Part 3: Reclaiming the Commons
Undertaking the work of creating alternative institutions, cities, organisations, and locales, integrating prosociality, autonomy, and interdependence will lead us to include some explicit agreements about aspects of function essential to creating transformative results. We need to reconstitute ourselves in the service of the common good. We need to reclaim the Commons.
In the absence of an explicit system for handling these aspects of human functioning, we are simply too likely to recreate old habits of separation and scarcity, such as mistrust, command and control systems, and punitive approaches to conflict. Alternatively, we may also rebel against such habits and operate in chaotic ways without leadership, order, care, or effectiveness. Sometimes we will do both at once.
Reclaiming the Commons then becomes an aspect of reconstituting ourselves in the world as an ongoing alternative to the self-obsessed individualistic, ‘me, myself and I’ culture prevailing today and the massive, impersonal, large-scale institutions that perpetuate and foster these behaviours by default. For those involved with reclaiming the commons, this will mean taking a substantive stand in opposition to the dehumanising aspects of both the market and state.
While preserving the value of what we have inherited, this will mean, to a significant extent, striving to keep or restore access to resources at the level of the communities that use those resources while corporations continue to push for more and more exclusions and privatisation of resources once available to all. Whether aware of a global, ongoing struggle or not, those who work for the commons must engage in serious resistance to such attempts. In this way, the ‘commons’ serves as a lens through which we can examine and redefine actions and resources for the common good.
Beginning with youth
Building the capacity to attend to multiple needs in multiple ways flexibly begins with our children. By making limits relational rather than arbitrary and external, a child learns core lessons about dialogue and the sanctity of regarding everyone’s needs with care and dignity, including their own. In a very real sense, the child gains an awareness from life that her personal needs are not paramount or exclusive of the needs of others, instead of just being told that this is the case.
When everyone’s needs in the family are part of the equation, the child grows up in a different world from ours. In choosing how we relate to children, we can take real steps to transform the legacy of separation, scarcity, and powerlessness. We can show children that even in times of opposing wishes, we can remain connected. We can show them that we can find solutions that work for everyone with enough care and dialogue: that there is no scarcity of workable solutions. We can show children that they have power as participants in decision-making and that they can share their power and still have their needs matter – precisely the world we want them to co-create with us.
What happens in a family both mirrors and contributes to what happens in our societies. Just as “enemies” fail to see each other’s humanity, we too, at times fail to relate to others, even loved ones, with compassion. Most parents share a primary challenge because though they yearn for peace and harmony at home, they find themselves getting angry with their children more often and more quickly than they would like. Because the problem-solving model we follow so often relies on the threat of consequences or promise of reward, it’s almost guaranteed that anger will crop up regularly. What children learn from this model is not cooperation, harmony, and mutual respect; it’s more often the hard lesson of domination: that whoever has more power gets to have his or her way, and that those who have less power can only submit or rebel. And so, we continue the cycle of domination that is leading humanity closer to self-destruction.
What alternatives do we have? As parents and community members, we have a remarkable opportunity to empower our children with life skills for connecting with others, resolving conflicts, and contributing to peace. Our conception of what human beings are like is key to learning these skills. If we understand that all human beings have the same deep needs, we learn that people can connect when they understand and empathise with each other’s needs. Our conflicts arise not because we have different needs but because we have different strategies for meeting them. It is on the strategic level that we argue, fight, or go to war, especially when we deem someone else’s strategy as a block to our ability to meet our needs.
I suggest that behind every strategy, however ineffective, tragic, violent, or abhorrent to us, is an attempt to meet a need. This notion turns on its head the dichotomy of “good guys” and “bad guys” and focuses our attention on the human being behind the action. When we understand the needs that motivate our own and others behaviour, we have no enemies. With our tremendous resources and creativity, we can and, I hope, will find new strategies for meeting all our needs.
Becoming a resource to others
First and foremost, each of us needs to receive enough support and do enough inner work to have a relaxed, peaceful attitude so that we are less susceptible to becoming triggered. Working with our own intense emotions is one way to increase our capacity to remain open and calm in contexts of intense emotion and disagreement. As we increase our capacity to differentiate between our experience of reality and the actual observations about what’s happening, we become more of a reliable resource to others.
