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Meeting James Quilligan, a Seminar on “Managing Local and Global Commons”

on Fri, 10/28/2011 - 23:49


The global economic crisis has seen the European and global economy teeter on the edge of catastrophe making the timing of our second event in a series of ‘Meetings with Remarkable Commoners’ all the more relevant. The Remarkable Commoner in question was James Quilligan, the Chairman for the Secretariat of Global Commons Trust, commons theorist, activist, policy analyst and advisor (extended bio here). He is also an advisor to the School of Commoning (SoC). George Por (SoC co-founder) began the evening by highlighting one of the consequences of the global economic crises. He read from the days headline news: forty million jobs in the industrial countries will go by the end of next year, in addition to the twenty million that have gone since 2008 (source: OECD). This raised a key question, ‘what could Managing our Local and Global Commons serve to the world and its diverse communities in such grave times?’

As the seminar unfolded I began to get a clearer sense of what this paradigm could offer humanity, both as the next step in the maturity of our local to global socio-economic system, and to our everyday lives. James steadily progressed through his presentation building the picture up as he went along, as he did this he demonstrated a mastery that dispelled myths and provided clarity along the way. He explained that: 

  • A commons is not an open access regime doomed to failure as conceived by Garrett Hardin in his widely followed 1968 text ‘Tragedy of the Commons.’
  • Commons are not things like trees, the air, the land or the seas - these are common pool resources. 

Instead he defined a commons as:

  • A resource management regime, managed by the community.
  • Based on trusteeship not ownership.

The way in which James described trusteeship was striking, his commons trust institution is a clear departure from the private and public trusts that have, over the centuries, gained legal legitimacy within the existing socio-economic system. The commons trust represents a radical shift from the competitive mode of production under our existing hierarchical model of private ownership, to a model which encourages collaboration in the co-governance and co-production of shared resources. It is a mode of production that ends the division of labour as resource users become producers of their own resources. James explained:

“When resource users become producers they can create a trust which can protect a resource through a resource cap. Trustees of a commons set a strict limit on the extraction or use of the resource according to non-monetized inter-generational metrics including sustainable, quality of life indicators. The current system has short term metrics which discount the future.”

Moving from a short-termist system where resources are regarded as unlimited the commons trust resource cap maintains a sustainable supply (stock) and rents out to private business the resources above that cap (flow). A percentage of that rent flowing into the commons is taxed and used explicitly by the state in the creation of ecological regeneration and social cohesion funds or commons wealth funds to fuel job creation. Unlike the existing financial metrics the proposed metrics under a commons trust would include an inclusive and diverse array of natural, material and cultural resources. These would all contribute to a commons reserve index averaged on a daily basis to come up with a sustainability rate independent of market goods, services and interest rates. James proposed: 

“The signals now are not coming through Adam Smith and Von Hayek said through prices, they are coming through the actual scarcity of resources and cost of environmental damage and social disparities conveyed directly through our money. Its our purchasing power which is of paramount importance.”

James made it clear that when we scale this up to the global level where the more functional aspects of the commons are expressed, a global sustainability rate and a global currency, taking all of the earths resources into account, can be implemented. This is made increasingly possible as we move towards greater technological capacity and interconnectivity. With natural and cultural resources included in the new metrics the precautionary principle becomes a structural concept built into the systemic fabric, rather than an optional guiding principle. In addition to the grand structure, woven throughout the seminar was an emphasis on synthesis and co-evolution:

  • The synthesis of mind and body, ending the rational mind/economies exploitation of the biosphere.
  • The synthesis of users becoming producers ending the division of labour and the hierarchical management of resources.
  • The co-evolutionary trends of globalisation, increased transparency, technological advancement and information superhighways enthusing an inevitability towards such synthesis.
  • The co-evolution of resource management through the resource cap, where:
    • the stock fosters the ‘being’ qualities of trust, cooperation, conservation and so on, while, 
    • the rentable resources provide a monetary flow into the commons that fosters qualities of emergence or ‘becoming’ driving the creativity and thriveability of the community.  

In reviewing the questions fielded to James as the seminar came to an end, I felt there was a deeper question that connected each one ie., “how do we get from where we are right now, to this commons based system?” From these exchanges there was a clear sense that we are in a transition requiring both short and medium term solutions, 

such as the redirecting of capital to underfunded initiatives, but also the long term monetary solution that James outlined for us. Running throughout the seminar was a desire to become more aware of new possibilities and a sense that old values, ways of thinking and language that often unknowingly enclose us from reaching the next stage in our individual and collective development, need to be identified and transcended. This was to my mind further confirmation of the need for commoning today, for the more that commoning is practiced between us, the more likely the new language of the commons can become our new language. 

As the seminar drew to a close I began feeling two qualities that as members of civil society we urgently need today - an enhanced sense of clarity and confidence - that our time has come, to focus on becoming the stewards of commons, locally and globally, co-creating a just and thriving world that with James’ help we all began to peer into. 

We would like to express our deepest heartfelt gratitude to James for giving this rich and comprehensive presentation and acting as a bright shining light to everyone who attended. With each and all of us taking a great many things away from the evening there was a general sense among our learned audience that James’ ideas need to be circulated far and wide... May this event and our continued commoning serve as a catalyst in that important process. 

“The value of common goods arises through our relationships and connectedness with them, so the value doesn’t arise from objects themselves, it arises from our interaction with those objects and our intersubjectivity with each other in our interaction with those objects.”

James Quilligan

Resources to explore:

You can download the full audio recording of the presentation here, and view the presentation slides here.

You can also catch what others had to say about this event and RSVP for future events at our meetup page: School of Commoning Events.