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Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 13, No. 10, October 2017
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Carrying Capacity as a Basis for
Political and Economic Self-Governance Discussion


James Bernard Quilligan

Originally published by
P2P Foundation, 11 September 2017
under a Creative Commons License


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No major civilization has EVER practiced carrying capacity as a basis for political and economic self-governance; carrying capacity has only succeeded in small communities. Of course, we know this from the modern Ostrom view of the commons; but Ostrom never put her finger on the pulse of carrying capacity as the *self-organizing principle between a species and its environment*. Nor has the commons movement recognized the importance of an *empirical way of measuring the metabolism of society* through the cooperative activities of people using resources to meet their biological needs.

In other words, Ostrom and the commons movement have yet to define the dynamic equilibrium which they seek as the balance between two opposing forces – population and resources – which continually counteract each other. Instead, the commons movement is more focused on counteracting the Market and the State than on measuring the replenishment of renewable and non-renewable resources and managing them to sustain their yield. In short, the commons movement does not seem to be producing alternative indicators for the production and provisioning which can be used to guide policy.

The book, Secular Cycles, made me realize that the commons, as Ostrom viewed it and as others are now envisioning it, is too informal and small-scale to work in a way that establishes empirical targets that will bring down exponential growth to arithmetic growth levels; and thus organizing society according to the dynamic equilibrium between population and the availability of food, water and energy. Instead, what we get in the commons movement is a general opposition to quantitative analysis because it reminds people too much of the metrics of unbridled capitalism.

My point is that if we don’t know how to develop evidence-based policy for a soft landing toward a reasonable level of subsistence — and I’ve seen very little of this in the commons movement — then I don’t know how we expect to create a long-term system for meeting human needs through sustainable yields. I would hope that the commons movement begins to create the basis for a viable new society by actually focusing on the optimum rate at which a resource can be harvested or used without damaging its ability to replenish itself. That would be something.

Let me put this in more structural terms. First, the carrying capacity rate for renewable resources follows a carefully guided policy of maintenance and sustenance to ensure that resources are replenished sustainably in meeting the needs of people in the present. This requires that social policies are made more equitable to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Meanwhile, the needs of people in the future are in no jeopardy, so long as renewable resources continue to be replenished and provisioned within their carrying capacity. Hence, the carrying capacity rate of renewables is geared toward market coefficients for provisioning resources, goods and services for people at the current time, and will continue to be sustainable far into the future. This carrying capacity rate, based on renewable resources, in no way precludes (in fact, should be accompanied with) the creation of taxes toward a universal basic income and for maintenance of renewable resources.

Second, the carrying capacity rates of non-renewable resources are much more challenging and must be treated very differently. Society must decide scientifically how much non-renewable resources to use in the present and how much to save for the future. By guaranteeing that valuable resources will be ‘left in the ground’ or put away securely into a tamperproof lockbox, as it were, this formula has a benefit which, in one way, is similar to how gold used to function as a guarantee of reserve asset values and as a disciplining measure for currency exchange rates. Since a certain percentage of non-renewables are held in strict reserve for future generations, adherence to this process creates a value which is entirely *independent of the market* and is based on a relative scarcity index of non-renewable resources. This fraction (how much non-renewables to use for people now / how much non-renewables to set aside for people in the future) provides for a fixed and stable monetary rate that is tailor-made for the valuation of currency in the present.

In a society which is facing net energy loss and steep declines in non-renewable resources, this would be an extremely stable, strong, treasured, desired, sacrosanct and entirely non-marketized value. Instead of looking at productivity indices, commodity market rates, price inflation or unemployment indicators, monetary economists really ought to be turning their attention to the long-term carrying capacity of the planet’s non-renewables and their sustainability rates. I am in no way suggesting that the world should return to a gold standard; but to generate a system in which currency values are fixed to a meaningful measure of non-renewable resources, similar in some ways to the way that gold used to function. If this is done, the correlation of ecological sustainability with monetary sustainability will become a primary way of steering the world’s economy on a middle path between exponential growth and arithmetic growth, ensuring the sustenance and safely of society during a period of economic decline.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Quilligan has been an analyst and administrator in the field of international development since 1975. He has served as policy advisor and writer for many international politicians and leaders, including Pierre Trudeau, François Mitterrand, Edward Heath, Julius Nyerere, Olof Palme, Willy Brandt, Jimmy Carter, and His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan of Jordan. Quilligan was a policy advisor and press secretary for the Brandt Commission (1978-1984). He is presently Managing Director of Centre for Global Negotiations and Senior Advisor of Economic Democracy Advocates. He has been an economic consultant for government agencies in Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Tanzania, Kuwait, India, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada, and the United States. In addition, Quilligan has served as an advisor for many United Nations programs and international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund.



Beyond State Capitalism:
The Commons Economy in Our Lifetimes


James Bernard Quilligan

Originally published by
Share the World Resources, 13 September 2017
under a Creative Commons License


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In considering the essential problem of how to produce and distribute material wealth, virtually all of the great economists in Western history have ignored the significance of the commons—the shared resources of nature and society that people inherit, create and utilize.

