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Our Common Way Forward – by Duncan Warltier

— PAPER —

by Duncan Warltier, MSE student at McGill University

This thesis argues that there is something wrong with an economic system that causes people to lose the means to meet their most basic needs. It argues that there is something wrong with a worldview that allows this to take place; where this is in fact common.

In April 2000, a 17-year old high school student was shot and killed by the Bolivian army in the city of Cochabamba[1]. This young man’s name was Victor Hugo Daza. He was a casualty of the Cochabamba Water War, and someone Arturo Escobar, a leading South American anthropologist, would refer to as “a victim of coloniality[2]”. One hundred and seventy-five years after Simon Bolivar fought to free South America of the yoke of Spanish imperialism, young Victor Hugo Daza became another casualty in an ideological war. An ideological war that pits profit against all else. An ideological war that for hundreds of years has been fought to allow people to control their own lives, to control their own livelihoods and environments. An ideological war that is fought to decide if the West may leverage control over the developing world.

The Cochabamba Water Wars were one such ideological struggle. In a bid to enter the global economy and reap the associated benefits, the Bolivian government of Hugo Banzer Suárez sought help from the World Bank in the form of development loans in 1999. But, these loans came as a Trojan horse filled with coloniality in the guise of economic liberalisation. The World Bank insisted that nationalised industries be privatised; claiming that governmental management was fraught with corruption. To quote the World Bank:

“poor governments are often too plagued by local corruption and too ill equipped to run public water systems efficiently. …[and that the use of private corporations] opens the door to needed investment and skilled management[3]

As such, the waterworks of Cochabamba were privatised to the Californian company Bechtel. Under the terms of the privatisation, it was illegal for citizens to collect rainwater[4]. The water cycle, a basic planetary process, was privatised. What was once a commons; open for all, became a commodity, belonging to Bechtel until licenced by the people. The people revolted; the government declared martial law. A 17-year old young man was struck in the head as a military marksman fired into a crowd of protesters. Protesters who only wanted to meet their basic needs without being at the whim of a board of directors in California. This cannot be justice in an ethical society.

This thesis argues so. This thesis argues that there is something wrong with an economic system that causes people to lose the means to meet their most basic needs. It argues that there is something wrong with a worldview that allows this to take place; where this is in fact common. This paper argues that there is something wrong with how the dominant global narrative views and treats the global commons. The solutions for a flourishing Anthropocene will arise from a reimagining and reconceptualization of our relationship with the commons, primarily from reimaging our ethics, and the economic practices that will arise from this change. This paper will focus on validating this vision by examining the roles that the commons, ethics and economics have played in delivering humanity to its current situation, and how a change in societal ethics and reconceptualization of the world through a commons framework could lead to beneficial change. A list of axioms and definitions will be given before exposition.

Axioms:

1) We live on Earth. This is not just a statement of habitation, but implies a relationship of dependence. Earth is Home. Oikos

2) Definitions

a) Ecology shall mean the study of our home, the earth. Particularly, the study of the interaction between life and what can become life.

i) What can be life is defined as anything that may be incorporated into the structure or functional mechanism of life.

ii) Life shall be any system that maintains or reverses its entropic state by consuming local sources of low entropy and increasing entropy of its surrounding[5].

b) Ethics, and moral philosophy, is the study of what actions are right and wrong; it is the description of how it is best for a group of actors to act.

i) “No ethical theory can tolerate moral behaviour that allows [circumstance] to force people to abandon their moral ideals.”[6]

c) Economics is the theory of ideal or moral ecology. It is the study of “what should be done” in regards to our home and resources, environmental or societal.

d) Governance shall be a practice conducted by actors to “steer the mind” of the group. This practice shall be understood as a means to realise an ethical vision.

e) Law shall be the codified practice, enforcing “due place and order” in which to make the home, oikos, as is ought to be, or to realise an ethical vision through economics.

3) The orphan disciplines (Law, ethics economics and governance) relate in the description of action by actors: “Law is a system of enforcement of Ethics, by a system of Governance to ensure Ethical Economics and realise an ethical vision.”

4) By 2)b)i), Ethics are valid if they allow action by actors to perpetuity or promote life, therefore, that which preserves diversity (cultural or biological) and promotes life is ethical.

