Magna Carta 2: promote the general welfare
December 2, 2012 12:21 AM   Subscribe

Destroying the Commons by Noam Chomsky: "The Charter of the Forest demanded protection of the commons from external power. The commons were the source of sustenance for the general population: their fuel, their food, their construction materials, whatever was essential for life. The forest was no primitive wilderness. It had been carefully developed over generations, maintained in common, its riches available to all, and preserved for future generations -- practices found today primarily in traditional societies that are under threat throughout the world."
The Charter of the Forest imposed limits to privatization. The Robin Hood myths capture the essence of its concerns (and it is not too surprising that the popular TV series of the 1950s, "The Adventures of Robin Hood," was written anonymously by Hollywood screenwriters blacklisted for leftist convictions). By the seventeenth century, however, this Charter had fallen victim to the rise of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and morality.

With the commons no longer protected for cooperative nurturing and use, the rights of the common people were restricted to what could not be privatized, a category that continues to shrink to virtual invisibility.
previously, viz. "The story of the extraction of natural resources and limiting indigenous people's access to land is repeated around the world... The indigenous voice from the jungle invokes the Magna Carta not only to assert the familiar protections against state power associated with constitutional democracies, but the right to common resources as well."

The Growth Of Monopoly Power - "The economic defense of capitalism is premised on the ubiquity of competitive markets, providing for the rational allocation of scarce resources and justifying the existing distribution of incomes. The political defense of capitalism is that economic power is diffuse and cannot be aggregated in such a manner as to have undue influence over the democratic state. Both of these core claims for capitalism are demolished if monopoly, rather than competition, is the rule."

cf. "Both parties, but Republicans especially, mostly spend their time protecting not the free market, as they insist, but big business interests. This is decidedly not the same thing, and it might well be that three or four vertically integrated giants in practically every industry isn't really all that good for the rest of us. This is just a thought, but in the long run, maybe competition really is a good thing."

When paltry growth, systemic risk and resource scarcity are darkening the global horizon - "work needs to intensify on finding innovative 'new growth' firms with environmentally sustainable and efficient long-term strategies as well as high scores on governance and regulatory sensitivity... First is that governments will eventually need to regulate to find a sustainable balance and markets will lean that way too. Second, financial systems will then reward companies with efficient processes and resource usage. And third, companies that innovate to solve these problems will be winners."
posted by kliuless (30 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
I read a very disheartening article today (not online yet) about studies with regards to the Limits To Growth. I haven't checked its veracity in any meaningful way but it was quite depressing.

"Both parties, but Republicans especially, mostly spend their time protecting not the free market, as they insist, but big business interests.

I wonder if there's a capitalist nation where this is not the case?

/Off to read the links and get even more depressed.
posted by Mezentian at 1:21 AM on December 2, 2012

Nicely done, I'll be sharing this post.
posted by HuronBob at 4:01 AM on December 2, 2012

Perhaps another view of the traditional societies would be that they grew until they ran into a global limit (from our 'greater' perspective a local limit) and then worked within the constraints.

Some of our 'farsighted' leaders are looking at the resources extra global, the asteroids and Mars. Once we can use the entire universe, what need is there for limits of growth?
posted by sammyo at 4:04 AM on December 2, 2012

In what little I know of the past, the "common people" were always screwed in one way or another so glancing back to an imagined golden age seems more a dream and fantasy that a reality of some Goodness now lost.
posted by Postroad at 4:57 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not really complete without a mention of the tragedy of the commons.
posted by unSane at 5:05 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

In what little I know of the past, the "common people" were always screwed in one way or another so glancing back to an imagined golden age seems more a dream and fantasy that a reality of some Goodness now lost.

Which is better, poor but independently capable of raising your own food or poor and completely dependent upon landlords/governments who are content to let you starve? I don't think

I was reading recently about the land closures and peasant removals in late 18th/early 19th century Scotland, and had an interesting point brought to my attention: the same peasants who were being forcibly driven off of their land supplied many of the bodies that, upon immigrating to America, pushed Native American groups (in the United States and Brazil especially) off their land in turn. These things have a way of snowballing.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:21 AM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

He is right.
posted by spitbull at 5:49 AM on December 2, 2012

Earlier on Metafilter: the Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons
posted by mecran01 at 6:37 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is some pretty tendentious and hand-wavy history. Or, you know, Chomsky.
posted by yoink at 6:50 AM on December 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

This, from the second link, is pretty hilarious:
Carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature–but they had their thumbs on the scale.
Native American slash-and-burn agricultural practice radically transformed the entire ecology of North America: but this gets to be "living in balance with nature" because, you know, they're Native Americans and whatever we do we can't give up the Rousseauist myth of the Native American Noble Savage.

