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The Wealth of the Commons: Review

This book’s central theme is the idea that existing commons provide a structural framework which can and should provide the basis for our future. Like John Jopling, who reviewed it on this site in February, I found it to be an inspiring reference and a potentially very useful tool for establishing contacts.

Since John provided a thorough overview of the book I’ll instead focus on the chapters that particularly drew my attention. However as one might expect of a review of a 77-chapter book, many items of interest have had to be left out.

In the first section on the commons as a new paradigm, the chapter by Andreas Weber was fascinating if a little brief considering the controversial nature of its subject-matter. He points out that, contrary to common assumption, nature is actually inefficient, lavish and wasteful. We tend not to recognize this as we are misled by the twin theories of natural evolution and of man’s household of goods and services. These theories borrow and reinforce each other’s key metaphors. He believes that the selfish gene is “not much more than a home economics mirrored back to biochemistry” (p7).

Other misperceptions, according to Weber, include the idea that the biosphere is continually growing. Despite the human obsession with growth as progress, the biosphere does not grow in weight but only ‘grows’ (or shrinks) in diversity of experience. Moreover, new species do not arise through competition, but through random mutations and isolation. Abundance abounds, as does waste, and there is no notion of property in the biosphere. So the building blocks we have to work with may be rather different from what is often assumed.

I was pleased to see Friederike Habermann bring up Gabor Maté’s work on psychology in order to argue that we aren’t natural egoists. She also makes an interesting critique of money, quoting the philosopher Richard David Precht: “where money rules, everything seems drab and indifferent” (p14). Peer production, as she says, is inherently important to the commons, whereas more stratified societies have fewer peers and less altruism.

Silvia Federici describes how women have historically tended to benefit most from the commons and also lost out the most from enclosures. In fact the witch hunts happened at the time of the land enclosure movement, which may not be a coincidence. In the present economy globalisation separates labour out in a way that is very detrimental to human wellbeing. Reproductive work – the work of raising the next generation – is supposed to be collective, not atomized. I’m sure that any parent of young children could relate strongly to this.

James Quilligan’s well-written chapter explains why common goods need to be distinguished from public good: “In theory, public still means people; in practice, public means government (as captured by elite interests who regularly impede the people’s political rights and capacity to control their common goods)” (p75). The lively discussion between Feasta’s Brian Davey, Roberto Verzola and Wolfgang Hoeschele on “the abundance of the commons” highlights some potential dangers to be aware of; it’s easy to be overly optimistic about what the knowledge commons – including the internet – can achieve.

Peter Linebaugh’s description of the Oxmoor commons provides a powerful foil to the traditional arguments against commons made by commentators such as Garret Hardin, while Harmut Zückrt has contributed a brief but useful overview of the enclosures movement. As with many of the book’s authors they draw upon the seminal work of Elinor Olstrom. Liz Alden Wiley’s important chapter describes land-grabbing practices in the past and at present, particularly in Africa, where they are closely related to the lucrative biofuel market. A handful of states in Africa, and somewhat more in South America, are adopting a more commons-friendly property law in an attempt to counter this.

A chapter by Beatriz Busoniche argues that intellectual property rights should be treated as a commons issue rather than an issue to be handled by the WTO. As things stand, regulations are left in the hands of negotiators operating in secret to advance private commercial interests.

Maude Barlow provides a highly informative chapter on water rights, which as she points out is both a social and an ecological issue, like climate change. More children are killed by dirty water than HIV, malaria and war together. Environmentalists have a tendency to focus on mitigation rather than prevention of such problems, but if they join forces with justice activists there’s a chance that progress could be made. As with climate, a public trust structure could provide a basis for protecting water.

Vinod Raina’s fascinating chapter on dams in India shares much common ground with Brian Davey’s recent essay in which he discusses the different assumptions about the nature of property. For the Adavasi people in India, ancestors’ bones are like ground stations for satellites; they provide bearings. More generally, the commons on which many poor people depend are threatened by ‘development’, hence their resistance to it. Raina contrasts Gandhi’s views with Nehru’s and also brings up Max Planck’s observation that new scientific discoveries are often rejected by ‘rational’ scientists .

