As we contend with the ravages of a global pandemic and plan our recovery, Canadians have discovered, as in other times of crisis, what we can and should expect of our government, and of each other as individuals, families, and communities. We do not envision a return to the ‘old normal,’ marked by inequality, human exploitation, broken systems of social protection, and environmental degradation. Rather we assume the challenge to move to another space, the Commons, by thinking, acting, participating, sharing, and governing differently. We ask probing questions to guide transformative changes to the Commons:
- What is our path to greater social and environmental justice?
- How will this path address our enduring human needs for home, for community, for economic security, for contribution, and for good work?
- How will we respect and protect ‘mother earth’?
- How to best engage people and tap into their wisdom through strengthening democratic, participatory practices, and building civil society?
- What is the economy for, if not to meet the needs of people?
In humanity’s treasure chest, we have a powerful moral code to guide us. It is based on shared values of mutual respect and dignity, values of inclusion, trust, obligation, fairness, and equality. It embraces what all of humanity has in common, our universal human rights expressing our universal human needs. They are articulated in the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the associated covenants recognizing the indivisibility of those rights: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.Human rights identify human needs that must be met to respect the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. It is time to adopt human rights as an essential moral driver to a just, decent, and secure future for all. Human rights are a foundation in transporting us to the Commons.
The Commons are described by Guy Standing as a cooperative way of living, concerned with the reproduction of resources for sustainability not their depletion. It is the equitable pooling of resources, collectively governed for fair access for all. The Commons can also be viewed as living social systems through which people generate the necessities of life essential to sustainability and address their shared problems in self-organized ways in their communities. The Commons in any particular setting take shape by processes of engagement in governance, provisioning, and social practice. Human rights frame and safeguard that shared area belonging to all.
Six spheres of the Commons are identified, all interconnected and interdependent, all essential for social and environmental justice. Human rights underpin each of the spheres of the Commons. The following discusses the empowering relationship of human rights in each sphere of the Commons:
- Natural Commons: the right to use natural resources such as land, water, air, forests, etc. attendant with the recognition that to live in harmony with nature, there is an obligation to protect and maintain these finite resources for the present and the future. Humankind is of nature.
Human rights envision human beings as part of nature and as human economic activity can degrade the natural environment and place life on this planet at risk, it also imperils human life. Simply put, it is a violation of human rights not to protect and preserve the Natural Commons.
A UN report, Framework Principles and Human Rights and the Environment, recommends 16 principles and corresponding actions to ensure human and environmental rights. The principles advocate for ecological standards that “prevent all environmental harm from human sources.” This, in turn, ensures a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, “protecting the human right to safe drinking water, clean air, and adequate food supplies.”
Neo-liberalism is an ideology that puts the full apparatus of the state and the institutions that should be there to safeguard human rights, provide social protection and ensure ecological sustainability, largely at the service of global capital. This enables the development of a more extreme and less accountable form of capitalism and threatens collective well-being and our ultimate survival. Recognizing the courage needed to address the enormous power imbalances of this reality, the UN framework principles work to create an enabling milieu in which individuals, groups, and organizations of civil society can operate and advocate for the implementation of human rights and environmental protections free from threat, harassment, intimidation and violence. These principles challenge global capital and its accompanying destructive materialism to be more accountable and responsible for the natural environment. The destruction of earth’s eco-systems does not respect national and other jurisdictional boundaries. Cross boundary cooperation is needed to enforce standards to prevent transboundary environmental harm, an infringement of human rights.
Education, public awareness, and public engagement about the increasing fragility and limits of ‘mother earth’ is critical to facing this century’s greatest existential challenge of climate change, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss.
- Civil Commons: the right to justice that is universal, proportionate, and based on due process and equality before the law. Access to a system of justice to resolve disputes and to retain counsel within the reach of all people. The Civil Commons balances and controls powerful interests whether in government, institutions, and corporations; prevents encroachment on civil liberties; and builds a vibrant civil society based on the social responsibility and active participation in community and national decision-making.
