Exploiting the Commons - Time to Change Course

By Glenn Ashton · 25 May 2011

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Picture: Guesus
Picture: Guesus

The business of exploiting the natural resources of the world for profit continues at an ever-increasing rate. While people are the generally unwitting drivers of exploitation and damage to natural resources, the real driver is laissez faire capitalism, as pursued by the dominant corporate-political nexus.

We all rely on our collective natural resources – water, air, soil, natural diversity – to keep us alive. This is the natural commons of the planet, the common property of all living organisms, which happens to include humans. The commons includes the biosphere, the living aspect of the planet that sustains the web of life upon which we are each individually and collectively dependent. 

We each have a collective interest and ownership of the commons. The commons is on loan to present generations from future generations yet to be born. Accordingly we individually and collectively bear responsibility to maintain the natural commons in a condition that is as pristine and unspoiled as possible.

The reality is that large commercial entities rely on exploiting the commons to provide the resources and services from which they profit. In doing so the commons is exploited for private gain. Any and all negative impacts on the commons are externalised. Thus the real long-term cost and impact of exploiting the commons is indirectly borne by every living species that inhabits our biosphere. Degradation of any single aspect of the common space inevitably has knock-on impacts in this interconnected world. 

Pollution of the air, water, land or destruction and exploitation of biodiversity are today taken for granted. These collective impacts are now exhibiting such a massive impact on the collective planetary organism, that life as we know it is in distinct danger of unravelling.

James Martin, who predicted the Internet and cell phones in the 1960's, is founder of Oxford University's 21st Century School. He hired the world's top brains to predict future scenarios. Their collective conclusion was that, should we continue as we are there will be a few breeding pairs of humans left at the poles by the end of this century. This may seem extreme to us in our comfortable cocoon, but the everyday reality of extinction faces not only humanity but many other species of life on earth.

Corporations engage with the public through advertising and public relations to sell as much of their product as possible. On the other hand they insist that they have green credentials. The inherent contradiction of these claims is visible to anyone prepared to look.

Through carefully devised psychology, through which they justify their impacts as essential to our collective well being, industry does its utmost to portray itself to society as benign. This is now commonly termed “greenwashing,” the whitewashing of negative environmental impacts.

In reality, greenwash has become the status quo. Its practitioners realise precisely how they dishonestly portray their destructive practices as “green.” The massive PR industry, involved in both spin and advertising, work only to hoodwink us, the public. And in order to feel okay we want to believe the lies. 

In this regard South Africans are essentially more vulnerable than most other nations because of our high levels of inequality and poverty. 

The motivation for exploitation of the commons is portrayed as an ongoing attempt to create employment, to provide services for those attempting to escape the poverty trap, to create wealth and prosperity for all. The alternative, we are reminded, is too awful to contemplate.

The reality is somewhat different. The garden path we are being led down is actually creating the circumstances which are truly too awful to contemplate. The commons has been so badly eroded that the well being of future generations has already become irrevocably compromised. 

We need to ask whether we are going about things the right way. 

We grow our food in ways that waste water, that pollute water and that erode the land. The very practice of intensive, industrial agriculture is ultimately a destructive practice, from the level of soil biodiversity at the bottom, to the impacts on mega-biodiversity above. The external costs and impacts on our collective commons are far higher than the benefit we reap from the crops we harvest.

Our ways of providing energy destroy the very fabric of the land. Mining coal creates acid mine drainage, polluting water sources. The atmosphere is a dumping ground for greenhouse and noxious gases and poisons. We are left with heaps of slag and biologically sterile waste. While the health impacts are borne by all, the poorest are least able to cushion themselves against these impacts on the natural world.

It has become increasingly difficult for the common man to decide just who the good guys are. For instance the very organisation that is tasked with monitoring and managing the impacts of these activities on our collective commons, which maintains the global database of threatened species, a huge organisation known as Conservation International (CI), is funded directly by some of the worlds most pernicious polluters.

ArcelorMittal, BHP Billiton, BP, Cargill, Chevron, Coca-Cola, De Beers, Goldman Sachs, Kraft Foods, MacDonald’s, Monsanto, Newmont Mining, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Rio Tinto, Shell, Walmart and many other major corporations fund CI. The contradictions in accepting funding while promoting conservation were recently pointed out in an excellent article by Chris Lang.

Other reputable conservation organisations like the World Wildlife Fund are funded by a similar list of corporate partners. Coca-Cola, IBM, HP, Toyota, Walmart, IKEA, Cargill, Goldman Sachs, HSBC and many others are directly involved in funding this self-appointed conservation organisation. 

This is not to say that organisations like WWF and CI are evil or that their motivation is to undermine our collective commons. The real issue is that these supposed guardians of the global commons, of our collective biosphere, are profoundly compromised through their ties to industry, just as our governments are more responsive to corporate interests than to those of their citizens. 

These organisations cannot truly claim to provide actual, meaningful or sustainable solutions to the problems of deforestation, of overfishing, of global warming, or to change the global industrial agricultural paradigm if they are so compromised by their funders. WWF is even involved in a programme called the Roundtable on Sustainable Soy that benefits major agricultural entities like Monsanto and Cargill, while simultaneously destroying our common biodiversity.

Even groups like Greenpeace, portrayed as radical environmental campaigners are compromised by their intrinsic ties to the exploitative economic system. Of course all of these organisations will howl against these allegations but what else are they to do? Yet it is notable that more radical groups like Earth First and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are gaining a broader credence that ties in with the forceful arguments made by thinkers like Derrick Jensen, Joanna Macey and Vandana Shiva.

While the poorest are the most profoundly impacted, those protesting the exploitation are largely relatively wealthy and well educated. This creates a major disconnect about who speaks for who. Do the poor and exploited actually have any voice at all in this debate? The reality is that they are effectively gagged by many of very same organisations that claim to speak for them. Consultation and stakeholder agreements are tools to placate wealthy interests while the “bottom billion” or two remain outside the negotiation tent, as do most other species on earth.

So at the heart of it our existing system is broken. We, together our institutions, are too compromised to truly care for the commons. Changing our system is assumed to be a quixotic quest. Yet there are certainly other, better ways of doing things than continuing down the road we are being led down by governments, dictated to in turn by the lords of corporate and free market ideology. 

Many hoped, in a perverse kind of way that the global economic crisis of 2008 would prove so disruptive to the dominant economic model that something new would be able to emerge. That was not to be. However our model of endless growth, founded upon continued externalisation of its environmental impact will certainly founder, probably sooner rather than later. We cannot continue as we are. 

So surely we must begin to adapt our systems, now? We must explore ways that are utterly different to our dominant, exploitative economic model. New economics, the zero growth model, green capitalism, triple bottom line accounting and so on are all ideas that have been floated. But are they enough? 

These are not questions we have much time to contemplate. They should be placed at the top of our list of priorities. The alternative is simple – the extinction of people, along with the systems that sustained them. Surely examining our rather uncomfortable predicament can no longer be postponed? It can certainly no longer be sidetracked by the oligarchy that controls the corporate-political nexus. 

Perhaps a real starting point would be to meaningfully redistribute the ill-gotten gains from the 1% at the top that control nearly half of the worlds wealth and to use this to begin to apply first aid to an ailing world and society? It is not only the poor who are staring down the barrel of desperation but increasingly the exploited middle and emerging middle classes as well. 

At its root this discussion is not only about class or structure, it is one that affects us all; together with every living thing that shares our world. It must be prioritised. Our failure to embrace fundamental change condemns our children to a world closer to hell than to heaven.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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