5) By 3), Governance and Law are a process and a mechanism by which actors enforce ethical-economic action. Ethics and economics then become a way by which actors interpret and interact (respectively) with oikos. Evoking Bateson and systems theories, Governance and Law are internal mechanisms, while Ethics and Economics are external stimulus and response mechanisms. The external stimulus is the state of the commons and economic actors affect the commons directly, change the state and therefore the inputs to the system. As this paper focuses on the relationship between actors (and groups) and their home, the internal mechanisms are not of consequence. We can simplify the system to consider the input, Ethics, and Output, economics; assuming little noise in the system.

Consider the following diagram depicting the orphans and their interrelationship based on semantic definitions:

DWarltier

6) The orphan disciplines describe and dictate human behaviour, they are artificial because we are cognisant of our actions and are reflective creatures. We are commonly engaged in the above cycle, save for the bottom ecological feedback loop. The new ethics must be informed by the real world and so must take into account ecology.

The Commons

It takes little more than empathy and compassion for one to arrive at the conclusion that death of Victor Hugo Daza is unacceptable and too high a moral cost for the continuation of the worldview that motivated his murder. This worldview is one by which lands belong to the human, not the opposite; the costs are so high because our society is collectively supressing reality, ignoring the facts of the universe in which we are situated. The fact of the matter is that the human species shares a home, a common home, oikos (Axiom 1). Within our culture, there exists a delusion, a suppression of reality, called private property. This section seeks to make explicit the relationship between humans and the commons, the importance of the relationship in our modern world, and current flaws in this relationship.

On the grounds that private property may claim rights over the rain it seems fair to charge this system of thinking of perverting the natural order. This type of thinking seems symptomatic of a lack of perspective. Lacking an appreciation for the fact that the earth is organised as a commons, not private property. Since John Locke penned Two Treatises,[7] the Western Narrative (western-Mother Culture[8] or the western meme gestalt[9]) has embraced the idea that a person should be the sole beneficiary of their labours. For example, combined with the idea that a person may privatise a piece of land if they to do not infringe on the ability of others to meet their needs and do likewise, in a Great Britain newly depauperate from the plague, allowed for the commons to slowly be eroded, culminating in the Inclosure Acts of 1773. These laws converted the British commons to private property, held by a landlord. Even the act’s long title is obsecureative to the law’s true intention: An Act for better Cultivation, Improvement and Regulation of the Common Arable Fields, Wastes, and Commons of Pasture in this Kingdom. Notice the words “better” and “improvement”, a value judgement, suggesting that private property is better, perhaps even more moral than the commons. The peasants who depended on those lands for sustenance may have thought otherwise. By the axiomatic feedback diagram above, consider the ethics instilled or programmed by Locke’s Two Treatises. The people, parliament, organised and passed a law and so the commons was affected through the new economy, to enact the [ruling-class’s] vision of how oikos ought to be.

Even further back Locke’s ideas were practiced. Daniel Quinn’s work Ishmael[10] discusses the agrarian revolution in great extent. Specifically, a dialectic is started that discusses the view of the agrarian revolution from the book of Genesis. The story of Cain and Abel is expanded into a story of agrarian (Taker) and nomadic (Leaver) peoples. The Fall from Eden is expanded into the story of how the nomadic peoples were expelled from their lands, their oikos, by the agrarianists, who not only needed to constantly expand the lands under cultivation, but employed a join-or-die attitude against the nomads. Cultivation implies private property. It excludes others from using the lands as they once had, grassland and forest are both indiscriminately burned in order to sow grain. Once sown, these lands are defended so that the agrarianist may reap what they sow. And surely, the agrarianists would not allow the nomads to collect rainwater, the commons they had staked claim to as their own.

This join-or-die attitude is somewhat analogous to Escobar’s coloniality[11]. Private property, the Taker culture, is a form of coloniality. The economic-bullying nature of the West towards the developing would runs parallel to the early Fertile Crescent land grabs. Just as the West and western companies will leverage developing nations through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to open their economies and resources[12], the Takers forced the Leavers off their lands, or converted them, supplanting the Taker ethical vision for the one of local or Leaver peoples. Private property takes the commons and power away from people and concentrates it. It takes away control of oikos from the local people and develops power-asymmetries. This suggests that power, control, and authority are what dictate ethics. Even in a representative democracy, the head of government typically speaks with an implied mandate and claims to represent the ethical vision of all their constituents, whether they win by a single vote or a landslide.

