nature

I have come to realize that language is an indispensable portal into the deeper mysteries of the commons. The words we use – to name aspects of nature, to evoke feelings associated with each other and shared wealth, to express ourselves in sly, subtle or playful ways – our words themselves are bridges to the natural world.  They mysteriously makes it more real or at least more socially legible.

What a gift that British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has given us in his book Landmarks!  The book is a series of essays about how words and literature help us to relate to our local landscapes and to the human condition. The book is also a glossary of scores of unusual words from various regions, occupations and poets, showing how language brings us into more intimate relations with nature. Macfarlane introduces us to entire collections of words for highly precise aspects of coastal land, mountain terrain, marshes, edgelands, water, “northlands,” and many other landscapes.

In the Shetlands, for example, skalva is a word for “clinging snow falling in large damp flakes.”  In Dorset, an icicle is often called a clinkerbell.  Hikers often call a jumble of boulders requiring careful negotiation a choke.  In Yorkshire, a gaping fissure or abyss is called a jaw-hole.  In Ireland, a party of men, usually neighboring farmers, helping each other out during harvests, is known as a boon.  The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called a profusion of hedge blossom in full spring a May-mess.

You get the idea.  There are thousands of such terms in circulation in the world, each testifying to a special type of human attention and relationship to the land.  There are words for types of moving water and rock ledges, words for certain tree branches and roots, words for wild game that hunters pursue.  There are even specialized words for water that collects in one’s shoe – lodan, in Gaelic – and for a hill that terminates a range – strone, in Scotland. 

Such vocabularies bring to life our relationship with the outside world. They point to its buzzing aliveness. There is a reason that government bureaucracies that “manage” land as "resources" don’t use these types of words. Their priority is an institutional mastery of nature, not a human conversation or connection with it. 

When I met biologist and ecophilosopher Andreas Weber several years ago, I was amazed at his audacity in challenging the orthodoxies of Darwinism. He proposes that science study a very radical yet unexplained phenomenon -- aliveness!  He rejects the neoDarwinian account of life as a collection of sophisticated, evolving machines, each relentlessly competing with maximum efficiency for supremacy in the laissez-faire market of nature.  (See Weber's fantastic essay on “Enlivenment” for more on this theme.) 

Drawing upon a rich body of scientific research, Weber outlines a different story of evolution, one in which living organisms are inherently expressive and creative in a struggle to both compete and cooperate. The heart of the evolutionary drama, Weber insists, is the quest of all living systems to express what they feel and experience, and adapt to the world -- and change it! -- as they develop their identities.

Except for a few essays and public talks, most of Weber’s writings are available only in his native German.  So it is a thrill that some of his core ideas have now been published in English. Check out his lyrical yet scientifically rigorous book, Biology of Wonder:  Aliveness, Consciousness and the Metamorophosis of Science, just published by New Society Publishers.  (Full disclosure requires me to mention my modest role in helping Andreas improve the “natural English” of his translation of his original German writings.)

Future historians will look back on this book as a landmark that consolidates and explains paradigm-shifting theories and research in the biological sciences. Biology of Wonder explains how political thinkers like Locke, Hobbes and Adam Smith have provided a cultural framework that has affected biological inquiry, and how the standard Darwinian biological narrative, for its part, has projected its ideas about natural selection and organisms-as-machines on to our understanding of human societies.  Darwinism and "free markets" have grown up together.

This is now changing, as Weber explains:

Biology, which has made so many efforts to chase emotions from nature since the 19th century, is rediscovering feeling as the foundation of life. Until now researchers, eager to discover the structure and behavior of organisms, had glossed over the problem of an organism’s interior reality. Today, however, biologists are learning innumerable new details about how an organism brings forth itself and its experiences, and are trying not only to dissect but to reimagine developmental pathways. They realize that the more technology allows us to study life on a micro-level, the stronger the evidence of life’s complexity and intelligence becomes.  Organisms are not clocks assembled from discrete, mechanical pieces; rather, they are unities held together by a mighty force: feeling what is good or bad for them.

