is where Cap and Share fits into the bigger picture – it can establish itself within this electoral and market system yet help us bridge to a radically different world: that of the commons.
In Scotland we have been proposing that Cap and Share works in its “Cap and Dividend” version as follows: those bringing carbon into the economy (those very few companies importing or producing coal/ oil/ gas/ cement, etc.) would take part in an annual auction to buy the right to bring carbon into the economy. The extra price they have paid would then be passed on to manufacturers and other users of the fossil fuels. This leads to higher prices for all those using products, services, modes of transportation, etc., which have carbon embedded in them.
This means that those using more than their fair share of carbon are penalised because all such prices will have risen, while those using less (the great majority) will benefit either with extra cash or with other ways of meeting their needs (see below). The rapid rise in the price of fossil fuels will mean that producers will be encouraged to rapidly develop non-carbon based products/ services/ modes of transport, and avoid producing carbon ones.
Meanwhile, the cash generated from the auction of these carbon emission permits would be passed on to the population at large:
- In one version it would be passed directly into peoples’ bank or post office accounts so that they can deal with the increase in prices.
- In another approach such cash may well be passed on to individuals but could also – to a greater or lesser extent – be used to enable society wide shifts to energy healthy infrastructure, and to support the development of community resilience.
- In yet another version, each individual receiving their right to the money generated by the acutioning of permits to import carbon, could – instead of taking the money – decide to forgo the money and so stop that portion of carbon from being allowed to enter the economy. In this way a small minority of farsighted people could unilaterally help rapidly reduce the amount of carbon passing through the economy. An aproach which powfully echoes the way that commons systems enable individuals to have a disproprtionately beneficial impact when they are acting in the long-term interest of all, while contraining the destructive impact of those who do not share that concern.
In terms of reducing carbon emissions, this policy would ensure that high- carbon products, modes of transport, energy sources and services, are fast replaced by zero-carbon ones. The necessary rapid rise in the cost of high- carbon options would be accompanied by the rapid development and shift to zero-carbon ones, thereby dramatically reducing and then stopping carbon being extracted from the ground to pass through the economy into the atmosphere.
In a market economy that is functioning reasonably well, the version to push for might well be the first one – in which the tariff on fossil fuels coming into the economy is redistributed directly to peoples bank accounts, leaving the vast majority of the population immediately better off and only those who can afford it (the heavy emitters) penalised for disproportionately polluting the global commons. In this context, this ‘Cap and Dividend’ version would be electorally attractive, and would be immediately workable since it would start by regulating rather than replacing the powerful companies responsible for bringing carbon into the economy.
In a market economy that has seized up, where financiers are unable to cash in on the ponzi schemes they have been selling, the second version might well be far more appealing. In this version, much less of the tariff on fossil fuels coming into the economy is redistributed directly to peoples bank accounts, and much more is used to support communities to build local resilient need- meeting structures. In this context, food and warmth and care will be seen as far more reliable and necessary than a fluctuating and untrusted currency.
Key advantages of cap and share:
Cap and Share doesn’t create a different political or economic game, it simply changes the rules of the game so that the market has to internalise the carbon cost. However, in doing this, it can act as a bridge towards a very different paradigm: that of the commons where the people are recognised as sharing the atmospheric resource and responsibility for it. Meanwhile, the certainty of the cap (the permitted level of carbon in the economy) being reduced rapidly year on year, would immediately boost jobs and investment in the
Key challenges of cap and share:
UK law would not allow Scotland to unilaterally implement such a system, but if people in Scotland powerfully push to do so, this would put huge pressure on the UK Government to follow suit or to accept Scottish autonomy in this and related areas. Similarly, the EU and WTO could argue against us imposing stringent tariffs on carbon embedded imports from countries that do not have a similar scheme. However, such a tariff would be necessary to create a level playing field by levelling up international practice. Insisting on this would need to be connected with an international movement, but unilaterally pursuing this policy would be one way of making such a movement’s presence felt, and one way of disentangling ourselves from the Ecocidal paradigm and practices of the current Market.
Impact of this unilateral re-localisation process on the Global South:
Cheap products from the Global South would be priced out of our market through the requirement that they internalise their carbon costs or, if not, have tariffs imposed on entry. However, although re-localising here would hit the ability of the elites’ in the Global South to sell cheap produce to the Global North, it would also hit their ability to take peoples’ land in order to grow cash crops to sell to the Global North. This applies as much to the power of the elite in China to control manufacturing, as it does to the elites in Africa, Asia and elsewhere who expel communities from their land in order to produce the raw materials – timber, palm oil, minerals, etc – which such globalised manufacturing depends on. Since peoples wealth is ultimately grounded in community control of local resources, and if people only become dependent on those who control the Market when their land is taken and they are turned into landless labourers, then our insistence on re-localising here, including through implementing Cap and Share, becomes a statement of solidarity with the world’s poor. What they want is for us to take the power away from the corporations that back their elites. For them, as for us, protecting and restoring commons based systems that meet peoples real needs, and defending these against the land-grabbing forces of enclosure, is the same struggle whether in the Global North or South.
When activists from the Global North went to the Philippines to support local peoples struggle against the building of a dam that would have flooded their land, the activists were not asked “What can you do for us?” but “What is your struggle?”
Cap and Share can enable societies of the Global North to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and to enable us to move on to sustainability through re-localisation grounded in radical land reform processes. Communities in the Global South need us to be using policies like Cap and Share to tackle at source the root causes of a process that is dispossessing development of zero-carbon energy, goods and services. Together with the Government reducing energy demand and ensuring 100% renewable energy, and re-regulating and re-directing finance, Cap and Share helps create a level playing field in which food and energy, goods and services, will be produced closer to home, helping build socially and ecologically healthy communities us all; and more immediately they need support in protecting their commons, they need defence against those who threaten to dispossess them, and solidarity in demanding the return of their lands from those corporations and powerful elites who have already dispossessed them.
The same machine, malaise and misunderstanding drives both the ecological and economic crises. We need to respond by defending and restoring commons systems of mutual care.
What looks radical now will be overtaken by events. Can we be ahead of those events and offer action, policies and a story that speaks to who we really are and what we really need?
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