Zack Walsh writing for The Arrow: The Stern Review on The Economics of Climate Change claims that reducing emissions by more than 1 percent annually would generate a severe economic crisis, and yet, climate analysts tell us we need to reduce carbon emissions by 5.3 percent annually to limit global warming to 2°C.1 Moreover, there is no evidence that decoupling economic growth from environmental pressures is possible, and although politicians tout technical solutions to climate crisis, efficiency gains from technology usually increase the absolute amount of energy consumed.2 The stark reality is that capitalist accumulation cannot continue—the global economy must shrink.

Fortunately, there exist many experiments with non-capitalist modes of assessing and exchanging value, sharing goods and services, and making decisions that can help us transition to a more sustainable political economy based on principles of degrowth. One of the best ways to generate non-capitalist subjects, objects, and spaces comes from systems designed to manage common pool resources like the atmosphere, ocean, and forests. Commons-based systems depend upon self-governance and reciprocity. People rely on and take responsibility for each other, finding mutually beneficial ways to fulfill their needs. This also allows communities to define the guidelines and incentives for guiding their own economic behavior, affording people more autonomy and greater opportunity for protecting and cultivating shared values. Commons-based systems cut across the private/public, market/state dichotomy and present alternative economic arrangements defined by communities.

According to David Bollier, “As the grand, centralized market/state systems of the 20th century begin to implode through their own dysfunctionality, the commons will more swiftly step into the breach by offering more local, convivial and trusted systems of survival.”3 Already, there is evidence of this happening. The commons is spreading rapidly among communities hit hardest by recent financial crises and the failures of austerity policies. In response to the failures of the state and market, many crises-stricken areas, especially in Europe and South America, have developed solidarity economies to self-manage resources, thus insulating themselves from systemic shocks in the future. It seems likely that a community’s capacity to share will be crucial to its survival on a wetter, hotter, and meaner planet.

From the perspective of researchers, there are several different ways to define the commons. In most cases, the commons are understood to be material objects. For example, the atmosphere and ocean are global commons, because they are resources we must all learn to regulate and share collectively. This notion of the commons as material resource goes hand-in-hand with another notion that the commons can be both material and immaterial, a product of either nature or culture. Using this second definition enhances our appreciation for what is often undervalued by traditional economic measures such as care work, shared knowledge production, and cultural preservation. Together, both these perspectives are helpful in devising political and economic strategies for managing the commons, which remains the dominant interest of most commons researchers and policymakers.

Nevertheless, whether material or immaterial, the commons are viewed as a given concept or thing, ignoring that more fundamentally they are generated by social practices. In other words, there are no commons without commoners to enact them. From an enactive perspective, commons are not objects, but actions generated by many different actors in relationship. Whereas the prior notions assume that individuals need to be regulated and punished to prevent overconsumption (an assumption known as the tragedy of the commons), an enactive perspective on commons conceives the individual in relation to everyone (and everything) involved in co-managing the more-than-human commons. It therefore diverges from the prior two notions in assuming a relational epistemology rather than being premised on a liberal epistemology based on the individual. From a Buddhist perspective, one could say that the commons emerges co-dependently with a field of objects, forces, and passions entangling the human and nonhuman, living and non-living, organic and machinic.

The more-than-human commons thus does not dualistically separate the material and immaterial commons, the commons (as object) from the commoners (as subjects), nor does it separate humans from nonhumans. Instead, the commons are always understood as a more-than-human achievement, neither wholly produced by nature or culture. Commoning becomes, as Bayo Akomolafe points out, a material-discursive doing shaped by practices and values that engage humans with their environments.4 In Patterns of Commoning, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich argue that all commons exceed conceptual distinctions, because they are not things; rather, they are another way of being, thinking about, and shaping the world.5 Commoning is about sharing the responsibility for stewardship with the intent to construct a fair, free, and sustainable world—a goal that is all the more important given the unequal distribution of risks posed by intensifying climate change.

Read the entire essay/issue at The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics.


Zack Walsh is a PhD candidate in the Process Studies graduate program at Claremont School of Theology. His research is transdisciplinary, exploring process-relational, contemplative, and engaged Buddhist approaches to political economy, sustainability, and China. His most recent writings provide critical and constructive reflection on mindfulness trends, while developing contemplative pedagogies and practices for addressing social and ecological issues. He is a research specialist at Toward Ecological Civilization, the Institute for the Postmodern Development of China, and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. He has also received lay precepts from Fo Guang Shan, an engaged Buddhist organization based in Taiwan, and attended numerous meditation and monastic retreats in Thailand, China, and Taiwan. For further information and publications, please connect: https://cst.academia.edu/ZackWalsh, https://www.facebook.com/walsh.zack, and https://www.snclab.ca/category/blog/contemplative-ecologies/.

Illustration by Alicia Brown

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