Watershed – Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

“It’s time to consider that bioregional self-sufficiency—the principle of meeting human needs within the constraints of resource areas—is really what leads to democracy and prosperity.”

Excerpted from James Quilligan:

“For more than two centuries, laissez-faire economics has promoted the idea that free trade leads to democracy and prosperity. This concept may have had some significance in earlier years when the world was less integrated. But in an age of global connectivity and global warming, liberal trade has lost much of its credibility. The present system of trade, based on the financial arbitrage of resources, does not benefit the poor, and is energy-depleting and harmful to the environment. On top of this, modern societies tax the value that people add to their commons, which generates further scarcity, poverty, waste and social and ecological debt.

It’s time for politicians and social planners to think collectively out of conscious choice, not from fear. We need to understand how painful and life-altering poverty is for those who suffer its ravages; but we must also acknowledge the historic failure of public institutions for the provisioning and regeneration of wealth in society. Water, food and energy are all sustainable if they are properly managed. However, most people are too busy consuming finite resources to spend time in planning how to use the natural cycles of Earth to regenerate their materials and energy.

With the fierce competition for resources worldwide, the boundaries of society’s political and economic systems are under increasing pressure from the boundaries of natural systems, species, food, water, energy, climate and culture. Through its present modes of resource management, modern civilization will not be able to sustain these natural resources indefinitely. For this reason, the principles of classical economics are being reexamined across the world.

The British economist David Ricardo (1772-1823) argued that a nation which can produce a good or service at a lower marginal and opportunity cost than another nation holds a comparative advantage. This is often simplified to mean that all trading nations will benefit when each one specializes in what it does best. With some qualifications, this concept has become the basis of modern trade.

However, the notion that all nations prosper through free trade is much disputed. In the debate between the global North and global South, a persistent fact is that comparative advantage benefits nations with superior technology over nations which specialize in agriculture. The American economist Paul Krugman has also shown that the transportation costs of goods and services often exceed the profits arising from their production and sale, erasing the trade-surplus bonus of Ricardo’s formula.

More recently, the ecological costs of global transportation have also discredited the principle of comparative advantage. When the world’s existing biocapacity is compared with the amount of biocapacity which people are presently using, it’s clear that trade-driven transportation is dramatically increasing the human demand on Earth’s ecosystems and their capacities for replenishment. Shipping natural or mineral commodities halfway across the world may provide a marginal benefit for producers, but leaves a costly carbon footprint upon the planet.

In coming years, the resources that we now waste, especially water and food, will become much less available. Without new economic thinking on wealth creation and sustainable development, free trade will continue to expand mass consumption and swallow the world’s natural resources. More fundamentally, society will be prevented from adjusting its economy to the world’s natural processes and designs, especially Earth’s hydrological and agricultural cycles.

It’s time to consider that bioregional self-sufficiency—the principle of meeting human needs within the constraints of resource areas—is really what leads to democracy and prosperity. Instead of seeking a Ricardian comparative advantage through global trade integration and rentier economies, the new social imperative will be for regions to become as self-sufficient as possible in the production and distribution of resources within their own eco-regions. Rather than maximizing total assets through a macroeconomic calculus, communities will focus on maximizing supply for the common good, producing and distributing resources according to the natural functions and rhythms of their environment.

Self-sufficiency means staying within the local or regional carrying capacity and taxing, not the value that people add to the commons, but the value they take from the commons. This creates dividends for citizens and the means of regenerating their resources. When people recover the capacity to sustain their population directly through the region where they live, there is no need to seek comparative advantage over the resources of others. Only when this is not possible would they look outside of their bioregion for trade.

The management of commons on a small scale has been successful throughout history because of interpersonal engagement. It’s easier for people to share resources when they know and trust one another. But technology-driven networks now enable the qualities of small-group dynamics to be applied in the collaborative management of much larger resource areas. This can be done without sacrificing personal trust, transparency or self-organized cooperation.

Just as the interests of corporations are not limited to a single nation, the social interest in an ecosystem is not confined to sovereign borders. Collective management systems may be created through communities of resource users, whether their ecosystems are within a single nation or spread across sovereign lines.

It’s important to remember that the members of local and regional communities are much closer to resource distribution problems than national governments, and a far richer source of local knowledge, innovation and ways of meeting human needs equitably and ecologically. For example, local communities have pioneered water management techniques like rainwater catches and drip irrigation which reduce water evaporation, and the recycling of household sewage for agriculture rather than publicly dumping the waste and polluting aquifers and wells.

What bioregional democracy requires is collaborative decision-making within a resource area. This is not such a novel idea. Identifying and building bioregional coalitions is a phenomenon that predates private property and sovereign boundaries. In fact, communities for resource management have historical roots all over the world, ranging from the Arab waqf, the Jewish kibutz and the Brazilian cooperative to the European guild, the English commons and the communitarian practices in hundreds of indigenous cultures.

While often unrecognized, transborder resource communities are rapidly growing. These include subsistence commons based on forests, fisheries, arable land and wild game; regional associations for the re-localization of food production, community-supported agriculture and permaculture; subsistence agriculture; seed-sharing cooperatives; and coalitions for irrigation and regional water access. There are also attempts to create collaborative resource management zones for the Arctic, the Amazon Basin, the Great Lakes of North America, the Jordan Rift Valley and the world’s wilderness areas, rivers, oceans and atmosphere.

In most cases, large-scale resource communities need the approval of their governments to work effectively. Through multilateral treaties and charters for the public benefit, the State may partner with these coalitions. This will allow transborder communities—comprised of civil society organizations, community associations, merchants, farmers, engineers, producers, professionals, educators and many other groups—to cultivate cooperative relationships and develop the legitimacy and mandate to leverage governmental policy. By organizing, they can begin to share power through stakeholder trusts and State trusteeships for collective resource management.

