What Will Replace Outdated Left and Right Economic Thinking? The Commons Paradigm

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By David Bollier,  Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, and author of  Think Like a Commoner and co-editor of Patterns of Commoning. He blogs at Bollier.org. Originally published at global-e journal of 21st Century Global Dynamics, at UC Santa Barbara

The rise of so many right-wing nationalist movements around the world—Brexit, Donald Trump, the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, anti-immigrant protests throughout Europe—have their own distinctive origins and contexts, to be sure. But in the aggregate, they are evidence of the dwindling options for credible change that capitalist political cultures are willing to consider. This naturally provokes the question: Why are the more wholesome alternative visions so scarce and scarcely believable?

Political elites and their corporate brethren are running out of ideas for how to reconcile the deep contradictions of “democratic capitalism” as it now exists. Even social democrats and liberals, the traditional foes of free-market dogma, seem locked into an archaic worldview and set of political strategies that makes their advocacy sound tinny. Their familiar progress-narrative—that economic growth, augmented by government interventions and redistribution, can in fact work and make society more stable and fair—is no longer persuasive.

Below, I argue that the commons paradigm offers a refreshing and practical lens for re-imagining politics, governance and law. The commons, briefly put, is about self-organized social systems for managing shared wealth. Far from a “tragedy,”2 the commons as a system for mutualizing responsibilities and benefits is highly generative. It can be seen in the successful self-management of forests, farmland, and water, and in open source software communities, open-access scholarly journals, and “cosmo-local” design and manufacturing systems.

The 2008 financial crisis drew back the curtain on many consensus myths that have kept the neoliberal capitalist narrative afloat. It turns out that growth is not something that is widely or equitably shared. A rising tide does not raise all boats because the poor, working class, and even the middle class do not share much of the productivity gains, tax breaks, or equity appreciation that the wealthy enjoy. The intensifying concentration of wealth is creating a new global plutocracy, whose members are using their fortunes to dominate and corrupt democratic processes while insulating themselves from the ills afflicting everyone else. No wonder the market/state system and the idea of liberal democracy is experiencing a legitimacy crisis.

Given this general critique, I believe that the most urgent challenge of our times is to develop a new socio-political imaginary that goes beyond those now on offer from the left or right. We need to imagine new sorts of governance and provisioning arrangements that can transform, tame, or replace predatory markets and capitalism. Over the past 50 years, the regulatory state has failed to abate the relentless flood of anti-ecological, anti-consumer, anti-social “externalities” generated by capitalism, largely because the power of capital has eclipsed that of the nation-state and citizen sovereignty. Yet the traditional left continues to believe, mistakenly, that a warmed-over Keynesianism, wealth-redistribution, and social programs are politically achievable and likely to be effective.

Cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff has said, “I’ve given up on fixing the economy.  The economy is not broken.  It’s simply unjust.” In other words, the economy is working more or less as its capitalist overseers intend it to work. Citizens often despair because struggle for change within conventional democratic politics is often futile—and not just because democratic processes are corrupted.  State bureaucracies and even competitive markets are structurally incapable of addressing many problems. The limits of what The System can deliver—on climate change, inequality, infrastructure, democratic accountability—are on vivid display every day. As distrust in the state grows, a very pertinent question is where political sovereignty and legitimacy will migrate in the future.

The fundamental problem in developing a new vision, however, is that old ideological debates continue to dominate public discourse. Politics is endlessly rehashing many of the same disagreements, failing to recognize that deep structural change is needed. There is precious little room for new ideas and projects to incubate and grow. New visions must have space to breathe and evolve their own sovereign logic and ethics if they are to escape the dead end of meliorist reformism.

As I explained in a recent piece for The Nation magazine, insurgent narratives and projects are actually quite plentiful. Movements focused on climate justice, co-operatives, tradition towns, local food systems, alternative finance, digital currencies, peer production, open design and manufacturing, among others, are pioneering new post-capitalist models of peer governance and provisioning. While fragmented and diverse, these movements tend to emphasize common themes: production and consumption to meet household needs, not profit; bottom-up decisionmaking; and stewardship of shared wealth for the long term. These values all lie at the heart of the commons.

For now, these movements tend to work on the cultural fringe, more or less ignored by the mainstream media and political parties. But that is precisely what has allowed them to evolve with integrity and substance. Only here, on the periphery, have these movements been able to escape the stodgy prejudices and self-serving institutional priorities of political parties, government agencies, the commercial media, philanthropy, academia, and the entrenched nonprofit-industrial complex.

Why is the public imagination for transformation change so stunted? In part because most established institutions are more focused on managing their brand reputations and organizational franchises. Taking risks and developing bold new initiatives and ideas are not what they generally do. Meanwhile, system-change movements are generally dismissed as too small-scale, trivial or apolitical to matter. They also fade into the shadows because they tend to rely on Internet-based networks to build new sorts of power, affordances (structural capacities for individual agency), and moral authority that mainstream players don’t understand or respect. Examples include the rise of the peasant farmers’ group La Via Campesina, transnational collaboration among indigenous peoples, platform co-operatives that foster sharing alternatives to Uber and Airbnb, and the System for Rice Intensification (a kind of open source agriculture developed by farmers themselves).

Rather than try to manage themselves as hierarchical organizations with proprietary franchises, reputations, and overhead to sustain, activists see themselves as part of social movements working as flexible players in open, fluid environments. Their network-driven activism enables them to more efficiently self-organize and coordinate activities, attract self-selected participants with talent, and implement fast cycles of creative iteration.

System-change movements tend to eschew the conventional policy and political process, and instead seek change through self-organized emergence. In ecological terms, they are using open digital networks to try to create “catchment areas,” a landscape in which numerous flows converge (water, vegetation, soil, organisms, etc.) to give rise to an interdependent, self-replenishing zone of lively energy. As two students of complexity theory and social movements, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, write:

When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks, then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden; they simply don’t exist until the system emerges. They are properties of the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess them. And the system that emerges always possesses greater power and influence than is possible through planned, incremental change. Emergence is how life creates radical change and takes things to scale.

