I’d like to invite you, dear reader, into a little thought experiment, if you would. Start by taking a deep breathe. Feel the air enter through your nostrils and travel down into your lungs. Stop reading for a second and just bring your awareness to that breathe, to the process of breathing that unites you with all other beings on this earth.
Who can be said to own the air which you just breathed? It seems a ludicrous question, but imagine a world in which clean air was a commodity that was bought and sold on the open market. A world where corporations effectively owned the rights to provide clean air to paying customers.
If this seems a completely unimaginable scenario, let’s think about it a little more. Already access to clean water, no less essential to life than clean air, is being privatized and sold as a commodity in many parts of the world. As clean water becomes ever more scarce due to industrial pollution and climate change, this is a trend that will most likely accelerate. It has long been accepted that food, another of our most basic survival needs, is distributed through market exchange; and ownership of the food supply has now even been extended to the genetic code of plants.
Is it now that hard to imagine a world where air too is a commodity? What kind of world would this be? How would this affect the way we relate to one another and to the rest of the living world if even the most fundamental act of existence – breathing – was regulated by the market?
Behold the commodification of the earth, a process begun several centuries ago with the enclosure of the commons and the structuring of a rigid system of private property. This process has been so written into our dominant cultural story in the industrialized world that its implications go completely unnoticed. It is the myth of progress, of human exceptionalism, of the rationalization and institutionalization of our reality.
But this story is beginning to change. Though it is the story being told by those with power, by the mainstream media, by our various cultural and political institutions, it grows increasingly apparent how far the chasm between this official story and the daily lived experience of billions of people. And as more people begin to hear the voice of the non-human world louder and more clearly, this story becomes evermore outdated and insufficient to deal with the problems now facing our planet.
This past weekend, I and several of my colleagues at Schumacher College ran a workshop at Occupy London’s Big Green Day entitled “Occupy the Future: Re-envisioning Economics in an Ecological World.” The theme of Big Green Day was to put economic inequality and instability into the context of the larger ecological world, a perspective that has not found as much voice in the global Occupy Movement just yet.
We began to explore several deep inquiries in our short workshop: how the dominant cultural narrative constrains our understanding of the type of future that is both possible and desirable; how humans are just one species in a vastly complex, interconnected and self-organizing system called Earth; and how to begin cultivating a vision of a sustainable, equitable, meaningful future based on a co-created alternative cultural story.
We found that the process of imagining life twenty years into the future (one potential future based on the shared values of our group) was an extremely empowering experience. Once we had begun to look at ‘the economy’ as one small part of the ecological whole, inherently constrained by the boundaries of the earth’s biocapacity, the vision that evolved was one of a human-scale, decentralized society moving to the rhythms of the biosphere; it was a future of hard but meaningful work, a future of participation and abundance.
Underlying the story we began to tell was a fundamentally different relationship to the land, one characterized by a deep appreciation for life in all in manifold forms. This co-evolving relationship was one of partnership with nature, not ownership or subservience. Indeed, the exclusively anthropocentric concept of private ownership found a very limited place in this story. Once we had collectively recognized the intrinsic value of the natural world, speaking of nature in terms of commodities seemed like a particular form of violence.
If that all sounds too utopian to you, its perhaps because most of us are not exposed to the many manifestations of this vision that are already being lived and created. In Transition initiatives across the globe, communities are already making the shift to more resilient local economies; the Slow Food movement is cultivating a vision of life at a more natural pace; cooperative business ventures like Mondragon in Spain are re-envisioning structures of ownership and demonstrating that there are viable alternatives in business; organizations like the Biomimicry Institute and Permaculture Institute are evolving ways to learn from and live with the nature world; places of learning such as Barefoot College and Earth University in India are co-creating truly sustainable models of education, and movements such as Free Skools and Democratic Education are empowering people to play a more participatory role in their own learning; time banks in places such as Rushey Green are validating people’s connections outside of the monetary economy; groups such as Embercombe and The Natural Step are nurturing a new model of visionary leadership; even governments like Bhutan are embracing a more holistic understanding of human wellbeing and cultural flourishing. And of course, the Occupy movement is demonstrating the power of direct participatory decision-making.
It is certainly true that the story being told by an increasing number of people across the globe is changing far more quickly than that of our institutions. But such is the nature of change that when a certain threshold is reached (in CO2 concentrations, in cultural values, or in consciousness) a rapid shift is impossible to stop.
Given the vision of a different future that a small group of strangers created in just over an hour on a cold London evening last weekend, it seems to me that to be a pessimist is to deny the inherent uncertainty of the universe and the limitless potential of the future. As Arundhati Roy so eloquently said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”