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.

Leave a Reply