“Weal (definition): Noun, 1. (archaic) prosperity or wellbeing (now esp. in the phrases the public weal, the common weal)”
Part 1 of this post provided an overview of the theories of Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom. This part explores the ideas of other commons thinkers and proposes some of our own.
Beyond Hardin and Ostrom – alternative and developing approaches to commons problems
“At scale, and over sufficiently long periods of time, private interest should be indistinguishable from the common interest.”
After Arthur C. Clarke
In addition to the analyses and solutions of Hardin and Ostrom, there are a number of other prominent commons theorists who have proposed new approaches and structures likely to support the health and longevity of common pool resources. These include (but are not limited to) the following:
Michel Bauwens, Founder of the P2P (Peer to Peer) Foundation (focusing upon knowledge commons) argues that egalitarian networking is a new form of relationship that is emerging throughout society, and profoundly transforming the way in which society and human civilization is organised.
Burns H. Weston and David Bollier, whose 2013 book “Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons” proposes a synthesis of environmental protection based on broader notions of economics and human rights and on commons-based governance.
Tommaso Fattori, whose “Towards a Legal Framework for the Commons” proposes both structures and processes by which governance and access to commons might be achieved, whilst securing their health and longevity.
The Global Commons Trust suggests the notion of ‘commons rent’ in the context of a nested system of commons trusts, under which there are three essential levels, so that:
- Government shifts its 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.
- Commons trusts exercise a fiduciary duty to preserve natural, genetic and material commons, and to protect, create or regenerate solar, social, cultural and intellectual commons, yet may also decide to rent a proportion of these resource rights to businesses.
- Businesses rent the rights to extract and produce a resource from a commons trust, creating profits and positive externalities through innovation, competitive products and services, and adjustment of the market to the actual costs of resources.
Discussion of the work of these organisations and practitioners and others can be found at Share the World’s Resources, the Global Commons Trust and a range of commons challenges and solutions are succinctly and clearly explored in the paper “Sovereignty, Sustainability and Natural Resources: The Limits of the Law” by Sam Adelman of the University of Warwick.
In addition, the International Journal of the Commons provides a fantastic essay by Lee Fennell (University of Chicago Law School) revisiting Ostrom’s work 20 years on “Ostrom’s Law: Property rights in the commons” and exploring its implications for property rights and law. In this piece Fennel coins what he calls “Ostrom’s Law” which states that “A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.”
Reinventing the Weal – common good without total privatisation or global government?
“The same energy of character which renders a man a daring villain would have rendered him useful in society, had that society been well organized.”
In our Earth IPO experiment (and in fact in all of our Towards 9 Billion ideas) we have had, as part of our informal design principles, a ‘no black helicopter’ rule. This means that we wanted to try and explore global issues and solutions for the future of the planet without suggesting the imposition of antidemocratic private approaches or totalitarian global rule.
Nevertheless, the challenge of global commons management, of delivering for the common weal, preserving and rejuvenating the natural processes that sustain our species and millions of others in the face of global scale problems, requires levels of planetary thinking and responses that are currently almost entirely absent.
As part of our work exploring new approaches and solutions we have, over the last few years, produced a number of ideas or highlighted the ideas of others that offer partial or full (ish) solutions to common pool resource challenges, all of them avoiding the black-helicoptered threat of global government or (almost – there is one example below) private ownership of everything.
They are assembled and briefly described in the following table.
|Establishing new Trade Law – the Rights of Future Trade||A concept proposed by Terrafiniti for International Trade Law to include an explicit presumption of sustainability and stewardship as fundamental principles of enterprise, to enshrine and protect the birth right of all humans to partake in activity which brings them reward, security and the use of their physical and cognitive abilities in perpetuity. This is based upon the contention that current unsustainable trade and enterprise represents a restraint of future trade.|
|Planetary Limits based investment strategies||A translation of the concept of planetary limits (e.g. as described by the 9 Planetary Boundaries) into sustainable investment practice; that investments would be considered viable if the company or endeavor under consideration develop and utilise products and services which innately strengthen or reinforce the Boundaries.|
|Capitalism with a point and purpose||A proposition made by Joss Tantram for there to be a clear, articulated goal for capitalism. The actions of individual investment and corporate actors could be judged (and therefore value assigned) according to a judgment of their contribution towards that goal/ actions to undermine the achievement of that goal – in the same manner that investors currently (theoretically) analyse company strategy and prospects.|
|Planetary Going Concern Principle||An idea suggested by Joss Tantram to expand the scope of the existing accounting principle of going concern, which is “the assumption that an entity will remain in business for the foreseeable future.” If the principle were applied to the planet, a clear assessment of the risks to the planetary enterprise might be more clearly understood.
|Systems investors based stewardship||“Systems investors/systems players” are investment entities such as sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and other large market actors whose holdings represent percentages of the overall planetary asset base. Such entities are so large that they are not only exposed to individual company failures, sectoral risks and also risks to the stability of the financial system as a whole.
Given this exposure, the challenge for systems investors could conceivably move from making judgements based upon the opportunities and risks for individual companies and sectors but also to a focus upon the challenges faced by the global financial system as a whole. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke “At scale, and over sufficiently long periods of time, private interest should be indistinguishable from the common interest”.
|Common Good Cartels||Private interests with controlling collective influence over global or strategic resources acting in concert for the long terms viability of those resources – for their own ‘common self-interest’.