In the grand narrative of evolution, the idea that feeling, emotions, morality and even spirituality might be consequential has long been dismissed.  Such experiences are generally regarded as trivial sideshows to the main act of the cosmos:  nasty, brutish competition as the inexorable vehicle of evolutionary progress.  Indeed, modern times have virtually combined the idea of "survival of the fittest" with our cultural ideas about the "free market economy." 

Degrowth, the Book

In industrialized societies, where so many people regard economic growth as the essence of human progress, the idea of deliberately rejecting growth is seen as insane.  Yet that is more or less what the planet’s ecosystems are saying right now about the world economy. It’s also the message of an expanding movement, Degrowth, that is particularly strong in Europe and the global South. 

A few months ago I blogged about the massive Degrowth conference in Leipzig, Germany, that attracted 3,000 people from around the world. The basic point of the discussions was how to get beyond the fetish of growth, intellectually and practically, and how to transform our idea of “the economy” so that it incorporates such important values as democracy, social well-being and ecological limits.

Several of the movement’s leading figures have now released a rich anthology of essays, Degrowth:  A Vocabulary for a New Era (Routledge). It is the first English language book to comprehensively survey the burgeoning literature on degrowth.  More about the book on its website and an amusing three-minute video.  

The editors -- Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Giorgios Kallis – are three scholars at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, and members of the group Research & Degrowth. The editors describe degrowth as “a rejection of the illusion of growth and a call to repoliticize the public debate colonized by the idiom of economism.”  The basic idea is to find new ways to achieve “the democratically-led shrinking of production and consumption with the aim of achieving social justice and ecological sustainability.” 

Here’s how the book jacket describes the volume: 

We live in an era of stagnation, rapid impoverishment, rising inequalities and socio-ecological disasters. In the dominant discourse, these are effects of economic crisis, lack of growth or underdevelopment. This book argues that growth is the cause of these problems and that it has become uneconomic, ecologically unsustainable and intrinsically unjust.

When the language in use is inadequate to articulate what begs to be articulated, then it is time for a new vocabulary. A movement of activists and intellectuals, first starting in France and then spreading to the rest of the world, has called for the decolonization of public debate from the idiom of economism and the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective. ‘Degrowth’ (‘décroissance’) has come to signify for them the desired direction of societies that will use fewer natural resources and will organize themselves to live radically differently. ‘Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a degrowth society might look like.

It’s always been frustrating to me that Europeans and people in the global South appreciate the potential of the commons far more than most Americans, even among political progressives and activists. Happily, this past weekend saw a big shift.  In Rhinebeck, New York, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) – part of the noted Omega Institute retreat center – unleashed a torrent of creative energy and political action by hosting the first major conference of commons activists in North America.

There have, of course, been many smaller gatherings of US and Canadian commoners focused on specific issues such as water, local food, software code and online resources.  Commons scholars have a long history of getting together.  But this conference was different.  It brought together more than 500 participants to catalyze and instigate creative action around the commons. The paradigm clearly has some resonance for this region which is now faced with some serious market enclosures – the dangerous railway transport of oil supplies, the proposed construction of massive electrical transmission towers that will defile the beautiful landscape, and the proposed use of Cooper Lake for bottled water -- along with the usual assaults of neoliberal capitalism. 

“Where We Go From Here” focused directly on the great promise of the commons in re-imagining how we pursue social, political, economic and ecological transformations.  The keynote speakers were fantastic: the tireless environmentalist and eco-feminist activist Vandana Shiva; climate change activist Bill McKibben, still on a high from the successful climate march in NYC; author and futurist Jeremy Rifkin who foresees the rise of the “collaborative commons”; the deeply knowledgeable and witty ecological scholar David Orr of Oberlin College; the flinty, resourceful environmentalist and Native American activist Winona LaDuke, founder of Honor the Earth; the sustainable design architect Bob Berkebile; green jobs advocate and CNN commentator Van Jones; among many others.  I opened the day with an overview of the commons.

The deeply engaged conference participants consisted of environmental, food and social justice activists, the directors of many community projects, academics and students, indigenous peoples activists, a state legislator, permaculturists, Fablab hacktivists, Occupy veterans, and others too diverse to mention.  Most seem to have come from the Hudson River Valley, but quite a few came from the greater New York City region, New England and beyond. 