Human rights are foundational to the rule of law in the Civil Commons. Human rights underpin and inform the right to justice, the protection of people, the elimination of inequalities, discrimination, and exclusion. They are the scaffolding on which a democratic, inclusive Civil Commons is built.
A characteristic inherent in the Commons and its respective spheres is the self-empowerment of people to be active participants in the decisions that affect their lives. Based on human rights, the Civil Commons nurture civil society, promoting participation, guaranteeing voice, strengthening civic and political space. The Civil Commons acts in partnership with what Francine Mestrum describes as the ‘emancipatory state’ resulting from expanded concepts of governance and democratic decision-making through deliberative dialogue engaging diverse interests and sectors at all levels of community. It argues for a re-distribution of power, greater transparency, decentralization of decision-making, and strong democratic practice. It is in local spaces, deep in communities, where organizations of the Civil Commons engage in the development of policies, programs and practices that meet their human needs.
Strong vibrant Civil Commons are fundamental to those values and rights that will counter narrative management and disinformation contributing to both the erosion of democratic values and critical thinking. The Civil Commons provide a framework for rethinking and supporting transformative change that guarantee a just, democratic, and a sustainable way of life for all, the Commons.
- Cultural Commons: the right to cultural resources such as art, music, literature, theatre, public architecture, libraries, mass media. As Guy Standing notes, the arts “can widen horizons, expand perceptions, question presumptions, and encourage empathy as well as pleasure and delight.” Art reduced to a commodity corrupts its social role.
Cultural rights are a manifestation of our humanity in all its diversity giving recognition and voice to the cultural identities of people, their histories, their religions, and beliefs. Cultural rights are critical to the development of an inclusive, tolerant, democratic, and just society. They are essential to human understanding and exchange. Simultaneously, they are essential to the rights of individual artists to express themselves and their understanding of social reality through their personal visions. The right to cultures and arts are a history lesson informing the present, a vision of hope, an articulation of local identity, a process to create trust, a dream of what could be and, then, the steps to make it come true.
The Cultural Commons, as an expression of human rights, are essential to community development, community cohesion, a sense of belonging, and collaborative social relations. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been an advocate for the Cultural Commons as fundamental to the development of local communities of multiple diversities.
The Cultural Commons dignifies human diversity, the basis of building cultural competence and respecting the identity of others. Understanding more fully the power of human diversity enriches us but also give us multiple tools and perspectives necessary for human resilience and ingenuity. UNESCO talks about our diversity as the common heritage of humanity which must be valued and protected in the interest of the common goal: life.
- Knowledge Commons: the right to access information, education, ideas, science, and knowledge. A Knowledge Commons support the development of ideas that are freely generated and shared and where all can learn and expand their capacities.
To know, to search for truth is a human right and the Knowledge Commons supports the right to access to information based on community wisdom and experience, study, research, and data collection which can guide the co-creation and co-design of all the spheres of the Commons (natural, civil, cultural, social, and economic). The Knowledge Commons supports through information and evidence, accessible and available to all, vibrant and insightful dialogue on the path to the Commons. Evidence-based decision making allows for coherent and coordinated action.
In this historical moment, the Knowledge Commons relies heavily on the work of investigatory journalists and whistle blowers who expose corruption and who risk their livelihoods and sometimes even pay with their lives as they reveal information to the public. They attempt to hold accountable those who demonize their enemies and erode human rights. A democracy must have confidence in and be able to rely on journalists as trusted allies in presenting credible evidence to support their claims.
The knowledge Commons can lead to the creation of laws and regulations that foster policies and practices that meet human needs which, in turn, respect human rights. It contributes to the building of transparent, inclusive, and democratic spaces.
- Social Commons: the right to create relationships, activities, systems of social protection and support through which we respect and help each other participate and flourish. The Social Commons build on the many services of the welfare state.
