The good folks at the Tellus Institute in Boston have recently relaunched the Great Transition Initiative -- “an online forum of ideas and an international network” dedicated to developing “a new praxis for global transformation.” As part of that effort, I was invited to submit an essay on how the commons might contribute to the “Great Transition.”
In my essay, “The Commons as a Template for Transformation,” I argue that “the commons paradigm can help us imagine and implement a serious alternative—a new vision of provisioning and democratic governance that can evolve within the fragile, deteriorating edifice of existing institutions.” My basic argument:
The commons—a paradigm, discourse, ethic, and set of social practices—provides several benefits to those seeking to navigate a Great Transition. It offers a coherent economic and political critique of existing Market/State institutions. Its history includes many venerable legal principles that help us both to imagine new forms of law and to develop proactive political strategies for effecting change. Finally, the commons is supported by an actual transnational movement of commoners who are co-creating innovative provisioning and governance systems that work.
For readers of this blog, most of the themes in my GTI essay will be familiar. My goal was to synthesize many disparate threads into a single, 5,000-word case for the commons. I wanted help a policy-oriented readership see how the commons paradigm could help us re-imagine and transform economics, politics, culture, and particularly ecological stewardship.
After introducing the whole commons concept for the uninitiated, I review a sampling of commons that manage ecological resources and describe the rise of the contemporary commons movement. I also urge that we imagine “a new architecture of commons-based law and policy,” drawing heavily on my recent book with Burns Weston, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons (Cambridge University Press). And finally, I assess the prospects and limitations of the commons paradigm, and conclude:
What now appears to be a “shadow sector” outside of the perimeter of the Market/State—a realm only dimly recognized by mainstream economics and policy—has the potential to pioneer working alternatives. Moving beyond the matrix of consumerism, debt, short-term market priorities, ecological harm, and economic inequality associated with the modern Market/State, the commons provides a framework for cultivating a new ethic of buen vivir, or “living well,” a term used by many Latin Americans to describe a more humane, balanced way of life.
For inquiring minds, 38 endnotes will point you to references and further readings on key issues.