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Restoring the Commons or Terminal Decline - 9 May

on Thu, 05/24/2012 - 21:49

Our commons are the collective heritage of humanity -- the shared resources of nature and society that we inherit, create and use.

We all depend upon these commons -- natural, genetic, material, intellectual, social, cultural and digital -- for our livelihood and well-being.

But for several centuries now, modern industrial societies have been living off the common capital of the planet.

During this period, the Market State – the strategic partnership between private enterprise and government – has freely extracted vast resources from the natural world and created a relative abundance of goods and services through the marketplace.

All this time, nature, culture, and society have been subsidizing the private and state sectors.

The atmosphere is used as a sink for carbon dioxide, aquifers of water are overpumped, ocean fisheries are overharvested and large swathes of forest are being razed.

At the same time, the relentless quest for cheap labor and raw materials by producers and financers – driven by the laissez-faire ideology of economic freedom and property rights – has created a scarcity of natural capital (the common goods produced by nature), which continues to marginalize a large segment of world society and destroy the natural resources on which we all depend. 

Now that the people, species and institutions of the Earth are seriously threatened with the depletion of the planet’s natural resources and its biodiversity, the challenge could not be more profound.

Yet markets and governments, which created these problems to begin with, are increasingly unable to manage them effectively.

Because these common resources provide the basic support systems of life, neither the market nor the state is sustainable in the long run without them.

So long as the Market State is unable to internalize the harmful side-effects resulting from its economic activities and territorial enclosures, we all pay a huge price for these externalities through the loss of our sociality and culture, our spirituality and ecology, not to mention our financial wealth.

The costs that we have displaced over the past few hundred years must now be paid forward to the world’s people, to coming generations, and to the planet itself.

This problem of our debt is not going to go away.

The consequences of society’s failure to honor our commons are mind-numbing, but let’s not bury our heads in the sand and ignore  them, particularly as we enter this Time of Austerity.

We must face the deeply alarming trends and social and ecological costs that are likely to occur over the next several generations if our commons are not recovered and we continue with the status quo.

As we look into the future 30 or 50 years from now, a legion of collective action problems are set to grow worse:

increasing food costs, hunger and malnutrition

decreasing water access and sanitation

increasing disease and limited public health reform

lack of education and employment

erosion of global human rights and civil liberties

deterioration of women’s and children’s rights

destabilization of ethics and values

erosion of language and culture

undermining of indigenous heritage and customs

destabilization of agriculture and land reform

disregard for collective knowledge and wisdom

decreasing levels of international aid and income

major volatility in global credit and debt

lack of energy conservation and energy security

increase of arms trading and absence of peacekeeping

growth of biological, conventional, and nuclear weapons

more refugees and displaced persons

greater migration and trafficking

more failed states and more terrorism

minimal international law and inadequate corporate responsibility

absence of international commons treaties and global governance

unstable trade and finance

unstable money and currency values

squandering of technology and patents, trademarks and copyrights

misuse of the media and the electromagnetic spectrum

increased militarization of space and space debris

greater ozone depletion and lack of climate stabilization

increased global warming and greenhouse gases

more acid rain and pollution

melting of the Arctic and Antarctic

rise of the oceans and seabeds

degradation of rivers and forests

lack of resource conservation and wilderness preservation

erosion of the gene pool of human and non-human species and plants

These disaster scenarios make us all weary. They are like the frames of a very disturbing movie - yet they are real threats.

These trends are even more disturbing when we think about what we have already witnessed over the past thirty years.

Through the confluence of business and government, we have lived through the beginnings of what can only be called economic totalism.

Indeed, the business community has now taken up many of the social and cultural responsibilities that were formerly the concern of government, such as policing power, prisons, social problems, environment, personal health, public and adult education, and the fostering of culture through finance.

And the state has embraced market dynamics and corporate principles of efficiency and management to a greater degree than before, marginalizing the role of representative government.

Looking to the next several decades, we can expect even greater consolidation of the private and governmental sectors, and less attention to most of the collective action problems we have just discussed.