Note: whilst this suggestion breaks the ‘no black helicopters’ rule highlighted above, it should be noted that, if you are large enough to see the limits of your power, then it is possible that you may wield that power with enough care such that you continue to hold it….it’s just a thought!
|Changing the rules of money||Reconceptualising the relationship between money and value to prioritise longer term thinking, e.g.:
1. Introducing “demurrage” – a reverse interest rate, a cost levied for holding or owning money for a given period.
2. Developing “Long” and “Short” money – short money would have a use by date and be spent on day-to-day things, Long money would be more suited to infrastructure investment and projects with a long term or common-good payoff.
|A Global Commons Trust||An expansion of the current phenomena of Commons Trusts to be global in scope. Rather than regarding a commons as a source of profit, commons trusts determine their preservation value (the actual worth of passing on what we have inherited to future generations and allowing this stock to be replenished and restored) through the full participatory choice of community members on whether or not to spend this commons capital. Commons trusts thus are based on the preservation of common resources and the resilience of the system that manages and produces them — not on the assets of the commons that may have financial value in the marketplace.|
|Common Heritage of Man Principle||An ethical and general concept in international law. It was first introduced in a speech to the UN by the Maltese ambassador Arvid Pardo in 1967. It establishes that some localities belong to all humanity and that their resources are available for everyone’s use and benefit, taking into account future generations and the needs of developing countries. When it applies to areas and resources within national jurisdiction, exercise of sovereignty is subject to certain responsibilities to protect the common good. It is intended to achieve aspects of the sustainable development of common spaces and their resources, but may apply either more strongly or beyond this traditional scope.
|Hard Laws – Ecocide||Ecocide – proposed by Polly Higgins – has been defined as the missing “5th Crime against Peace”, with the argument of its proponents that it should have the same status in international law as other recognised crimes against peace of Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes, and Crimes of Aggression.
Ecocide is defined as “The extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.”
|Entropic Valuation – Energy Economics based upon thermodynamic optimisation||A suggested approach to understanding and valuing the fundamental life-time energetic performance of solar derived energy sources. A concept developed by Joss Tantram and Sean Grunnet Cuthbert, Entropic Valuation provides a way of assessing and therefore pricing the total efficiency of a wide range of energy sources. The approach asks “How many solar kilojoules (kJ) have gone into this storage media in order to obtain 1 kJ of usable energy from it?” This ratio can then be used to assign a nominal price to the results.
Energy is a commons issue for several reasons: primarily because it is a pre-requisite for any human activity and is an ‘engine’ of life itself; secondly, because our current unsustainable use of scarce and dirty hydrocarbons gives rise to systemic impacts on the health and viability of natural systems and; thirdly, because differential access to energy gives rise to social inequity. We believe that new approaches to connecting the physical performance of energy with systems of value and priority have a role to play in a sustainable, equitable future.
|Abundancy economics||An approach to the derivation of price (and value) which focusses upon the abundance of a resource rather than its scarcity and values abundancy as more valuable to meet the needs of a large global population. It essentially values scalability rather than exclusivity. Under this approach, enhanced value would be assigned to the use of materials and production processes that inherently avoid or otherwise manage the challenges of scarcity, prioritising technologies and behaviours which deliver either natural (e.g. biologically-based) or managed (e.g. through closed loop stewardship) abundance.
|Usufruction for global commons||Development of the concept of usufruction to apply more explicitly to global commons/ as a way of framing corporate license to operate.
Usufruction is a right that one party may obtain in a property owned by another, normally for a limited time or until death. It is the right to use the property, to enjoy the fruits and income of the property, to rent the property out and to collect the rents, all to the exclusion of the underlying owner. The usufructuary has the full right to use the property but cannot dispose of the property nor can it be destroyed.
All of the above examples would require exploration and development to become potentially useful and some might have to be used in concert rather than on their own. Nevertheless, we feel that exploring new ways to hard-wire the protection of common resources into humanity’s systems of value and prioritization is likely to become ever more important as we test the boundaries of our finite planet.
Common good for a constrained world
Delivering global scale change without manifest global control will only likely be achieved through a combination of changing the purpose of human systems alongside the development of structures that legislate for the preservation of common wealth and health whilst also delivering equity and sovereignty for people across the world. Such changes cut across systems of law, economics, human and non-human rights.
Many approaches to global commons suggest ways that we could achieve such a change, though they have huge implications for the current workings of national sovereignty, law, financial markets, and the ownership structures of capitalism.
Changing the nature and purpose of capitalism is clearly proving rather difficult. Less than 10 years after the largest crash for almost 100 years and capitalism’s function and processes remain the same as before it happened, and seem to be merrily carrying us towards another one.
Systems that benefit powerful and well-resourced parties tend to be quite good at resisting calls for meaningful reform or redesign. However the lack of success so far in reforming capitalism for a sustainable, equitable purpose does not mean that the task is less necessary.
Recognising the limitations of our world, and of the systems that developed in times where we could effectively ignore those limitations, should spur us to re-imagine and renew systems and structures which are no longer fit for purpose. Using human ingenuity to balance the preservation of global commons with the generation of equitable common wealth should not be beyond the wit or grasp of our uncommonly creative and capable species.
My profuse thanks go to Ian Christie of the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy, for allowing me to see his amazing overview of common pool resources challenges, “Managing the Commons -theory and practice”, produced for the Centre for Environmental Strategy’s Ecological Economics Module and to Sam Adelman of the University of Warwick for being kind enough to let me refer to his work. As ever, all errors are mine.
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