In his chapter on modern forms of enclosure Hervé Le Crosnier identifies three threats to the commons: overuse or pollution, threats to those who use the commons, and legal threats to commoning rights. He argues that GMOs are an invasion of the commons, as is some tourism. His description of how tribal leaders and other communing group leaders can sometimes betray their groups could provide a rationale for per-capita-based distribution of rights such as the share in Cap and Share.

Thomas H. Greco Jr makes a compelling argument for reclaiming the credit commons, writing that “we have allowed the credit commons to be privatized so that it can be accessed only by appealing to some bank to grant a ‘loan’.” He points out that credit tends to be the most overlooked aspect of the commons, and suggest that in order to counter this we develop means of payment that are locally-owned but globally useful. “This means giving members of a local trade exchange the ability to trade with members of other exchanges easily and inexpensively, with little or no risk” (p234).

Gert Wessling provides a useful summary of the transition movement and his chapter is complemented by that of Takayoshi Kusago, who describes a Japanese initiative aimed at resurrecting a polluted town which has much in common with Transition Towns.

Esteva provides an intriguing description of the Zapatista movement which led me to wonder how the Zapatistas handle money – do they just use ‘regular’ money or have they figured out some kind of alternative?

We’re given a lightening tour of various other commons-based initiatives around the world, ranging from salt mines in Senegal to fisheries to Chile and communal forests in Nepal. I was particularly interested in the discussion between Gustavo Soto and Silke Helfrich on the political tensions relating to Buen Vivir in Bolivia, where president Evo Morales seems torn between supporting the indigenous we-don’t-need-growth-to-prosper approach, and the assumptions about progress that come from more industrialized countries.

The section on intellectual property rights also gave me much food for thought. Carolina Botero and Julio César Gaston undercut the argument that we need copyright law in order to foster creativity. They point out that the cooking and fashion industries exhibit a great deal of creativity despite the fact that they don’t use copyright at all.

Federico Heinz argues that public administrators really should be using free software as opposed than proprietary software. This seems closely related to Thomas Greco’s argument about money.

I found David E. Martin’s chapter on the history of patents very illuminating; I’d been completely unaware of this before. Apparently about 80% of patents are ‘defensive’, meaning that they are taken out in order to prevent anyone from outcompeting the patent holder. They’re never actually used and, in accordance with patent law, eventually they expire. A whole slew of these from the 1970s and 80s have now expired and there are also a great many technologies that were never patented in the most marginalized countries (his preferred term for Least Developed Countries). This provides an enormous potential for innovation in these parts of the world. Martin has established a database to bring all this information together at globalinnovationcommons.org.

Michel Bauwens and Franco Iacomella’s article on the peer-to-peer economy was well-written and succinct. It stressed that the current political economy is based on the mistaken assumptions that material abundance, immaterial scarcity and growth lead to social justice. They think that civil society should be dominating the private and public sectors. They do a good job in clarifying the difference between open source software, whose developers stress efficiency and don’t challenge the idea that competitiveness should play a central role, and free software, which stresses the ethical imperative of freedom in both its creative and political sense.

Another important distinction made is between markets and capitalism. Markets predate capitalism and can be compatible with fair trade and just pricing. Capitalism could actually be considered an “anti-market, requiring the separation of ownership and means of production, and infinite growth”.

A final point they make is that the modern conception of commons should not represent a return to previous ideas of the individual being completely subsumed to the community, but rather, “a society that is based on recognition of the need for relationally and connectivity by the free and equal individual”.

Ottmar Efenhofer et al’s chapter on climate and the commons brought up much that is relevant to the work of Feasta’s climate group. I found them rather optimistic about the emissions reductions needed; unlike many climate scientists they believe that we can actually still add some emissions to the atmosphere. However, they provide a very clear explanation of why the climate needs to be treated as a commons, and they explain why international, national, regional and local initiatives are all needed.

I can’t end this review without mentioning a recommendation made by Rob Hopkins in his chapter on resilience thinking, in the first part of the book. He says that those of us promoting the commons need to “tell a powerful story. This is a cultural process, not an environmental one”. This book should be of enormous help to anyone who wishes to tell the story of the commons in such a way that it sticks.


Featured image: Autumn seeds. Author: George Boselo. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/685123

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