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Making the Transition to a New Paradigm

It is our premise that human societies will not succeed in overcoming our myriad eco-crises through better “green technology” or economic reforms alone. We must pioneer new types of governance that allow and encourage people to move from anthropocentrism to biocentrism—recognizing the value and interconnectedness of all living things—and thereby develop qualitatively different types of relationships both with nature and with each other.

A political economy that valorizes growth and material development as the precondition for virtually everything else is ultimately a dead end—literally. Achieving a clean, healthy, and ecologically balanced environment requires that we cultivate a practical paradigm of governance that is based on, first, an ethic of respect for nature, sufficiency, interdependence, shared responsibility, and fairness among all human beings; and, second, a logic of integrated global and local citizenship that insists upon transparency and accountability in all activities affecting the integrity of the environment.

We believe that commonsand rights-based ecological governance— green governance—can fulfill this ethic and logic. Properly done, it can move us beyond the neoliberal alliance of state and market that is chiefly responsible for the current model of governance that fails to address environmental degradation adequately.

A basic difficulty is that the price system falls short in its ability to represent notions of value that are subtle, qualitative, long-term, and complicated. These are, however, precisely the attributes of natural systems. The price system has trouble taking account of qualitatively different types of value on their own terms, most notably the carrying capacity of natural systems and their inherent usage limits. Exchange value is the primary, if not the exclusive, concern of conventional economics, with gross domestic product (GDP) serving as the respected, though crude, measure of our society's health and progress.

Conversely, anything that has no price or cannot be traded in the market is regarded (for policy-making purposes) as having subordinate or no value. This orientation has led to a systematic blindness to the actual costs of economic growth. As Ida Kubiszewski, Robert Costanza, and a team of other ecological economists showed in a 2013 paper that uses an alternative metric—the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI)—to expose the built-in fallacies of GDP, the externalized costs of economic growth around the world have outweighed the benefits since 1978.

Moreover, it is an open secret that various industry lobbies have captured if not corrupted the legislative process worldwide, and that regulatory mechanisms, for all their necessary functions, are essentially incapable of fulfilling their prescribed mandates, let alone pioneering new standards of environmental stewardship. Regulation has become ever-more insulated from citizen influence and accountability, while scientific expertise and technical proceduralism increasingly have become the exclusive determinants of who may credibly participate in the process.

Still, it will not be easy to make the transition from the current approach to ecological governance to commonsand rights-based ecological governance. A system of green governance requires serious reconsideration of some of the most basic premises of our economic, political, and legal orders, and of our culture as well. It requires that we enlarge our understanding of “value” in economic thought to account for nature and social well-being; that we expand our sense of human rights and how they can serve strategic as well as moral purposes; that we liberate ourselves from the limitations of state-centric models of legal process; and that we honor the power of non-market participation, local context, and social diversity in structuring economic activity and addressing environmental problems.

Fortunately, some robust and encouraging developments are now beginning to flourish on the periphery of the mainstream political economy. These include insurgent schools of thought in economics, ecological management, and human rights aided by fledgling grassroots movements. From the Occupy movement to Istanbul's Gezi Park; from Cairo's Tahrir Square to São Paulo's plazas; and from the streets of Athens and Madrid to diverse Internet communities such as Anonymous and the Pirate Party in Germany and even such right-leaning agitators as the Tea Party in the United States, the pulse of citizen protest against “the system” is quickening.

Although disparate and irregularly connected, these various protests, each in its own way, seek to address the many serious deficiencies of centralized governments (corruption, lack of transparency, incompetence, antidemocratic policies) and concentrated markets (externalized costs, fraud, wealth inequality, the ethos of “development” as the overriding goal of the economy). As The Economist noted in a June 2013 cover story: “A wave of anger is sweeping the cities of the world. Politicians beware.”

Taken together with other paradigm-shifting governance movements— among online activists, subsistence farmers, indigenous peoples, “alter-

In 1913, the new Village Hall on Oldlands Common, Gloucestershire, England.

globalization” activists, the Slow Food movement, relocalization projects, and more—we see in green governance the contours of a new paradigm of ecological governance, a non-market mode for communities to manage resources and govern themselves based on the theory and practice of the commons.

A commons is a regime for managing common-pool resources that eschews individual property rights and state control. It relies instead on common-property arrangements that tend to be self-organized and enforced in complex, idiosyncratic social ways, and generally is governed by what we call vernacular law—the “unofficial” norms, institutions, and procedures that evolve from commoner practice and decision—to manage shared community resources, typically democratically. State law and action may set the parameters within which vernacular law operates, but it does not directly control how a given commons is organized and managed.

In this way, the commons operates in a quasi-sovereign manner, similar to the market but largely escaping the centralized mandates of the state and the logic of market exchange while mobilizing decentralized participation “on the ground.” Broadly conceived, the commons could become an important vehicle for assuring a right to environment at the local, regional, national, and global levels. This, of course, would require innovative legal and policy norms, institutions, and procedures that could recognize and support commons as a matter of law.

The commons represents an advance over existing approaches to ecological governance because it gives us practical, democratic ways of naming and protecting value that the market is incapable of doing. The commons represents an advance over the regulatory state or “self-regulating” market because it gives us a vocabulary for talking about the proper limits of market activity—and for enforcing those limits. To talk about the commons is to force a conversation about “market externalities” that often are shunted to the periphery of economic theory, law, politics, and policy making. People who rely on their commons to manage resources needed for their everyday lives have a keen practical interest in such questions as: How can appropriate limits be set on the market exploitation of nature? What legal principles, institutions, and procedures can help manage a shared resource fairly and sustainably over time, sensitive to the ecological rights of future as well as present generations?

Despite its venerable history as a paradigm of resource management and governance, the commons has been largely ignored by economists and policy makers as a serious alternative to the prevailing modes of control and regulation. There are many reasons for this fact, but clearly one of them is the commons' lack of grounding in state law sufficient to give it popular force and effect. We believe, however, that the legal as well as moral claims of human rights can be powerful agents for enabling and operationalizing the new paradigm we propose. This is a central theme of our book Green Governance and the purpose of a key proposal that we include within it: “A Universal Covenant Affirming the Human Right to Commonsand Rightsbased Governance of Earth's Natural Wealth and Resources.”

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