Posted by: Annabel Ascher | July 28, 2011

Extinction Rant

American Junkyard

A little poetic interlude:

I don’t want to talk about sustainability

I want to talk about survival

because in a state of nature

nothing unsustainable survives.

Period.

Yes, we do still live in a state of nature

that is impossible to escape

500 years of western political thought to the contrary notwithstanding.

We can’t trickfuck nature

I don’t even know what that means

to say we live outside

a state of nature.

Does it mean we no longer

eat, shit, fuck, give birth, get addicted, get old, die, or

State of Nature

compete compete compete

for resources shared with every other animal?

We have our habitat, our niche

which is everywhere and everything.

Lacking big teeth and claws

We have our big brains and our culture

But

our intelligence has not been great enough

nor our culture strong enough

to outrun our own arrogance.

No, I don’t believe we

will destroy the earth

unless we accidentally blow it up

of course.

However, we could easily cause our own extinction.

We are well on the way.

Did we make a terrible mistake

by the slow accident of agriculture

as we came to see ourselves

as animals no more

but imagined ourselves angels

in the great chain of being.

We created a world based entirely

on fantasies of our own identity

and lived as if our fantasies were real

and are still living as if our fantasies are real.

And in our dream we built the

great energy intensive cities

and stratified stratified stratified.

Now, awakening 10,000 years later

to the nightmare

high order multiple feedback nonlinear systems

that no one can understand much less control

yet

we keep building and growing, building and growing

with no regard for the consequences.

No-not even a knowledge

of either the magnitude of the error

or our close proximity

to the oblivion of extinction.

Yes-us

thrown on the junk pile of evolutionary history,

Yet

the tree outside the window is still photosynthesizing

and the bacteria are still busy decomposing

the remains of last night’s supper.

It all still works.

We have a civilization

built on death

but with pockets of life

and shot through with pure human creativity and magic.

Can any of this be saved?

I don’t know the answer

But I do know this.

Bees are more important

than Beethoven.

Posted by: Annabel Ascher | July 1, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part VIII-The Problem of Change

The Problem of Change

Schnaiberg and Gould attempt an answer to that very question. They write, “… we remain institutionally committed to accelerating the treadmill of production, despite all our knowledge about environmental disorganization and its social consequences.” They go on to explain that.

” The short answer is that despite our cumulative knowledge and repeated challenges to the reported benefits of the treadmill, our social institutions do not perceive that there is any other way of sustaining themselves…Our modern political-economic system has many imperfections, but it’s the best that we can do .One feature of modern history  that underlies this position is that we ‘consume history’ through the treadmill, and have therefore limited awareness of historical alternatives to the modern treadmill. A second feature is that the treadmill spins of many benefits for the leaders and professionals in modern institutions, those who are important intermediaries in shaping the opinions and behaviors of many publics.”[i]

 

Marx said that power concedes nothing without a struggle. I would add, especially not power that has garnered the legitimacy of a religion. Especially not power that is protecting the addiction of two billion people in the developed and rapidly developing world. Especially not power that has as its delivery system a hypnotic and in itself addicting medium (television) which reinforces the short attention span and lack of historical knowledge noted above. In capitalist societies, freedom is defined as the ability to consume as much as one wants, to buy whatever one wants, and to do whatever one wants, whenever the desire strikes. The limits of nature do not allow this kind of freedom to any species, humans included. Real freedom is the freedom of thought, expression and relationship that nature allows and human dignity demands. It is exactly this freedom that television in its present form removes.

But I postulate that there are other equally strong reasons for our denial of obvious fact. Jay Forrester of M.I.T. speaks of global ecosystems as

“…high-order multiple loop non-linear feedback systems.”  He goes on to explain that

“the behavior of even third-order systems (with just three variables) is hard for humans to comprehend, so that many social/political/economic/ corporate systems, which are twentieth-order or higher, are not comprehensible to the human mind.”[ii

It should be immediately apparent that all ecosystems are high order multiple feedback loops, therefore incomprehensible to humans. Forrester goes on to explain the counter-intuitive properties of complex systems, which include the wide separation of symptoms and causes, the lack of effective ‘leverage points’ for policy makers, and the contradiction between short and long range solutions.

