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Advancing Ecological Stewardship Via the Commons and Human Rights

David Bollier and Burns Weston

Climate change and other ecological challenges grow faster and larger with each passing day. Yet little has been done to address the immense legal and political factors that lie at the heart of this unprecedented crisis. Much effort is spent on remedying specific environmental harms, typically after the fact. Even proactive legislation and regulation, on the rare occasions that they are enacted, tend to be piecemeal and incremental, and irregularly enforced. The basic challenge is that our very conception of the problem is too limited. Nearly all current policy “solutions” insist upon a worldview that subordinates the environment to economic prosperity. They take for granted most prevailing, but outmoded, conceptions of economics, national sovereignty, and law, both domestic and international. They focus on technical fixes and business-friendly interventions—more-efficient technologies, “smarter” environmental policies, emissions trading schemes, etc.—that are inherently limited in what they can achieve.

If serious and enduring progress in protecting natural ecosystems is to be made, however, we must address the core pathologies that dominate contemporary politics and culture: the governance structures and logic of the state, intergovernmental organization, the structure of corporate enterprise, globalized commerce, mainstream economic thought, and the mores and laws that underwrite all of these realms.

This is a daunting agenda, to be sure. But after decades of failed environmental policies and the imminent catastrophes that climate change will inflict on us and our children, it is time to face up to the systemic roots of our predicament. We must imagine and implement a new set of legal and political initiatives that shift ecological governance away from the prevailing framework of neoliberal economics and policy—characterized by an ideological commitment to free trade, deregulation, privatization, and reducing democratic oversight of economic activity—to one that is based on commonsand rights-based ecological governance.

We call this paradigm “green governance.” We believe that the rigorous application of a reconceptualized human right to a clean and healthy environment—achieved through a growing “commons sector” that blends productive activity and governance—is the most promising, feasible way forward. It can help us slip off the shackles of neoliberal economic policy and its relentless growth and destruction of nature while promoting environmental stewardship that can meet everyone's basic needs and respect the more-than-human world.

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