This illustrates that private property is an artificial and abstract construct. The world truly is a commons that people desire to claim for their own. However, this worldview tends to ignore several basic realities, namely, as depicted above, that human action, our ethics and economics directly affect the commons.

Let us return to the agrarian revolution. Putting aside the human justice critique of the Taker-agrarianists murdering countless Leavers and taking their lands from them, there are other critiques of private property to be made. Private property fails to be temporally and spatially specific. Consider the ownership of a lump of coal and who owns the carbon. When coal was discovered, someone wished to own it because it is valuable. So they build a coal mine. But the mine owner does not labour for the coal. No, they hire labourers to do it for them. And these men do not own all that they labour over. The labourers get wages and the owner is only interested in the coal, not everything else that has been mined. Surely, by Locke’s reasoning the owner is responsible for the waste of his actions, for to waste the commons is to rob some other of their ability to use the commons. But the wastes are not of much value and so Locke’s arguments are ignored. Then the mine owner sells the coal to a foundry owner, the foundry owner now owns the carbon. But then, the foundry own burns the coal to release pent up chemical energy, and carbon, which still exists due to the conservation of matter, ceases to belong to any one person. It becomes a common problem, trapping heat within the atmosphere but with no responsibility associated to it.

It is not only industry that affects the commons. As alluded to above, the combustion of fossil fuels leads to the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This increases the ability of the atmosphere to trap heat becoming a major problem in our modern time. A problem largely caused by the lack of regulation about what may be dumped into the global commons of the atmosphere. But if all forms of private property have the same problems, the problem that private property implies action does not imping on another’s rights to act in a similar manner. This implication is wrong, as we know in modern times due to global warming. Just because lines are drawn on a piece of paper and names assigned to landmasses, does not mean that private property actually keeps track of ownership. In the case of coal, perhaps the carbon is never owned; merely the chemical potential energy contained within the interatomic bonds may be owned and disposed of at the owner’s whim. But because ownership is so arbitrary it is hard to validate private property. Even the advent of agriculture, while destroying one commons started to pollute the atmosphere. Bill Ruddiman has written extensively on the early onset the Anthropocene, a geological epoch where the main force for change is humans. He argues that the onset of agriculture 8-10 thousand years ago was the beginning of the Anthropocene[13]. Ice-core gas data and palenological evidence suggest that the clearing of forests and native grasslands (commonly by slash-and-burn) actually contributed a significant amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The post-agrarian, pre-industrial “tortoise” as Ruddiman calls it, is estimated to have emitted 300 gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere over approximately 9,800 years, whereas the post-industrial “hare”, that has emitted at a much greater rate on a shorter timeline, has emitted 150 gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere[14]. The synthesis of Ruddiman’s and Quinn’s ideas is that private property (agriculture) has always negatively impacted the global atmospheric commons. For almost 10 millennia, private property has allowed people to make private claim over the benefits of a resource, while the cost is shared by all. There needs to be an acceptance that not only does human action alter the commons, but transactions involving private property often have affect outside of the prevue of private property. That is, private property transactions, the sale of coal for instance, have affects external to the transaction that affect the commons. These are externalities and they are usually a negative consequence to the commons caused by private property.

Externality is the perfect word for this phenomena. Let us return to the above feedback diagram depicting what are referred to as the orphan disciplines. This conceptualisation of human nature helps to validate the economic term “externality”; helpful too are the ideas of cybernetics, particularly those of Alan Turing and Gregory Bateson. Let us call this feedback loop a computer, a Turing Machine[15]. This Turing Machine has a written set of instructions, a program, made up of the orphan disciplines. It also has data input and data output that are of a common format, to allow an output to become an input in the next step of an iterative process. These input and output data are the commons. This Turing Machine of Civilisation is inputted with data about the current state of the common, this is read by our ethical system, an interpretation is made on how to bring this state of the commons closer to an ethical vision, people organise into a governing system to make it happen by enacting laws that dictate social or ethical conduct. Then, lastly but most importantly, civilisation modifies the commons through an economic system that acts to arrange the commons, to arrange oikos, in a more ethical manner. This is what so much of classical economic theory ignores, that economic action changes the state of the resources (commons) that are an input into an economic process. And the state changes to the commons are directly mediated by human ethics, the “systematic attitudes” as Bateson called them[16]. Thus, ethics and economics are respectively the read and write functions of the Turing Machine of civilisation.