The old guard of electoral politics and standard economics has trouble comprehending the principle of emergence, let alone recognizing the need for innovative policy structures that could leverage and focus that dynamic power. It has consistently underestimated the bottom-up innovation enabled by open source software; the speed and reliability of Wikipedia-style coordination and knowledge-aggregation, and the power of social media in catalyzing viral self-organization such as the Occupy movement, the Indignados and Podemos in Spain, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and Syriza in Greece. Conventional schools of economics, politics and power do not comprehend the generative capacities of decentralized, self-organized networks. They apply obsolete categories of institutional control and political analysis, as if trying to understand the ramifications of automobiles through the language of “horseless carriages.”

Instead of clinging to the old left/right spectrum of political ideology—which reflects the centrality of “the market” and “the state” in organizing society—we need to entertain new narratives that allow us to imagine new drivers of governance, production and culture. In my personal work, I see the enormous potential of the commons as farmers and fisherpeople, urban citizens and Internet users, try to reclaim shared resources that have been seized to feed the capitalist machine—and to devise their own governance alternatives. In this, the commons is at once a paradigm, a discourse, a set of social practices, and an ethic.

Over the past five years or more, the commons has served as a kind of overarching meta-narrative for diverse movements to challenge the marketization and transactionalization of everything, the dispossession and privatization of resources, and the corruption of democracy. The commons has also provided a language and ethic for thinking and acting like a commoner—collaborative, socially minded, embedded in nature, concerned with stewardship and long-term, respectful of the pluriverse that makes up our planet.

If we are serious about effecting system change, we need to start by emancipating ourselves from some backward-looking concepts and vocabularies. We need to instigate new post-capitalist ways of talking about the provisioning models and peer governance now emerging. Influencing unfolding realities may be less about electing different leaders and policies than about learning how to change ourselves, orchestrate a new shared intentionality, and hoist up new narratives about the commons.

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79 comments

  1. christine

    There are too many people for the commons to work any more. This writer, like most, ignores the issue of population. In The World Without Us, Weisman says the world has to drop back to 1 billion as it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. He also says it could be done with a one child policy. He’s correct. That was the sustainable number. Until people face that matter of serious birth control, as China did with the one child policy, all of this is blather. Capitalism, like churches, thrives on population growth. This is why so many right wingers, economists, the churches oppose serious population controls. The left thinks they are inhumane for other reasons. Together they will destroy us all in the course of climate changes and wars. Egypt, where I lived for 4 years, has finally announced that population growth and terrorism are the most serious threats to the country. They are one and the same, everywhere.

    1. WobblyTelomeres

      I agree. We’re in midst of a Malthusian catastrophe. More growth leads to more people. More people leads to more growth. It doesn’t end well.

    2. justanotherprogressive

      As David Bollier said:
      “The fundamental problem in developing a new vision, however, is that old ideological debates continue to dominate public discourse. Politics is endlessly rehashing many of the same disagreements, failing to recognize that deep structural change is needed. There is precious little room for new ideas and projects to incubate and grow. New visions must have space to breathe and evolve their own sovereign logic and ethics if they are to escape the dead end of meliorist reformism.”

      There are always “excuses” why “the new ideas won’t work” aren’t there (usually pushed by people who don’t want those “new ideas” to work)? As long as we INSIST on spending our energy debating those tired old “excuses”, we are never going to change anything, are we? The population isn’t the problem – it’s how we share resources that is the problem.

      And as far as The Commons never working? Well, single payer healthcare is a definite move towards The Commons, isn’t it? And single payer is increasing in popularity every day.

      1. UnhingedBecauseLucid

        [“As long as we INSIST on spending our energy debating those tired old “excuses”, we are never going to change anything, are we? The population isn’t the problem – it’s how we share resources that is the problem.“]

        Funny that your alias is “justanotherprogressive’ because reading your reply, I immediately exclaimed: Oh my god, this guy has the Generic Progressive’s Disease !

        I could procure some treatment…but I’m so bored and jaded this morning that I will let the Universe do the work. But I’ll give you a clue: You are going to “spending your energy” on much more than debating those tired “excuses” …

        1. justanotherprogressive

          Perhaps instead of just “funning” with my screen name, you could add something of substance to the discussion?

        2. Massinissa

          I don’t agree with his original comment, but I agree with his second one. Maybe you should actually counter his argument rather than giving him ad hominem attacks over his screen name.

    3. Norb

      One way to begin addressing the problem of population growth is to focus on the fact that a societies standard of living has a great impact on population growth. Higher standard of living, less population growth. What needs to be reimagined is what a High Standard of Living means. By ensuring a basic, humane baseline for existence, there is no need to consciously or unconsciously use large families as a hedge against hardship.

      The collective transformation that shows promise is one that puts aside competition and focuses on mutual benefit. Capitalism promotes collective cooperation within a temporary, ephemeral unit -the business- while making all decisions based on confrontational competition- the drive for competitiveness. All the while, inequality grows because the beneficial effects of cooperative action are channeled into the hands of the few.
      This is the cycle that must be broken in order to begin solving larger social issues.

      What will play out in the coming years is the resiliency of Authoritarian Societies vs Cooperative. The rise of Authoritarian rule marks the highpoint of capitalist development. It is ironic that the language of freedom and democracy have been used to justify plutocracy.

      A way must be found to confront Authoritarian rule not with greater physical violence, but with a force that taps into a collective synergy only possible by embracing the notion of the commons. The problem has less to do about the number of people, but how those people are organized and what they hold dear.

      Capitalist ideology will either blindly lead citizens off into the abyss or demand various forms of extermination thru war, famine, or plain neglect. Far from being unable to work, promoting the commons is our only hope.

    4. TG

      Agree with Christine, but:

      We don’t really need a ‘one-child’ policy. We need to end government’s 6-child policy.

      One is reminded that the Chinese government switched to a one-child policy after their abusive six child policy brought the nation to the brink of collapse.

      BTW the Malthusian ‘catastrophe’ is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not typically a sudden catastrophe per se. It’s slow grinding misery, as exists today in places like Bangladesh and India. Not starvation, but chronic malnutrition.

      Capitalism itself doesn’t thrive on population growth. The rich thrive on population growth, because nothing boosts both the profits and the social power of the rich like 100 desperate people competing for every job.

      Stop censoring out the bad effects of too-rapid population growth. Stop this libertarian fetish for open borders and cheap labor. Let every nation live within its means, let the positive consequences of moderate growth be kept without dilution, let the bad consequences of too rapid population growth be suffered only by those responsible, for all to see. No more global commons. Only encourage people not to have more children than they can reasonably support. And population will take care of itself.