On the Dangers of Monetizing Nature

I remember in the late 1970s how the corporate world essentially invented the use of cost-benefit analysis in health, safety and environmental regulation. It was a brazen attempt to redefine the terms for understanding social ethics and policy in terms favorable to capital and markets.  Instead of seeing the prevention of death, disease and ecological harm as a matter of social justice, period, American industry succeeded in recasting these issues as economic matters.  And of course, such arcane issues must be overseen by a credentialed priesthod of economists, not ordinary mortals whose concerns were snubbed as selfish NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard).

And so it came to be that, with the full sanction of law, a dollar sum could be assigned to our health, or to the cost of getting cancer, or to a statistical baby born with birth defects. Regulation was transformed into a pseudo-market transaction.  That mindset has become so pervasive three decades later that people can barely remember when ethical priorities actually trumped big money. 

It is therefore a joy to see Barbara Unmüssig’s essay, “Monetizing Nature:  Taking Precaution on a Slippery Slope,” which recently appeared on the Great Transition Initiative website.  Unmüssig is President of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Germany and a stalwart supporter of the commons, especially in her backing of the 2010 and 2013 conferences in Berlin.

Striking a note that is note heard much these days, Unmüssig points out the serious dangers of seeing the natural world through the scrim of money.  Here is the abstract for her piece:

In the wake of declining political will for environmental protection, many in the environmental community are advocating for the monetization of nature. Some argue that monetization, by revealing the economic contribution of nature and its services, can heighten public awareness and bolster conservation efforts. Others go beyond such broad conceptual calculations and seek to establish tradable prices for ecosystem services, claiming that markets can achieve what politics has not.

However, such an approach collapses nature’s complex functions into a set of commodities stripped from their social, cultural, and ecological context and can pose a threat to the poor and indigenous communities who depend on the land for their livelihood. Although the path from valuation to commodification is not inevitable, it is indeed a slippery slope. Avoiding this pitfall requires a reaffirmation of the precautionary principle and a commitment to democratic decision-making and social justice as the foundations of a sound environmental policy for the twenty-first century.

(I am back from some time at the beach, ready to resume my reporting about the latest commons developments, of which there are many.  More to come!)

Dutch legal scholar Femke Wijdekop of the Institute for Environmental Security has tackled an urgent question for anyone concerned with planetary environment.  She writes: 

How can we construct a right to a healthy and clean environment that is enforceable in today’s complex international legal order? What legal construct would be visionary and ambitious enough to meet the urgent need for environmental justice and protection and at the same time be enforceable in court rather than fall into the category of ‘soft law’?

Wijdekop answers these questions in an essay, “A Human Right to Commons- and Rights-based Ecological Governance:  the key to a healthy and clean environment?” The legal analysis was published by the Earth Law Alliance, a group of lawyers organized by British lawyer Lisa Mead who advocate an eco-centric approach to law. 

Wijdekop’s piece draws upon some of the ideas in my book with Burns Weston, Green Governance in arguing for “procedural environmental rights to establish, maintain, participate in, be informed about and seek redress for ecological commons.”  She has presented these ideas to international lawyers and constitutional scholars in The Hague, and is now reaching out to environmentally minded lawyers.

With so much scholarship focused on commons as “resource management” and the measurement of externals, it’s refreshing to encounter a book that plumbs the internal dimensions of a commons –that is, commoning.  Canadian writer and scholar Heather Menzies has taken on this challenge in her recently published Reclaiming the Commons for the Commons Good (New Society Publishers), a book that she describes as a “memoir and manifesto.”  It is a three-part exploration of commoning as a personal experience, social negotiation and finally, as a spiritual quest.

The first part of Menzies’ book is the memoir:  an account of her trip to the land of her ancestors, Scotland.  She wanted to try to imagine their lives as commoners and understand the impact of the cataclysmic enclosures known as the Highland Clearances, in the late 1700s and 1800s. 

The Clearances, a landmark in Scottish history, saw thousands of small family farmers forced off their traditional lands to make way for “Improvements” -- that is, conversion to the profitable enterprise of sheep-raising.   Landlords raised rents, colluded with politicians to “legally” take the lands, and when necessary, resorted to violence to get the job done.   

