The Environment as Our Common Heritage

The post below is excerpted from James K. Boyce's acceptance speech, "The Environment as Our Common Heritage," for the Fair Sharing of the Common Heritage Award, presented by Project Censored and the Media Freedom Foundation in Berkeley, California.  It originally appeared on the TripleCrisis.com website, on February 10, 2011.  Jim teaches ecological economics, among other things, at UMass Amherst, and has been a long-time defender of the commons.

What does it mean to say that the environment is our “common heritage”? On one level this is a simple statement of fact: when we are born, we come into a world that is not of our own making. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the natural resources on which our livelihoods depend, and the accumulated knowledge and information that underpin our ability to use these resources wisely – all these come to us as gifts of creation passed on to us by preceding generations and enriched by their innovations and creativity.

Yet once we take seriously – as I do – the proposition that this common heritage belongs in common and equal measure to us all, we move beyond a positive statement of facts to a normative declaration of ethics. We move beyond an understanding of what is to an assertion of what ought to be.

To say that the environment belongs in common and equal measure to us all does not mean that we have inherited a free gift with no strings attached. For our common heritage carries with it a common responsibility: the responsibility to share the environment fairly amongst all who are alive today, and the responsibility to care for it wisely to ensure that our children, our grandchildren, and the generations who follow will share fairly in our common heritage, too.

Every few months I find myself circling back to writings by Ivan Illich, the iconoclastic Catholic priest who decried the institutionalization of life and the great promise of “vernacular domains” as a source of regeneration.

I came back to Illich this time via a chapter about him in a book by Trent Schroyer, Beyond Western Economics:  Remembering Other Economic Cultures (Routledge, 2009).  The chapter is easily one of the most illuminating things I’ve read about Illich and his critiques of modernity.

The vernacular domain, as Illich calls it, is the realm of everyday life in which people create and negotiate their own sense of things – how they should educate themselves, how they should embrace their spirituality, how they should manage the resources they need and love.  Vernacular culture consists of those spaces that exist for self-determination in the broadest sense of the term.  As Schroyer puts it:

Coming to terms with the commons means a willingness to learn a new language and the alien worldview that it makes possible.  That is one of the great lessons that I have gleaned from reading histories of English commons and the enclosure movement. 

I realized this anew upon reading an essay by historian Peter Linebaugh, “Enclosures from the Bottom Up,” in the December 2010 issue of Radical History Review.  (Alas, the essay is locked behind a paywall, but fortunately, a website called “Envisioning a Post-Capitalist Order:  A Collaborative Project” -- which Radical History Review has a hand in – has posted a downloadable pdf version of the essay here.)   

Linebaugh -- the great scholar of the commons and author of The Magna Carta Manifesto (University of California Press, 2006) – has a way of conjuring up entire ways of knowing that have disappeared.  I was struck by two passages describing the folkways of commoners. The first links “body-snatching” with the commons, a conjunction that made me start.  It turns out that, amidst a civil rebellion in Otmoor, near Oxford, England, in the 1830s, a rallying cry of the commoners was “Damn the body snatchers!” 

There's a reason why the financial dealings of the Federal Reserve are so arcane.  It helps in ripping off the American people.  Don Dzombak of The Motley Fool has posted a very funny homemade video in the style of South Park that explains in a simple dialogue how the American people get ripped off when buying U.S. Treasury bonds. 

Two barely animated cartoon characters resembling stuffed bears are standing in a field talking in robotic, tech-modulated voices about the Federal Reserve Board's asinine policies.  I'll pick up the dialogue midstream:

Buying Respectability

Imagine that you're a company that is increasingly besieged by complaints that your heavily advertised junk foods and sugary drinks are contributing to obesity, diabetes and other health problems. The First Lady has even gotten into the act, making "eating healthy" a personal priority. Naturally, the company wants to neutralize public criticisms about its unhealthy products and refurbish its corporate image.

What better way than to buy a slice of respectability and high-minded objectivity from an Ivy League school -- say, Yale University?

That’s exactly what PepsiCo did recently when it announced that it would fund a graduate fellowship in nutritional science at the Yale School of Medicine. The masters or PhD student will explore "obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome." The depressing part is, Yale was only too eager to play along and sell its name for peanuts. It will receive $250,000 over the course of five years. For this, the dean of Yale School of Medicine, Robert Alpern, praised "PepsiCo's commitment to improving health through proper nutrition" and called PepsiCo's partnership with Yale "a visionary investment in the future of science."

NAFTA, Mexican Corn and the Commons

What happens when a market-based agricultural juggernaut invades a 9,000-year-old system of commons-based maize production in Mexico? What are the on-the-ground consequences? How have the farmers using traditional agriculture responded? Journalist Peter Canby offers a stunning account of this saga in his well-reported piece in The Nation, “Retreat to Subsistence.” Highly recommended reading.

What Financial Crisis?

The koan for our times might be: How can there be a devastating financial crash that produces no serious financial reform? Like all koans, this one is instructive because it forces us to contemplate the deeper reality that lies beneath superficial appearances.

In this case, we must confront our assumptions that our elected officials actually represent the people’s interests; that constitutional authority can trump corporate power in practice; and that the public sector and private sector are completely separate. Oh yes, there is one other naive belief being unmasked — that Barack Obama is an FDR or Lincoln for our time.

These truths are depicted in miniature by financial reporter Gretchen Morgenson’s account of the toothless financial reform bills now pending in the House and Senate. Her devastating critique in New York Times — exposes the utter inadequacy of the "reforms."

The Kids Are Alright

We’ve known all along that Facebook was more of a commercial machine committed to corporate advertisers than a benign platform that respects individual users. The problem was, most of our friends and acquaintances are already on Facebook. The site has lots of cool features, and there was no serious alternative to migrate to.

But we knew there would eventually be a reckoning as Facebook’s appetite for maximum profits kicked in. The uprising began when Facebook instituted a new set of changes that make it harder and more confusing to protect your personal information on the site. Users had to opt-out of the default policy — which granted Facebook generous access to your data —- rather than a more reasonable opt-in policy.

A $67 Billion Victory for Commoners

Last week’s enactment of historic health care legislation eclipsed another momentous victory for the commons: the reclamation of the federal student loan program which had been captured and milked for decades by voracious private lenders.

As I’ve discussed over the past year, our free market-loving banks (sic) have no objection to socialism when it reduces their risks and guarantees their profits. That’s exactly what the student loan program did. The banks were only too happy to act as a middleman in making loans to students. It let them make risk-free profits, exploit a captive clientele, collude with colleges and universities to keep the game going, and jack up the interest rates and fees charged to students.

Bolivia Stands Up for Common Wealth

Four years ago, the international press sent up red flares when the President of Boliva, Evo Morales, announced that he would reclaim his country’s natural resources for the benefit of Bolivians. As I wrote at the time, most press coverage took the “skeptical and fearful perspective of foreign investors, who consider themselves the rightful beneficiaries of Bolivia’s natural wealth. ‘Dammit!’ goes the subtext. ‘Now we won’t be able to earn the same sorts of massive profits that we did before’.” The other fear was that Morales would simply rip off foreign investors when he reasserted public control over Bolivian oil and minerals.

Didn’t happen. We now learn that Morales’ move has indeed benefited Bolivians, who are among the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. Writing in Yes! magazine, Sara Kozameh of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, describes how the Morales administration has achieved record growth despite the recession by reclaiming public ownership of natural resources.

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