      1. justanotherprogressive

        “Stop this libertarian fetish for open borders and cheap labor. Let every nation live within its means, let the positive consequences of moderate growth be kept without dilution, let the bad consequences of too rapid population growth be suffered only by those responsible, for all to see. ”

        Many of those impoverished nations are impoverished, not because of their populations, but because of the Western populations’ greed (and their ability through corruption and bloated militaries to take valuable resources from those countries)….should we ignore that and pretend it never happened and instead put the blame on impoverished countries, saying THEY have to fix their problems (while we still continue to meddle and rob them just because we can)?

        I wonder how many of these “impoverished countries” would not now be impoverished if it weren’t for us…..but, hey, we got ours – not our problem any more….

        https://public.wsu.edu/~mreed/380American%20Consumption.htm

      2. WobblyTelomeres

        BTW the Malthusian ‘catastrophe’ is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not typically a sudden catastrophe per se.

        Tell me about it. I have to explain that every time I use the phrase. People seem to think it entails an overnight collapse of civilization (Day after Tomorrow syndrome?).

        1. Plenue

          I think both models (slow and fast decline) are partially valid. We’re currently in the slow phase, but at some point something, somewhere (environmental decay causing a huge famine, a crucial part of our vulnerable global supply chain breaking, etc) will kick off a major collapse.

          I also think we’re past any point of no return. We’re still at the point where individual cities and countries are talking about things like being 100% renewable by 2030 or 2050 or whatever. Too little, too late; we’ve already reached the point of positive feedback loops like freaking giant holes appearing in permafrost, releasing methane.

      3. cocomaan

        It’s slow grinding misery, as exists today in places like Bangladesh and India. Not starvation, but chronic malnutrition.

        Those parts of Asia are obviously extremely troubled, but look around the United States: we have our own variety of malnutrition going on here. Obesity is a huge problem of agriculture.

    5. Lee

      Is there not a period of time when population tracks a rising standard of living before birth rates drop after a certain, relatively high standard is reached? For example, increased food plus higher childhood survival through improved hygiene and medical care, increases population for at least a time. If one looks at the population increase in more successfully developing countries that do not provide birth control, education and social equality for women, it appears that one ends up with population explosions.

      Interestingly, two of the lowest birthrates in the world, have been achieved by two countries, Italy and China by very different means. Although at the seat of anti-birth control Catholicism, the separation of church and state allows Italians to legally ignore religious interference in their reproductive lives.

      If one looks at the countries with the highest birthrates and/or population growth and their respective dominant ideologies as regards women and reproduction, one cannot but be pessimistic as to the future. I’m assuming this is a strong factor in the burgeoning anxieties over border security in developed countries.

    6. Sandwichman

      Read Elinor Ostrom. There is an important distinction between the commons and UNREGULATED common-pool resources. There are too many people for unregulated common-pool resources to work. There are too many people for private property to work. There are too many people for comprehensive government planning to work.

      The commons addresses many of the defects of those three systems of property rights allocation. It is not a panacea. There are no panaceas.

    7. Richard

      You are quite right that there are too many people for the commons to support, but the author is stretching the meaning of the word commons to cover something human created. The word as used by biologists and ecologists referred to something more nonhuman in origin, such as the pasture land used in common by the small farmers in England in the 17th century before the enclosure movement and the rise of private, intensive agriculture that preceded the Industrial Revolution. The people here in the United States who think of themselves as on the left or liberal or progressive don’t just think population controls are inhumane. They think the very idea that population growth or population size might be problems for human beings originate solely in racism, and they are wrong. If we substitute for the word commons, something like “the rest of the living world, or the biosphere” or the “ecoysystems of the Earth”, we might be able to have a more clear picture of where humanity stands in relation to the biosphere. Our problem is that there may be too little left of the biosphere or the “commons” to support our already huge human population for there to be time to create the new civilization planet wide that we need. Capitalism does not require population growth, but both economic growth and population growth have to end. Those of us who see this need can find each other and organize and develop our thoughts at the periphery, but we cannot stay there. We have to complete for power, not with violence, and not through the two party system, although for a while, in the short term future perhaps something worthwhile can be achieved there. The hour is late for humanity and much of the rest of life. But hope springs eternal in the human breast.

    8. johnnygl

      Christine,

      I’m always frustrated by comments like this because focusing on population growth is misleading at best, and can come sickeningly close to accepting the need for genocide, at worst.

      1bn americans are still too destructive for the planet. 5bn people living like they do in Malawi is probably sustainable.

  2. Steve H.

    : In other words, the economy is working more or less as its capitalist overseers intend it to work.

    Howard S. Becker:

    “Here’s the [Machine] trick:
    Design the machine that will produce the result your analysis indicates occurs routinely in the situation you have studied. Make sure you have included all the parts – all the social gears, cranks, belts, buttons, and other widgets – and all the specifications of materials and their qualities necessary to get the desired result.”

  3. Eclair

    As usual, NC’s hosts have answered my unarticulated needs and sent a post to lead me to think that another world is possible.

    So, yesterday, as I hauled compost for the new kitchen garden and finished painting a room, while listening, alternately, to Boccherini’s cello concertos, Chris Hedges interviewing Eric Foner and a series of videos produced by the Local Food summit in Boulder … and being a bit spacey due to the pain medication taken for a tooth extraction (only Tylenol, no opioids: this is NY, where apparently they don’t hand out the stuff like they do in Colorado), I started thinking about how we really needed an alternative to the right-left paradigm (except I didn’t think ‘paradigm.’)

    Here in western NY state it’s Trump country, mostly. Lots of poverty, with its attendant evils of obesity, metabolic diseases, drug addiction and the planet’s largest assortment of locally-made potato chips in all the food and convenience stores. All this in the middle of plentiful rivers and streams and rich farmland and woods. And, I hear people (my much-loved in-laws, for example) disparaging ‘those left-wingers,’ or, our more liberal friends, speaking of ‘those right-wing a** holes.’

    But, when we talk, we agree on so much: the economy sucks, big corporations are evil (while we all shop at Walmart because at this point, TINA), politicians don’t listen to us, they dance to the tune of the money guys, if we really get sick, we’re going to be bankrupt.