Aside from the obstacles based on inherited beliefs and attitudes, another major obstacle is that we are not habituated to bringing love to people who hold beliefs we consider dangerous or stupid. We are more used to explaining, arguing, and dismissing. We do this even though we know better. It is nearly impossible to push through another’s defensive anger, no matter what strategy we use. If anything can dissolve anger and defensiveness, it is only love and empathy, and even then, there is no guarantee. Exercising such love and empathy requires a tremendous courage in which we are rarely instructed: the courage to stay genuinely open to others even when our values are deeply violated by their actions.
Our deepest and repeated recommitment to connection before outcome, to everyone’s humanity no matter their actions or positions, and to doing the inner work necessary to show up for these dialogues with our full humanity is especially important.
Along the way, we acquire more ease in noticing our inner experience and softening it, so we can open our hearts and reopen them when they close so that when we get triggered, we know it’s an opportunity for learning about ourselves rather than an indication of a problem with the other person, and we learn to recognize that agreement with our position, however “factual” our position appears to us, is not our goal; that re-connection with others is our principal goal.
This includes the commitment to move beyond ‘right-wrong’ thinking, which means moving beyond right-thinking as well as wrong-thinking. This means that when we agree with someone’s version of reality, we still look for the underlying needs and offer empathy rather than our hearts' resonance with their story. Ultimately, however, empathic listening supports a more profound healing that leads to complete inner freedom that is not dependent on agreement from outside ourselves.
Part of what helps us get to the place of being such a resource includes loosening our own hold on reality so that we can stay present when there are intense agreements or disagreements because we are open to the possibility that reality as we know it is not a complete description of reality, and that other people’s reality can live alongside ours.
Stepping into leadership
In the simplest terms, stepping into leadership entails shifting from making choices based on your personal preferences to making choices based on what you see as benefiting the whole. Within groups, it means giving up on either-or thinking. Either-or thinking results in believing, usually implicitly and without reflection that we can either give up on our preferences and adapt or push for our preferences at the expense of others. We either serve ourselves, even at the expense of others, or choose to be of service to others, often in a self-sacrificing way.
I believe this is the most significant transformation required – to transcend either-or categories of any kind and shed the idea that some of us have to lose for things to work for others. It’s entirely possible for 100% of us to work together for the benefit of 100% of us. In situations where we may not gain immediately, we will begin to see that we still gain something collectively over time. It is only together that we can partake of and steward our lives positively and beneficially for all of us and our fragile planet.
As leaders, we also need to use the transformative power of dialogue. When people engage in dialogue, dissenting views get neutralized of emotional disruption through careful deliberation and the finding of shared human needs that everyone subsequently owns. People are willing to express their concerns, and others are willing to hear them when those facilitating such processes can maintain a relaxed attitude and trust in the process. In fact, the process of surfacing the concerns, issues, and underlying needs is one of the critical building blocks toward a decision that is attentive to universal needs and is, therefore, more likely to lead to robust agreements that everyone keeps because they know they all matter and are part of the whole.
Through dialogue, it is possible to transcend either-or right-wrong impasses by asking, what proposal can I make to the group that will improve the outcome? This means that together you search for a solution that attends to the needs that the existing policy, agreement, or activity addresses, as well as the things that matter that are not addressed in the current way things are done. This is stepping outside of either-or thinking into “integration.” This internal move is the core practice we can engage in to bring us progressively towards effective leadership.
Taking such an integrated approach also reinforces our sovereignty as human beings. True autonomy and real freedom involve making choices from within rather than reacting to what happens outside of us. Just being on a spree of doing what we want because no one can tell us what to do is not the same as knowing what we really want (need & value) and finding ways of going for it that are proactive and interdependent. When we wake up to our own human needs and our power to take actions to meet them without an awareness of the practice of engaging with our interdependence, we are then most likely to advocate selfishly just for our needs rather than take on the complex art of carefully balancing our needs with those of others. Central to this endeavor is developing a deep connection with those ideologically opposed to us.
Connection moderates our awareness of needs. Connection, especially through dialogue, is how we communicate to others what our own needs are, what our understanding of and interest in their needs is, and our suggestions, when we have them, about how to come up with strategies to meet all the needs.
Building connection pulls for a shift from purely exchange-based relationships to gift- or service-based relationships. Our current model, in which we give in order to receive and expect to give when we receive, takes away the pleasure of both. When we can cultivate the capacity for full connection, the fundamental form of mobilizing and sharing resources changes radically.
Connection, when applied to large scale systems, goes beyond one-on-one individual dialogue and extends outward to a complete sense of connection when we collaborate fairly and equitably in the service of human and planetary needs, be it through the production and provision of food, the hours of our day in service, or the knowledge we have acquired, as the case may be. The knowledge that others will benefit and that we are doing our share to meet needs provides an extraordinary sense of satisfaction.
