Defending and promoting the commons in a globalized world

All of life is local.

One might be forgiven for quickly passing over such a banality. And yet, the local is at the very heart of our system of values and the “globalization” debate.

Vital goods (organic matter, oxygen and drinking water) and the biological communities that evolved under these conditions are the quintessence of “localness”. As biological communities grow and become more dense–somewhat like the mega cities of the 21st century–they become more specialized and diversified. Historically that which was produced locally was consumed locally and, according to the first law of thermodynamics, the total energy in an isolated system tended to remain unchanged and in the system. (This of course, raises the issue of scale and interoperability between systems, matter for another debate and discussion.)

The Mediterranean biotope is such a “closed system”, naturally defined as a subtropical marine system conditioned by the earth’s orbit around the sun, producing warm dry summers and mild rainy winters. Within the Mediterranean biotope there are a number of micro-environments formed by mountain systems (Alps, Atlas, Pyrenees), river and estuarine systems (Nile, Rhone, Danube) and a marine topography dominated by coastal systems, continental shelves and deep water environments.

At some point in the evolutionary process, Man’s penchant for socializing led to the creation of local commons as specialized communities producing regular surpluses. Such surpluses were traded as a reliable means toward increasing the material well-being of the commons. Such local surplus led to the development of a class of professional merchant traders and then, to entire societies specialized in colonial settlement.

The expansive colonial settlement practiced by the Romans eventually proved unsustainable and gave way to a system of competing city-states and then to nation-states whose purpose was to serve an ever greater collective interest more or less democratically defined. Individual will was subordinated to the collective weal (the commonwealth) and predatory colonization once again became the order-of-the-day.

In the latest transformation, mechanized transportation, telecommunications and rights enforcement once again threaten the commons (sedentary communities locally nourished) and a new collective ideal is called into existence. But the question precisely, is what can be the validity of such a collective ideal? Who will negotiate it and, under what authority?

My participation in and adherence to a local commons is welcome and indisputable: my existence as a human and the greatness of anything I might accomplish depends on the commons and the nature of relations with distant commons. Such a system is disrupted when relations between commons become unequal and the self-sufficiency of one is threatened by the predatory practices of another.

In the end, why would I want to “harvest” my fish, my wheat or olives beyond the limits of local sustainability? Why would I want to pollute my rivers or disfigure my landscapes when the surpluses acquired are non-sustainable or when market practices predatory? And, what should we do about biological species (such as ourselves) that are not by nature sedentary and thus defy assignment to one or another geographic locality?

Defending and promoting the commons in a globalized world is perhaps the highest calling.

Public goods and laissez-faire capitalism

“Laissez-faire capitalism” our father would say, “is about economic freedom”.

My only problem with this is that it is “simplistic” and like all things simple, there must be a hitch. “Freedom” has a cost even if that cost is not economic.

How does one count the cost of freedom then, if it is not economic? is it a matter of personal sacrifice, a curtailment of personal freedoms in exchange for a public good? What is a public good?

A public good is a shared space produced by negotiated consensus. A public good, should not, in theory, be available for purchase. It often is however, and herein lies the problem.

A public good can either be preserved (a typically “conservative” idea) or it can be enhanced (typically a liberal, “progressive” idea).

The first cost of the public good is the “social cost” of maintaining a commons: personal freedoms are exchanged for “access” rights to the commons, and “access” has no price. The “cost” of freedom then, is the “value of public access”.

If there is a value inherent in man, it is the value created through freedom and choice. What are my choices if a neighbor or family member suffers from a want that I might somehow mitigate? What could possibly be the value of my freedom then?

While Americans, and before them, Europeans were out pursuing manifest destiny and “national exception”, amassing wealth through capitalistic enterprise, ensuring our survival as a species of humanity, the rest of the world could only watch and concede superior force.

Today the momentum is shifting.

Trust, mistrust, worldview, teleos… so many words of justification.

UN Peace-keepers or Collective Coercion

My good friend Glen Kendall writes in a June 23 entry to his blog, Viewpoint from Abroad that America is somehow shirking its responsibilities with respect to its funding of United Nations peace keeping efforts. While I do not disagree, I wonder if the question is properly raised as to what America’s responsibility should be.

In my view the problem with United Nations peace keeping lies not so much in the lack of physical resources, but in the self-evident contradictions of a “world order” in which nations participate “at leisure”. While I agree wholeheartedly that America should assume its responsibilities, I see a couple of problems.

First, there is the matter of accountability. UN peace-keepers act as proxies for a “collective authority”. I wish it were otherwise, but so long as a single nation (Russia, China the United States, South Africa, India, Brazil…) remains “above the law”, the “collective” remains an “authority” in name only. We cannot have an effective peace-keeping force if their authority is the whim of the current consensus.

The second problem is one of credibility. In our lifetimes the international community has acted a dozen times and more to suppress open strife. Almost always these actions have been motived by self-interest (Korea, Dominican Republic, Chile, Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, Kuwait…) and much less frequently, as a concerted international effort. Indeed, one of these “concerted efforts” has been the discreditable effort to maintain peace in the Middle East.

Not only might one suspect the International Community’s “motives” for mobilizing a peace-keeping force, but one has to wonder also about such a force’s effectiveness as a force, given the standards of passive-defensive, non-lethal engagement to which they are held.

The UN peace-keeper issue is more than a problem of funding, it is a fundamental political problem and a problem of legitimate authority.