    Back in the Fall of 2011, when Occupy Denver was raising our hopes and spirits and all of us white middle-class people from the suburbs surged into downtown on the light rail, marching and chanting, ‘we are the ninety-nine percent,’ and we spent evenings crowded into tatty rooms above the City O’ City vegetarian cafe, listening to speakers talk of the evils of the banking system and Marxist philosophy, I told friends that the new Movement must be closer to a religious experience than to a political upheaval. I likened it to the early days of Christianity, when the new ideas of brotherhood and solidarity spread to Rome, the seat of the corrupt and dying Empire. OK, I got carried away, just a bit.

    But, you know, you have to first dream, and then, demand the impossible. You gotta have the crazy radicals making insane demands. I think Eric Foner said that, talking about Martin Luther King and his Poor People’s Campaign. It got him killed. Don’t think about the parallels.

    1. Norb

      The most pernicious, self-reinforcing feedback loop- justification-for capitalistic excesses, is the success at indoctrinating the population into accepting the plight of the poor. Drive people into hardship, then poverty, then use fear to justify the phenomenon as a natural state of being or more wickedly, as the victims own doing.

      As long as the process can remain hidden, it is a potent strategy for power accumulation. Keep pounding the poor and weak, and stoke the level of fear. Never can the oppressed be allowed to gain a foothold of self-reliance.

      I would agree with you that new movements will have the character of a religious awakening. The ideology of sustainability and stewardship hint at powerful truths ready to be awakened in the human spirt. In this respect, we all can do our part, every day to bring this about. It must be evangelical. New modes of conduct must be sanctified.

      Self-reliance brought about thru cooperative action, not competitive domination. Take your pick- and act accordingly.

      1. whine country

        Before we embark on this “religious” emphasis to our society’s revival can we wait a little more to see how the experiments in the Middle East play out?

        1. Norb

          This religion will be a new religion. Capitalism has become a religion. Orthodox religions have been corrupted and need to be reformed- or their spiritual foundations rediscovered.

          As a co-worker once shared a story of his Marine Corps drill instructor, upon telling him he was an atheist, the instructor exclaimed, ” you have to believe in something, son”

          Belief in the capitalist system to deliver the goods will increasingly come under more scrutiny, and will eventually have to be replaced. What form that will take is up for grabs.

        2. Norb

          The cynicism that is palpable in the US is born of a spiritual hopelessness that is taking hold.

          Ground ripe for various demagogues of all stripes. Perilous times that require more that just taking a wait and see attitude- although that is the dominant approach.

          1. Disturbed Voter

            Spiritual hopelessness? That happens because having spiritual hope, requires attention to spiritual things, and hard work. You won’t get that from paying attention to material things 24×7, and being lazy. You can have anything you want spiritually, in principle, if you spend 30 minutes a day in one session or longer, and do it seven days a week. Humanity is self-distracting to death, and wants a free lunch.

  4. Steve Ruis

    Instead of right and left economic thinking, how about right and wrong economic thinking? So much of basic economic theory is just flat out wrong (free market theory, etc.) but is still being touted by economists because their sponsors are making so much money off of it.

    This is how science has made so much progress: the wrong is eschewed and the right sought … hard.

      1. todde

        it could be regulated. For example, a 0% interest loan for whatever society deems advantageous (solar energy, education, medical, home ownership, small business loans).

        You get ‘use’ of the commons, and then pay it back

      2. Anon

        Before this discussion gets side-tracked by the “Tragedy of the Commons” (1968 essay by Garret Hardin), let me just say that his essay title is not fully descriptive of the concepts explained in the essay. The “Commons” he is referring to is not a community commons, but the environmental commons we all share. He himself explained that the title, more accurately, should have included an “Unregulated Commons”.

        That may seem like inside information, but I was a student at UCSB (where he taught Biology and did research) in 1968. Interesting concepts he presented. Another UCSB biology professor, Daniel Botkin, had a more influential book “Discordant Harmonies” (Why the world is never the same twice).

  5. Jamie

    System-change movements tend to eschew the conventional policy and political process,

    Making a virtue out of necessity? In my experience radical movements do not deliberately turn their collective backs on conventional processes, they are pushed to the fringe. It is a choice between fringe existence or no existence and making out that being on the fringe is somehow “better” or deliberate is an astounding misunderstanding of the situation.

    Ecological economist Herman Daly has great respect for the commons and a deep understanding of how the failure to account for the commons undermines the validity of orthodox economic thinking. Following Daly, I see discussion of the commons as essential for moving toward a more rational economic and political future. However, the citation from Wheatley and Frieze is just post-modern babble. There is so much wrong with this one paragraph I can’t begin to point out all its flaws. So I’ll just mention one.

    They are properties of the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess them.

    This is a bald dogmatic assertion with no supporting logic or evidence. In what sense can an individual “possess” a quality of a system of which that individual is a part? I am a system made up of a multitude of differentiated cells. An emergent property of me, as a system of cells is my ability to talk. In what sense do my liver cells, say, or the skin cells on my right big toe, therefore “possess” the ability to talk? The very definition of ’emergent property’ is that the property belongs to the system as a whole, not to the individual components. What motivates this impossible reversal by Wheatley and Frieze? By what hand waving or magical thinking do system emergent properties suddenly belong to individual components of the system? And why would anyone want to check their brains at the door and follow people who talk like this?

  6. IsotopeC14

    Folks should be looking around at the Zeitgeist movement, good channel to follow on yt, and an abolishment of a market based economy sounds like the right direction to me. Any one read Peter Josephs newish book?

  7. Wukchumni

    It’s obvious to me that the whole financial system is going to fall apart, just a matter of timing really.

    But what replaces it, when it’s completely discredited and there is no appetite for electron based exchange of goods and services?

    We can’t go back to paper money-way too easy to counterfeit now,
    and there’s not nearly enough all that glitters to support trade on a big scale.

    1. polecat

      I think our modern financial system will fail in lock-step with the depletion of easy-to-obtain cheap fossil fuel energy, which for the most part, is what allowed humanity to expand to such unsustainable numbers … and no, ‘renewables’ , with all the attendant externalities and lack of consistant on-demandwill energy not replace fossil fuels, so the upswing in living standards, as perceived by western economies, and increasingly by the third-worlders, will be on the downslope for most, neo-feudal crapitalists excepting … though even they will lose out to a large degree eventually.
      So the world becomes larger, and whatever ‘commons’ remains, will, to a great extent, be local.

      1. Massinissa

        Honestly I’m becoming more and more skeptical of fossil fuel depletion being the cause of collapse when Solar is having such a large boom.