Prehistorical, definitely pre-capitalist, homo sapiens gaily hunted species after species to extinction, gaily destroyed forest after forest all over the world, took and took and took from the "commons" without even raising the question of whether that taking would eventually lead to the destruction of the commons. This is entirely unsurprising; without a large settled population living in the same place for a long time and keeping reasonably good historical records (i.e., without circumstances that have no arisen until relatively very recently in human history) the question can't really present itself. An ecological consciousness is the product of a society that is aware of its capacity to radically degrade its environment. The only reason the Native Americans were "living in balance with Nature" in the pre-contact years (and, of course, that claim only plausibly applies to the relatively smaller and less settled tribal cultures of the pre-contact Americas; there had been urban Native American ecological disasters before the coming of the Europeans) is because they hadn't yet developed sufficient weight of numbers to start hitting the really negative consequences of their essentially extractive practices.
posted by yoink at 7:25 AM on December 2, 2012 [23 favorites]

Iirc we sustainably hunted the shit out the mamouths.
posted by humanfont at 8:01 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the one hand, it's 110% true that "native" people caused immense changes/damage to the land they populated. On the other hand, our modern global civilization is in the midst of causing the worst environmental catastrophe in the last few hundred million years

I guess what I'm saying is, I feel like our descendants, living in underground caves and eating food grown in test-tubes, may just find themselves able to tease out some of the nuance Chomsky and others are referring to, between our culture and the ones who didn't make the entire planet "incompatible with an organized global community"(*)
posted by crayz at 9:21 AM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

mann's original article was actually pretty critical of (some) environmentalists' tendency to characterize indigenous peoples as 'noble savages'...

elinor ostrom (rip) was also critical of the tragedy of the commons btw [1,2,3,4,5]
posted by kliuless at 9:41 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's no realistic way to gloss over the entirety of Native American and indigenous cultures as having a single economic or ecological practice. But as yoink hints, the earlier peoples that truly were destructive were small and migratory enough not to cause a lasting or devastating impact (i.e., in terms of sustainability). Generally, when the numbers grew large enough, their practices changed to accommodate this.

What we have today are dramatically increased numbers, which have definitely resulted in increased awareness and "ecological consciousness". But at the same time, our practices have not changed to accommodate this, which is what I thought this post was all about in the first place. Comparing earlier societies who did not empirically destroy the world to our modern-day monopolies and extremely vertical integrations of power is like comparing a miserable bread thief to an organized crime syndicate. There's just so much more collateral damage associated with our present-day ignorance and inaction.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 10:33 AM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

But at the same time, our practices have not changed to accommodate this

Well, no, because we haven't had to: just like the hunter-gatherers, we won't until we run out of resources.

Though to be fair there are lots of examples of modern practices changing to accommodate new realities, such as no-till farming or better waste management systems or banning CFCs. Arguably we're doing much better than hunter-gatherers standing around the corpse of the last Woolly Mammoth and saying 'well, what now?'.
posted by alasdair at 11:10 AM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm slowly working my way through the book The Invention of Capitalism (pdf) which discusses the enclosure of the commons and how it worked towards what Marx called the primitive accumulation of capital.

I think understanding this issues really is important to understand the world as it is. Primitive accumulation, to me, seems to be an unfolding process, we've "tamed" the 1st world, we're "taming" the second world (witness the situation of the Peasants and the masses as proletarians in China), and of course, as these links point to, the continued push into our planet's very lungs, destroying the traditional communities, ripping apart the structure of societies that have lived on the land for generations in order to claim it as property to be ripped apart and farmed for lumber or soy or whatever else the 1st world demands in its endless quest for profit and consumption.

