Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Common Wealth Trusts"

James Quilligan

This is a fine stump speech for the structural transformation of the emerging eco-society. I heartily agree that creating common wealth trusts as legal entities with legitimacy and power could change the way that wealth is presently organized. As Barnes says, holding the commons in trust through our “fiduciary responsibility to future generations” would provide the equilibrium that is now lacking between businesses, governments, citizens, and the biosphere.

In my view, the most transformational part of Barnes’s vision is that common wealth trusts would be administering a sustainability budget—calibrating the input and output of material and energy within a bioregion—to rebalance the preservation/production of the primary resources in a geographical area. Hence, the metric used by common wealth trusts is not monetary value but biocapacity (i.e., the carrying capacity of Earth in support of its population). The value of this wealth is then expressed in proportion to the biolabor of the producers who are consumers of their own resources (i.e., the commoning activities which create and distribute biocapacity to meet peoples’ needs within the resource limits of the planet).

It is easy to spot this evolving culture of sustainability in the small eco-social systems that are flourishing across the globe, from urban gardeners and impact hubbers to makers and hackers. Everywhere we look, there are open resource management systems in the form of producer and consumer cooperatives, community currencies, gift and barter economies, free shops, fair trade markets, crowdsourcing, software code creation and distribution, information management, production design, renewable energy networks, creative commons agreements, and Internet platforms.

Barnes is confident that co-worker groups such as these will create common wealth trusts around the world simply through their self-guided, local activities. But I wonder about that. Where is the scale and clout that Barnes is aiming at in developing trusts for the atmosphere and oceans? What is the international roadmap for creating these trusts? Does he expect to leapfrog sovereign claims to the commons? Or should we try to accomplish all of this randomly through municipal courts, as he suggests?

Certainly, the natural rights to produce and consume resources bind people to the ecosystems where they live and work. Although local sustainability groups are spreading rapidly, they are also failing to connect with each other regionally and internationally. Most communities have already surrendered their instinctive, practical incentives for regional cooperation to their sovereign political districts. This is because the configuration of modern governance jurisdictions—whether in representative democracies or authoritarian states—removes the urban populace from an orientation or awareness of its natural place of habitation. Connected obliquely through markets, governments, and media, communities lose touch with their greater ecosystems. And where natural boundaries are consciously erased through the heavy preponderance of political boundaries, people have no way of coordinating their broader ecologies or using the full capacity of their technologies for the biophysical and social good. As a consequence, the political potential of citizens at the grassroots simply fades to an ember.

That is why I think the community resilience movement is both a blessing and a curse. It is great that many local people have set their sights on self-sufficiency, regeneration, and fair and equitable decision-making. But in relying mainly on “local only” approaches, commons groups have not recognized the significance of open information and knowledge networks for meeting the biocapacity needs of regional and international ecosystems through organized biolabor. What is stopping common wealth trusts from creating bioregional councils, guilds, entrepreneurial hubs, and strategic planning agencies dedicated to coordinating the efforts of local communities in protecting their ecosystems and ensuring that the resources which belong to everyone actually meet the needs of everyone?

For example, regional commons trusts could develop their own cooperatives, information systems, networks for open circulation of knowledge, and open licenses for production and provisioning. They could apply open electronic media to spatial analysis, mapping, community structure, and economic development. They could use digital tools for the management of flora and fauna, hydrology and watersheds, agriculture and climate, geography and geology. They could use collaborative knowledge and design in landscape ecology, community planning, recreation, and tourism. They could support the use of social media in studying the history, literature, and arts of a region. Regional trusts could also educate producer-consumers on their rights; mentor and advise them on quality practices of commons management, use, and access; and develop a membership of certified bioregional networkers.

I know that many people are fixated now on disruptions in the cycles of the biosphere, and rightly so. Yet, considering the history of human civilization, ecosystem boundaries have exhibited far more stability and predictability than any political boundaries. So, in thinking about the ecological limits of planetary borders, we also need to think about the ecological limits of political borders. This raises an interesting question: Could human society possibly undertake a political redistricting of its bioregions, creating political accountability districts within bioregions, both inside individual nations and across national borders?

It would mean reorganizing digital and physical labor to empower our producing and consuming communities with the capacity to restore and regenerate their regional commons. It would also enable communities to develop the local and regional management of ecological systems in the interests of biocapacity and biolabor, while their political districts remain under the sovereign system of states.

Here are a few practical reasons for looking in this direction. The benefits of allowing common wealth trusts to slowly bend political boundaries toward bioregional boundaries include the following: lowering the carbon dioxide emissions involved in global trade and reducing the ecological footprint; waiving cross-border monetary exchange rates to synergize investment in regional trade and sustainable energy; increasing the sustainability and self-sufficiency of the resources upon which regional communities depend; strengthening peaceful, participatory decision-making in the production and distribution of goods and services; and enhancing the well-being of all living beings within an ecosystem. Meanwhile, nation-states would not be able to mount a lasting resistance to an international network of common wealth trusts that are producing valuable biocapacity through biolabor nonviolently, autonomously, and sustainably within and across sovereign borders.

This is also a matter of urgency. With hegemonic market forces driving an endless contest for the common needs of the planet, we are facing a Century of Decline. Global warming, resource depletion, and population growth are enormous challenges to the ecology of Earth. Climate change has rapidly become a matter of military security. Water shortages have created civil wars in Syria and climate refugees in Central America, the Sahara, and the Middle East. Many nonrenewable resources are becoming scarce. World society is witnessing a plateau in the availability of energy, agriculture, water, and mineral supplies. The prices for essential resources have increased significantly and will continue to do so.

If there is no significant policy intervention in the economy, and human civilization is still in the mode of business-as-usual by 2030, it is possible that governments will invoke emergency powers to decide how resources will be allocated on behalf of their citizens. That is why a major effort is needed to bring Barnes’s sustainability institutions to scale, so that common wealth trusts are making democratic and orderly decisions on the management of resources for present and future generations.

Yet Barnes also states, “I would not place too much faith in public policies that can fluctuate with the vagaries of politics.” Of course, the current political system is highly ineffectual. But how can he claim, on the one hand, that common wealth trusts are necessary legal institutions authorized by government and that the State is integral in mediating between common wealth trusts and for-profit enterprises, and then say, on the other hand, that citizens creating common wealth trusts do not need to be actively involved in shaping the policy decisions of the State?

Indeed, common wealth trusts require a new generation of political leaders, with a robust political movement which brings ecological activists together with producer-consumers in a broad campaign for carrying capacity and the provisioning of human needs. This will involve the lobbying of elected officials. It will also mean the creation of Commons Parties, the education of a new electorate on the platform of “Protecting Our Wealth for Future Generations,” and the training of many young co-workers to stand for political office. Local community engagement is where this starts, regional gatherings are where it builds solidarity and power, the Net is how it spreads, and international legal approval is what changes the rules of the game. Barnes’s essay is the right foundation and a first step in this process.

James Quilligan
James Quilligan has been an international development analyst for several decades and is presently Managing Director of the Centre for Global Negotiations and Global Commons Trust.

Cite as James Quilligan, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Common Wealth Trusts," Great Transition Initiative (August 2015),

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