As to the first property, there are many ways to mystify complex social problems, and deconstructing them to the point where the lines of causation are no longer visible between issues is one of them. Benzene is pumped out here and cancer pops up over there. The experts in the environmental sector tell us to reduce re-use and recycle, and industry pounces on recycling, the least effective and most expensive of the three, virtually eliminating re-use and reduction, which both threaten the treadmill. That is mystification.

As to the third above mentioned property, the contradiction between short and long term solutions, psychologist Steve Levinson believes that our brains have a design flaw that makes long term thinking particularly difficult. We have two competing guidance systems at work, the sophisticated cerebral cortex and the reptile brain. Levine calls them the “Intelligence Based Guidance System”, and the “Primitive Guidance System” He contends that the Intelligence Based System “uses intelligence to figure out the best course of action. It’s designed to make sure we behave in accord with our well thought out conclusions about what’s best for us. In contrast, the Primitive Guidance System is vigilant, reactive, and present oriented .It’s designed to make sure that we respond immediately to threat or opportunity.” Levine continues by explaining that these two systems operate completely independently, and in case of the inevitable conflict between them, the shark-like primitive system always prevails over the ‘professor-like’ intelligent system.[iii] This explains why I sometimes eat junk food although I despise it, and why we can put thoughts of Armageddon out of our minds while chasing a living. It also explains why Steingraber’s three principles, the Precautionary Principle, The Principle of Reverse Onus, and the Least Toxic Alternative[iv] are not global law. It explains why we are not rushing to embrace Schnaiberg and Gould’s directive to reduce expectations in careers, avoid credit use, and reduce consumption.[v] Advertising has a way of overriding good intentions in that department, as it fully engages the Primitive Guidance System.

 

The Great Battle

Still, the rumblings of discontent are growing louder and louder. The ideological battle between the forces of the free market and those who would dismantle it is perhaps the most important in all of history. At stake is certainly the future quality of life of our children, probably the survival of the human species, and possibly the survival of life on earth. Most of the literature on this subject has a chapter at the end called “solutions” in which the authors expound on what can be done. Their suggestions are mostly very good. “Use the precautionary principle” or  “reduce consumption”, to mention two popular items on the solutions list.  However, I see two problems. One is the very structure of human brain functioning as noted above, and the other is the structure of the capitalist system itself, which now has most of the armaments needed to destroy the planet quickly through war, or more slowly through a continuation of insane economic practices. The only way to get around the guns defending capitalism is through the use of a human consciousness ill equipped for the task. Can H. sapiens evolve its brain fast enough to adapt its way out of this one? No one knows, but in the spirit of optimism I shall try to remain hopeful.


[i] Schnaiberg and Gould, Page 93

[ii] Gardner and Stern, Environmental Problems and Human Behavior, Pages 297-303

[iii] Steve Levinson and Pete Grieder, Following Through, Page 50

[iv] Sandra Stiengraber, Page 270,271

[v] Schnaiberg and Gould,  Chapter 6

 

Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 30, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part VII-The Logic of Natural Systems

Natural Systems

The Logic of Natural Systems

If the logic of the treadmill is based on profit and growth, then the logic of ecosystems could be said to be based on cycling and dynamic equilibrium. As animals, our bodies are also based on these principles, which helps explain why what harms the earth harms us as well. Every expert I could find in my research all concur on the features of natural systems. They all agree that the natural world is a finite, closed (except to the solar radiation that sustains all life) system that has as its base a complicated web of productive plant interactions. They all agree that humans are expendable to the system while fungi or ants for instance, are not. And they all agree that the activities of the treadmill are putting the whole system at risk. Visionary author Herman Daly states that:

“The bio-physical limits to growth arise from three interrelated conditions: finitude, entropy and ecological interdependence. The economy, in its physical dimensions is an open sub-system of our finite and closed ecosystem, which is both the supplier of its low- entropy raw materials, and the recipient of its high- entropy wastes. The growth of the economic sub-system is limited by the fixed size of the host ecosystem, by its dependence on the ecosystem for low-entropy inputs, and as a sink for high-entropy wastes, and by the complex ecological connections that are more easily disrupted as the scale of the economic sub-system (the throughput) grows relative to the total eco-system.”[i]

Not only do the experts in the field of ecology agree, we all have some basic feeling regarding the impending disaster, and we all face the potential danger in staying the current course, including the risk of poisoning ourselves first. Yet, the treadmill not only continues un-abated, it continues to grow. Why?