This is all to say that our current worldview is perverse; it is demonstrably false. From Cochabamba to the Fertile Crescent to the British Commons, the concept of private property can be seen as destructive and oppressive. It enriches few, while causing great harm to others. Again, to invoke the rhetoric of Quinn, civilisation can be thought of as an airplane launched from a high cliff[17]. So launched, even the most brick-like of aircraft will appear to “fly” for a time, all the while hurtling towards the ground and demise. Quinn insists the aircraft of civilisation must conform to certain realities, the Bernoulli’s law of civilisation; aerodynamics for the Anthropocene. I assert that this principal of aerodynamics needs to be based in the concept of the global commons. Because human action directly alters the state of the commons, and the human species depends on the commons for life, there needs to be a guiding principal founded in commons thinking. Particularly, our systematic attitude must be adjusted, and we need to modify our economics to reflect this attitude adjustment.

Our Ethics

The field of moral philosophy or ethics is semantically defined as the study of right and wrong; how the world ought to be and how people should therefore act to realise this vision of how the world, oikos; the commons, ought to be (Axiom 2b). The world ought to be as the human species found it, that is following a natural trajectory promoting biodiversity, a commons, and evolution, a regenerative and promoting process for biodiversity (Axiom 4). Additionally, intelligent life, if discovered, ought to practice compassion towards life and the commons that allowed life to arise and evolve. Obviously, shooting 17-year old Bolivians in the head is not compassionate. This calls for an attitude adjustment, a new set of ethics that will allow the human species to interact with the commons without destroying the very commons we rely on.

Recalling the Turing Machine of Civilisation analogy, attitude adjustment is the perfect phrase, because what we need to do is change the way our society sees and interprets the world around them, the commons. Ethics form the perceptive filter through which we see the world, oikos. In order for humanity to forge a new relationship with the commons, our most basic perceptive assumptions have to be re-examined and changed. Only an ethical change, a change in the inputs of the Turing Machine of Civilisation, can cause a change in outcome. To quote Garrett Hardin, “A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.[18]

As succeeding processes, governance, law and economics, depend on the signal sent to them, via ethics, Hardin’s wisdom is clear. There needs to an ethical change, a change in the way people think, to affect meaningful change. Otherwise, we continue on a spiral of band-aid techno-fixes, while never addressing the deep-rooted causes of the global environmental problem. This thesis does not consider the internal mechanisms of the Turing machine because once a set of ethical instructions have been written and data about the state of the commons inputted, the commons is only again considered when modified by economic actions. Ethics and economics are the only direct interactions with the commons. Furthermore, the flaws of economic action are logically caused by flaws in ethical programming and thinking, therefore to understand the flaws in our economic system and its interactions with the commons we need to examine the flaws in our ethical thinking.

The problem with our current ethics is that they interpret the commons as private property or potential private property. In the wake of John Locke and the Industrial Revolution, there has been very little reflection on or challenging of this worldview, in proportion to those who believe it. The current worldview held by the western world that is so harmful to the commons is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is defined by very strong emphasis placed on personal liberty and freedom, a free market economy approaching laissez-faire capitalism, and private property rights. Not only are neoliberal ethics at odds with the reality of a common property oikos, but they are demonstrably false and self-defeating.

In the almost 50 years since its publication, Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons[19] continues to provide ample ammunition for proponents of privatising the global commons. Ceaseless and unfettering come the calls to privatise the global commons, including Michael Walker, the founder of the Canadian Neoliberal think tank, the Fraser Institute. Here is an interview transcript of him discussing cap-and-trade systems for managing air pollution:

Interviewer: It sounds like you’re advocating private ownership of every square inch of the planet. Every cubic foot of air, water.

Michael Walker: Absolutely. It sounds outlandish to say we want to have the whole universe, the whole of the earth owned. That doesn’t mean I want to have Joe Bloggs owning this square foot. But it means the interests that are involved in that stream are owned by some group or by some people who have an interest in maintaining it. And that, you know, is not such a loony idea. It’s in fact, the solution to a lot of these problems[20].

Private ownership is the solution! But is it really? One of the main problems with solving environmental issues by means of privatisation is that it is inherently illiberal. Private ownership allows for a subversion of democracy. Not only does it take power away from the many (and often local), concentrating it, but bases the rights of an individual not based on citizenship, not on responsibility to the local community and the commons, but on money. Money equals property rights. And in the case of the Cochabamba Water Wars, money became equal to the right to survive, the right to access clean drinking water and water sustenance crops. And Bechtel had all the money, and therefore had all the rights. Again, we cannot intrust our commons to this system of ethics.

