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Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

We, the climate community, need to talk about ownership.

As we work to manage the decline of the fossil fuel industries and transition to societies living within the ecological boundaries, we need to confront our assumptions of who manages and controls the resources on which we all depend. Without this reassessment, not only are we in danger of recreating the deep inequalities of a highly extractive and exploitative industrial system, but we miss the opportunity to rapidly accelerate action by bringing everyone into that system.

Our current global energy systems are extractive not just of finite resources that denude the ecology, but of people from their land and extractive of people and planetary health and wellbeing. Toxic industries are located where they think they can get away with destroying the health of the local residents as well as the ecology. Cancer Alley is not unique. As Tamara Toles O’Laughin describes it, fossil fuel industries have “sacrifice zones,” usually Black, Indigenous, or other communities of color that are put in harm’s way and plunged into a violent and multigenerational cycle of economic disinvestment. In the UK, as in the US, the lowest income neighbourhoods and non-white households who have the highest exposure to air pollution despite being the lowest contributor to pollution. Climate change and racism are both symptoms of economies with systemic problems.

In the middle of a pandemic that had already upended many mainstream assumptions about who we are and what we value, the Black Lives Matter movement is creating uncomfortable, necessary examination, finally, over the deeply embedded inequalities in our institutions and society. Those of us working to address climate change, might think ourselves on the right side of history, but we have to examine the blind spots to racial, and gender, and all other inequalities hidden in our climate work. This is not just an awareness of the unequal impacts of climate, but in ensuring our climate responses deliver equality, or at the very least do not perpetuate deeply problematic inequality. It is not enough to focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We need to understand how these actions may indivertibly recreate unequal power structures. This is actually an opportunity to redress the deep-rooted inequalities embedded in our fossil fuel powered economy.

Climate commons

For example, a 100% renewable energy economy — one of the ‘climate solutions’ — could all be delivered by a highly centralised, extractive model that accrues the benefits to the 1%, or it could be delivered through commoning — collective decision making, collective ownership models (such as cooperatives) which share the financial benefits and value “positive externalities”. Similarly the resources and labour required to build the green technology could come from child labour or from a circular economy with worker cooperatives. A localised, shared ownership approach to climate solutions could be the way we simultaneously accelerate action on climate while addressing the inequalities embedded in our current fossil fuel systems.

Commoning refers to the culture of coming together to negotiate, collectively manage, resolve conflicts and work together — it is the rituals and social practices, as much as the physical resources, or the land itself.

This is not some distant utopia — in Germany nearly half of the renewable energy is cooperatively owned, in France over half the agriculture market is farmer cooperative owned compared to 6% in the UK, and in the global south common forest management is more effective at carbon sequestration and other ecosystem ‘services’ than government run equivalents and the high tech high cost industrial equipment can deliver.

The Climate lawyers are ‘beating the bounds’ of the climate commons using the law courts to prevent further climate destruction and reassert the scientific boundaries. Local people in England successfully beat the bounds of extraction in their community with fracking and forestry protection protests, while the Standing Rock Sioux tribe successfully beat the bounds of fossil fuel pipeline construction through their territory, water and culture.

‘Commoning’ is how we dismantle and recreate more equitable power structures that are interwoven into our energy and resource systems. It fundamentally reshapes power in every sense. This is why it has long been opposed or repressed. In the US, white plantation owners managed to suppress African-American farm cooperatives , and in the civil rights movement in the 1960s land and food cooperatives, and mutual aid, were a core part of supporting an alternative route to economic equality.

Commoning as a new theory of climate change

The experience of mutual aid that we have seen flourishing during the pandemic is a long tradition within black and working class communities. If we are to turn the groundswell of public concern on climate change into a movement for change, we need to understand and harness this commoning culture for our climate solutions. This is how we will create solidarity across society and how we will start to implement a ‘net zero’ future, rather than just lobby others to do it on our behalf. We can accelerate the systemic climate change that is needed to remain within safe climate limits by creating a stake for people in the new system. Local, collective ownership and management decentralises and shares power. In turn this creates the political mandate for government to enact the policies that require not just public support but a public willing to undergo transformative change. Commoning has the potential to increase the progress towards reducing our climate impact, because everyone benefits.

Locally, collectively owned initiatives are overlooked, dismissed as small, too slow and lacking the scale to match the climate challenge. But the experiences show that they can be transformative, they create cultures for addressing climate that is grounded in relationship building, local resilience and improving a neighbourhood, rather than just an abstract, distant global challenge. Locally owned renewable energy is now being implemented on a commercial scale, just as able to reach the climate goals, and regenerative farming practice not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions but actively contributes to improved biodiversity.

When Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics, she shocked the economic profession not only for being the first woman to win (and a woman who’s approach to study involved detailed field research unlike many of her peers), but because her ideas represented such a challenge to the status quo — rejecting the blueprint model of ‘test and scale up’ for place based approaches, and showing how effective people can be at collective governance.

Just transition has to include shared ownership

We can common our way through the climate crisis. In fact, I believe it may be our best chance of accelerating action, because it is an agenda that does not sit on the traditional axes of political right or left, or pin its hopes on extraordinary levels of state intervention or rely on private sector ‘innovation’. This is a vision of how we can step into the void between individual action and distant government or global intervention. This means looking beyond just relying on massive state intervention through the Green New Deal, or using carbon taxes and incentives to shift the private sector. Its where we can create powerful alliances across society, and it is perhaps the true manifestation of what a ‘just transition’ would look like.

Just transition doesn’t just mean job transitions — moving people from declining sector (aviation) to another (wind turbine construction) — as important as that is. That is only a footnote to the bigger story. Who owns and benefits from these transitions? We know how fossil fuel companies have not only benefitted from the capture, exploitation and destruction of communities unfortunate enough to be living over the buried resources. We know how they have literally murdered those that tried to prevent this destruction of a local ecosystem. We know, thanks to the hard work of journalism from Drilled and Unearthed, how fossil fuel companies have spent decades and millions promoting climate denial, spreading doubt in the science, preventing any political action, cleverly putting the onus on individual behaviour change. We know all this now, and yet the best that we can do is talk about ‘transitioning’ these fossil fuel companies to be ‘net zero’. Even aside from the huge injustice of allowing these companies to benefit from the cleaner energy future, a more decentralised, locally rooted energy system is likely to be more efficient and resilient.

The inequalities of ownership do not just apply to our energy sources which could shift from a concentration of power in big corporations to a network of smaller, distributed renewable energy systems. But it applies also to land, on which we depend on transitioning to low carbon farming, while repairing soil and biodiversity collapses and enabling carbon sequestration. As Guy Shrubsole’s important book ‘Who owns England’ shows, ownership of land is tightly woven with the legacy of slave trade and plantation owners, and perpetuates the myth that the country has no space, when 2/3 of the land is owned by less than 1%. Reawakening our imagination to systems of ownership that do not default to state or private ownership by the 1%, could mean our tree planting and carbon sequestration takes place under common management schemes, community land buy outs, and community supported agriculture.

Pockets of the future are here already

It is female writers and communicators, and particularly women of colour, who have best communicated climate change not as a technical, science issue, but as an inherently human, social concern. Women, and particularly women of colour, have best highlighted the interwoven issues of gender, race and climate, because they experience this inequality. It is not just data. Yet, the ‘solutions’ to climate, still tend to stick to the script largely written by confident, educated white men who can calmly talk in cost-benefit language of the highest carbon mitigation potential without considering the embedded power dynamics, the inequalities or the fairness, because they don’t experience them. As the climate community becomes better at listening to a wider range of voices, the question of who benefits and participates in the green economy will hopefully become more pressing.

The long arch of enclosure has not just involved the privatisation of land and natural resources but also extends to our imagination. A collective imagination is emerging to envisage a world where a relational connection to the earth and each other is our common heritage. This imagination reclaims the enclosed collective imagination that was turned into a globalisation narrative that suggests our purchases identify us and set us free. Instead of imagining collectively we engage as separate splinters in the consumerist trance that mines our hopes, fears and needs not to help us build our solutions, but to numb them with stuff. Local ownership, collective management, mutual aid, gives us a sense of purpose and meaning as citizens, neighbours and friends, rather than as atomised individuals simply waiting to be taken into the low carbon future.

As Joanna Macy said, we are hospicing the old economy and birthing a new economy. As we create these new ‘assets’ of clean energy, heating systems, new tree plantations and regenerative agriculture, lets focus on who owns, decides, benefits and participates in these new assets.

Could this be a new narrative for climate action that is emerging from people most impacted by climate, not as victims but as creators, commoners of the new economy?

Our Common Climate is a new initiative to explore how we can develop collective and cooperative solutions to climate change. This is a project with a network of organisations and individuals. A more in-depth exploration of Ostrom, commoning and local action applied to climate can be read in the forthcoming Stir to Action magazine and in a forthcoming report with IPPR for Local Trust.

Written by

I develop climate solutions, ideas and strategies. Support communities and organisations across the UK. West Country based.

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