Here’s how this might work. The trust determines a specific, measurable cap to protect a resource for the future based on the preservation, consumption and regeneration of the common resource. The trust then leases an agreed portion of this resource to the private sector. Businesses extract and process the resources available outside of the cap, allocate and sell them as products, make profits and pay taxes to the governments of the region. The governments recirculate these funds to their citizens as dividends or subsistence income. And the trust spends its leasing income on the maintenance of protected commons and the replenishment of those resources that are depleted.

The capping of resources for future generations can also create a new source of monetary equity and credit. Regionally protected commons such as water, soil, forests, wildlife, seabed minerals, energy and indigenous patents may be used as reserves for a regional bank. This would generate a broad measure of sustainability that is not based on productivity, pro?t or interest, but on the resilience of natural assets in supporting a good quality of life and well-being for all citizens of a region.

A waterway is the rolling path that water takes as it nourishes biodiversity and community within a watershed, constantly renewing its landscape. In a similar manner, bioregional policies and their metrics can create an economic infrastructure in which the continuous throughput of resources fulfills people’s needs in equitable and sustainable ways. Society will learn from nature how to apportion materials and energy for all citizens by balancing the stocks (surpluses) and flows (deficits) of these resources. This enables the bioregional community to preserve the natural world, generate production, meet present needs, provide dividends, promote access to goods, regenerate the commons and create new sources of credit.

2. Political and governance implications

“As a source of non-violent cooperation between regions, the growth of transborder resource communities brings us well beyond present political boundaries. Yet this does not obviate the need for stable government. Liberal pluralism is an essential start: rule of law; maintenance of representative systems responsive to the people; the separation of powers among the branches of government; individual freedoms; the guarantee of equal rights for women and men; a free press; and the public legitimacy of government through free and fair elections.

Resource pluralism rests upon these rights. But bioregional democracy also focuses on the inclusive alliances of all actors within an ecosystem and the new class of rights which emerge from these relationships. These rights include human dignity; self-determination; economic and social development; cultural heritage; reconciliation of historical grievances; protection from sexual violence; protection for the uprooted; legal empowerment of the poor; human security; cross-border justice; rights to natural resources; rights to a healthy environment; intergenerational equity; the rights of children; and the rights of all living beings.

It must be emphasized that transborder resource communities are not secessionists. In creating the structures and conditions for bioregional pluralism, transborder resource communities are not seeking to instigate revolution but to act in partnership with their contiguous states. They promote a peaceful, cultural transition that does not reject what is being transformed, but demonstrates how to model and adapt to the new structures of resource cooperation which are emerging.

Resource democracy does not imply that sovereign states should stand aside or disappear. But they must expand the nature of their relationships with their neighbors through multilateral agreements and treaties which allow new forms of power and wealth to emerge in cross-border resource areas. There must be room for the creation of open platforms, proportional representation and diversified institutions by the people who produce and circulate their own resources within nations and between them.

There is evidence that the crisis of political succession in government—sometimes leading to failed states—arises from the inability of a society to provision resources and create fulfilling lives for its citizens within the boundaries set by nature. Closely-held natural resource endowments in sovereign states, particularly fossil fuels, are strongly correlated with domestic corruption, state repression and erosion of democratic ideals.

New research by organizations such as the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group reveal another, much-neglected dimension of governmental stability. When there are resource agreements among nations which share bodies of water, agricultural areas or distributed energy networks, governments are more likely to create the conditions for regional peace. This, in turn, keeps these governments in power and responsive to their people, encouraging a stable process of political succession. It’s becoming clear that the orderly and non-violent alternation of political power depends on a government that is committed to resource cooperation with neighboring states as well as resource provisioning for its own people.

Global warming and its chaotic effects are providing some hard lessons. Nations cannot continue to divert rivers, over-pump regional aquifers and use water inefficiently without creating shortages in local communities, uprooting people from their commons and provoking violence. Present clashes over water may be only the beginning.

In 2014, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that, based on a projected rise of 2.5 degrees Celsius in atmospheric temperature over coming decades, the demand for water and food will rise but production will decrease. Governments can thus expect another wave of social unrest over escalating prices for water, food and energy like that experienced in 2008-2011. These conflicts could involve religious militancy, terrorism, open hostility between rich and poor, spiking inflation, high unemployment, national deficits and further destruction of the commons. Greater nuclear proliferation is also possible.

Before long, governments will recognize the advantages of redistributing the power for resource management. As citizens invest in their commons and the commons pay them dividends, the extreme competition for resources and the potential for violence will decline because the commons are available for everyone’s use. To make this possible at regional levels, institutional mechanisms must be created to share power within and across borders for the common management of resources.

This could take the form of confederations or associations for bioregional cooperation, especially in those areas of the world, like the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, which face political instability complicated by a lack of water and food. In turn, this could lead to the creation of Regional Cooperation Councils and the authorization of Bioregional Conventions which sanction partnerships between nations and their transborder communities for the sharing of resources.

The sea (or river, lake, reservoir, estuary, wetland or ocean) is where a watercourse converges after supporting life in a watershed. Upon reaching the end of its natural run, this water is released into a new cycle of activity. By applying the patterns of a flowing watershed, society can also develop accountable systems for the peaceful rotation of governmental power.

The safekeeping of resource areas requires the support of democratic governments which ensure political diversity in lasting and effective ways. Protecting transborder commons is not possible without governments which are credible and durable. Only sustainable democracies can ensure the public security which bioregional communities need to provision resources for present and future generations and to stabilize their consumption within the natural flows of the biosphere.”