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Bill McKibben Looks to the Commons as the Solution to Global Climate Disruption

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
23rd January 2013


Republished from Bill McKibben:

“I’ve spent most of my life as a writer—and one of the sweetest parts of that job is knowing that whatever I produce ends up in a library, an institution dedicated to the idea that we can share things easily. There are innumerable other examples of sharing all around—and they are the parts of our lives that we usually care most about. They don’t show up on balance sheets because they’re not producing profit—but they are producing satisfaction.

These things we share are called commons, which simply means they belong to all of us. Commons can be gifts of nature—such as fresh water, wilderness and the airwaves—or the products of social ingenuity like the Internet, parks, artistic traditions, or the public health service.

The most crucial commons, perhaps, is the one now under greatest siege, and it poses a test of whether we can pull together to solve our deepest problems or succumb to disaster. Our atmosphere has been de facto privatized for a long time now—we’ve allowed coal, oil and gas interests to own the sky, filling it with the carbon that is the inevitable byproduct of their business. For a couple of centuries this seemed mostly harmless—Co2 didn’t seem to be causing much trouble. But two decades ago we started to understand the effects of global warming, and now each month the big scientific journals bring us new proof of just how vast the damage is: the Arctic is melting, Australia is on fire, the pH of the ocean is dropping fast.

If we are to somehow ward off the coming catastrophes, we have to reclaim this atmospheric commons. We have to figure out how to cooperatively own and protect the single most important feature of the planet we inhabit—the thin envelope of atmosphere that makes our lives possible. Wrestling this key prize away from Exxon Mobil and other corporations is the great political issue of our time, and some of the solutions proposed have been ingenious—most notably the idea put forth by commons theorist Peter Barnes and others that we should own the sky jointly, and share in the profits realized by leasing its storage space to the fossil fuel industry. For that to work, of course, we would have to reduce that storage space quickly and dramatically. Barnes’ Cap-and-Dividend plan offers one way to make that economically and politically feasible.

But for this and other necessary projects to succeed, we need first to break the intellectual spell under which we live. The last few decades have been dominated by the premise that if we privatize all economic resources it will produce endless riches. Which was kind of true, except that the riches went to only a few people. And in the process they melted the Arctic, as well as dramatically increasing inequality around the world. The commons is a crucial part of the human story that must be recovered if we are to deal with the problems now crowding in on us.

This story is equal parts enlightening and encouraging, and it is entirely necessary for us to hear it.”

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One Response to “Bill McKibben Looks to the Commons as the Solution to Global Climate Disruption”

  1. Patrick S Says:

    In one of her last papers, the researcher Elinor Ostrom also discussed commons-based approaches to dealing with climate change, but argued for a ‘polycentric’ approach given concerns she had with working primarily at the global scale:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1494833

    (Haven’t read the paper yet in full but seems interesting for P2P context)

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