        Don’t get me wrong, I still anticipate economic, social and environmental collapse in the near to medium future, but at this point I’m more worried about climate change and food resources than I am about fossil fuel depletion.

        1. todde

          fossil fuel is used as fertilizer, when that is depleted we are in trouble:

          “The Haber-Bosch process now generates over a hundred million tons of nitrogen based fertilizer annually and in the process consumes a full 1% of the world’s annual energy supply in the form of natural gas; an essential component of the process. The frightening aspect of this is that the Haber-Bosch process is now directly responsible for sustaining 40% of the Earth’s population.”

          https://www.greenlivingtips.com/articles/fuel-and-food.html

          1. WobblyTelomeres

            The frightening aspect of this is that the Haber-Bosch process is now directly responsible for sustaining 40% of the Earth’s population.

            Yeah, sure, but that’s because the corn and wheat mega-operators refuse to perform crop rotation. We could do with more peanuts and fewer corn-to-ethanol operators.

          2. Comradefrana

            I have to add that natural gas isn’t required to make nitrogen fertilizer. Natural gas (or coal) is used to make hydrogen via steam reforming which is used with nitrogen in the atmosphere to make ammonia. Hydrogen can also be made using water electrolysis, which is currently more expensive.

          3. johnnygl

            I call bull$hit…it may be true that we use lots of synthetic fertilizer, but it’s just a more profitable and more destructive way of doing what leguminous plants already do.

            We can bang on about implict advocacy of genocide or we can rethink how we do agriculture.

      2. Massinissa

        “and whatever ‘commons’ remains, will, to a great extent, be local.”

        To be fair, the historical concept of the commons was *always* local, so that isn’t entirely surprising.

    2. JBird

      The hardest thing to counterfeit in American paper money is its feel as it’s more cloth than paper. It is supposed to be almost impossible, or at least very hard, to duplicate. A state like Iran can do what with its “Just as good as the real thing”, counterfeit bills. The average counterfeiter not so much. Most often what exposes the “money” is when a clerk handles it.

      When they have a fabricator fake paper cloth whose-sale in an average Joe’s garage, then I would worry. But the clothes makers might have a problem right then. Interesting thought that.

      1. Wukchumni

        I was in our grocery store buying an ice cream and presented a couple of dollar bills to the clerk, and she promptly ran the counterfeit detector pen over them, and I was amazed and asked if they were really counterfeiting the lowest denomination now, and how was the quality?

        She told me the green was a little off on the fakes, and that was the telltale sign, aside from the paper not being right. These notes were from somebody that banged them out on their computer and printer, no special tools needed whatsoever.

        Now, this is in a little town of 2,000 people, imagine what’s happening elsewhere?

        The paper of course, is the X factor in terms of making quality fakes. But it isn’t as if it’d be that hard to figure out if you really wanted to, something along the lines of the secret to producing Meissen porcelain way back when.

        That said, cash represents what, 4% of all monies in circulation, a scintilla.

      2. Wukchumni

        p.s.

        About 5 years ago I went to the horse races @ Santa Anita, and pulling into the parking lot, I fished out a Benjamin to pay for the $5 parking fee, and the moneytaker told me she couldn’t accept my hundred, so I gave her a $20 instead, and when I got to the turnstile there was a notice on the glass about altered $100’s, I asked the clerk what was up, and he told me that a gang had passed many hundreds of thousands of dollars into wagers a few days prior, by bleaching $5 bills out, and printing Franklin’s mug on em, a nice 2,000% gain.

        The banknotes of course passed muster when one of those counterfeit detector ink pens was dabbed on them, and why wouldn’t they, as the paper was certainly legit.

        I just tried to look up any account of this happening, and it’s a blank slate, as far as the internets are concerned. Never happened.

  8. John

    For all his attempts at redefining the commons, he avoids the big issue of Tainter’s Tragedy of the commons: how to identify and what to do about those Commoners who will abuse and violate the commons for a variety of motivations from ignorance to perdonal gain. Talking about the commons without addressing that issue is just wishin’ and hopium.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Proper behavior requires discipline. Even knowing what proper behavior is, requires discipline. The iron rule of discipline is … either you discipline yourself or someone will do it for you. Liberty lies with the first, slavery lies with the second. Freedom is merely a nice name for denying the need for discipline.

    2. Massinissa

      Obviously its totally impossible for communities to have rules and regulations. I mean its not like the commons was an institution that survived hundreds of years right? /snark

    3. artiste-de-decrottage

      I think that is a major question. Wouldn’t the need to have a structure of rules and regulations give rise to the all too familiar structures of state, all over again, and corrupt the whole thing? How are we going to support or replace in the context of the commons the hugely complex industrial supply chains on which modern life in the “developed world” depends?

      Werner Herzog made this great documentary, “Happy People”, about a small village in the Russian taiga where life revolves around hunting. A common practice is for a hunter to set (if I recall correctly) a number of traps that is sufficient for his family, and later check on them and collect the animals caught. A hunter was asked, “what happens to those who are more ambitious and set more traps and take more animals then they need?”. His answer was that the village effectively will ostracize them (if someone can word this more precisely please add to this post). What we do today is teach that those “more ambitious” people are our leaders and that we should be all like them. This is awful. And we are not even talking about outright theft and abuse yet – although the behavior of the “more ambitious” is essentially the same thing.

      By the way, the title “Happy People” was chosen to honor this way of life, based on the commons – where there was enough in the environment to meet your needs and you only took what you needed. And yeah, we as a humanity, will need to redefine what we need.

      So somewhere between the two paragraphs there are the major questions that need to be answered, and without those answers the commons will remain always small and unable to change the collision course of humanity.

  9. DJG

    And there’s this stab at a summing up: “Over the past five years or more, the commons has served as a kind of overarching meta-narrative for diverse movements to challenge the marketization and transactionalization of everything, the dispossession and privatization of resources, and the corruption of democracy. The commons has also provided a language and ethic for thinking and acting like a commoner—collaborative, socially minded, embedded in nature, concerned with stewardship and long-term, respectful of the pluriverse that makes up our planet.”

    Sorry. I’m not buying this both-sides-ism. I’m reminded of Curtis White’s “middle mind,” in which Americans hold all kinds of contradictory thoughts, which eventually lead to a happy stagnation.

