The Commons

Interview | Sharing the Commons: Humanity’s Collective Heritage

Jason Francis for Share International (SI): You’ve spent most of your career in international development, but in recent years you’ve switched into this new area called the commons. Why is that?

James Quilligan (JQ): International development for me was a way of understanding the problems of the world and how they could be solved. I felt at home in development. But was it the truth? All along I had been looking at development issues from a meta-level and it gradually dawned on me that I was barking up the wrong tree. I reconsidered the many imbalances in trade, finance and money—areas in which I had specialized for decades—and realized that Keynesian solutions like economic stimulus were not going to solve the economy’s structural problems. I also reconsidered mounting global crises such as hunger and malnutrition; decreasing water access and sanitation; the lack of education and employment; the problem of biological, conventional and nuclear weapons; the issues of refugees, migration and trafficking.

Then, there is the environmental situation with global warming, and severe pollution and degradation of air, water, soil and forests. Numerous studies indicate that if global warming causes temperatures to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius, water will become scarce, farmland will turn into deserts, there will be food shortages, many species will become extinct, island and coastal areas will be under water, millions of people will be displaced and global conflict may ensue.

I realized that a North-South approach (where developed nations would lift developing nations out of poverty and thereby stimulate the world economy) would not solve most of these problems. For example, the production and consumption of rich nations and the poverty and struggle to industrialize in poor nations are both contributing to global warming. This turns the North-South model into a competitive negotiation over resources, not a formula for co-operation and sustainability.

SI: So you changed your views about how best to solve these major global problems?

JQ: When the United Nations Millennium Development Goals were developed in 1998-2000, I recognized the futility of reaching them under the political and economic status quo. I came to the conclusion that the field of development had always been expecting foreign investment and foreign aid to solve the crises of the world when, in fact, investment and aid were not addressing the sources of these problems. In fact, the standard development approach was actually contributing to these dilemmas and making them worse. As someone who had been raising people’s expectations about our economic future, I now realized that this was unrealistic, given the present state of the world. So I was part of the problem. This was my moment of truth.

I understood that development issues had to be reframed. They were really ‘commons’ issues that could only be addressed if we saw the cause of these collective action problems as transboundary, meaning that they crossed borders. So the challenge is, who has jurisdiction and is accountable for resolving these conflicts and imbalances? Despite the greater interdependence provided by trade and financial globalization, the institutions of property rights and sovereign boundaries are severely impeding the flow of conscious energy among the people and nations of the world. Property and boundaries are inhibiting the flow of empathy and intersubjectivity between us, creating separation. The arbitrary limitations of borders suppress the collective culture of humanity, destroy the fabric of community relations and degrade the environment— all of which result in the continuation of social inequality, sexual dominance, commercial competition and war.

SI: How did you come across the commons as an approach that could address these global issues?

JQ: I first discovered the commons through the work of Elinor Ostrom1> and then found many others in this field. The commons seemed to me like the missing link in international development, which only people working at the grassroots could really understand. My colleagues and I had always said that local people must undertake development for themselves to be self-empowered— and here was the commons movement not only dedicated to this principle but actually showing how it’s done! It’s true, traditional societies, which practice co-operation, have always figured out ways of addressing their own challenges of resource distribution. People have always been able to produce and manage their own resources and share them in their communities. These traditional commons include rivers, pastures, forests and indigenous cultures, and now there are emerging commons like community currencies, shared property, social media and the Internet. What unites them all is that communities are taking action to preserve these resources for themselves and future generations. So this is really why I moved out of development and into the commons. I found it was a more effective way of sharing the resources of the world.