It offers an appealing alternative to more stuff and more money, which drives environmental destruction today.
Image from Flickr via lyzadanger
By Jay Walljasper
By arrangement with On The Commons
It’s easy to not think about the looming climate crisis. For one thing, it’s depressing to ponder the misery ahead if we don’t take drastic steps now to curb greenhouse emissions. It’s even more depressing when you consider that even the most modest steps to reduce carbon use in the US have been derailed by corporate lobbyists and ideological zealots.
And even when we do think about climate change, it feels abstract and distant. How can a few parts per million of an invisible gas pose a dire threat to our future, no matter how convincing the scientific evidence. That’s why the heroic work of grassroots organizations like 350.org to translate these facts into action steps is so critical.
I recently read another fresh perspective on climate change that really hit home. “Probably the most pressing need is to shut down the engines of productivity,” said David Graeber—an organizer of Occupy Wall Street and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years who now teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics, in The Nation.
That’s an even more daunting mission than transforming our energy supply, especially on a planet where many people still suffer from a lack of material resources. Yet I think it’s the key to saving the Earth for human habitation. So long as the worship of productivity—more stuff, more money, more power, more mobility, more space, more control, more everything—reigns supreme, we will continue racing down the path of destruction.
Defenders of the status quo will roar that a commons way of life defies human nature, the truth is humans have lived this way for most of history.
It’s a radically radical proposition, not just in its challenge to business-as-usual in corporations and governments, but for the impact on every aspect of our lives. Still to assure a world worth living in for everyone’s great grandchildren it’s necessary to back off from the mindless pursuit of ever-increasing economic production. We must find a new operating system for modern society that will sustain natural ecosystems at the same time as providing everyone on the planet with food, health, livelihood and security.
An impossibly naive dream? Not really. For much of history, human progress was guided by a different set of principles than the industrialized, market-driven system now accepted as the natural order of the universe. Look around—at indigenous people and civil society, Internet initiatives and our own households—to see a different way of life characterized by sharing and collaboration rather than production for production’s sake.
We experience this way of life throughout our lives. Especially when we are enjoying time away from work and shopping—at the park, with our friends, playing with kids, participating in community activities. Pressed to produce a word to describe it, we might say common sense—which is pretty close to what some folks call it: the commons.
The commons means “what we share together,” distinct from what we own separately. It’s a form of wealth belonging to all of us, which is there for everyone to use so long as we take care to ensure there’s enough for future generations.
Greater appreciation of the commons will help ease the transition to a society less dedicated to production and economic growth. We cannot shift to a sustainable way of life without changing how we think about our place in the world. Slowing production will remain impossible so long as most people identify progress, success and self-worth by what is theirs alone.
The commons broadens people’s vision from what is mine to what is ours, allowing us to see that we are losing more in the quest for ever-more stuff and money than we are gaining. And while defenders of the status quo will roar that a commons way of life defies human nature, the truth is humans have lived this way for most of history. If human existence is to continue in the centuries ahead, it’s crucial that we rediscover this sense of what belongs to all of us together.
Jay Walljasper, Senior Fellow at On the Commons and editor of OnTheCommons.org, created OTC’s book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. A speaker, communications strategist and writer and editor, he chronicles stories from around the world that point us toward a more equitable, sustainable and enjoyable future. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and a senior associate at the urban affairs consortium Citiscope. Walljasper also writes a column about city life for Shareable.net and is a Senior Fellow at Project for Public Spaces and Augsburg College’s Sabo Center for Citizenship and Learning.