[i] Herman Daly, Beyond Growth,  Page 33

Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 30, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part VI-The Logic of the Market

American Junkyard

The Logic of the Market

The logic of the market is built on the twin pillars of profit and growth. As Schnaiberg and Gould write:

“The logic of the modern economic firm and the larger treadmill system represent the very antithesis of the Buddhist economics noted earlier: they require maximal consumption in order to sustain firms, so that the economy can generate modest levels of human satisfaction.”[i]

Nothing about the logic of the treadmill or the discipline of modern economics squares with the physical realities on planet Earth. As Bruce Macpherson, Professor of Social Science writes:

“Learn not to be intimidated by economics or economists. Yes, it is a challenging discipline and economists are knowledgeable and expert, but only within ‘the box’ (paradigm) of their own creation. Outside of it they know not whereof they speak. Remember: their ‘map’ does not reflect the territory. Nature’s economy is much greater, fuller, richer than that”

Macpherson than quotes a former student who said “Economics is like a video game: internally logical, cleverly and seductively contrived, fun to play…BUT not to be confused with reality.”[ii] I would like to point out two of the most destructive aspects of the game of economics as it is played in the modern world. The first involves competition. Schnaiberg and Gould discuss the negative effect of corporate competition on the environment in some depth.[iii]Competition is nevertheless constantly being invoked as necessary to produce the best results for the consumer. But is this even true? In the natural world, competition is the only species interaction which insures a negative result for both parties. Even parasitism at least has a good outcome for one party. While one party to a competition may emerge the eventual ‘winner’ they do not do so with out a price. And, there must be a winner. Ecologist Robert E. Ricklefs defines the ‘Competitive Exclusion Principle’ as follows: [iv]“The hypothesis that two or more species cannot co-exist on a single resource that is scarce relative to demand for it.” The outcome in species interactions is that the stronger species extirpates the weaker. In like manner, when competition is the main interaction in the economy, eventually the result will be monopoly. In the global economy of trans-national corporations, this has indeed been the result. There has been unprecedented building of monopolies under this supposed free market regime, both in horizontal and vertical integration. This has led to fewer choices for consumers, a validation of the ‘race for the bottom’ in labor management practices, and the largest consolidation of private power in the history of our species. Adam Smith may have written of competition, but I believe if he had had the language for it he would have used the word diversity instead. For the monopolistic result of competition is contrary to his theory.

The second large danger I would like to discuss is the idea of a “socially optimal level of pollution.” The theory is as follows: If pollution and environmental degradation get ‘bad enough’ affluent consumers will be willing to pay x to restore the system from y2 back to y1.In reality, ecosystems operate within a narrow range of tolerances. The point at which humans might be willing to push their destructive economic activities back to a more acceptable (for themselves) level could be too little to late for massive numbers of less resilient species. Schnaiberg and Gould go in to great detail regarding the shift from ecological disruption to irreversible ecosystem disorganization.[v] The trouble is, nobody knows exactly where the line of demarcation lies, especially not the CEOs of large corporations with a vested financial interest in the answer and at least a temporary ability to protect themselves from the consequences.

The masters of the free market have the zeal of evangelists partly because the ideology of the market can be likened unto a modern secular religion. Arlie Russell Hochschild, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley writes of Harvey Cox’s thesis that capitalism has become a religion. “Capitalism has, Cox suggests, its myths of origin, its legends of the fall, its doctrine of sin and redemption, its notion of sacrifice (state belt-tightening) and its hope of salvation through the free market system.” Hochschild continues:

