No man is an island entire of itself; every man
Is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
Is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
Well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
Own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
The bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
John Donne 1572-1631
John Donne, satirist, lawyer priest and metaphysical poet, would have understood, as we all must, that the post modern obsession with the exclusive rights of the individual and general disregard for the rights of society or the biosphere, is in reality is a terrible misjudgement. It is not simply an obsession entirely at odds with the Christian tradition it is an obsession leading humanity down a dangerous path that could lead to earth’s human era being considerably shorter than it might otherwise be. It is only 10,000 years since what we now know of as ‘civilisation’ began in the Fertile Crescent (the Tigris Euphrates Valley) and only 150,000+ years since homo-sapiens left Africa: all of this a mere blink of the eye in the history of the planet. An even shorter time frame can be measured since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, a period which many scientists, following the lead of Paul Crutzen, now name as the anthropocene. The relatively stable and equitable period of the Holocene that enabled humanity’s flourishing is now giving way to a less stable period, the anthropocene, the direct result of human desire to own, conqueror and control. But let us start at the beginning.
Almost all species, including the human species are tribal; we rely upon other members of the group to survive. There are no exceptions. None of us can live on our own. We have evolved to show tribal loyalty, for throughout the millennia our survival has depended upon it. The ultimate punishment was not to be killed but to be cast out. (The great irony of the 21st century’s material prosperity is that our possessions have not resulted in greater contentment and a sense of belonging. Indeed, there has been a growth of loneliness and mental illness, a phenomenon far less well known in cultures with less materialism). Today many political systems, particularly in the Pacific and Africa remain tribal with tribal loyalty being paramount over state or national loyalty. Loyalty beyond the tribe has taken a long time to develop. Loyalty required within modern national democracies has become possible because of the rule of law and the presumption of its universal application without fear or favour.
First, let us turn to what is for most Australians a piece of ancestral history. Medieval Britain linked land title to noble title, often hereditary. Because title could be granted, or removed, by the monarch, competition and violence was a feature of the desire to gain, or hold on to title. A considerable percentage of ‘titled land’ belonged to the Church. The sacking of the monasteries under Henry VIII, and the consequent redistribution of the Church’s wealth had far more to do with economics that theology.
But even those with title needed the peaceful harmony, wellbeing and loyalty of the ‘common people’ to work their land and to fight for them should title be under threat from another powerful baron. Therefore, to protect the basic rights of ordinary people, and to maintain their loyalty, the idea of the ‘Commons’ emerged. Common land was usually an area within a titled holding. Those who had rights to the Commons were called ‘Commoners’. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ was that an individual could over graze the land or greedily seek more from it more than it could sustain, assuming that if he did not, others would. To limit this from happening, commoners were restricted to a given number of cows, sheep, donkeys or geese.
The significance of the rights of ‘commoners’ has found its way into Britain’s parliamentary system, the Lower House being the House of Commons while the Upper House is the house of title, the House of Lords.
Through a movement called ‘enclosure’ almost all productive ‘commons’ has been lost, although rights of way along ancient paths, sometimes paths that literally cut through the middle of a grain field, override freehold title and exist to this day. Heath lands and moor lands are the heritage of ‘commons’ enjoyed by UK residents and millions of tourists to this day.
This is a very brief summary of commons within past British history. Is there any enduring relevance? I believe there is not only relevance, but I argue that the practice and implementation of ‘Commons’ is an enduring necessity for the human species on the grounds that what is held in common is ultimately of more importance than that which is privately owned.
Let’s stay with land for a moment. It is the almost universal view of urban planners that everyone, especially high rise and unit dwellers require adequate open space and vegetation to walk in, breath in and be alive in. It is therefore of the utmost urgency that parks, walking paths and wild life corridors etc are not simply maintained, but expanded, for the sake of both environmental sustainability and human health and wellbeing. The human foot print cannot be allowed to dominate the landscape. Any attempt to sacrifice open space for profit seeking development must be strongly resisted. It is also essential that humans understand we live in the company of a myriad of other species. It appears to be sadly the case we are entering a period of species mass extinction that has not been replicated since the extinction of the dinosaurs. We human beings need to understand and practice the requirements of cohabitation with other species, rather than accepting environmental damage as necessary collateral damage to development.