Despite sharp differences in concept and ideology, economic thinkers from Smith, Ricardo, and Marx to Keynes, Hayek, Mises and Schumpeter largely based their assumptions on the world’s seemingly unlimited resources and fossil fuels, their infinite potential for creating economic growth, adequate supplies of labor for developing them, and the evolving monoculture of state capitalism responsible for their provision and allocation. Hence, in the Market State that has emerged, corporations and sovereign states make decisions on the production and distribution of Earth’s common resources more or less as a unitary system—with minimal participation from the people who depend on these commons for their livelihood and well-being. Because our forbears did not account for the biophysical flow of material resources from the environment through the production process and back into the environment, the real worth of natural resources and social labor is not factored into the economy. It is this centralized, hierarchical model that has led to the degradation and devaluation of our commons.

Over the past seventy years especially, the macroeconomic goals of sovereign states—for high levels and rapid growth of output, low unemployment and stable prices—have resulted in a highly dysfunctional world. The global economy has integrated dramatically in recent decades through financial and trade liberalization; yet the market is failing to protect natural and social resources, the state is failing to rectify the economic system, and the global polity is failing to manage its mounting imbalances in global resources and wealth. Without a ‘unified field theory’ of economics to explain how the commons is drastically undervalued and why world society is amassing huge debts to the environment, the poor and future generations, policymakers and their institutions lack the critical tools and support to address the massive instability that is now gripping the global economy. Businesses and governments are facing the Herculean challenge of reducing climate change and pollution while alleviating poverty without economic growth—a task for which the Market State is neither prepared nor designed to handle.

Meanwhile, the essential ideals of state capitalism—the rule-based systems of government enforcement and the spontaneous, self-regulating social order of markets—are finding direct expression in the co-governance and co-production of common goods by people in localities across the world. Whether these commons are traditional (rivers, forests, indigenous cultures) or emerging (energy, intellectual property, internet), communities are successfully managing them through collaboration and collective action. This growing movement has also begun to create social charters and commons trusts—formal instruments that define the incentives, rights and responsibilities of stakeholders for the supervision and protection of common resources. Ironically, by organizing to protect their commons through decentralized decision-making, the democratic principles of freedom and equality are being realized more fully in these resource communities than through the enterprises and policies of the Market State.

These evolving dynamics—the decommodification of common goods through co-governance and the deterritorialization of value through co-production—are shattering the liberal assumptions which underlie state capitalism. The emergence of this new kind of management and valuation for the preservation of natural and social assets is posing a momentous crisis for the Market State, imperiling the functional legitimacy of state sovereignty, national currencies, domestic fiscal policy, international trade and finance, and the global monetary system. Major changes are on the way. The transformation of modern political economy will involve reconnecting with—and reformulating—a pre-analytic vision of the post-macroeconomic global commons. Another world is coming: where common goods are capped and protected; a portion of these resources are rented to businesses for the production and consumption of private goods; and taxes on their use are redistributed by the state as public goods to provide a social income for the marginalized and to repair and restore the depleted commons.

Although people’s rights to their commons are often recognized and validated in smaller communities, scaling these lessons to the global level will require a new dimension of popular legitimacy and authority. The world community is rapidly evolving a sense of social interconnectivity, shared responsibility and global citizenship, yet the sovereign rights of people to the global commons have not been fully articulated. In declaring our planetary rights for these commons, we shall be confronting many decisive questions:

(1) Are modern societies prepared to create a framework in which the incentives behind production and governance are not private capital and debt-based growth, but human solidarity, quality of life and ecological sustainability?

(2) How soon—and how peacefully—will the subsystems of the Market State integrate their structures of value-creation and sovereign governance with the greater biophysical system of ecological and social interdependence?

(3) Can the global public organize effectively as a third power to develop checks and balances on the private and public sectors and establish the resource sovereignty and preservation value needed for a commons economy? 

These issues will be filtering into mainstream discussion over the next two decades. Already the system of state capitalism is breaking down, threatening the entire planet, its institutions and species. When this collapse can no longer be contained and a global monetary crisis ensues, world society will have the choice of creating an economic system that follows the universal laws of biophysics and commons preservation—or accepting a new version of 18th-20th century mechanistic economics, obliging humanity to continue living off the common capital of the planet under corporate feudalism and über-militaristic regimes. Our decision will likely come down to this: global commons or global autarchy. As an economist, I don’t pretend to speak for the conscience of humanity; but as a human being, my heart tells me that we shall see the beginnings of a commons economy in our lifetimes. The long-forsaken global commons are beckoning.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Quilligan has been an analyst and administrator in the field of international development since 1975. He has served as policy advisor and writer for many international politicians and leaders, including Pierre Trudeau, François Mitterrand, Edward Heath, Julius Nyerere, Olof Palme, Willy Brandt, Jimmy Carter, and His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan of Jordan. Quilligan was a policy advisor and press secretary for the Brandt Commission (1978-1984). He is presently Managing Director of Centre for Global Negotiations and Senior Advisor of Economic Democracy Advocates. He has been an economic consultant for government agencies in Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Tanzania, Kuwait, India, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada, and the United States. In addition, Quilligan has served as an advisor for many United Nations programs and international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund.


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