Even in our world, with its adherence to exchange-based relationships, we have all had the experience of giving just for the joy of it. Similarly, when we receive, be it food that others grow, other’s hours of service to us, or knowledge that others have acquired and shared freely, we can then relax fully into receiving without the tension that says we owe someone something. We must develop social and organizational systems that embody this spirit of giving, systems that cultivate and mobilize our unique intrinsic worth as human beings. This will mean expanding the number of currencies defining value if we are to create an economy dedicated to human and environmental prosperity.
Transforming thinking habits
Key to making it possible to connect at this level is the ability to delve underneath what is now our thinking habits. Within this is the familiar contraction that comes with an attachment to outcome, whether we fight for it or give up. It also includes our habits of judging, be it ourselves or others or both, as well as our predilection for evaluating what anyone deserves, be it reward in the form of resources, love, and care, or punishment and suffering if we assess they have done a wrong. All of these and other such thought patterns take up energy inside us, making it hard to breathe and find the simple truth of what we want (need & value) underneath it all.
To transform such unproductive thinking habits, we have to give up attachment and re-perceive what is giving rise to life as we are experiencing it. Non-attachment is not about letting go of wanting. Rather, it’s about owning our needs and not struggling with the aversive experience when they are unmet. It is being able to contact the present moment as a conscious human being, fully and without needless defense, and, depending on what the situation affords, persisting with or changing behavior in the service of chosen values4, i.e., what will move you toward a vital life.
I believe this capacity to be consciously present arises spontaneously in a context in which our needs are mostly satisfied as we grow up and in which we are met with empathy when our needs are not satisfied. Since this experience is extremely rare in our current world, anyone who wants to develop this capacity would need a significant amount of both practice and healing to reach a state of easy access to connection at this level.
I also believe that this experience can be a common one if and when we find ways of redesigning our social organization based on need satisfaction. I am well aware of the apparent circularity. Social orders have consistently reproduced themselves and have always been replaced with other social orders eventually. I am convinced, in fact, I have experienced that a paradoxical mutual reinforcement between changing individual experience and changing socially contingent conditions is utterly possible.
Becoming a 21st-Century Economist
At the heart of the mutually reinforcing proself-prosocial-proenvironment approach that I am advocating for is the development of strategies that meet the most needs possible given the resources at hand. This would be an economy in which the needs of all were the driving force. Just try to imagine it; feel your way into what it would be like. No longer would we be focused on profit. Indeed, we would be collectively prioritizing attending to everyone’s needs, including those of the natural world. What if, for example, instead of investing in technologies of mutual destruction, we were to invest in figuring out how to feed all of us without destroying the biosphere?
The implications of putting need satisfaction front and center are staggering. The extent of the shift is beautifully illustrated in Kate Raworth’s classic image of the Doughnut and her invitation to “Think Like a 21st-Century Economist”8.
Figure 1. The classic image of the Doughnut showing the regenerative and distributive economic zone responsive to planetary and social needs.
Raworth explains that the doughnut economy is based on the premise that humanity’s 21st-century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials, from food and housing to healthcare and political voice, while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on the Earth’s life-supporting systems upon which we fundamentally depend, such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. She suggests, “The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries (Figure 1) is a new framing of humanity’s 21st-century challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.”
I think Raworth’s Doughnut is a beautiful reframing of the four fundamental categories of need that sustain human life – physical well-being, freedom, relationship, and meaning. The hole or inner ring of the doughnut represents the space where those who lack the minimum requirement for leading a good life reside. These minimum requirements are based on the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). The outer ring of the doughnut represents the ecological ceiling drawn up by earth-system scientists. Beyond that boundary, humankind damages the climate, soils, oceans, the ozone layer, freshwater, and abundant biodiversity. The substance of the doughnut in-between is where everyone’s needs and those of the planet are being met.
Adopting this view, our economy would be considered prosperous only when all twelve social foundations are met without overshooting any of the nine ecological ceilings. This zone is the safe and just space for humanity. Where are we at though? Leaning on Earth studies and economics, Raworth maps out the current shortfalls and overshoots (Figure 2).
Figure 2. The Doughnut used for Planet Earth as a whole, indicating errors in red.