But is Hardin was mistaken. Mr. Walker’s neoliberal mindset also flawed. Hardin was mistaken, but only semantically so, leading to large misinterpretation of his ideas. Hardin does not so much criticise the commons land tenure system, as he criticise the freedom of action within a commons and the consequences that arise. Quote, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.[21]” But commons land tenure does not encourage unbounded freedom, quite the contrary. Elinor Ostrom’s work and her 8 design principles for the commons reflect this[22]. Principles 2 and 5 state, “Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions” and “A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules”. Rules, limitations, bylaws, the social contract, they are largely synonymous. The commons are defined by limitations of freedom. Otherwise, the tenure system is completely different; it is an open access resource, the true target of Hardin’s criticisms. This reveals a greater disconnect between neoliberalism and commons land tenure than first examined. They are ideologically opposed. Neoliberalism trumpets individual freedom as one of its most prominent values. The commons, however, require people to work together, sometimes sacrificing their own individual gain for the gain of the community and stakeholders of the commons. If our civilisation is to live in harmony with the commons, neoliberalism must be abandon.

Neoliberal ethics are also self-defeating. In his treatise, Ethics for a Finite World, Herschel Elliott points to the myopic flaws in neoliberal ethics in the particular context of a planet struggling to support the human economic project[23]. Elliott focuses specific criticism on the utility-maximizing, growth producing economics of our time. The crux of his argument is that not only do our current ethics make false assumptions about our reality, but that these ethics are self-defeating when faced with the true common property nature of our reality. The reality is that ethical actors modify the commons, but due to the conservation of matter, the commons cannot grow. Elliott’s argument can be summarised to this: our current ethical system is causing the degradation of the commons[24]. This ethical system largely pushes for the improvement and privatisation of the commons. The intention and outcome are in direct conflict. Thus, the ethical system is flawed, as Elliott claims that any truly valid ethical system should allow for action into perpetuity, not the current scenario of ever diminishing possibility in a commons ever diminishing in quality. This diminishment is caused by trying to reap ever-increasing returns out of a finite amount of commons. We have one planet; we cannot expect a resource based economy to grow infinitely. The true embedded nature, the coupling between our economy and oikos, of our economy forbids it from perpetual growth. This coupling is displayed in the Turing Machine of Civilisation analogy and diagram.

Our Economics ­

            Shock therapy. What kind of images and associations does this phrase conjure? Mental illness? Craziness? Schizophrenia? Bedlam? How about economic reform? Because that is how Jeffery Sachs of the Chicago School of Economists used it. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the Bolivian Minister of Planning, worked closely with Sachs in 2000 to open Bolivia’s economy as Sachs had done with Poland; this plan of action allowed the country to comply with the World Banks’s loan terms. The insanity that ensued after Bechtel took supply of Cochabamba’s water supply perhaps does justify the use of language such as shock therapy. But a phrase meant to leverage pejoration onto the economies of the developing world, only succeeds to reveal the superiority complex in those supposedly engaged in constructive actions. This language and superiority complex culminate to form a narrative of coloniality[25]; implying that the Bolivian economy was so sick something as extreme as “shock therapy” was required to help it. Implying that something as extreme as giving property rights to Bechtel for the rain was required.

Recall the sematic definition of economics from the Greek oikonomía, law of the household. Economics is the study of how to arrange the global commons to reflect an ethical vision (Axiom 3). This makes economics unique; the results that arise from economic actions are a change or rearrangement of the commons. This is something classical economics fails to take into account: when the foundry owner fills an order for 2 tonnes of pig-iron it is not reflected in the economic transaction that not only did the mining of that coal rearrange the structure of the global commons, but the emission of carbon dioxide, sulphur oxides, and fly ash as a result of burning coal to power smelter also rearrange the commons. Again, neoliberal economics refer to these effects as “externalities”, however, from the perspective of commons land tenure and the Turing Machine of Civilisation these “externalities” become noise in the writing function of the Machine. They become unintended and unexpected state changes on the commons. When a Turing Machine comes across an unexpected state change, a flipped bit in digital-binary computing, a memory error occurs. The system cannot handle this unexpected discovery and the system crashes. And this, is arguably is what is happening to our civilisation right now.

