The Wombles were right all along

Posted on September 23, 2009


In talking about what it means to be a sustainable practitioner, we use the example of a chainsaw operator:

We characterise this by asking departments to consider their equivalent to this story: forestry worker attending a hypothetical Level 2 chainsaw maintenance course. As part of that course the future chainsaw operators are taught all about being careful when changing the chainsaw oil, not spilling it and collecting it for recycling. With some modification to the course we could even certify the graduates as “sustainable”. What is going to matter, perhaps more so, is what our graduate does at the first ‘smoko’ when, after a morning of carefully changing oil, he is roundly abused – ‘just chuck it in the stream, you’re holding up the whole gang’. And what do we expect our graduate to do when on the first day on the job our graduate is told to go and chop down the last Kauri tree. The answer isn’t as simple as saying no (he’ll get fired and someone else will chop it down), nor is as simple as saying ‘yes’ (surely unsustainable). Nor is the answer that we’d teach integrated catchment management – such material is perhaps Level 7.  Instead the answer is something about polite questioning and discussing alternatives.

We use this scenario with other disciplines, the very act of translating it to the other discipline is a really engaging way of identifying behaviours expected of their own graduates. The “cut down the last Kauri tree” can be expanded further – of course it is unlikely to be the last Kauri tree, but it might be the 1000th Kauri tree, or the 999th Kauri tree…

This leads to a discussion of commons, especially the tragedy of the commons.  Justin Kenrick has a very useful take on this. His chapter “Commons Thinking”  in the new Handbook of Sustainable Literacy.

Kenrick distinguishes two forms of thinking: a commons approach and a dominance approach.

A Commons approach which assumes that:

we live in a common life-world upon which we all depend,
any problems stem from a breakdown in relationships, and
solutions are primarily about restoring these relationships

and a dominance approach which assumes that:

one’s well-being ultimately depends on controlling the devalued other (whether other life forms, other humans, or other aspects of oneself),
problems are about the lack of such control, and
the solution involves the dominant realm (the mind, the ‘developed’ world, the adult, the expert, or humans in general) imposing control on the supposedly inferior realm.

He argues that the commons have been misrepresented as a tragedy by the dominance thinking approach – it is, he says, it is the open access regime that is the problem:

When the ‘Commons’ is referred to at all in dominant thinking, it is usually in terms of the so called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, and this term is used to argue that left to ourselves (without the market and government to control our behaviour) we would each choose to exploit our ecological context for our own individual benefit even though this would inevitably lead to the destruction of the ecosystems (the Commons) on which we all depend.
In fact, the opposite is the case. Even Garrett Hardin, the inventor of the term, later admitted that the phrase describes, not a Tragedy of ‘Commons regimes’, but a Tragedy of ‘Open Access regimes’ (Kirby at al 1995).

The irony here is that an excellent example of an ‘Open Access regime’ is that of capitalism, where the only understanding of being ‘rational’ is of acting in one’s own immediate, narrow self-interest. ‘Open access regimes’ describe situations where people are persuaded to act in a way that has no consideration for the longer term of themselves, their children or others. Commons regimes, in sharp contrast, always have unwritten or written rules about who can use what resource when and for how long, in order to ensure everyone’s well-being over the longer term (Kirby at al 1995, Kenrick 2005).

Kenrick celebrates the re-emergence of Commons systems, in land reform, in the Transition movement and other spheres as

people realise that it is more rational to base their well-being on collectively caring about those around them, than to believe they can – over the long term – improve their own lives at the expense of their neighbours. The Transition approach embodies Commons thinking and is a creative, empowering, and immediately gratifying proof that – if we come at problems from a Commons perspective – our solutions will improve life for us all, rather than deal with symptoms in ways that exacerbate the original problem.

This is predicated on the notion that my well-being depends on your well-being, and on the assumption that solving problems involves working to restore relationships of trust rather than seeking to impose solutions on others.