    The left has always organized all kinds of associations and groups, so there is nothing unusual about the commons, which is why this essay comes off as inventing the wheel. Further, the left tends toward economic and social equality. But, somehow, the long tradition of Americans’ thinking that that there is some holy bipartisan middle, ready to redeem us from our flaws, led by Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman, and Corey Booker, just hangs on and hangs on. Instead: Try Norberto Bobbio’s classic Left and Right or the essays of Perry Anderson. Middle-ists are constantly announcing the death of the left–it gives them comfort to do so, although they have no political program to replace their joy over the death of the left. What we end up with is feel-good bromides along the lines of Save a Tree (don’t get a paper document), even as our cities are inundated with trash tossed by the “socially minded.”

    And religious revivals, mentioned up thread? No. Keep your religion to yourself, thank you.

    Pluriverse? Let’s just multiply causes and effects till we are all in a twirl. Didn’t Ockham take care of that a while back?

    Sorry. Not buying it. Not when the left has been so effective at organizing associations, movements, and enduring cultural change that is regularly smashed through class warfare. Yes, good old-fashioned class warfare and imperialism and endless hot wars in the Middle East: No pluriverse there. Warren Buffett summed it up with that famous comment about his social class won. What’s not to understand about his assessment?

    1. artiste-de-decrottage

      Right on. Sobering criticism. My thought is too that abolishing the idea of left and right may be a neat rhetorical device, but beyond that, the ugly truth persists – until it is really addressed, and not with rhetoric only.

    2. Jeff W

      From the post:

      …the commons has served as a kind of overarching meta-narrative for diverse movements to challenge the marketization and transactionalization of everything, the dispossession and privatization of resources, and the corruption of democracy.

      I agree with your critique of both-sides-ism but I have to say that this quote is hard to decipher for me even aside from that.

      The “challenge [to] the marketization and transactionalization of everything” doesn’t derive from the commons (although we might object to many things that we view as “the commons” being marketized and transactionalized). It derives from the idea that some things are intrinsic goods and should not be transformed into extrinsic goods (e.g., profit-making opportunities).

      The challenge to the corruption of democracy has nothing to do with some “commons” of democracy (or whatever the quote means)—it has to do with the idea that, simply put, people wield power in a democracy; if something other than people (e.g., large money donors, corporations, élites) wield power, we, in essence, don’t have a democracy.

      There is something to be said about “the commons” in the dispossession and privatization of resources—after all, why are resources available to all being dispossessed and privatized—but the challenge there is more about how one group will tend to maximize the benefit to itself and, thereby, disregard adverse consequences to everyone else—and that is far less likely when everyone has a say in how something is managed rather than whether it is about the thing being part of “the commons” or not.

      1. Skip Intro

        Don’t forget the externalities! I think the concept of the commons is mostly direct opposition to the concept of externalities that lets capitalists extract value while leaving costs and risks to others. In the global
        Commons there are no externalities.

  10. Synoia

    Weisman says the world has to drop back to 1 billion as it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

    I’m reasonably certain our leaders agree, especially as they believe they will survive to be some of the 1 Billion who remain, as they build the “survival cellars.”

    However, I suspect the road to this level of population involves Climate Change and the attending requirement that the survivors have some significant manual skills, or talents in that area to enable survival.

    I suspect the rural in East Africa, and similar, have a good chance of survival. The city or suburban dwellers? Not so much.

    1. Wukchumni

      I agree with you, the 3rd world will be the next best place to hang out, as they’ve been living a hand to mouth existence for a long time, and nothing much will change in their lives, aside from being in the wrong place if climate change comes calling there.

    2. todde

      meh… I think they believe the robots will do all the work for them.

      I know two guys who work on high level AI projects, they seem convinced. I have my doubts

  11. MichaelSF

    Movements focused on climate justice, co-operatives, tradition towns, local food systems, alternative finance, digital currencies, peer production, open design and manufacturing, among others, are pioneering new post-capitalist models of peer governance and provisioning. While fragmented and diverse, these movements tend to emphasize common themes: production and consumption to meet household needs, not profit; bottom-up decisionmaking; and stewardship of shared wealth for the long term. These values all lie at the heart of the commons.

    I’m surprised at the mention of digital currencies here. I’ve never gotten the impression that they fit in with the rest of those “not profit . . . shared wealth” items.

  12. Sound of the Suburbs

    A right wing globalisation crashed into the end stops.

    Ten years on from 2008 and monetary policy is nowhere near normalised and doing so will bring home the harsh reality of a world saturated in debt. Neoclassical economics doesn’t look at private debt and so no one noticed that this was what the neo-liberal world was running on.

    US:
    https://cdn.opendemocracy.net/neweconomics/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/04/Screen-Shot-2017-04-21-at-13.52.41.png

    UK:
    https://cdn.opendemocracy.net/neweconomics/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/04/Screen-Shot-2017-04-21-at-13.53.09.png

    The unsustainable real estate and financial speculation economy makes itself apparent.

    What went wrong?

    The Classical Economists looked out on a world where the raw material of small state, unregulated capitalism was at work.

    They saw a far from perfect system and thought about what changes needed to be made to get it working in a more satisfactory way. Even Marx was impressed with the efficiency of capitalism, but thought its
    contradictions and instability would naturally lead to socialism.

    Russia was very behind with an absolutist monarch and many thought that it would need to go through capitalism to get to socialism as this was the natural progression. We know how that turned out.

    The US seems to have got lost, and perhaps started to believe its own propaganda, somehow they thought that small state, unregulated capitalism was a perfect system in itself.

    The architects of globalisation were drawn from this pool of US free market fundamentalists who were living in a dream world of their own creation.

    Time for a re-think.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      Adam Smith observed the reality of small state, unregulated capitalism.

      Adam Smith on rent seeking:

      “The labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money. But every savage has the full fruits of his own labours; there are no landlords, no usurers and no tax gatherers.”

      So, landlords, usurers and taxes all raise the cost of living and minimum wage. They suck purchasing power out of the real economy.

      Western housing booms have raised the cost of living and priced Western labour out of international markets leading to the rise of the populists.

      Trickledown, no it trickles up.

      Adam Smith on price gouging:

      “The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens.”

      So this is why hedge funds look for monopoly suppliers of drugs.

      Big is not beautiful in capitalism, it needs competition and lots of it.

      The interests of business and the public are not aligned.

      Adam Smith on lobbyists:

      “The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”

      Not surprising TTIP and TPP didn’t go down well with the public.
      The interests of business and the public are not aligned.