But so far, I really have been learning a lot from that book/pdf. I do question some of the premises, as I think one should always read with a critical mind, but it's still a good foundation for trying to understand the origins of our modern systems, and the role those origins play in the current structures of exploitation and environmental degradation, today.
posted by symbioid at 11:37 AM on December 2, 2012

modern global civilization is in the midst of causing the worst environmental catastrophe in the last few hundred million years

Oh, I don't think we're quite that bad, you should probably re-calibrate your geo-chronology. We're perhaps the worst in the last few million years - but we're still small scale. The KT event just 65 million years ago wiped out nearly every large land animal. The end of the Permian 251 million years ago killed 80~95% of marine life. Mass extinction is part of life's rich tapestry. In the grand scheme anything humans do will be erased in a few million years, probably sooner. This is an eye-blink in Earth's history. Life will continue and new animals will evolve to fill the niches created. Humans will most likely have been extinct for a very long time.
posted by Long Way To Go at 11:38 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Said it before, I'll say it again: the best case scenario is that the world of 2120 looks like Coruscant.

The best case scenario is very, very, very long odds.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:52 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

coruscant! (while the art direction might be nicer, i'd prefer the federation and an exploration-based society ;)
posted by kliuless at 2:22 PM on December 2, 2012

whoops, I didn't see your follow up comment, yoink. At least you did try to point out one problem, even though it is absolutely irrelevant. Even if Native Americans could have been more environmentally destructive if they'd had more advanced technology, what does that change about the really quite obvious differences in the environmental impacts of their technologically-constrained way of life verses the modern way of life? Don't blame a writer for deferring to basic common knowledge.
posted by moorooka at 3:26 PM on December 2, 2012

Ah, once again, Noam Chomsky, the Emmanuel Goldstein of our times.
posted by nj_subgenius at 4:07 PM on December 2, 2012

Even if Native Americans could have been more environmentally destructive if they'd had more advanced technology, what does that change about the really quite obvious differences in the environmental impacts of their technologically-constrained way of life verses the modern way of life?

You're trying to argue with a point I didn't make. My objection is to the mystical "they lived in balance with nature" bullshit--which IS a claim that they did so deliberately, not that they simply happened not to have the technological capacity to do more damage than they were, in fact, doing. No one of us, individually, is doing sufficient harm to the environment to cause global catastrophe. That does not mean we are each individually "living in balance with nature" no matter what damage accumulates collectively.
posted by yoink at 9:24 PM on December 2, 2012

bill mckibben re: geo-chronology - Which Extinction Concerns You Most?
I think that the standard scientific assessment, at least for the last seven or eight years, is someplace between 40 and 70 percent of species would go extinct in a rapid warming scenario like the one we're entering. As I recall, that was the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] account of a three-and-a-half-degree rise in temperature...

A certain amount of climate change is clearly already baked in, and some of the effects are brutal. You know, this summer we saw the catastrophic melt of the Arctic. We've broken one of the world's biggest physical features. But if we do what we need to do now to get off coal and gas and oil, then we can limit the damage. There's still the possibility of keeping the rise of the planet's temperature below two degrees, which is the line that governments have drawn as the red line. But that would take an all-out, focused, wartime-footing kind of effort, and most of all it would take ending the political power of the fossil fuel industry that's forever delayed change.
also btw...
-Is It Too Late?
-How To Talk To Climate Skeptics?
-What's So Bad About The Keystone Pipeline?

oh and fwiw...
Balinese Water Temples - "For centuries, farmers in the dramatically-stepped wet-rice terraces of Bali relied on priests of local 'water temples' to coordinate irrigation among hundreds of farming communities. The Balinese agricultural tradition entailed complex religious, social and technical processes that optimized water sharing on the Indonesian island, reduced pest infestations, and successfully yielded rice and other food crops."
posted by kliuless at 10:00 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yoink, why do you think that the claim that Native Americans lived in [relative] "balance with nature" equals the claim that they "did so deliberately"?

as if they had the technological capacity to ruin their environment for private-sector profit but chose not to?

I see no such claim, and I think that you're chasing a totally bogus straw man.
posted by moorooka at 10:07 PM on December 2, 2012

Rapa Nui.
posted by Xoebe at 12:29 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Once we can use the entire universe, what need is there for limits of growth?

In that part of the universe we are likely to "use" in the far foreseeable future, there are NO other places capable of sustaining a human population of a million. NONE. Never mind the promises: if we don't protect the only spaceship we've got, we'll never make it to the day you're fantasizing.
posted by Twang at 3:37 AM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yoink, why do you think that the claim that Native Americans lived in [relative] "balance with nature" equals the claim that they "did so deliberately"?

Because it does. If you see no such claim, you're being obtuse.

Native peoples, in popular culture especially but also sometimes in environmental texts, are often portrayed as having some mystic bond to Nature and an ability to harmoniously live in balance with it that the modern world lacks. yoin's point is that whatever relative balance with nature they lived in was not a result of any such understanding or desire for harmony that we lack but more attributable to lesser destructive capability at the time.

