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Rio+20 – Tragedy of the Commons 2.0?

on Thu, 06/21/2012 - 10:12

Are the discussions on sustainability at Rio about to end once more with no serious commitment to the fundamental transformations needed? These coming two days will be decisive with heads of state coming to a closure at the end of the week. They are summoned to exercise leadership and face their responsibilities.

The feedback received from Rio is unpromising, after mobilizing for proposals via The Future We Want and other avenues for feedback and recommendation, most of the organizations representing civil society feel they have hardly been able to get their voice heard and they are now circulating a petition on The Future We Don’t Want… An admission of failure and the sentiment of having been played? Gro Harlem Brundtland herself, the chair of the sustainability commission that shaped the 1992 summit and introduced the concept of sustainability, and a member of the Global Sustainability Panel that prepared the 2012 summit calls upon world leaders to move beyond aspirational statements and exercise a collective responsibility for planetary stewardship… It seems the whole UN sustainability machine and the efforts deployed by its ‘forces for good’ to drive an agenda based on planet and people resilience and inclusion are being proven useless by a process which is leading to strengthening the power of the corporate sector over the biosphere… Tragedy of the commons 2.0 is unfolding…

Discussions so far in Rio seem to offer an avenue for an ‘all economic’ agenda, one which is feared by many as creating a ‘more of the same’ [neoliberal] economy, except it can be painted green, so more legitimate in the eyes of the public…  This agenda, based on the postulate that we only value that which has a price and an owner, and generates profits, poorly addresses issues such as limits to growth, boundaries, poverty, risk, rogue behaviors, governance and accountability. It does not include any of the provisions for internalizing externalized costs or elimination of subsidies on polluting or overexploiting operations to the detriment of cleaner and more sustainable solutions (and in particular fossil fuels). Of course, the economic and financial crisis and the somewhat schizophrenic positions on growth (to be contained for environmental concerns, but sought out for socio-economic concerns) are not making things easier…

Optimists are hoping that a 'non constrained' green economy approach will initiate virtuous circles and positive results overall… Privatization (or the outsourced ‘caring’ for resources & the environment to those who will know how to manage them efficiently) is seen as a solution to the tragedy of the commons: with no owner, no one cares... Markets for carbon or environmental services are seen as ideal solutions to regulate overexploitation and pollution. The corporate sector is called upon to restore land, forest, and deploy new technologies. But where are the boundaries, inclusion, resilience, accounting and accountability mechanisms to prevent the green economy to be an institutionalized free ride, and who will enforce them? Is this optimism sustainable?

As a result, the People Summit held dialogues outside of the UN participation structure and published 'Another Future is Possible' in direct opposition to the orientations the UN negociators have been taking in the past few months. Their position is very clear: the green economy as defined in the negociations deepens “the commodification, privatization, and financialization of nature and its functions. It is a reaffirmation of full control of the entire biosphere by the economy” and is to be rejected.

The document urges to break out of the capitalist “civilization” model which has proven its domineering and destructive power… and suggests an alternative social model built around environmental and social justice and on the ethical value of care, cohabitation, and sharing… The new economy, the Social Forum argues, must be build around the principle of care as the central element of power.

Because of its resolute anti-capitalist tone, we can't really expect such a program or any significant portion of it to be adopted as a model at the end of this week... It is however a wake up call against the risks of the green economy. The demonstrations and discussions the People Summit has generated can certainly help those who are promoting, from within the agencies and civil society participation structures of the UN, the idea of a commons based approach as a safeguard against the cooptation of the commons discourse and of the commons themselves by the corporate or private interests, as well as a way to reinforce engagement and organic policy making at the grassroot level, such as Elinor's Ostrom describes in her last article. Introducing and occupying assertively the commons in all its dimensions from within the mainstream as a paradigm complementary to private and public may well accelerate the transition to a new post-capitalist model.

The big risk of the discussions in Rio is that price tags be attached or speculative markets be created on nature goods and services with arbitrages motivated by the wrong objective (using the meaning of commons in its most restricted way) without this policentric and multilevel notion of commoning and sustainable governance and preservation.
We must transcend the dilemma of chosing between on the one hand the financialization and enclosure of nature when there is a value attached, and on the other hand having no means for check and balances and accountability when nature is too priceless to put a tag on it. Adopting the green economy as it seems to be shaped, or opposing it from the outside could well be tragedy of the commons 2.0…
Commons need to be 'sanctuarized' fast. It is urgent that all the 'forces for good' inside and outside mainstream institutions, and the UN negociators, the governments and the heads of state understand the risks of corporate dominance over the commons (alltogether defined as a 'capital', a way of sharing and caring, and the outcomes it embodies) under the green economy label. They must recognize the need for the commons to be preserved, managed and governed independently from the private and the public sectors, in the spirit described by Nobel Prize for economy Elinor Ostrom. A green economy operated under the checks and balances of commons governance institutions (of a new inclusive type) such as commons trusts governed by social charters, bringing togehther users and stakeholders in the decision process would provide such a safeguard.  It would ensure that the people who have a long‐term stake in the preservation of these commons (natural, physical, intellectual, social, cultural resources; from local to global) would protect them while enabling the development of flourishing commons‐based economies around them.

We are waiting for the head of states to show they are up to the task, and counting on the activists to make enough noise for some key messages to get through while sanctuarizing the commons from the classic polarization of political discourse, even if commons discourse is eminently political!