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Friday, March 24, 2023


Sustainable Eco-Systems: Economies Living in Harmony with Nature

How Do We Ensure Sustainable Eco-Systems?

Living through the pandemic has exposed how precarious so much of our social and economic life really is.  It revealed that much of what we take for granted depends on a solid foundation of public and community infrastructure and a sustainable eco-system.  The choices we make in the next two decades will determine our success in creating a world of peace, prosperity, and health for future generations that is ecologically sustainable. 

The Commons signals a profound change and re-balancing in people’s relationship with each other and the natural world.  Its values echo the Indigenous worldview that sees us as responsible for the life and well-being of many generations to come.

Living in harmony with nature is closely connected with stewardship, the idea that use of natural resources as well as technologies operates within a multi-generational framework, reflecting an ethos combining human prosperity and ecological sustainability. One that situates efforts to meet current needs as bound up with both the gifts from the earth and our ancestors and what we owe to future generations. 

Canadian writer Heather Menzies reminds us that “commoning” and the Commons are part of our collective history. It was a way of understanding economics as embedded in community life as guided by sustainable practices and local democracy. We were immersed in the rhythms of connection to place, mutual obligation, shared experience, and protection of the Commons for future generations.

The Commons make up the living social systems through which people generate the necessities of life essential to sustainability and address shared community problems in self-organized ways.  As Guy Standing asserts, it is a collaborative way of living, concerned with the reproduction of resources for sustainability not their depletion. The Commons is the equitable pooling of resources, collectively governed for fair access for all.

Despite growing scientific evidence and public understanding of the ecological risks facing the planet since the early 1970s, we have repeatedly failed to respond with the required sense of urgency.  Since 1980, the postwar system of social protections has been seriously eroded, along with the continued “plundering” of the natural environment, intensifying a long history of capitalist practices of commodification, privatization, and colonialization of our collective Commons. 

These efforts have stalled human progress and now threaten our very survival.  We believe that human and social rights are intertwined with a third level of rights, environmental rights, designed to protect all life on the planet, including preserving natural habitats of non-human animals. 

Environmental rights and obligations related to the broader notion of a “Global Commons” were recognized starting with the Law of the Sea (1982), and expanded to agreements related to the atmosphere, the ozone layer, climate change, protection of natural species, treaties on the Polar Regions, and to outer space.  Today there is fierce debate regarding net neutrality and need to protect cyberspace as a global social commons.

This multi-dimensional, interdependent understanding of human rights carries with it individual and collective obligations and responsibilities to each other, to the planet and to future generations. This understanding of rights and their reflection in how we meet human needs brings us to the paradigm of the Commons, a different future based on human rights, human interconnectedness, shared resources and the sustainability of all life on our planet.

The Shift We Need

The Commons strongly repudiates the limited calculus of global capitalism, its neo-liberal doctrine with its corresponding policies supporting a market-dominated state fixated on corporate rights and endless economic growth. Looking beyond this limited discourse, requires us to challenge the very foundations of our current economic systems, to radically shift our legal and institutional arrangements, and to re-focus economic activity, community actions and personal behaviours both at a regional systems and community level. 

We ask the question: What is our path to greater social and environmental justice? The evidence of the last fifty years raises serious questions regarding the future.  It requires new ways of thinking that priorize addressing human need and sustainable development over corporate expansionism.  It calls for changes in development practices and consumption patterns to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint and reverse its escalating ecological damage that now threatens the survival of life on earth.  The United Nations sustainable development goals provide a sound framework for such efforts.

The Social Commons is primarily focused on enabling and facilitating the agency of people living in communities to make decisions on meeting local needs, while protecting both disadvantaged groups and the natural world from exploitation and subjugation by central governmentsor corporate interests.  Yet, such protections must be safeguarded through agreements with and across governments.  The State is a partner in the initiatives of society, setting standards, allocating resources, and ensuring equitable access to both resources and the decision-making processes. 

To achieve this, we will also need to fundamentally reshape how senior levels of government work with and enable the local sphere of civil society. Our senior governments must be re-conceived as forming what Francine Mestrum terms the “emancipatory state”, acting as the steward of people’s rights and a partner in creating the social, economic, and environmental conditions for the respect, endorsement, and enactment of these rights. 

In Canada, our federal political system divides power between two orders of government and organizes a third municipal tier for a good deal of service delivery.  We are very familiar with the complexity of creating and enforcing national standards of equity and access in critical areas of care, as the COVID-19 crisis in long term care has demonstrated recently.  Since the Social Commons is rooted in community life, a critical challenge is to think through the intersection of community building withinrecast political and economic institutions designed to ensure that laws and societal conventions can cultivate and maintain the shared prosperity of the Commons. 

Canada’s federal government is engaged with other nation states in many bilateral and subcontinental structures, and our economic systems are often constrained by global agreements related to financial transactions and international trade.  A Social Commons framework should guide Canada’s relations with other states in the international community with respect to global protection of human rights, including income security, housing, food and water, health services, employment and education, as well as protecting the bio-sphere.  Such protections are well beyond the power of community level actors. 

