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Whose Common Future?

Reclaiming the Commons

by The Ecologist Magazine

216 pages, paperback, New Society

Whose Common Future provides a remarkable and useful explanation of the world's accelerating environmental crisis. The authors trace the crisis to the usurpation of locally- managed resources such as streams, forests, street space and even radio wavelengths, by state governments and big business. The destruction of local communities to remove their power to conserve local resources, the authors asset, is the true tragedy of the commons.

Quotes from Whose Common Future

"The remarkable success of local commons in safeguarding their environments is well documented. . . . But that success depends on more than local knowledge of the environment, respect for nature or indigenous technologies. The extent to which sanctions against environmental degradation are observed depends greatly on the extent to which members of a community rely on their natural surroundings for their long-term livelihood and thus have a direct interest in protecting it. Once that direct interest is removed--once members of the community look outside the commons for their sustenance and social standing--the cultural checks and balances that limit potential abuses of the environment are rendered increasingly ineffective."

. . .

"Where elements of the commons remained, local peoples were still largely self-reliant and had little incentive to grow crops for export to London, Paris or Amsterdam, nor any incentive to indulge in backbreaking labour down mines, on plantations or building roads and government offices. As an editorial in the Rabaul Times noted of New Guinea in the mid-1930s: 'One of the greatest contributing factors to the unsatisfactory services rendered by native labourers in this country is their economic independence. For it must not be forgotten that every native is a landed proprietor, and nature has endowed New Guinea with a prolific soil, which provides adequate sustenance for a minimum of labour. Dismissal from employment, if he fails to carry out his duties, holds no terrors for the New Guinean native . . . Unless and until our natives reach such a state of development that they must work to obtain sustenance or a livelihood, they will never make suitable indentured labour for the average white resident.' "

. . .

"For many years, governments, international planning agencies (and many conservationists) have viewed commons regimes with deep hostility. The World Bank, many UNCED delegates and conservationists view local control over land, forests, streams and rivers as a recipe for environmental destruction. The only way to secure the environment, they say, is to put a fence around it, police it and give it economic value through development.

"In defense of such views, development agencies have played upon two related confusions. The first, promulgated most famously in the 1960s by Garrett Hardin and others, is the myth of the tragedy of the commons. According to Hardin, any commons "remorselessly generates tragedy" since the individual gain to each user from overusing the commons will always outweigh the individual losses he or she has to bear due to its resulting degradation. As many critics have pointed out, however, and as Hardin himself later acknowledged, what he is describing is not a commons regime, in which authority over the use of forests, water and land rests with a community, but rather an open access regime, in which authority rests nowhere; in which there is no property at all; in which production for an external market takes social precedence over subsistence; in which production is not limited by considerations of long-term local abundance; in which people "do not seem to talk to one another"; and in which profit for harvesters is the only operating social value.

"A second confusion that muddies the debate over the commons is between environmental degradation that can be attributed to commons regimes themselves and that which typically results from their breakdown at the hands of more global regimes. As many authors have pointed out, "tragedies of the commons" generally turn out on closer examination to be "tragedies of enclosure." Once they have taken over land, enclosers, unlike families with ties and commitments to the soil, can mine, log, degrade and abandon their holdings, and then sell them on the global market without suffering any personal losses. It is generally enclosers rather than commoners who benefit from bringing ruin to the commons."

. . .

"The creation of empires and states, business conglomerates and civic dictatorships--whether in pre-colonial times or in the modern era-- has only been possible through dismantling the commons and harnessing the fragments, deprived of their old significance, to build up new economic and social patterns that are responsive to the interests of a dominant minority. The modern nation state has been built only by stripping power and control from commons regimes and creating structures of governance from which the great mass of humanity (particularly women) are excluded. Likewise, the market economy has expanded primarily by enabling state and commercial interests to gain control of territory that has traditionally been used and cherished by others, and by transforming that territory-- together with the people themselves--into expendable 'resources' for exploitation. By enclosing forests, the state and private enterprise have torn them out of fabrics of peasant subsistence; by providing local leaders with an outside power base, unaccountable to local people, they have undermined village checks and balances; by stimulating demand for cash goods, they have impelled villagers to seek an ever wider range of things to sell. Such a policy was as determinedly pursued by the courts of Aztec Mexico, the feudal lords of West Africa, by the factory- owners of Lancashire and the British Raj, as it is today by the International Monetary Fund or the Coca-Cola Corporation."

Table of Contents of Whose Common Future

  1. The Commons: Where the Community has Authority
  2. Development as Enclosures: The Establishment of the Global Economy
  3. The Encompassing Web: The Ramifications of Enclosure
  4. Power: The Central Issue
  5. Mainstream Solutions: Further Enclosure
  6. Reclaiming the Commons

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