What do we do?

In my view, the place to start is to identify what links all of these problems.

There is a worldwide alliance of groups that has has described in great detail how all of these collective action problems involve our commons.

The idea of commons still represents a challenge to the economic and political status quo, but humanity has begun to think differently about its common goods.

We are reorienting our perception of the world and developing new ways of understanding resources, interrelationships, governing structures, values and standards.

This is creating a new consciousness around our commons.

These commons are the collective heritage of humanity -- the shared resources of nature and society that we inherit, create and use.

The vital link is that all are necessary for our

 sustenance and livelihood

 individual expression and purpose

 social cohesion, quality of life and well-being

Fortunately, there are some principles for solving these ‘tragedies of the commons’, especially those put forward by Henry George.

George said that the economic rent of land should be shared by society rather than being owned privately.

Under the present system, privately created wealth is socialized through income tax and sales tax

But socially created wealth -- like community-created land values -- are privatized and owned by private individuals and corporations.

George’s point was that land should be made into commons property.

And if land values are taxed, society could recapture the value of its common inheritance, and eliminate the need for taxes on productive activity.

This would incentivize development because there would be no tax penalties for houses or industry built on the land.

It would also disincentivize current forms of land speculation.

The commons movement spearheaded by Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics three years ago, has furthered George’s principle.

Economists like Peter Barnes believe that all forms of commons are the common property of humanity.

Ecological tax reform and fees on pollution are just two of many, many possibilities for transforming commons rent into taxes, and turning these taxes into dividends that are reinvested in nature and society.

For example, a commons trust may assess a small rent on the private sector, or on state businesses or utilities operated by a state, for replenishable commons such as indigenous culture, education, intellectual property, music and arts, as well as land, pastures, parks and gardens.

Rent may also be assessed on depletable commons such as minerals, technological hardware, aquifers and the atmosphere.

These rental fees, derived from either replenishable and depletable commons, can be used to administrate a commons trust.

Broadly speaking, the assessment of commons rent by trusts across the world would require three significant changes:

First, trustees of a commons have a fiduciary duty to preserve natural, genetic and material commons, and to protect, create or regenerate solar, social, cultural, intellectual and digital commons.

So they set a cap on the extraction and use of a resource according to non-monetized, intergenerational metrics such as sustainability, quality of life and well-being.

Commons trusts also decide on the proportion of these resource rights that they should rent to businesses.

Second, businesses flourish by renting a proportion of the resources outside the cap for extraction and production.

Businesses thus create profits and positive externalities through innovation, competitive products and services, and adjustment of the market to the actual costs of resources.

Third, governments shift their primary emphasis from issuing corporate charters and licensing the private sector to approving social charters and open licenses for resource preservation and cultural and social production through commons trusts.

Governments tax a percentage of commons rents paid by businesses.

These monies are then redistributed to citizens as dividends or subsistence income.

These rental or user fees are also reinvested in the restoration of depleted resources (such as land, rivers, oceans, atmosphere) and the enhancement of replenishable resources (arts, intellectual property, digital codes, solar energy).

At the same time, the long-term security of these commons can provide 100% backing for an interest-free system of mutual credit, through which the credits and debits of each currency user are instantly adjusted and cleared.

Businesses and governments agree to use this interest-free credit currency in payment for all transactions, taxes and fees.

This restructuring will create a far more representative balance of power and wealth between the commons, business and government than currently exists.

When the economic means of wealth generation shift from individual property to natural and social property, people will gain direct political power.

And unlike the present debt-based economic system, the new politics of freedom, equality, democracy, and sustainment that emerges will meet the needs of all people and species.

Capitalism is failing because it does not innately recognize the need for creating and maintaining the commons.

The commons must be created and sustained for the benefit of everyone in society.

Now is the time to manifest plenty in our world, to manifest the processes needed to ensure that it is used wisely and sustainably, so that everyone will get their needs met today, tomorrow and hundreds of years into the future.