Book of the week: The Rise of the Green Left and the Commons, by Derek Wall

A left take on the topic of the commons:

* Book: The Rise of the Green Left” by Derek Wall.

Derek Wall:

“This book aims to inspire change and to resource it.

The first chapter outlines what I see as the crisis and the solution. Basically ecological cycles are under assault on our planet, the cause of this assault is a system of economic growth, ever increasing economic growth promotes the destruction of the environment. Climate change and other environmental problems are caused by growth and growth is a product of the capitalist economic system. There is an alternative to capitalism, a democratic ecological economy based on the commons. The chapter outlines the nature of the ecological crisis and examines how commons can create prosperity without growth. By making goods to last and through social sharing we can gain more access to the material goods with less waste and damage to the environment. Commons is the solution the experience of indigenous people, the work of Elinor Ostrom and the growth of free software movements show that what is vital is also possible. Socialism and communism are at root not about state control but the creation of commons’

Chapter 2 examines the real climate swindle. While climate change certainly exists and is a growing threat, there is little public awareness that the current solutions agreed at international summits are failing to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The current framework redistributes from poor to rich and benefits banks while doing little or nothing for the environment. The very fact that even climate change is used as a way of increasing capitalist profits is a shocking illustration of the ecosocialist case for change. Equally, unless we reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by around 90 per cent and protect carbon sinks such as the forests and oceans, the future of humanity and the rest of nature are likely to be bleak.

Chapter 3 looks at ecosocialist policies in more detail, policies aimed at tackling climate change and other ecological ills, creating social justice and real democracy.

Chapter 4 outlines the evolution and origins of the ecosocialist movement from Marx and Engels to Evo Morales and John Bellamy Foster.

Chapter 5 is an overview of the ecosocialist movement in Latin America where it seems currently to be making the most progress, particularly in Bolivia, Cuba, Peru and Venezuela.

Chapter 6 examines ecosocialist strategies for change, asking the vital question of what is to be done?

The book concludes with Chapter 7, which catalogues some of the resources available to help build an ecosocialist movement.”

Excerpt: Why the Commons is Important for the Left

From chapter 1, by Derek Wall:

“Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist at Indiana University, was co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for economics, in recognition of her work on the commons. She has spent a lifetime researching common property and found that across the globe, indigenous people and peasants have discovered ways of sharing land in ways that are ecologically sustainable and promote real prosperity (Ostrom 1990).

Former Green Party member of the New Zealand Parliament Nandor Tanczos contrasts traditional commons management with capitalist property rights:

– Our concepts of property ownership are vastly different from traditional practices of recognising use rights over various resources. A right to grow or gather food or other resources in a particular place is about meeting needs. Property ownership is about the ability to live on one side of the world and speculate on resources on the other, possibly without ever seeing it, without regard to need or consequence. The ability to ‘own’ property is fundamental to capitalism. Since the first limited liability companies – the Dutch and British East India Companies – were formed, we have seen the kidnapping and enslavement of 20–60 million African people and the rape, murder and exploitation of indigenous people around the world. Colonisation was primarily about mercantile empires, not political ones. It was all about forcing indigenous, communitarian people to accept private individual ownership of resources, which could then be alienated, either by being bought or stolen. (Tanczos in Wall 2005: xiv)

The commons overcomes many of the problems with traditional state socialism because it tends to be flexible and decentralised. It has an inbuilt ecological principle based on the concept of usufruct, that is, access to a resource is granted only if the resource is left in as good a form as it was when first found. By extending this concept of usufruct, we can provide the basis of an ecological economy. By providing access, the commons enables prosperity without growth; if we have access to the resources we need, we can reduce wasteful duplication.

Preserving and extending the commons for forests, seas and other ecological resources is particularly vital. In the world’s rainforests, indigenous people almost universally use communal ownership to prevent ecological destruction of the forests. However, the commons principle can be applied far more widely. In the form of free software and access to the World Wide Web, it has already transformed the knowledge economy and decommodified access to culture and information. This, of course, is still imperfect: people in poorer communities may lack access to the Internet, and free Internet resources are still used to generate sales revenue.

Yet it already has had an extraordinary impact and shows that alternatives to private ownership are possible. It has already redistributed income from media corporations to consumers. The legal theorist Yochai Benkler (2006) has suggested that what he terms ‘social sharing’ can be applied to physical goods: we use a good only some of the time, and sharing allows more access to the good, without increased production. This is already occurring with car clubs.

Roberto Verzola, an environmental activist from the Philippines has argued:

– Perfect cooperation, which leads to more abundance, is as important an economic concept as perfect competition. A properly-managed free commons, like a freely accessible public library of books, CDs and DVDs, can help create more abundance as much as an unregulated free market often leads to artificial scarcity. (Verzola 2009)

Varied forms of social sharing can massively reduce the need to produce physical goods but at the same time improve our access to them; this cuts through the contradiction between ecology and prosperity. Many people in the green movement are aware that economic growth is unsustainable, and socialists are critical of capitalism to a greater or lesser extent, but most people involved in progressive politics are unaware of the importance of the commons as a means of constructing a green and socialist economy. The commons is a solution that combines ecology with free access to resources, it does not abolish individual property but allows us to have greater use of resources with far less waste. Think of taking toys from a toy library, borrowing tools for a day, using a car pool, or even growing food on an allotment. Commons squares the circle, potentially allowing improved standards of living with far less physical impact on the environment. We need to build new commons if we are to survive and prosper as a species. Commons are almost always under assault, and globally, commons have been stolen from people and fenced off. Corporations spend billions lobbying politicians to make it difficult for individuals to access knowledge and culture for free. Corrupt academics produce ‘research’ arguing that commons must be destroyed.

An economy based on use-values that promote ecology would be based on property rights that protect the environment while providing increasing access to sustainable resources. Ecosocialism is about the battle for the commons, conserving existing commons, and extending and deepening commons.”

3 Comments Book of the week: The Rise of the Green Left and the Commons, by Derek Wall

  1. AvatarJoanne Telfer

    I was wondering if I could have permission to republish this review on our website. The book raises some very important issues that need to be disseminated and discussed.

  2. AvatarGuy Gladstone

    How can I order The Rise of the Green Left and The Commons by Derek Wall, Amazon doesn’t appear to know of it!
    Any pointer would be appreciated.

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