      Adam Smith on the 1%:

      “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”

      2017 – Richest 8 people as wealthy as half of world’s population
      They haven’t changed a bit.

      Adam Smith on Profit:

      “But the rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with the prosperity and fall with the declension of the society. On the contrary, it is naturally low in rich and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin.”

      Exactly the opposite of today’s thinking, what does he mean?

      When rates of profit are high, capitalism is cannibalising itself by:
      1) Not engaging in long term investment for the future
      2) Paying insufficient wages to maintain demand for its products and services

      Today’s problems with growth and demand.

      Amazon didn’t suck its profits out as dividends and look how big it’s grown (not so good on the wages).

  13. TroyMcClure

    The author is quite right with the (relatively banal) observation that economic systems are currently more or less working as designed. However, the mention of Podemos, Syriza and Occupy et al. was a bit much. Adam Curtis succinctly pointed out in Hypernormalisation how each of these movements ultimately failed to affect meaningful change.

    “The radicals believed that if they could create a new way of organizing people then a new society would emerge. But what they did not have was a picture of what that society would be like. The truth was their revolution was not about an idea. It was about how you manage things.”

    A revolution of systems managers.

    But it gets worse. If you manage to topple leadership (as in Egypt) without a coherent vision of where you’re going, some other group that DOES have such a vision and the means to implement it (muslim brotherhood) will step in to fill the vacuum.

    As for the United States I wonder, which side, left or right, is most ready, willing and able to step into any near term vacuum to implement their vision?

  14. Livius Drusus

    The battle will be between an increasingly globalized, cosmopolitan elite with no loyalty to anything but their own interests and the global capitalist system and the masses of regular people who are still attached to their countries of origin and traditional ways of life and standards of living.

    The rise of right-wing populism should have alerted the left to the reality that most people are not internationalists and most people are still attached their their own countries of origin and will try to defend their lifestyle and standards of living against attacks real or perceived. Progressives will have to find ways to channel these human tendencies toward positive ends or else they will get steamrolled in the future by the populist right just like most center-left parties are being steamrolled today.

    I have little to no faith in “bottom-up” self-organizing movements like the Occupy movement, the Indignados and Podemos in Spain, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and Syriza in Greece. They have accomplished almost nothing. Occupy Wall Street’s only major victory was the 1 percent vs. 99 percent meme. These organizations always degrade into petty ideological battles. They have a tendency to attract people who are flaky precisely because of their organization style. In the case of the Arab Spring their largest beneficiaries seem to have been violent, well-organized Islamists.

    The left needs to develop a non-racist version of nationalism because that is where all of the future anti-elitist action is going to be.

  15. marym

    I guess this still needs to be said.

    OWS started on September 17, 2011. Within weeks encampments were established all over the country (I recall 150-200).

    The Zuccotti Park encampment was violently destroyed by police less than 2 months later on November 15, the other encampments within a few months.

    Within those few months, the NYC group issued a declaration that formulated the problem comprehensively. Many other Occupies adopted or modified it for their groups. They were infiltrated. Democrats tried to co-copt them (Occupy Democrats for example). Because they provided food and shelter for anyone, they faced the challenge of dealing with homeless and mentally ill people from their communities, and did their best. They were arrested and pepper sprayed. Their clothes, food, electronics, first aid supplies, libraries, shelters, sleeping bags were destroyed in the raids.

    Many participants then moved on to other activities – sometimes directly related to the Occupy experience, like Occupy Sandy, Occupy SEC, and Strike Debt. Other activists resumed previous activist work or became involved in other projects. Wealth inequality and the 99%” are now a given in talking about politics and economics.

    It’s really irksome, after all these years, to still hear complaints about a national uprising of people from all different backgrounds that came together, got to work, was violently destroyed by the state within weeks, yet nevertheless changed our discourse, inspired action, and reverberates in activism that is on-going.

    1. DJG

      Thanks, marym. And thanks for mentioning the fake-news-a-ganza that is Occupy Democrats, who spent much of the end of 2016 thanking Obama repeatedly. Yet many of the middle-ists somehow would think that Occupy Democrats are an authentic outgrowth from Occupy Wall Street. As I said above, it is a talent of the middle-ists to hold contradictory thoughts in their heads till we reach stagnation. (Watch gun control and Las Vegas: I give the calls for “action” about two more weeks as the middle-ists continue to seek common ground with the murderous campaigns of the NRA. Then: whimpers.)

      In many respects, OWS was an educational movement that had to shake much of the population out of a torpor. I recall visiting the encampments on LaSalle Street and in Grant Park in Chicago. So many of the young people were there because their understanding of history was full of deliberately made holes: I heard a comment along the lines of, “Did you know that there were big demonstrations in the 1960s?”

      As OWS coalesced and started making economic demands, it had to be suppressed. By whom? Bipartisanship demanded it. Yet the result is that many truly leftist groups (and I don’t see many middle-ist groups at all, hmmmmmm) have absorbed what OWS proved and have also decided to be less amorphous (even Black Lives Matter has more structure) and clearer in demands (DSA, among many others). The discussion of wealth inequality (the U.S. and its terrible Gini quotient), class warfare (1-percent), and endless hot war animates the left’s agenda these days. As I am now hearing in Chicago, music to my ears: Chicago Is Not Broke. We deserve good things and good government.

      But let’s not portray OWS as a movement of the middle-ist commons. It was / is part of a resurgent left. I recommend Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood and her account of what happened. (And there was / is considerable cross-pollination between this resurgent left and Greek anarchists / militants.) But, hey, OWS people didn’t wash enough, so we can’t take them seriously.

  16. JP

    Population growth = resource extraction = profit = point of diminishing returns.
    Religion = need to believe = ideology = politics
    Commons = small town = coexisting incompatible belief systems = mostly failure

    I don’t see how this can end well without some breakthrough in human interaction but that might require self extermination of about 90%

  17. Bob McElroy

    Sandwichman is the only one to mention Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) who is the only woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics for her studies on the commons with thousands of case studies and testing models with formal laboratory experiments. Would Yves or another contributor be interested in weighing in on Ostrom’s contributions and their relevance?

  18. Dan Kervick

    Well, all of this crunchy-libertarian faith in the powers of “self-organization” and open source and local currencies and decentralization and back to the land localism and whatnot is touching, but it’s also escapist and unrealistic. We are billions of people on a crowded, tense, strained and conflicted world. We are going to need to plan, regulate and rationally organize many of our national and global systems, and do it at scale, in order to survive and achieve a secure and decent life before we nuke, poison or starve ourselves to death.