However, in this, the 21st century, the principle of the commons needs to be understood and applied well beyond the allocation of land, as important as that is. Neo-liberal economics has led us to believe that private ownership is always better than public stewardship. As the ‘user pays’ principle expands, the ideal of ‘public service’ diminishes. Many priorities of human life should be accessible to all regardless of status or wealth.
Let us turn to science for a moment. Pure science is a journey of discovery and understanding that has the potential to serve all humanity, we are all the beneficiaries of the fruits of scientific discovery. None of us would like to live without the benefits of those discoveries, not least the discoveries of medical science. However we appear to be moving into a period in which science is up for sale with future benefits accruing to those who can afford them. Let me give two examples.
For decades CSIRO has been the lead scientific organisation in Australia, making discoveries with untold benefits to humanity as a whole, let alone to Australians in particular. The last few years have seen all this change. It appears as if CSIRO is now to do its work with one consideration in mind, its entrepreneurial capacity to sell its work to the highest bidder. The highest profile example of this has been the recent move away from climate science towards saleable technologies of mitigation. The world desperately needs greater understanding of the consequences of human behaviour, so that behaviour might change. This must have priority over developing technologies that might in the short term grant greater survival comfort; particularly if these technologies (e.g. using more carbon sourced energy) make the whole situation worse.
My second example is the genetic modification of both plants and animals. There is no doubt that natural selection has been nature’s constant form of modification and that it has been so from the commencement of life on the planet. Why not speed it up so that, for example, a variety of cereal might adapt and thrive under conditions of salination that were previously alien to it. I agree, there is no fundamental problem with this aspiration and that by it many have been fed. The problem lies in the extent to which modification occurs, the title or patent that puts the food chain in the hands of a multinational company, and the dependence of farmers, especially subsistence farmers on derived seed, fertiliser and pest control. No company should have the right to own or control a food chain. Nor should any company have the right to dictate to growers that their product has to be used. However, by default, this is increasingly what the future appears to look like, thanks to control exercised by companies like Monsanto. If grain seed can no longer be collected but has to be bought from the company, if fertilisers necessary for a product have to be purchased from the same company and if the genetically modified product has infected previously unmodified species, thus essentially rendering them extinct, then the food chain is owned, its profits corralled, and family farms, let alone subsistence farmers in developing regions, have become no more than external workers for a multinational company. The titled baron of the Middle Ages has become the multi-national company, while its tenant farmers can be found without national or regional boundary anywhere in the world.
But the desirable extent of 21st commons needs to be debated far beyond climate and agriculture. Are there dimensions of our shared life that should never be for sale, and are there basic services which should be universally available to all? Are there some services and products we cannot afford to restrict, for doing so is to deny fundamental human rights and, by implication, to grow mountainous inequity?
It is clear that future privatising of education should be tackled with far more caution than has been exercised in recent times. The sale of tertiary technical education to private providers with the consequent diminishment of TAFE colleges has clearly been a disaster with many providers taking millions in tax payer funded grants with no measureable benefit to the individuals they signed up, or indeed to the community at large. The privatisation of incarceration, not least for asylum seekers, has been so disgracefully handled that public scrutiny and transparency is now denied. Privatisation means the owner has one measure of success – profit. Profit making incarceration becomes all about keeping people secure with little emphasis, if any, on rehabilitation. Reoffending is very expense to the public, to the owner of the prison it perpetuates business.
Access to the internet has now become so essential that lack of access can mean inability to access basic services, let alone run a business. Australia now ranks 44th in terms of internet speed, well behind the majority of the developed world, including New Zealand which has stuck with fibre to the home. It is an absolute nonsense for us to be talking about Australia as the ‘clever country’ or Australians as the ‘innovative’ nation if the basic service is so clearly behind the rest of the world. This is a technological ‘commons’ we cannot afford to compromise, and yet this is clearly what we have done.
If neo-liberal capitalism is totally dependent upon the privatisation of everything and the profit motive is the only measure of value or success, the question has to be asked, is this form of capitalism capable of serving humanity’s hope for sustainability this century and beyond? The preservation of ‘commons’ is always essential in the achievement of equity and life giving balance between the aspirations of the one and the needs of the many. If we remain on our present path we might be forced to conclude that unredeemed or unreformed capitalism may not simply be unable to serve 21st century humanity, it may become the reason why humanity’s span of existence on the planet is ultimately much shorter than it ought to be.