This means that not only are our ethics flawed and therefore our economic systems are being fed bad information, but our economics are not functioning properly either, they are not accounting for all of the changes of state in the commons. If economics really is the bookkeeping of the household then modern economics seems to be doing a poor job of accounting for the actions of humanity. The greatest emphasis is placed on maximising profit and gaining material wealth. Modern, neoliberal economics are flawed because it ignores and fails to account for social costs, because it has a flawed definition of wealth, and lastly because it denies the fundamentally entropic nature of our universe.

Cochabamba provides a perfect example where neoliberal economics has put private profit before the social good. Before Bechtel moved in, communities or municipalities managed water resources and supply, charging residents a few dollars a month to cover the cost of operating a well and perhaps a pump[26]. Bechtel, however, has shareholders that demand dividends and a board of governors that must ensure constant profit. This all but ensures that the social good will not be considered. And why should it? Bechtel had no responsibility towards the people of Cochabamba, nor does it depend on the water resources there. This is in violation of several of Ostrom’s design principles: 2, 3, 4, and 7[27]. (2) Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions; (3) Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process; (4) Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators; and (7) Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities. The water of Cochabamba is a commons, but Bechtel’s management neglected this reality, opting to consider it a private resource. Because of this failing, their management of the commons failed. Had Bechtel involved local stakeholders, decentralised power, or respected previous water management systems perhaps their management would have succeeded. But note, in this clash of commons reality versus neoliberal abstraction the commons triumphed because the people who depend on these resources refused to accept a narrative of coloniality and maintained their own ethical vision for their commons. To the people of Cochabamba, their access to water was more important than profits for a transnational corporation. Their idea of wealth embraced the commons.

This is another definite flaw in our current economic system; our definition of wealth is far too narrow. Neoliberal economics tends to value only that which is, or which can be privately owned. In some senses, neoliberalism sees the commons as a resource to which they have open access to privatise. Nevertheless, within this frame of mind, the global commons have no value; they are not owned, they cannot generate revenue, and they are not appreciating in value. Clean air, clean water, biodiversity all have no intrinsic value to a neoliberal economist, not until they are privately owned. There is no appreciation for the wealth of the commons. Consider the controversial agricultural practice of planting genetically modified organisms (GMOs), specifically genetically engineered crops. Regardless of any debate to be had about the human consumption of these crops, the fact remains that these crops pollute the global biodiversity commons. Cultivated GMOs are capable of interbreeding with wild-type species, introducing artificial genes into the global gene pool[28]. This is very simply a form of pollution in the commons of biodiversity. But, because biodiversity isn’t owned on a large scale, there is no concern on the part of neoliberals. This commons does not bare intrinsic value in its pristine form under the current economic and ethical worldview. This needs to change.

Similarly, our civilisation has a curious relationship with the commons of knowledge. In theory, knowledge should be a public good, open to all and non-rivilrous (consumption of this resource does not preclude consumption of the same unit of resource by someone else, I.E. a book can be read by many people and they all may gain ideas from it). However, due to the scale and diversity of human knowledges it functions more similarly to a commons resource, people are excluded from accessing it not due to the actions of other but due to limited access and dissemination technologies. Further, there are situations, such as universities, where knowledge is a private good. One student’s attendance to a university not only consumes resources (i.e. professors time) but their attendance naturally excludes someone else from occupying that class seat. Intellectual property rights (IPRs) seek to privatise the knowledge commons further. And it has been found IPRs often stifle innovation and the widespread adoption of new technologies[29]. Technological knowledge is the foundation of civilisation, how can anyone “privatise the shoulders of giants”? It is a perverse idea.

Finally, modern economics are flawed because it fails to realise the fundamentally entropic nature of the universe. Recall the Turing Machine analogy and the economic theory of externalities. It was said that modern economics employs externalities, and these effectively act as random state changes in the commons, oikos, or noise within the system. This noise is analogous to entropy; it is the emergent chaotic nature of the system towards disorder and no further plausible state (lower energy) can be reached. At this point, an information system can hold no useful information, in a genetic system (DNA) telomeres shorten and DNA cannot be further replicated, and a total physical system cannot gain energy. Neoliberal economics ignores this physical reality of the world, that lower entropy states cannot be reached from higher energy states without massive energy investment. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen states the truth very succinctly when he posits that the human economy must be governed by the entropic law of thermodynamics[30]. Again, economic action cause change in oikos, the commons, always degrading them and the stock of total available energy, as dictated by the law of entropy. This needs to be appreciated in the bookkeeping system we use for our interactions with the commons, economics.