The Journey Before Us

Growing the Commons in ways that sustain the planet will require concerted effort.  We must redress the growing concentrations of power created by policies promoting enclosure, commodification and privatization during the last two or three generations that imperil the future of life on this planet.  We must re-cast the role of government as an enabler and builder of the Commons.  We must re-design our economies around living systems, and in ways that engender thriving communities and diverse, sustainable eco-systems. 

We must ensure a future where all human beings have a right to the essential prerequisites of human life and community – the right to clean air, safe drinking water, food and shelter.  These should be available to all based on local norms and cultural practices and consistent with global efforts and declarations related to human rights, adequate income, decent work, and ecological sustainability. 

We will examine at both a systems and community level, how current mindsets and ways of seeing our social relations and economic activities blind us to the extraordinary possibilities for collective action.  Ensuring social and economic activities work in harmony with nature will necessitate major shifts in our systems, processes and behaviours.  It will mean profound changes to legal and institutional arrangements, the planning and design of human settlements, local practices and human actions. Here’s a glimpse at some of the areas we plan to explore and where we want to build conversations.

At A Regional and Systems Level . . .

We face many challenges today each reflecting differing dimensions of current systems failures as well as revealing the seeds of change we need to cultivate.  In terms of systems failures we will talk about:

  • A domination and exploitation mindset that seeks to control, privatize and subjugate  both nature and communities rather than working within a public service mindset
  • Encroachment on habitats and declines in species and biomass
  • Enclosures and privatization efforts that diminish the commons and opportunities for cooperative and public led action and shared prosperity
  • Food production and distribution systems promoting mono-culture,  factory farms and the maltreatment of animals, global supply chains, and genetically modified foods
  • Failure to understand the critical distinction between “economic growth” and “human prosperity” and how we should measure them
  • Lack of focus on the Caring Economy and the Green Economy: to build local economies
  • The legal and regulatory frameworks that allow private corporations to appropriate unearned rewards and to externalize risks to governments, communities and the public
  • Need to reverse the commodification and financialization of the Commons
  • Bankruptcies, ghost towns, toxic wastelands left by failed or abandoned ventures and extraction sites

In exploring the transformations we need to embrace and cultivate, delve into many promising ideas gathering momentum and taking us toward a more sustainable path including: 

  • Moving to a Zero carbon future (simulation models that show us the way)
  • Supporting bio-diversity and regional/state sustainable food production systems  (100 mile club ideas)
  • Reversing  the enclosures and re-patriating the Commons – water, seed,  land and air rights, social infrastructure, public transportation, communication and social media
  • Growing both the Caring Economy and the Green Economy as parts of a re-imagined  Commons
  • Reversing the ability of private corporations to appropriate rewards and externalize risks (resource extraction, land use decisions, pollution/waste, public costs)
Source:  Pembina Institute
  • From domination and exploitation of resources to stewardship of natural resources and shared gifts
  • Sustainable development (circular economy)  (link to other Pillar)
  • Community and Public Banks, Micro-Finance to catalyze and invigorate community building
  • Shift from fossil fuels and toward renewal energy sources
  • Learning from indigenous knowledge and practice (In Canada, Central America, Asia and Africa)  

At a Community and Personal Level . . .

The systems issues above each generate their own local challenges and constraints.  They also reveal the kinds of transformations necessary to create the future we want.  Challenges must be overcome through concrete steps to re-patriate the Commons and actively promote a more shared, inclusive and self-sufficient economy rooted in a revitalized civic life.  Among the challenges to building sustainable communities we will discuss:

  • Urban sprawl encroaching into wildlife habitats, diminishing food production capacity and undermining the integrity of water systems
  • Lack of local self-sufficiency in jobs, goods, shared resources, and housing opportunities
  • Large scale commuting to work, and transportation of many goods over long distances that could be locally produced
  • Many similar goods lacking interchangeable parts, built to fail requiring replacement
  • Lack of local leadership, failing in efforts to reduce our carbon footprint more quickly
  • Lack of local planning to improve and extend shared knowledge and cooperative practices
  • Failure to support the shift from fossil fuels and toward renewal energy sources through local plans
  • Failure to plan communities in ways  that integrate nature into the urban and community fabric

In terms of the transformations we need to embrace and cultivate, we will delve into many promising ideas that are gathering momentum and taking us toward a more sustainable path including: 

  • Local bio-diversity, compact development, strengthened conservation authority mandates
  • Increased local food production and use efforts, more plant based diets  (100 mile clubs)
  • Local economies organized around human needs (see related Pillar Post)
  • Sustainable local development strategies (circular economy, the doughnut)
  • Making the shift from the waste and inefficiency inherent in an “economic growth” mindset to a  “Prosperity” mindset with a richer and more useful set of measures
  • Right to repair (Europe examples) and making goods that last
  • Planning based on sustainably integrating nature into the urban and community fabric
  • Speed up and replicate best local examples in reducing carbon footprint (construction, waste reduction, reusing and sharing)
  • Shift from Consumerism to Solidarity Economy: Buying one-third less  “stuff”  (and re-used and gifted more instead of throwing it away)
  • Build local leadership and planning frameworks to improve and extend shared knowledge and cooperative practices, (less privatized competitive practices)
  • Creating the foundation for a local economy based on donut and circular principles to both reduce consumption and thrive

We can change our journey.  There is a different path.  We invite you to join us in helping to build these conversations and in helping us to identify and shape new ones. 

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