The Commons and Nature – Our Shared Inheritance

The Commons and Nature – Our Shared Inheritance
The concept of the Commons is a significant perspective that is central to sustainability and green issues but which has much wider implications for a moral imagination.

In his book ‘Earthdream; The Marriage of Reason and Intuition’ Robert Hamilton uses Douglas Hofstadter’s interpretation of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ to illustrate our interdependence and to suggest that the ‘Commons’, rather than being a tragedy, is in fact perhaps one of the greatest assets of and challenges to our humanity.

The idea of the Commons is usually characterized by an area of common land on which a group of herdsmen have the right to graze their animals, if each uses that right without restraint, the common land quickly becomes degraded and valueless. He concludes:

“In a commons situation where common wealth is shared for the benefit of all, when there are no cultural or legal restrictions upon individual self-interest, action that emphasizes individualistic rights rather than responsibilities without regard to the wider interest is in the end irrational.”

Only the moral re-framing of individual action within a shared set of social, moral and cultural values can save the Commons. As well as being crucial to the environment, the concept of the Commons applies to many areas of society. We have the power to choose our values and create appropriate legal and cultural restrictions on individualistic action. So rather than being a tragedy as Hardin has suggested, the Commons is perhaps our greatest individual and collective opportunity to develop our humanity, our consciousness and our quality of life.

In this context, the Commons is a universal issue. The idea of The Commons can be seen as a metaphor for all our freedoms – environmental, social, cultural and economic.

The freedom of speech, the freedom to live in a safe city, the freedom for our children to play safely in our neighbourhood, the freedom to safely to use the internet or the freedom to trade in a version of a ‘free’ market that might allow for exchange in a more human way- these are equivalent social examples of the Commons as the freedom to live in an unpolluted world. How we protect and extend the Commons and thereby extend and protect the social, economic and environmental freedoms that contribute ‘silently’ to our well-being and to the quality of our lives, is a key moral challenge of our time. We need a culture that rewards virtue, that rewards compassionate action and self restraint rather than punishing it. The link between a moral imagination and potential policies that can encourage beneficial choices is discussed in the New Harmony blog. It would be interesting for example to consider what a compassionate supermarket, corporation, prison, public broadcaster, tabloid, bank or law firm might look like.

A moral imagination, to treat others as we would wish to be treated, requires we act with self restraint by not demanding we exercise our own freedom to the fullest extent.

This goes counter to both neo-liberal ideas of individual freedom and neo-conservative ideas of maximizing self interest that have stressed rights without responsibilities, and which are enshrined in “warrior” capitalism’s economic models of exchange which have benefited the few, impoverished the many and failed to protect the environment.

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