The Social Commons explores what we share as human beings and what we need to sustain us as individuals living collectively in our local and world communities. It is through the Social Commons that we honor our commitment to universal human rights, articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and often referred to as social rights. They speak to human dignity and well-being where necessities are met through a system of social protection relevant to life in the 21st century.
The Social Commons embraces a system of social protect that guarantees the right to the necessities of human life including food, clothing, housing, health care, necessary social services, and the right to income security for the vulnerable or at-risk such as the elderly, those living with disabilities, the unemployed.
The Social Commons envisions education as a right that is accessible and affordable to all. Education is about the full development of the individual and society. Also, the Social Commons embraces a society where everyone has the right to work with decent wages and benefits. All people have the right to participate in a trade union to protect their interests.
Human needs are complex and interconnected. To provide one and leave others unfulfilled or unattended, creates gaps in our systems affecting human health and well-being. Such provision creates inequality in access to supports. Over the last four decades, the neo-liberal State with its accompanying austerity has systematically dismantled social protection, increasingly shrinking its responsibilities for our collective well-being.
Human rights require that new innovative systems of social protection, reflective of the needs and reality of the present, emerge and be supported by the ‘emancipatory state’ through legislation, standards, and financing. However, it is in collaborative partnership with communities, that the design and implementation of these standards occur. This co-creation flows from the active and democratic participation of people in local communities who fully understand their needs, and the way they can best be met. The Social Commons sees rights of social protection realized at the local level. It is where local autonomy and self-determination rebalances power relations with structures of government.
The Social Commons turns our attention to the reward of social relations, of belonging, of participating, and of connecting to one’s shared humanity through life in community. Embracing the Social Commons is a path that leads to an alternative to the atomization, individualization, materialism, and marginalization of the present.
- Economic Commons: the creation of an economy for people and their needs, which cultivates, extracts, harvests, processes, transforms or reproduces resources in a manner that ensures that they meet the basic needs of all people, are replenished, and sustained, and not depleted in pursuit of economic growth and higher profits.
Human Rights embrace and protect the well-being and economic security of the individual and the collective. Human rights are violated by an economy that reveres property and riches over the ecological health of the planet, and the wellbeing of workers. Conditions of work for many in the gig economy are precarious, with low wages, no benefits, and unsafe workplaces. Human rights are flouted by an economy that not only limits educational opportunities, but also develops policies and programs of social protection that, at best, are inadequate. Human rights are contravened when an economy and its political servants no longer respect civil institutions, democratic practices, rights defenders, and cultural beliefs and artistic expression. This simply leads to the question: If it does not respect human rights, what is the economy for?
An economy based on human rights nurtures the Commons in all its breadth—the natural, the civil, the cultural, the knowledge, and the social. Such an economy focuses on transforming itself into an economic system that is redistributive and regenerative. It respects the Natural Commons and the boundaries of ‘mother earth’s’ capacities. It embraces the future where resources and jobs are created in the emergent and much needed caring, green and digital economies. In other words, an economy that supports sustainability and well-being for all.
Human Rights: A Guiding Path to the Commons
The revitalization of the Commons in the 21st century emerge and flourish on a foundation of human rights. The Commons, with its powerful interrelationships and intersecting spheres of the natural, knowledge, civil, social, cultural, and economic commons, offer the promise of a future rooted in the daily needs and aspirations of people and their communities. People embracing the Commons are ‘rights holder’ and through their participation, their organizations, their social movements, their community activities provide a narrative and a practice that defies global capital and neo-liberalism with its policies of austerity.
The continued degradation of ‘mother earth’, along with the deep divisions and injustices unveiled by the Covid-19 pandemic, plant the seeds for a dystopian future. Renewing commitments based on human rights, creativity, ingenuity, and collective action moves us along the path to the Commons. The path to the Commons is a choice.