Our New Way Forward

The December 2014 COP20 talks in Lima, Peru express a basic understanding of the common reality of our planet. With global climate change, we all share an uncertain future. Uncertain in almost every respect, except it is reasonable to predict more strife and human suffering in the future. In a world full of uncertainly, with a growing population, and the global commons being degraded further and further, the struggle to meet basic needs will be a very real one for a large part of the world’s people. The West is in a position of privilege and has simple choices to make regarding whether we will be a facilitator or a barrier to a more peaceful and compassionate world. People in the world do face, and will increasingly face water stress and because of this, violent struggle will occur. Similar to the violence in Cochabamba, there will be life and death struggles to meet basic needs. Suggestion have been made that the Syrian Civil War, which has claimed more than 191,300 lives[31], is in part fuelled by water stress. Droughts and changing climatic patterns have led to significant stresses of rural agricultural communities that rely on irrigation, leading to unrest and now catastrophic violence[32]. There need to be new strategies, both internationally and domestically, that acknowledge the common nature of our planet and helps advert the collapse of civilisation.

There needs to be a reimagining of human civilisation if it is to survive. Most basically, there needs to be a greater appreciation for the bounty of the commons and the debt owned by humanity to this wealth. It is from biodiversity that humans evolved, not the other way around (Axiom 1). The dominant western narrative needs to come to terms with the fact that the earth is shared and our current practices do not fairly account for the harms cause to the commons or the people. We must reframe our way of life and our economics to reflect the physical realities of the planet (entropy, social good, common atmosphere), not expect the reality of the commons to conform to the abstraction of the economy. Once these physical realities are accepted, the ethical underpinning of western civilisation must be reconsidered to reflect this. No longer should it be everyone man and woman for themselves, but the human species together as one thriving in a thriving ecosphere. And lastly, with a change in worldview and ethics, the hope is that our economic practices will change and that more responsible forms of economics, ecological economics for instance, will be adopted. Much of this will likely be achieved through decentralised control and local management of common resources. This style of thinking has lead thinkers like Benjamin Barber to suggest cooperation of small-scale power may be a solution to global problems, “if mayors ruled the world”[33].

There is still hope for humanity, if we can change; adapt to challenges of our age. This does not call for small changes, or minor revisions, it calls for necessary overhauls to the entirety of civilisation. And hopefully, by accepting some of the fundamental realities of our planet, situations like Cochabamba can be avoided the future. We have not, we will not, we cannot decouple ourselves from the common form reality of our planet and our specie’s fate. Cochabamba still serves as the perfect example of what can happen when the common nature of the planet and its resources is ignored for a profit motive. It also serves as an example to show the lengths to which people will go to defend their access to basic rights and resources. Because to them, it is not a fight for resources or profit, it is a struggle for survival. People will fight for the commons; people will die for the commons, including a 17-year old young man in Cochabamba. His name was Victor Hugo Daza, and we cannot discard the lessons learned from his death.