If you're really not familiar with this Noble Savage trope I'm not sure what to say; it's an incredibly common depiction.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:48 PM on December 3, 2012

Ah, once again, Noam Chomsky, the Emmanuel Goldstein of our times.
If Goldstein was selling a book.

I’m quoting from the main establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, not from some radical rag.

I've always thought they were descriptive rather than proscriptive, outside of editorial. The only real question there would be accuracy. Is there some question that social inequality is expanding? State policy or otherwise? So we stop that, and - what. The premise that there are social controls fails?
I don't think so. But is it as sinister and as far reaching as he makes it in "scare quotes" if one can pick up a copy of Foreign Affairs and read about it?
It's a conspiracy if we're not putting guns to people's heads to get them to read and drive out to the polls?

I see no such claim, and I think that you're chasing a totally bogus straw man.

Chomsky: "In the lead in confronting the crisis throughout the world are indigenous communities, those who have always upheld the Charter of the Forests."

Yoink's correct. Plenty of rapaciousness in indigenous folks.
But the two concepts (if we highlight them out of the fuzziness of blended culture) have been in opposition for a long time. Human artifice vs. respect of nature.

Plenty of people since the dawn of humanity have respected the idea that something has to die so we can eat. (A fish saved my life once. I ate him),
And they have understood that they are the recipients of (and players in) a system larger than their constructs can encompass.

And of course, some don't.
Cain kills Abel.

I was listening to an NPR podcast on alcohol.

One of the things the English did with the early American Indians was sell them booze even though they know that it was destroying them.
Also, in a well thought out plan, they sold them gunpowder.

Selling people booze and guns might, at first, look like a stupid idea. And, well, yeah. But not to the people making money thousands of miles away. They're not the ones who die in native tribe attacks or suffer any of the effects.

What they were doing was sort of bringing the indigenous folks into The Matrix.

Which is sort of the difference between Yoink's (otherwise correct) point and Chomsky's implicit (but otherwise apparently meth-fueled) point.

They're laying this sort of artificial value template over natural/physical processes. Nature stops being this sort of infinitely krinkly complex mandelbrot fractal reiteration and gets a flat value that gets parsed out of context. That stream? $109,457. Fish? $1,759,843.
But what about the tributaries of the stream? The bugs that follow the tributaries that feed the fish. The rotting trees where the bugs breed. The fog from the hills that feed the loam. Etc. etc. etc.

So the English sold the Native Americans booze because they were self-sufficient would become lazy otherwise.
That is, they weren't part of the economic system and their labor wasn't under anyone's thumb to be exploited.
Their buckskins lasted years so they didn't need cotton. Or they had buffalo skins and made houses, clothes, tools, etc. from them.

(Funny how self-sufficiency or lack of desire for manufactured gee-gaws is equated with laziness. I mean, they really will hunt you down and kick in your door to make you buy something you don't want. Call you lazy if you don't. Then damn you for being a sucker. And too lazy to buy more. Look at the opium wars. Lazy stoned Chinaman.)

So the actual contrast would be more along the lines of the American Buffalo. On the one hand nomadic tribes can only grow so large following a certain kind of lifestyle and can only kill so many buffalo - whether they're conserving by intent or not. (I think most tribes learned from previous experiences like hunting mammoth to extinction and created customs that protected them from over use, whether this was a sophisticated (as some manifestly had) or unconscious social process.)

On the other hand, they're subject to natural processes not (human made) contrived ones.

Which is the difference between hunting and extermination.

The horse changed hunting methods, but more importantly changed how much a tribe could carry. So technique changed and more buffalo were hunted. But this still wouldn't have driven the buffalo to extinction.
There was plenty of waste, but too there were religious rituals attached to the hunt (thanks to some very smart guy in the past who noticed the depth of the natural system and put the brakes on pure efficiency).
So the contrivance there was to restore the respect for nature in an unconscious (ritualistic) manner to oppose the unconscious wasting. Since, again, it wasn't by deliberation, since there was no intent. And where there was, it became sacrificial.

Horses also ate grass. Which meant less for buffaloes. And fires swept the prairie thanks to forest clearing.
Still - it wouldn't have killed ALL the buffaloes.

Even the railroad, which made it possible to carry even more meat and skin, etc. Wouldn't have killed them all without the commodity market.
Once there was a market for it, the big shaggies were on their way out. Commercial harvests killed 5 million in 3 years alone.