Indeed, if in the Middle Ages the church provided people with a basic orientation to life, the multinational corporation’s workplace, with its  “mission statements” its urgent deadlines, its demands for peak performance and total quality, does so today. Paradoxically, what would seem like the most secular of systems (capitalism) organized around the most profane of activities (making a living, shopping) provides a sense of the sacred. So, what began as a means to an end –capitalism the means, good living the end, has become an end in itself. It’s a case of mission drift writ large. The cathedrals of capitalism dominate our cities. Its ideology dominates our airwaves. It calls for sacrifice through long hours of work, and offers its blessing through commodities. When the terrorists struck the twin towers on 9/11, they were, perhaps aiming at what they conceived of as a more powerful rival temple, another religion. Heartless as they were, they were correct to see capitalism and the twin towers as its symbol, as a serious rival religion.[vi]

 

If capitalism is a religion for some, its lifeblood, petrochemicals, takes the form of an addiction for all of us in the industrialized world, companies and worker/consumers alike. Psychologist Chellis Glendinning writes “What is addiction? We all certainly know what it looks like.” She goes on to describe a laundry list of unsavory self destructive behaviors. “Addiction looks like a person unable to express appropriate feelings. It looks like a perpetrator of abuse who constructs elaborate excuses for not acknowledging the hurt he has caused.” Glendinning goes on to describe how the process of addiction ends in total breakdown and possibly death.[vii] Writers Winin Pereira and Jeremy Seabrook concur, stating “”When we look at the list of noxious and damaging substances to which the people of the West are addicted, it is clear that the theme of addiction lies at the heart of consumer society.”[viii] What should be striking fear into the hearts of the addicted, and would, if they/we were not so deep in denial, is that the oil is running out rather quickly, and the pace of depletion will surely quicken if the free-market fundamentalists have their way and succeed in spreading the gospel in hitherto “under-developed” states. Schnaiberg and Gould have this to say:

Reliance on non-renewable energy resources insures that these resources will eventually be completely depleted. Increasing the demand depletes these resources at an ever increasing pace. Economic growth necessitates greater levels of consumption by greater numbers of people. Energy conservation efforts can only buy us a little more time. Therefore, the ideology of growth moves us closer and closer to the day when no fossil fuels will remain. When that day comes, if we have not developed alternative technologies for energy supplies, the entire socio-economic and industrial-technological complex of global society will collapse.  (Frahm and Buttel, 1982) Such a collapse will be the single most cataclysmic event in all of human history. Very few in the North will survive.[ix]

 

The clear observation of the behavior of industrial societies as religious ideology in support of an addiction helps to explain the fierce unwillingness to change even in the face of on-rushing disaster.


[i] Schnaiberg and Gould, Page 45

[ii] Macpherson, The Five Fatal Flaws, preface, Page 17

[iii] Schnaiberg and Gould Pages 51-54

[iv] Robert E. Ricklefs ,The Economy of Nature, Page 522,Glossary

[v] Schnaiberg and Gould, 1st chapter

[vi] Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Commercialization of Intimate Life, Page 144

[vii] Chellis Glendinning ,My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization ,Page 97.98

[viii] Pereira and Seabrook ,Global Parasites ,Page 191

[ix] Schnaiberg and Gould, Page 203

Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 11, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part V

Trouble in the Garden

David W. Orr writes in Orion magazine in January 2004, that:

“Each of us Americans, on average, has 190 potentially toxic organochlorine compounds in our fatty tissue and several hundred other chemicals that may be harmful to our health”[i]

The knowledge that there is something deadly to humans (and other living things) inherent in our way of life predates David Orr by several decades. Steingraber states, in Living Downstream, that:

“All types combined, the incidence of cancer in the United States rose 49.3 percent between 1950 and 1991. This is the longest reliable view we have available. . at mid-century a cancer diagnosis was the expected fate of about 25% of Americans- a ratio Rachel Carson found so shocking it inspired the title of one of her chapters- while today, about 40% of us (88.3 percent of women and 48.2 percent of men) will contract the disease sometime within our lifespans. Cancer is now the second leading cause of death overall and the leading cause of death among Americans thirty-five to sixty-four.[ii]

Of course there is enough anecdotal evidence floating around that most of us don’t need to read a book to realize there is a cancer epidemic. We can read it in the stories of our lives and the lives of our friends and acquaintances.

