The Ontology of the Commons

[This is an assignment for my Environmental Politics class, which I think is interesting enough post here. My first answer is a sort of immanent critique of ‘intrinsic value’ to show its emptiness as a concept. The second question is clearly anthropocentric, which is likely the part we’re meant to criticize, but I think it’s much more interesting to see how this simple statement forecloses any possible argument on its own terms. My third answer mostly paraphrases Debord, but it’s a nice example of how the terms of a question (i.e. historical revolution) often delimit the possible answers to it.]

1. Why is the notion of ‘the commons’ significant in terms of understanding the fundamental conflicts in the politics of the environment? (300 words)

McKenzie takes the following description as representative of ecocentrism:[1]

An ecocentric view sees the world as “an intrinsically dynamic, interconnected web of relations in which there are no absolute discrete entities and no absolute dividing lines between the living and the nonliving, the animate and the inanimate, or the human and the nonhuman.” In other words, all beings ― human and non-human ― possess intrinsic value.

Foreman includes inanimate objects (e.g. mountains) in McKenzie’s category of ‘beings’.[2] If this is the case, then all matter is intrinsically valuable. A true ecocentrist would then accept the proposition that all matter must be commons, since matter’s intrinsic value cannot be made into anyone’s property, and since there can be no moral argument that any instance of matter is not free to be utilized by any other instance of matter.

If it is true that at the quantum level all matter is energy, and if the first law of thermodynamics is true (energy cannot be created or destroyed), then it does not matter what form matter takes, even if it is entirely vaporized by nuclear warfare, since it, as energy, still exists, and still possesses ‘intrinsic value’. Thus it is impossible to not preserve the commons. Therefore, the moral ground for preserving the earth’s environment as we know it must be zoocentric or sentientist[3], both of which do not abstractly view humans as a subtype of matter, but deal with humans in their capacity as living beings, i.e. politically.[4] The function of Green political theory, then, is to delineate what constitutes the commons, since, as we have seen, if everything is taken to be commons, then it can just as well be said that nothing is a commons.

  • [1]: Eckersley, R. (1992). Environmentalism & Political Theory. New York: SUNY Press, pg. 49; quoted in McKenzie, J. (2002). Environmental Politics in Canada: Managing The Commons Into The Twenty-First Century. Toronto: Oxford University Press, pg. 24.
  • [2] Dryzek, J. & Schlosberg, D. (2005). Debating The Earth: The Environmental Politics Reader, 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, pg. 349.
  • [3] See McKenzie, pg. 14 for definitions of these terms: sentientism attributes value to all sentient creatures, while zoocentrism attributes value to all animals, whether sentient or not.
  • [4] See lecture 1, slide 5, for David Easton’s definition of the political (in his book The Political System) as “the resolution of conflict through the authoritative allocation of values.” Due to scarcity of resources, conflict arises among living creatures which (from a zoocentric or sentientist viewpoint) must politically be dealt with in its own right, whereas when beings are viewed simply as matter, this need does not arise.

The magnetic connection between the sun and the earth

2. Biodiversity is essential for human well-being. Comment critically. (300 words)

Though this statement is often used to justify the environmentalist project, it conceals a significant degree of equivocation. Though particular examples of ‘essential’ species can be brought to attention, these are not what is at stake here: in theory, scientists could simply rescue the useful species and allow the rest to be destroyed; it is biodiversity itself which is the issue. The main argument is similar to that of Donald Rumsfeld’s justification[1] for invading Iraq: it is the “unknown unknowns” that matter most, the extreme possibilities that remain concealed. Though David Hume[2] and G.E. Moore[3] have shown that it is impossible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, environmentalists have shifted to the tactic of deriving an ‘ought’ from a ‘could be’. Nature is posited as a ‘nichemaker’ which instantiates new organisms from the infinite possible combinations of genes. Those combinations which are ‘contradictory’ or cannot work within the context of the earth are eliminated by natural selection; nevertheless, there are far too many possible combinations of genes for science to ever compose a comprehensive list of all of them. Hence, we are forced to allow the great roulette of nature to work on its own, in the hope that it will eventually generate a new species which would be useful to humans. Similar to Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom[4] against socialism in favor of the free market, so this statement holds in terms of the environment that we ought to encourage a society which allows for the utmost openness to possibility, lest an immensely useful species be fazed out of existence before even being discovered by humans. This emphasis on “unknown unknowns” bypasses even statistical likelihood in favor of the degree of uncertainty inherent in any judgment: just as one cannot argue against Rumsfeld, neither can one argue against the environmentalists.

  • [1]: Transcript of Defense Department Briefing, February 12, 2002. U.S. Department of Defense. Oct 9, 2011.
  • [2]: Hume, D.; Selby-Bigge, L.A. (Ed.). (1960). Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. London: Oxford University Press
  • [3]: Moore, G.E. (1903). Principia Ethica. New York: Prometheus Books.
  • [4]: Hayek, F. (2010). The Road To Serfdom. Playaway Adult Nonfiction.