  19. Action is mightier than the vocabulary

    ”we need to start by emancipating ourselves from some backward-looking concepts and vocabularies”

    The Chattering Class speak. Useless.
    Need action = people with a skin in the game engaging in politics.

  20. B1whois

    Wow, I’ve been reading articles here for a couple of years now, but this one totally blew my socks off! I feel like I could share it over and over again on my Facebook feed with different pull quotes. I’m actually finding it quite breathtaking, and thank you!
    And then the comments give me soooo much more to contemplate….it is like a satisfying meal of many courses…

  21. Eclair

    It’s late and I have been out for the day and I read through the comments rather quickly but here are a few of my thoughts on the many responses to the post and to my comment.

    A few commenters seemed rather put off by my remark that we would require a kind of ‘religious’ experience to prevent us from plunging into catastrophe. There seems to be a feeling that religion and economics/political systems have nothing in common. Consider this: our Western view of the earth and nature (everything other than humans) is set forth at the beginning of the Old Testament, when God gives ‘man’ dominion over all the creatures on earth. And God, who just happens to be a wrathful omnipotent male in charge of everything, gives ‘man’ dominion over woman, who is formed from one of his spare body parts. So, we get our total acceptance of the extractive economy and patriarchy, all in Genesis.

    And no mother is involved in giving birth to the world. Just some guy in a beard and long white robe, who would probably be a lot less testy if He had some female companionship. But no, He slogs along by Himself. And, when Christianity, in the New Testament, finally relents and gives Him some companionship, it is two other men. Patriarchy to the third Power.

    American indigenous creation tales are totally different. They vary, but they all involve women … since the female function is to give birth … and four-footed and winged and crawling and swimming relatives. No one group is given power over another group.

    And the idea of the commons seems to arouse anxiety, if not outright hostility. Ownership of land and its resources is a cornerstone of our economic system but the concept that a mountain or a lake or a forest or a prairie could be bought and sold, was a totally alien concept to indigenous peoples. Probably much like the concept of a human being bought and sold is now alien to us. Well, maybe not alien, but certainly repugnant. Again, why should humans be able to cut down and sell trees for money? Well, other than God told us we were in charge. And, what gives humans the right to destroy a mountain? For indigenous peoples, so many mountains were ‘sacred’ places; sacred in the sense that they are something we can destroy, but we cannot create.

    Other commenters seemed to feel that by eschewing the right-left paradigm, we will roll down to the lowest common denominator, like bodies sinking into the saggy middle of an old mattress. I prefer to think of it as a rising populist fury, united by radical demands like clean air and water, nutritious food, good education, health care, fulfilling work, light-filled places to live, of taking the reins of power back, of choosing leaders who work for the common good and the good of the commons. Totally unrealistic? Consider the alternative: denial, tacit acceptance of coming planetary and social breakdown, despair.

    And, yeah, the number of humans on this planet has probably exceeded its carrying capacity. Certainly at the current rate we are extracting, polluting and excreting, we cannot carry on with our preferred lifestyles for very much longer. If we do not change, Nature will change us.

    Apologies for the ramble. It’s late.

  22. Karen

    Self-organizing groups may not be suffucient to tackle our large-scale challenges, but they are a sign of hope (and, I believe, rational thinking). Indeed, they may be our only hope. Rob O’Grady illuminates the failure of the polarizing capitalist – communist paradigms in 150 Strong. He inspired me to start Wealth of Wisdom (www.wealthofwisdom.org) a collaborative approach to achieving greater personal and community resilience.

    The challenges are overwhelming, but one has to start somewhere. Without hope we have nothing. Love for one another allows us to continue to hope, against all odds.

  23. Oregoncharles

    ” tradition towns” – is that perchance a typo for “transition towns”? It would fit a lot better, and I’ve never heard of “tradition towns.”

  24. Roland

    I think that world population is going to be okay.

    First: back in 1987, they were predicting global max pop of around 14 bil. No it looks like we might not even hit the 10. Globally, fertility rates are falling rapidly–much more rapidly than was ever foreseen by 20th-cent. demographers.

    Take a look at the data, and draw your own conclusions. You can download this Excel file from the United Nations website:

    https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/DVD/Files/1_Indicators%20(Standard)/EXCEL_FILES/2_Fertility/WPP2017_FERT_F04_TOTAL_FERTILITY.xlsx

    The first sheet of that file contains historical total fertility rates from 1950-2015.

    The plummeting worldwide fertility, seen during our time, has been a fascinating phenomenon. As a onetime student of demography, for a while I felt aggrieved by how unkind the recent data have been to the theories I once endorsed. But science can be like that. Back to the drawing board!

    It turns out that you don’t necessarily need high living standards to see a massive drop in fertility rates–a lot of poor countries have fertility falling faster than was ever historically the case in the current developed countries. Bangladesh is not considered prosperous. But just take one look at the fertility data: in 1980, Bangladeshi women averaged six kids each, but thirty years later, they’re having two and a half.

    It turns out that religion doesn’t necessarily matter all that much, either. Under the post-1980 theocracy, Iranian fertility has fallen smoothly to sub-replacement levels. In Wahhabi-ruled Saudi Arabia, fertility has been cut by more than half in a single generation.

    Even countries with low social status for women can see big drops in fertility. Morocco and Algeria are not exactly hotbeds of feminism. Fertility has fallen by more than half, in a single generation, in both those countries.

    Theory after theory bites the dust. In my weaker moments, I would almost be tempted to suspect some non-social cause behind this huge social trend.

    Next: for perditious purposes, it’s not the population level alone that matters so much, as the per capita consumption and pollution levels. Ten billion people, consuming in the manner of my own people in Canada, would spell global ruin in short order. But most people in the world don’t consume, and probably will never get a chance to consume, as if they were a bunch of Canadians.

    Sure, fertility rates remain high in sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, it’s not the people in Niger who have put all that CO2 in the atmosphere.

    Last, in my view it’s not Malthusian catastrophe that is the most probable future. What bothers me more is the prospect of a permanently stratified global civilization, in which everybody lives at subsistence while a supposedly meritocratic class of enviro-Mandarins endlessly manage away. In that case, I think that Barbarism would come as a blessed relief.

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