There were other troubling developments as well. Steingraber states: Carson studied the failed attempt to prevent the Japanese beetle from invading Iroquois County, a rural community located due west of my home county. After intense and repeated spraying pesticide bombardments by air during the mid 1950s, many insect species, sickened by the spraying became easy prey for insect eating birds and mammals. These creatures became poisoned in turn, and, in ever-widening circles of death, went on to sicken and kill those who fed on their flesh, leaving a landscape devoid of life- from pheasants to barnyard cats.”[iii]

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to jump from barnyard cats to a Kafkaesque vision of the future for humans, but not many were willing to make the leap, at least not yet.

Then there was the matter of deforestation, northern style. The housing market boomed after the war, and hasn’t slowed down since. In the eyes of the free market capitalists the chemical explosion was fine, the housing boom was wonderful, and the best thing of all was the birth of the consumer culture, which was in fact engineered by the corporations themselves. Any nagging doubts, any questions, were just the wild talk of somewhat suspect, possibly communist doomsayers. Absolutely any and all problems (if any) would be handled by the miracles of technology and the invisible hand of the market.

Ironically, the actual communists, being every bit as devoted to the treadmill of production as their western counterparts, were having many of the same problems. We had our Three Mile Island, they had their Chernobyl.

 

 


[i] David W. Orr, The Law of the Land, Orion magazine, Page 19

[ii] Sandra Stiengraber, Living Downstream ,Page 40

[iii] Sandra Steingraber, Page 17

Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 8, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part IV

The Seat of Power

The consolidation of corporate power
Even as the enclosure of the commons converted the peasant class into the proletariat, providing the treadmill with an unlimited labor supply, the disintegration of the cities and the specter of Blake’s “Dark satanic mills” gave the lie to the cornucopian notion of a ‘new Eden’ emerging from the maw of the factory. Yet, rather than being excoriated as frauds, the captains of industry were celebrated. In the United States, a place where the founders had distrusted corporations and had put provisions into the constitution to protect against corporate power, those provisions were being eaten away. By the mid-nineteenth century, corporations had quietly assumed the legal rights of persons in the United States, by subverting a constitutional amendment meant to protect former slaves. The age of the robber baron fell upon the world.
Of course there were protests against the human carnage that resulted from corporate rapine, and even some complaint against the effects on nature. The gilded age came to an end in a flurry of reforms, and though the machine never stopped turning (and no one would have expected it to- the general opinion was that the treadmill was a fine thing, but its owners just needed to behave properly) the barons played their activities down and bided their time.
World War I came and went, and the corporations became bold once more. By the advent of the Second World War, the proper conditions had arrived for a true consumer culture to meet the treadmill.
The birth of the consumer culture,
The scars of the depression, and sacrifices made to attain an allied victory in World War II left an America hungry for consumer goods. Any lingering doubts regarding possible costs or consequences were easy to put aside in the heady and naive days immediately following the war. As historian Lizbeth Cohen states:
“The flourishing of mass consumption was first and foremost a route to recovery and sustained health of the economy, but it also provided a ready weapon in the political struggles of the cold war.”
As has been discussed above, the cold war was about the means of distribution, not the means of production. David C. Korten writes:
“The struggle between two extremist ideologies has been a central feature of the twentieth century. Communism calls for all power to the state. Market capitalism calls for all power to the market- a euphemism for giant corporations. Both ideologies lead to their own distinctive form of tyranny. The secret of Western success in World war II and the early post war period was not a free market economy; it was the practice of democratic pluralism built on institutional arrangements that sought to maintain the balance between the state and the market and to protect the right of an active citizenry to hold both accountable to the public interest.”
This balance is precisely what put paid to the robber barons. But in the years between the great reformers and the post war boom, certain conditions had arisen that prevented the mass population from seeing the troublesome developments that were starting to bubble up. Or if a particular population could see part of the problem, they could not see the whole picture, much less connect the cause back to its source- the treadmill of production. Presently I shall discuss the nature of the mystification that kept the people from connecting the dots, much less taking action. In this next section I shall discuss the disturbing developments.

Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 7, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part III

The Age of Precision

The industrial revolution and the birth of the treadmill

The rulers of England and later the rest of Europe who embraced the Industrial Revolution starting in the early nineteenth century did so out of a genuine belief that by doing so they could make life easier for all people, feed an increasing population, and open up an era of plenty unprecedented in history. Unlike us, they truly did not have the science to see what type of genie they were releasing from the bottle. The laws of thermodynamics were postulated in the 1850’s, and Darwin had not yet been born at the start of the Industrial Revolution. The dream of unlimited energy was a seductive one, and by the time the negative social impacts began to develop, the addiction had already taken hold. And at the time, social consequences were the only thing that could be fathomed. The idea of ecological consequences was still many years away. Schnaiberg and Gould describe the thinking of that time as follows:

“The technologists of the industrial revolutions lived in a world with a cornucopia of resources to be extracted and manipulated to produce a seemingly endless variety of manufactured goods and wealth. Both Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, and Karl Marx, the father of modern communism, believed that the problem of production had been solved by the emergence of new technological innovation. No longer would human societies have to struggle to meet the basic needs of their populations. The crux of the political debate in the industrial era would be centered on the distribution of the endless wealth made available to societies through modern technologies, not on the ability of modern technologies to provide all the goods that people demanded. No longer forced to live in the relative poverty of subsistence agriculture, and no longer dependent on a finite resource base for the provision of goods, politics in the industrial world turned its attention toward the distribution of infinite wealth, and away from the question of survival in an untamed natural world. However, it would not be long before ecological limits reemerged and reimposed themselves on human societies in the form of crises of resource depletion and environmental pollution.[i]


[i] Schnaiberg and Gould, Environment and Society, the Enduring Conflict, Page 26

Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 6, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part II

 

The Industrial Age

How did the treadmill of production and consumption begin and take hold?

Before thirteen thousand years ago, in the Upper Paleolithic, big game hunting was the only game in town, much as free-market capitalism is fast becoming today. Some anthropologists argue that is was economic overspecialization that caused the demise of the Neanderthals. If this is true it is likely that our direct ancestors the anatomically fully modern Homo sapiens would have met the same fate if it had not been for a lucky change in the weather.

This change led the nascent H.sapiens into the Holocene transition, and the greatest flowering of economic diversity in history. In addition to the original hunter/gatherers there were sedentary hunter/gatherers, as well as several types of plant and animal domestication, including pastoralism, horticultural and eventually agriculture. Up until this point, humans had been equal to every other animal in that they had no means to store the energy of the sun, which would give the appearance (though not the reality) of breaking the laws of thermodynamics. Like all the rest of nature the human could only use energy that had recently arrived, and then only for immediate needs. This is why the over-specialization of the Upper Paleolithic was dangerous for the big game hunters, but had very little lasting effects on the surrounding system.

With the advent of collective agriculture the human species gained its first experience in the use of what Thom Hartmann calls “ancient sunlight”. For the first time, we could store the energy of the sun for future use. But, as Hartmann points out, “…we were still using only about a year’s worth of sunlight-energy per year, and so even though we were eliminating some competing or food-species, our impact remained minimal at worst. We weren’t ‘dipping into savings’ to supply our needs, yet.”[i] However, the need for collective labor generated by the agricultural revolution generated the need for centralized control, and set humankind on the long slide towards economic monism and the treadmill of production. As Paul R. Ehrlich explains, “When further intensification of agriculture was needed to support a growing population that could not be supported by extended families…chiefdoms evolved.”[ii] Timothy Earle, professor of anthropology at Northwestern University sheds further light on the subject, stating that the evolution of chiefdoms “hinged to a large measure on the ability to control or direct the flow of energy and other basic resources through a society as a means to finance new institutions”[iii] Thus, the stage was set politically for the eventual emergence of the treadmill of production. However, the existence of a power based political framework was necessary but not sufficient for the next stage in the path towards our current situation. The treadmill needs a much higher level of energy than mere agriculture could provide. It required the next level in the harnessing of Ancient sunlight. It needed coal, and then oil.


[i] Thom Hartmann, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Page12

[ii] Paul R. Ehrlich, Human Natures, Page 250

[iii] Timothy Earle, Chiefdoms :Power, Economy, and Ideology, Page 71

Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 6, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part I

 

What are the Commons?