3. Why is the development of agriculture considered to be the most fundamental change in human history? What was the political significance of this great transition? (300 words)

In his book The Society of the Spectacle., Debord articulates the import of the ‘agricultural revolution’ at a very profound level. To paraphrase his argument, nomadic (ie. pre-agrarian) societies are marked by their interpretation of time as cyclical as opposed to linear, because the same conditions (e.g. seasons, lunar cycles) tend to be repeated at each moment of their journey[1]. Even when a society settles in a specific place, this only encourages cyclical organization of time, since conditions are even more static than before. Myth is developed as a mental construct which “guarantees that the cosmic order conforms with the order that this society has in fact already established within its frontiers.”[2]

The organizers of agrarian society who themselves do not engage in agriculture are provided with a vantage point different from that of their subjects: they are able to pursue their personal history (as in the case of dynasties), which may lead to conflicts (e.g. wars) among different rulers, which disrupts the farmers’ stasis. Debord links the development of technology (particularly of writing as “impersonal memory”) with that of political power, and further elaborates on how linear time influences monotheistic religion (“Time is totally oriented toward a single final event: ‘The Kingdom of God is soon to come’.”[3]), the modernist ideal of progress (accumulation of knowledge over time), and ultimately the hegemony of bourgeois, labor-based economies (“The bourgeoisie is associated with a labor time that has finally been freed from cyclical time. With the bourgeoisie, work becomes work that transforms historical conditions.”[4]).

Since the notion of ‘historical revolution’ already presupposes historical time, the necessary place to start is the birth of historical time and the point at which cyclical time begins to lose prominence, both of which converge at the agricultural revolution. The primary transition which occurred during the agricultural revolution, says Debord, was that of separating the organizers of agricultural production (i.e. the ruling class) from cyclical time, which had been previously been unavoidable in nomadic societies due to the lack of prolonged stasis; and as Debord shows, linear time constitutes the primary condition for modernist society as we know it.

  • [1]: Debord, G.; Knabb, K. (trans.) (2002). The Society of The Spectacle. Canberra: Treason Press, pg. 36
  • [2]: Debord, 36.
  • [2]: Debord, 39.
  • [4]: Debord, 40.

About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on October 14, 2011, in Environmental, History, Philosophy, Politics, Review, Science, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I haven’t read the eco-philosophical texts but your formidable reductio ad absurdum doesn’t seem to indicate much sympathy for the project of ethical atomism or utilitarism and I doubt that more ontological subtleness will help out of the mess.

    These considerations also seem to be besides the point because the Green project is one in which a civilization ceases to be disruptive to its environment but adaptive; an embedding process within a natural, preexisting geography and its resources which are considered regenerative, rather than something that exists on a more abstract level, like the world economy. It’s a grand vision that implies values assigned to practices of adaption/disruption, not a procedure by which each thing is marked by a value and then we compute an optimal route of their exploitation based on those markers. Since we don’t want to be ordinary Nazis which assign yellow stars to what is dedicated for extinction, some philosophers come up with mystical Schwurbel about the interconnection of everything with everything, the great world wide web, which prevents us from the implications of structural racism – epic fail.

    In order to understand human values properly as they are actually used, instead of making them up, it could be helpful to understand the distinction between an animal and a pet. There is no distinction between them on the level of biology or sentience and there isn’t even a complicated symbolic system grafted on most of them ( unlike maybe holy cows ), but we still think it’s more barbarian to eat our neighbors dog – and not only because it is his private property – than animals breed on farms for consumption. Similarly the Green mindset already had an impact on the way we make a distinction between farmed and wild life animals and there are often severe penalties for hunting and killing the latter. Values seem to be both meaningful and inconsistent. They are a bit like Zizeks “love”, which is unjust and non-universal by definition but also avoids the abyss of various centrisms.

    • I fully admit that in my skepticism I do not suggest any changes which could correct the current inefficacy of environmental approaches. Nevertheless, I’m sure it’s better to have these contradictions made manifest than to let them go unnoticed. I don’t believe that the environmentalist project is futile, but as long as Greens rely on despotic concepts (i.e. those which preclude any possible argument) such as ‘intrinsic value’ and ‘unknown unknowns’, environmental theory will only serve as an outlet for holistic masturbation.

      If I’m reading you correctly, much of your argument hinges on the issue of value(s). If what you are arguing is that the value of resources should be calculated according to its significance in the given environmental sphere, rather than according to market values which have developed over the centuries as a result of contingent geopolitical circumstances (e.g. the cheapness of tea, historically brought about by British colonization of India), then I can certainly see your point, though I can’t imagine how any transition from the latter to the former would be feasible. As well, a less anthropocentric critic than I would no doubt launch into a tirade about your statement that we should work within the purview of human values “as they are currently used” (as opposed to somehow ‘transvaluating’ them), but I’m personally inclined to agree with you. The problem then shifts to what sort of institutional reforms could work around these given values.

      Though I’m currently still in the research stage, it seems to me that Green GDP is the only method of retaining the current free market system without going beyond the limits of sustainability. Optimally, externalities would be ‘internalized’ as industries are fined for the amount of environmental damage they have caused, thus delivering an incentive for them to become ‘Greener’. My own politics largely hinges on the question of whether a Green GDP is possible; I’m currently hoping that it could work, because I’m skeptical that any revolutionary systemic reforms would occur otherwise. China attempted to implement a Green GDP in 1995, and it was ultimately a failure due to a lack of rigorous measures of environmental damage (i.e. converting pollution into monetary values), and the project was scrapped. This has led to a large amount of pessimism, since if a nation with as much state influence as China could not succeed in this, it is quite unlikely that the governments of other nations could do so.

      It upsets me to think about this, but there’s an inevitable despotic element of setting a measurement standard, reminiscent of a king arbitrarily stating that the length of his foot shall henceforth be the standard ‘foot’. My best idea on the matter so far (and this is the closest I get to utilitarianism) is to use as a standard the biological measurement of how much pollution it would take to kill a particular species of animal, or perhaps a separate species for each different kind of pollution. (For the record, I imagine that biologists could develop computer-models of said animal’s biological processes which would be reliable enough to avoid the death of any real animals.) The epistemological problems of Green GDP give me endless headaches, but until its impossibility is proved, I think its important to discourage Laputan theories of ecological utopias in favor of a solid grounding in realpolitik.

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