[1] Finnegan, William. “Leasing the Rain.” The New Yorker 8 April 2002 url: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/04/08/leasing-the-rain , retrieved 20 November 2014
[2] Escobar, Arturo. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press, 2011
[3] Shultz, Jim. “The Politics of Water in Bolivia.” The Nation 14 February 2005 url: http://www.thenation.com/article/politics-water-bolivia, retrieved 14 November 2014
[4] The Corporation. Dir. Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott, Written by Joel Bakan, Harold Crooks, & Mark Achbar
[5] This definition allows for questions of whether the sun is alive. Just as astronomers and astrophysicists speak of the birth of stars, the death of stars, cradles of star formation and the life trajectory of stars, I so too think it is possible to consider stars a form of life. Without their elements no other life could exist, and if life begets life, it follows stars are alive to give life to human, the earth and everything else.
[6] p.7, Elliott, Herschel. Ethics for a Finite World. 1st ed. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO, 2005.
[7] Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. London, 1689.
[8] Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. Reissue. Bantam, 1992.
[9] Bateson, Gregory Mind and Nature. Hampton Press, 1979.; A Meme gestalt meaning the summation of memes in a culture that can be taken together to anthropomorphised as mother culture. It is the unspoken but generally accepted worldview.
[10] Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. Reissue. Bantam, 1992.
[11] Escobar, Arturo. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press, 2011
[12] The Corporation. Dir. Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott, Written by Joel Bakan, Harold Crooks, & Mark Achbar
[13] Ruddiman, Bill. 2003 ‘The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago’, Climate Change 61:261-293
[14] Figure 4b, p 273, Ibid.
[15] Turing, Alan. 1996 ‘Intelligent Machinery: a Heretical Theory’, Philosophia Mathematica 4:256-260.
[16] p 476, Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Reprint. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA, 1972
[17] Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. Reissue. Bantam, 1992.
[18] Hardin, Garrett 1968, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science, 162:1243-1248
[19] Ibid.
[20] The Corporation. Dir. Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott, Written by Joel Bakan, Harold Crooks, & Mark Achbar
[21] [My emphasis] Hardin, Garrett 1968, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science, 162:1243-1248
[22] Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Insitutions for Collective Action. 1st edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1990.
[23] Elliott, Herschel. Ethics for a Finite World. 1st ed. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO, 2005.
[24] p.2, Ibid.
[25] Escobar, Arturo. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press, 2011
[26] Finnegan, William. “Leasing the Rain.” The New Yorker 8 April 2002 url: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/04/08/leasing-the-rain , retrieved 20 November 2014
[27] Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Insitutions for Collective Action. 1st edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1990.
[28] Lu, Bao-Rong & Snow, Alison A. 2005. ‘Gene Flow from Genetically Modified Rice and Its Environmental Consequences’ BioScience 55:669-678
[29] Henry, Claude & Stiglitz, Joseph E. 2010. ‘Intellectual Property, Dissemination of Innovation and Sustainable Development’ Global Policy 1:237-251
[30] p.352, Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1975. ‘Energy and Economic Myths.’ Southern Economic Journal 41: 347-381
[31] “Syrian civil war death toll rises to more than 191,300, according to UN.” The Guardian 22 August 2014, Retrieved: 10 December 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/22/syria-civil-war-death-toll-191300-un
[32] Gleick, PH (2014) Water, Drought, Climate Change and Conflict in Syria. Weather, Climate and Society 6:331-340
[33] Barber, Benjamin. “If Mayors Ruled the World.” Seminars about Long-term Thinking (SALT). The Interval, San Francisco. 5 June 2012.

Work Cited

Barber, Benjamin. “If Mayors Ruled the World.” Seminars about Long-term Thinking (SALT). The Interval, San Francisco. 5 June 2012.

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Reprint. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA, 1972

Bateson, Gregory Mind and Nature. Hampton Press, 1979.

Elliott, Herschel. Ethics for a Finite World. 1st ed. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO, 2005.

Escobar, Arturo. Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press, 2011

Finnegan, William. “Leasing the Rain.” The New Yorker 8 April 2002 url: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/04/08/leasing-the-rain , retrieved 20 November 2014

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1975. ‘Energy and Economic Myths.’ Southern Economic Journal 41: 347-381

Gleick, PH (2014) ‘Water, Drought, Climate Change and Conflict in Syria.’ Weather, Climate and Society 6:331-340

Hardin, Garrett 1968, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science, 162:1243-1248

Henry, Claude & Stiglitz, Joseph E. 2010. ‘Intellectual Property, Dissemination of Innovation and Sustainable Development’ Global Policy 1:237-251

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. London, 1689.

Lu, Bao-Rong & Snow, Alison A. 2005. ‘Gene Flow from Genetically Modified Rice and Its Environmental Consequences’ BioScience 55:669-678

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Insitutions for Collective Action. 1st edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1990.

Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. Reissue. Bantam, 1992.

Ruddiman, Bill. 2003 ‘The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago’, Climate Change 61:261-293

Shultz, Jim. “The Politics of Water in Bolivia.” The Nation 14 February 2005 url: http://www.thenation.com/article/politics-water-bolivia, retrieved 14 November 2014

Turing, Alan. 1996 ‘Intelligent Machinery: a Heretical Theory’, Philosophia Mathematica 4:256-260.

“Syrian civil war death toll rises to more than 191,300, according to UN.” The Guardian 22 August 2014, Retrieved: 10 December 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/22/syria-civil-war-death-toll-191300-un

The Corporation. Dir. Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott, Written by Joel Bakan, Harold Crooks, & Mark Achbar

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