Planetary Commons

Neven Allgeier, Environment


Planetary Commons

The planetary conditions that have allowed human civilization to flourish for the past 10,000 years during the Holocene epoch are not just “there,” given, eternal.

The planetary conditions that have allowed human civilization to flourish for the past 10,000 years during the Holocene epoch are not just “there,” given, eternal. From a geological perspective, these conditions are incredibly young, a product of the earth’s constant process of actively reproducing itself through a complex web of interconnected systems and sub-systems. Earth system science has shown that our planet reproduces itself as a stable entity through feedback interactions among different critical systems. During the Holocene epoch, these processes have settled into a set of feedback mechanisms that have provided the earth with a stable, predictable climate. Thanks to this, human beings have been able to develop the panoply of civilization in its present form. A constantly changing environment would not have permitted agriculture, medicine, transmissible knowledge, and technological development and the like. Human beings may have lived and flourished; but they would have done so differently.

With the exception of some indigenous cultures, the dominant way that most societies throughout history have used natural resources has not taken the requirements of the planet to reproduce itself into account.

The exploitation of nature for human needs and wishes, accelerated by the technological capacities of the Industrial Revolution, is undermining the critical regulatory systems of the planet, disrupting earth’s ability to reproduce the stable conditions necessary for human civilization in its current form.

This is now scientifically understood. But not yet politically. Nor in mainstream westernized culture. Political systems, from the nation-state to the United Nations, still treat the limitations of the earth’s resources according to the demands of geo-politically interdependent nation-states. Many within these states still believe that they are entitled to use as many goods as they can get their hands on. The idea that consumption should be limited according to the needs of a planet shared in common by eight billion is, for many, especially in privileged nations, unthinkable as an individual orientation and forgettable as a political program.

So how do we move forward? What new mode of living do we require in order to make good on the realization that we live not just on but with a living planet that requires our care at the planetary scale? THE NEW INSTITUTE fellow Louis Kotzé, together with Johan Rockström and others, has outlined a paradigm shift that brings together what we know scientifically with what we ought to do politically. They bring together the ideas of the planet and the commons into a concept of “the planetary commons.”

The idea of the planetary commons recognizes that there are critical biophysical systems – such as rainforests, wetlands, the atmosphere, and the cryosphere – located across national jurisdictions that are necessary for earth’s overall climate stability. Because these systems are integral to the reproduction of the earth as a whole, on which all of us depend, we must understand and treat these systems as a “commons.” This means that their management must be constrained by the ability of these systems of continue to regulate a resilient climate. Because such systems affect the earth as a whole, their governance must be determined not by individual national interests, but by the global community. This calls for a new idea of governance beyond global governance, which only considers fair terms for resource use among human beings irrespective of the role they play in safeguarding the earth’s systems.

If we admit that there is such a thing as a planetary system, which requires planetary level governance, we quickly run into difficult problems. We have seen how unjust and dysfunctional global governance systems have been historically. And yet it is precisely at this level that we must tackle the needs of the planet as a global system.

We have to face the question: are human beings capable of creating governance structures that work on a planetary level? Is such a scale doable?

Humans, through their cleverness, have developed powers large enough to shape the climactic conditions of the tremendously complex planet on which we live. And humans have also developed the scientific and technical knowledge to govern a complex natural system. Our next step is to develop the socio-psychological self-knowledge and the political will to do so.

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