Commons, a Model for Managing Natural Resources

Commons and the ”Good Life”

, by GRZYBOWSKI Cândido

The climate crisis demonstrates how the dominant civilisation has come to a dead end. It is thus also an opportunity for a change of direction, which can be achieved by putting the defence and development of the commons – natural, cultural and urban – at the forefront of the political agenda.

The climate crisis is now a matter of common sense. We live in one of the rare moments in human history where we are able to question the very foundations of the way we live. We only need to develop common sense into a “transformative good sense”, as specifically defined by Gramsci, generating compelling movements of transformation, which are able to conquer ”hegemony” within society (i.e.: a wide spread political and cultural recognition and belief in the legitimacy and justice of a cause among many sectors of civil society, where citizenship originates).

The prevailing civilisation, where a nation’s wealth is measured by the acquisition of an ever-increasing number of goods, per capita income, accumulation and GDP growth, has been arduously created in a few centuries of human history. Conquest and colonisation, with entire populations forced into slavery; the industrial revolution and a lifestyle based on productivism and unrestrained consumerism; imperialism and wars, changing players and moving between regions: one thing has followed the another to ensure the current civilisation’s domination up to the present day. The capitalist globalisation of these last decades has become the norm for practically all of humanity.

Despite its attraction, its ability to win hearts and minds and to defy geographical borders, the fact is that the way of life associated with this civilisation inevitably results in social exclusion and environmental destruction. Hence the importance of the common sense that has come out of the environmental crisis. People are beginning to be aware that it is impossible to go on like this, that the planet will not be able to cope with it. We would need five planets for all of humanity – the 7 billion people that make up the planet – to reach the standard of life that the average North American enjoys. Even worse is that our ecological footprint shows that the planet still wouldn’t have enough resources even if the benchmark was the standard of life of Brazilians. This needs to change. Ethically-speaking, however, it is not conceivable to save the planet by putting human beings aside. How can we reconcile social justice with environmental justice? This is a major question for citizenship and democracy. This is the “good sense” that needs to be developed into a transformative project in the historic moment in which we live.

The crisis of civilisation

We need to highlight that behind the climate crisis lies a crisis of civilisation. We need to start questioning the principles and values that underpin the type of “quality of life” created by productivism and consumerism. We also need to rekindle our lost connection with the biosphere and with a sense of ethics, which has been broken by science and technology. Science and technology clearly have a huge power over nature and life, a power materialised in our means of production and in the industrialisation of every sector of human activity. But its progress has been at nature’s expense, due to the destructive, unsustainable way in which it has been used, in both environmental and social terms. Because it relies on an excessive use of carbon and raw materials, this civilisation is creating a climate disaster. We need to begin by decarbonising, dematerialising and shifting the economy towards the local: produce here, with what we have here, to consume here. Let’s put an end to growth at any cost and move towards focussing on human happiness. Let’s find our place again in the natural, regenerative cycle of life in its entirety. We are faced with an ethical necessity, that of life on the planet, of all of life, that of this generation and those to come, and it means moving from a civilisation focussed on possession and accumulation to one focussed on well-being, with the same human rights for each and every human being, while also respecting the rights of “mother nature” herself, the heritage of life that we all share.

At the crux of this crucial shift in attitude and practices is the question of the commons: the goods that belong to a community as a whole. The “good life” (bien vivir, as Latin America’s indigenous peoples say) involves the sharing of the commons, as a condition of life. Organising society around the commons is a way of highlighting the community’s importance as a pathway to sustainability. It is up to the community to ensure that everyone is able to access the commons, and that they are preserved and used in a sustainable manner. Moreover, it is the equal, democratic participation of each and every person in a community that will ensure both the commons and the collective “good life” are safeguarded. We are at a fundamental juncture between life foundations and democracy, between environmental justice and social justice, where all citizens need to be actively involved.

Nature’s gifts are part of the commons: water and rain, lakes, rivers and seas, wind, and sun, climate and the atmosphere as a whole, biodiversity, the earth and its fertility, minerals... The list goes on and on. The way we access and we use these commons is what fundamentally shapes our quality of life, its sustainability and its justice, making it a “good life”. Some of these commons are limited, such as coal, oil and gas – the fruit of millions of years of decomposed organic matter. The availability of others, like water, varies locally and seasonally, even though there is a set unvarying amount of them. Others, like the sun and wind, are inexhaustible.

It’s true that natural commons – the heritage of all of humanity – are distributed unequally over the planet. This produces distinctive environments, in which different cultures and peoples have developed. But it also raises a question of ethics and justice: how can natural resources be shared between all human beings? Humanity invented the absurd idea, which capitalism has hugely profited from, that a large number of natural resources can be owned by individuals, groups and peoples. It began as the stronger taking ownership of those resources by force, and now it has become a guaranteed right under laws and tribunals.

Some commons are unique, such as the splendours we find in nature and the enormous ecosystems that control the planet’s climate, like the great rainforests, the steppes, the poles, the large mountain ranges and their glaciers. Dividing them or misusing them could result in their destruction, which would affect humanity and life as a whole. It is absolutely essential that they are managed in a way that respects them as part of humanity’s heritage. It is equally important that fossil fuels are also managed in this way – as their unequal and uncontrolled burning affects the climate for everyone, which is what makes the climate crisis so unjust.

Cultural Commons

The commons are not only natural. Humanity has collectively created, over many years, other types of commons which are fundamentally important for our well-being: cultural practices and artefacts, languages, philosophies, religions, education, information and communication, education, science and technology. The more these inexhaustible commons are shared, the more they increase. They are the crucial frontier for expanding the “good life”, human happiness.

These commons are threatened by the concept of intellectual property, a ploy of capitalism to make what is unlimited in nature rare and marketable. The most striking example today is what is becoming of the IT and communication revolution, particularly concerning the internet and software. The fight between free software and proprietary software (Linux versus Microsoft) is a fight between the commons and intellectual property. Generally-speaking, it could be said that the communications world is faced with two choices: an extension of “citizen media” – a media that is free and focussed on common good; or of “proprietary media”, based on the private property of means of communication.

Piazza of the Pompidou Centre, Paris. Source : OliBac (CC BY 2.0)


The tragedy that fell recently upon Rio forces us into thinking about the way we envisage the city. Cities are an ever-changing commons and, in their own way, are unique. There are already certain well-known historic cities which are regarded as part of the common cultural heritage of humanity. But all cities are commons – they belong to everyone who live in them. This is what justifies the notion of claiming the “right to the city”. It’s not enough to see the thoroughfares of communication – the streets and avenues, the squares and parks – as fundamental public goods, as the only commons in a city. The potential that exists in cities, the institutions created over time, the creative synergy of the community are just a few of the many aspects that make a city a commons, that belongs to everyone. Sharing the city is a form of collective trusteeship which can only increase its value.

But there are still problems – and not only the obvious ones that we observed during the tragedy in Rio. There are problems related to privileges, exclusions, and segregations – in other words privatisation in general, based on discrimination and individualism, as well as with public policies imposed by those with the most power. The city as a commons, as a unique territory and as a natural site in symbiosis with human constructions over generations, is the foundation of a new economy and a new power rooted in the local, which will make it possible to build a democratic and sustainable foundation for the “good life”.