The Clearances were not only a major economic and political disruption, but also a profound cultural, ecological and spiritual dispossession, as Manzies writes:

My forebears and their neighbors didn’t just lose their together-as-one connection to the land.  They lost all that these ties meant to them economically, politically, socially, culturally and even spiritually.  They lost ways of working the land and working things out together.  They lost ways of knowing the land directly, intimately through the soles of their feet, the tone of their muscled arms and hands….They lost ways of knowing the animals too, wild and domestic, and how they moved from woodland to water and claimed certain spots conducive to begetting.  As well, they lost ways of sharing this experience, this knowing as common knowledge, with that knowledge both informing and supporting the authority of local decision-making.

This is the last in a series of six essays by Professor Burns Weston and me, derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commonspublished by Cambridge University Press. The essays originally appeared on CSRWire. I am re-posting them here to introduce the paperback edition, which was recently released.

In our preceding essays in this series, we introduced the idea of Green Governance, a new approach to environmental protection based on a broad synthesis of economics and human rights and, critically, the commons. We also described the burgeoning global commons movement, which is demonstrating a wide range of innovative, effective models of Green Governance.

In our final post, we'd like to focus on how a vision of Green Governance could be embodied into law. If a new paradigm shift to Green Governance is going to become a reality, state law and policy must formally recognize the countless commons that now exist and the new ones that must be created.

Recognizing the Commons as a Legal Entity

Yet here’s the rub: Because the “law of the commons” is a qualitatively different type Green Governanceof law – one that recognizes social and ecological relationships and the value of nature beyond the marketplace – it is difficult to rely upon the conventional forms of state, national and international law. After all, conventional law generally privileges individual over group rights, as well as commercial activities and economic growth above all else.

Establishing formal recognition for commons- and rights-based law is therefore a complicated proposition. We must consider, for example, how self-organized communities of commoners can be validated as authoritative forms of resource managers. How can they maintain themselves, and what sort of juridical relationship can they have with conventional law? One must ask, too, which existing bodies of law can be modified and enlarged to facilitate the workings of actual commons.

 Threee Domains of Commons Law

Clearly there must be a suitable architecture of law and public policy to support and guide the growth of commons and a new Commons Sector. In our book Green Governance, we propose innovations in law and policy in three distinct domains:

  • General internal governance principles and policies that can guide the development and management of commons;
  • Macro-principles and policies that facilitate the formation and maintenance of “peer governance;”
  • Catalytic legal strategies to validate, protect, and support ecological commons.

This is the fifth of a series of six essays by Professor Burns Weston and me, derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published by Cambridge University Press. The essays originally appeared on CSRWire. I am re-posting them here to introduce the paperback edition, which was recently released.

Our last essay outlined the great appeal of the commons as a way to deal with so many of our many ecological crises. The commons, readers may recall, is a social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.

This is the fourth of a series of six essays by Professor Burns Weston and me, derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published by Cambridge University Press. The essays originally appeared on CSRWire. I am re-posting them here to introduce the paperback edition, which was recently released.

The overriding challenge for our time – as outlined in our three previous CSRwire essays – is for human societies to develop new ways of interacting with nature and organizing our economic and social lives. It’s imperative that we rein in the mindless exploitation of fragile natural systems upon which human civilization depends.

The largest, most catastrophic problem, of course, is climate change, but each of the “smaller” ecological challenges we face – loss of biodiversity, soil desertification, collapsing coral reefs and more – stem from the same general problem: a mythopoetic vision that human progress must be achieved through material consumption and the ceaseless expansion of markets.

State/Market Solutions Doomed to Failure

While most people look to the State or Market for solutions, we believe that many of these efforts are doomed to failure or destined to deliver disappointing results. The State/Market duopoly – the deep alliance between large corporations, politicians, government agencies and international treaty organizations – is simply too committed to economic growth and market individualism to entertain any other policy approaches.

The political project of the past forty years has been to tinker around the edges of this dominant paradigm with feckless regulatory programs that do not really address the core problems, and indeed, typically legalize boats-dockedexisting practices.

Solution:  Stewardship of Shared Resources

So what might be done?

We believe that one of the most compelling, long-term strategies for dealing with the structural causes of our many ecological crises is to create and recognize legally, alternative systems of provisioning and governance. Fortunately, such an alternative general paradigm already exists.

It’s called the commons.

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