Contribution to GTI Roundtable "The Commons and Transformation"

Arthur Dahl

Bollier presents the commons paradigm as the solution to escaping the pathologies of the Market/State order. Subdividing Bollier’s all-encompassing commons paradigm would be helpful as well so that we can look at areas where it is more or less appropriate. In the traditional domain of property rights, a common or shared property approach is obviously relevant to the atmosphere and the oceans because boundaries cannot easily be fixed. However, it will not be appropriate to replace private property in all cases. There are human needs for intimacy, self-expression, entrepreneurship, and tender loving care, for example, where private property in moderation may be more relevant. Balancing the two to reflect individual and collective interests is what we must explore.

A commons approach is clearly relevant to many environmental challenges, from climate change to biodiversity loss to local soil management and food production. This is where planetary ecological boundaries need to be translated into local action adapted to the great diversity of local environmental contexts. There is no single right solution, but a multitude of actions that must evolve organically towards more sustainability.

One area where the present commons concept may be too constraining, though, is in emphasizing local self-sufficiency. This will only work if we return to simpler dispersed villages with a much lower human population. The planetary environment is not uniform, and we can only raise its human carrying capacity if we profit from ecological and climate differences and alternating seasons in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Local production is important, but we will also need trade to optimize comparative advantages and economies of scale where appropriate. The global system today is too interdependent to return to complete autonomy, so self-sufficiency as an ideal needs to be replaced by subsidiarity, profiting from integration while producing as much as possible at the lowest or most immediately relevant level.

Finally, at the heart of the commons concept is the element of trust. In commons that work, people trust each other and are trustworthy themselves. While humans are naturally selfish as infants, they can grow and be educated to become altruistic. Self-interest is only one facet of human nature, and it is not inherently dominant. If we accept that there is a higher human purpose to acquire virtues, as reflected in all the great religious, spiritual, and humanistic traditions, then the Great Transition must be founded on a transition in human values. Presently, commons mechanisms select for people with those values. Ultimately, a great transition in values will enable all human systems, including capitalism and the market system, to work better in our general interest. The commons paradigm may not be the only template for transformation, but it is certainly a leader pointing to the direction ahead.

Arthur Dahl
Arthur Dahl is President of the International Environment Forum and a retired Deputy Assistant Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Cite as Arthur Dahl, contribution to GTI Roundtable "The Commons and Transformation," Great Transition Initiative (April 2014),

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