The commons are all those spheres of life that are shared by communities, human or ecological. Natural commons include the various factors that life requires, such as air and water, and the cycles that support and distribute those factors to living things, such as the hydrological cycle. They also include the radiation of the sun, the soil, and the vegetation that supports all life. The human created commons include such things as the press, culture, the Internet, the use of the airwaves, and in some places and times, common pasture lands. Time itself is a common that stands between the natural and the cultural. A number of years ago Garrett Hardin wrote an essay on The Tragedy of the Commons. This essay was based on a false premise regarding the nature of the commons, as we shall see. The system described by Hardin was actually an open access system, and the commons were not treated as absolute open access systems. An example of an open access system might be the crash pads of the 1960s youth movement. They always deteriorated quickly into chaos because no one took responsibility for the upkeep of the living space. According to Friends of the Commons, a Marin County based non-profit dedicated to improving awareness of the commons the proper definition would be “all the creations of nature that we inherit jointly and freely, and hold in trust for future generations”

 

 

The History of the Commons

From the beginning of life on earth, the entire biosphere has been one great common. The very air of the last breath I just took contained molecules that once passed through the lungs of Alexander the Great, and indeed through the lungs of every other being. The water I consumed at breakfast once passed through the systems of dinosaurs. Those who say everything is “connected” may be speaking more literally than they ever thought.

The human defined commons are merely an extension of the natural commons, a place where human cultural adaptation matches reality in a positive way. It is logical that the farther back one goes in the history of Homo sapiens, the larger the area considered common. In Roman times the concept of the commons was codified into law. According to the Friends of the Commons:

“The Romans distinguished between three types of property: res privatae, res publicae, and res communes. The first consisted of things capable of being possessed by an individual or family. The second consisted of things built and set aside for public use by the state, such as public buildings and roads. The third consisted of natural things used by all, such as air, water, and wild animals.”

This concept of the commons survived the fall of pagan Rome and continued into the middle ages. It was only the development of capitalism at the onset of the protestant reformation that began the challenges to the commons that led first to physical enclosure, then to market enclosure, and finally to the cultural enclosure we are facing today.  If, as Edward Abbey surmises, unlimited growth is the ideology of a cancer cell, then the current world system, dominated by the ideology of the capitalist sect of the religion of economism is actually a species of societal cancer.  The dominant global culture consists of three synergistic parts: industrialization, capitalism, and corporate plutocracy that together form a system that make both ecological sustainability and social justice impossible.

Posted by: Annabel Ascher | April 1, 2009

At breakfast this morning my significant other, Rob, mentioned that he had read that in Japan, over twenty percent of the workforce is temporary and live without benefits of any kind. That made me think of a Japanese term I found recently in The Power of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The word is karoshi and it means death from over-work. Here in the United States, the attitude towards workers is generally just as callous these days, and though we don’t have a separate word for it, our work habits definitely are unhealthy enough to contribute to a lower quality of life and an earlier death. Medical science tells us that those who take regular vacations and have good work/life balance live longer healthier lives, but most Americans can’t afford the luxury in the corporate state that is America in the new millennium.
Of all of the many defects in the new turbo-capitalism, this willingness to treat workers as mere commodities is one of the most troubling. Humans evolved in tribes where each member old enough to work had a job and a purpose. The Stone Age economy lasted at least 100,000 years. The agricultural economy that followed lasted thousands of years. It is only in the new capitalist age that whole groups of productive adults fall victim to the concept of “structural unemployment”. This means that the system itself requires a certain percentage of willing workers to go without work. It also causes those who have jobs to accept bad working conditions, and to literally work themselves to death to keep those jobs.
This 5% of potential workers doesn’t seem like much when represented statistically, but in actual social terms it is a calamity for those actual people that are affected, and their families. Even if we didn’t need work to support ourselves, we need it to create structure and meaning in our lives. We have evolved to be working creatures. We need to be useful.
To add insult to injury, these people, once thrown upon the junk heap of life in a capitalist state, are treated like purposeful losers. And, in recent years, after the right wing assault on public welfare, they find themselves more and more falling into homelessness and abject poverty.
This flaw in the system has always been there but as unemployment rates climb far beyond the built-in level of about 5% and spiral towards levels consistent with an economic depression, people are starting to notice. The evening news recently featured a segment on homeless children. These are the former middle-class whose parents have lost their jobs, and then lost their homes. I wonder, when this crisis is solved, will the policy towards “structural unemployment” change as well?

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