At the heart of the "you can't eat money" quote is that divide between an understanding of the labor that actually sustains you vs. what you think you're working for.

Chomsky puts nature against power, but hell, the royals knew that holding on to power meant keeping the commons open and - importantly - controlling access to them. That's why a peasant had only certain regions in which they could hunt.
That's why they could starve to death in the midst of a herd or get his hand cut off for hunting the King's Deer, but nothing substantially changed from that. It took two barons wars to move the Magna Carta forward at all. And at that, warfare was changing and armies were becoming more centralized. Nationalism was on the rise. Peasants were becoming more important that armored cavalry.
It's disingenuous to argue against the war powers and modern consolidation of force with an instrument that was used to foster those things in the past.
(Again, not that I'm a fan, but c'mon, King "Within me is a hell" John's a big hero and Obama is the bad guy? Obama is going to tie Biden to a rock and throw him in a river some time soon? Maybe start a civil war with congress?)

So it's not merely power, or concentrations of power (not that I'm a fan) it's the disconnect of powerful human systems from recognition of natural systems - and the recognition that it can blindly, unconsciously, overwhelm natural systems.

Always makes me laugh when people say humans couldn't create global warming or affect natural processes that much. They've never been drinking downstream of someone taking a crap in the water. You'd be surprised how little it takes to notice.

So - regardless of capitalism, communism, whatever - we may or may not have consciously practiced conservation in the past.
But it's precisely the point that conservation is responsiveness to nature whether it's conscious or not and any human system, like economics, are more conscious of their internal forces. Fiat money.
Like the worth of a green piece of paper (or the digits on your card) it's two abstractions rubbing up against each other.

But hell, the dust bowl blackened the sky out to the East coast. It's not like congress continued to try to fool people with some sophisticated control apparatus in order to retain power. They passed laws to change practices. Human systems still have humans in it who can notice "hey, should those tons of soot be in the air?"

Of course, Cain actually does kill Abel. I mean, when native Americans talk about the return of the buffalo it's typically about the casinos, not the animals.

But Chomsky is wrong, indigenous folks have no inherent sensibility. In this case they're just the canaries in the coal mine. They simply have to be more responsive to nature because they depend on it more.

And he's just as wrong that a system in other hands wouldn't be as dangerous as power in other hands. His head is way up his ass on the Magna Carta as far as making that point goes.

The danger is not accepting, and not respecting, the fact that we live on the death of others and at that sufferance. We don't inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. It's a stream not a lake.

It's not like it hasn't been said before, it's just too many of us aren't listening.
This other stuff from Chomsky is just baggage. (Not that I'm pro-torture or anything, but damn, cut the foreplay and make the point.)
posted by Smedleyman at 12:58 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

re: the dust bowl - "The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the 'Great Plow-Up,' followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation. Vivid interviews with twenty-six survivors of those hard times, combined with dramatic photographs and seldom seen movie footage, bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance. It is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us -- a lesson we ignore at our peril."

ken burns' latest documentary...
More than anything else, The Dust Bowl is about a certain self-destructive strain in the American character that prizes individual will over collective responsibility, stigmatizes real or perceived failure, and stubbornly refuses to learn from mistakes for fear of being thought weak... There are appalling accounts of farmers continuing to use equipment that pulverized topsoil rather than return to more difficult but responsible methods — even after repeated expert warnings that they were destroying the land — because doing so would have been less "efficient," and because they didn't like academic pointy-heads telling them their business.

"We always had hope that next year was gonna be better," says survivor Wayne Lewis. "We learned slowly, and what didn't work, you tried it harder the next time. You didn't try something different. You just tried harder, the same thing that didn't work."
more mckibben: How Can Individuals Help The Environment? - "Organize. It's important to change your lightbulb, but it's less important than coming together with other people to try and change the system."

sullivan claims a progressive movement is "catching fire" (referencing _the hunger games_ for the echoboomers' latent environmental occupy?) that presumably could bring 60's-style social activism and cultural change catalyzed by 30's-style economic collapse and ecologic catastrophe; maybe sure! but i guess i'm more wondering, per mckibben's angle on convincing climate skeptics, when the (re)insurance companies come around :P

afterall: "The corporations are every bit as vulnerable to the disappearance of the middle class as the middle class is itself."

oh and fwiw...
The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law - "In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation."
posted by kliuless at 2:56 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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