Based on this analysis, Raworth suggests, “We are all Economists Now. The 21st-century task is clear: to create economies that promote human prosperity in a flourishing web of life so that we can thrive in balance within the Doughnut’s safe and just space.”
To rise to this challenge, leaders need to begin acting as stewards, and decision-making needs to be based on dialogue and the proactive participation of citizens and community members. What would it be like if leaders saw themselves as guiding a decision-making process rather than the ones making the decisions? Can you imagine how much more joy and willingness everyone would have to get up in the morning and go to work if everyone knew that their needs mattered, that their voice and opinions counted, and that their concerns would be taken seriously? This may sound fanciful, but we must strive for it if we are to change the trajectory we are on.
Finding a way to make this concrete rests on recognizing that we can only start from where we are and keep learning and improving. There are so few systems that genuinely prioritize everyone’s needs that we are simply not habituated to the concept or the experience. Transcending these habits to enable us to open our hearts to all is no small task.
While governance and economics as we know them are likely to become a thing of the past in a world organized to meet needs, the function of governance and economics does not disappear. Any association of human beings of any size requires a method for making decisions about executing the business for which the association exists. We, a conscious species proliferating beyond the carrying capacity of our one and only planet, are no different. We need systems for making decisions about how we can conduct our business of living together, systems that promote human prosperity. What could a non-coercive prosocial system of global governance look like?
In a nutshell, taking inspiration from both experience and a suite of disciplines1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13, I believe the bare essentials include:
- Self-care: We each need to treat all life with reverence, including our own; find ways of mindfully supporting each other, holding ourselves accountable, recognizing our strengths and limits, and continue working flexibly and effectively towards our individual and collective valued goals.
- Shared identity and purpose: We need to identify ourselves within bounded groups that share a sacred duty and responsibility to work together to preserve life, the life of each individual, as well as the collective and our planet.
- Equitable distribution of costs and benefits: We need to mobilize available resources to meet needs in a way that ensures the derived benefits for those involved are matched as fairly and equitably as possible.
- Fair and inclusive decision-making: We need to implement decision-making processes that include all those impacted by the outcomes to ensure fair, collaborative, and inclusive deliberations occur at all levels.
- Monitoring agreed-on behaviors: We need to institute feedback loops, both material and relational, that allow us to monitor and learn, individually and collectively, the effects that our actions and choices have upon others and systemically.
- Graduated responses to helpful and unhelpful behavior: We need mechanisms that allow us to continually grow in our ability to live our values and be effective in the pursuit of our goals.
- Fast and fair conflict resolution: We need approaches based on restorative justice principles that can handle conflict at all levels in diverse systems and circumstances and only retain punitive responses for the most flagrant of violations.
- Authority to self-govern: We need sufficient local autonomy from other groups to enable choice and internal decisions about how we work together in the service of our shared purpose.
- Collaborative arrangements with other groups: We need to show that the methods we employ to use resources interdependently and sustainably can also be scaled up to larger polycentrically governed systems.
The unifying thread of all that I’m advocating is the move toward effective deliberation and collaboration, working with others, and prosociality. Just as much as we once moved from pre-determined medieval or feudal coercive structures and life into competition-based production societies, so too can we now move forward, in response to the urgent needs of our times, to embrace prosociality, towards collaborative and cooperative functioning and the unleashing of a groundswell of co-creativity in pursuit of solutions to the seemingly intractable problems we face as a species. It’s already happening, and this is what can give us hope. The enormous pressures on all of us to continue to operate as small, insignificant individual consumers primarily preoccupied with finding the lowest prices for what we want to buy and protecting ourselves from personal collapse are not insurmountable. People, every day, in many places around the world, can and are joining forces and making things happen.
To inspire confidence, both for ourselves and others, in our ability to create significant change that affects large numbers of people, we need to find a way to continue to operate in radical, visionary, uncompromising ways while scaling up.
Who is the “we” that I refer to? I use the word loosely to refer to everyone who is in the grips of the heartbreak about our beautiful planet being destroyed by the actions of human beings like us. Ultimately, all of us, regardless of our beliefs and affiliations, are struggling to make sense of the world and attend to our own needs and that of our loved ones and others in the best way we know-how. In the process, all of us are implicated in the destruction of our ecosystem, whether we like it or not.
We need the tools for dialogue to become more present, know how to separate strategies from needs, see the underlying vision of opposing views, and know that we have more in common between us at the level of vision than we may be comfortable admitting. We need to learn to listen with a willingness to be changed and to take on the hard and thankless work of listening to our ideological enemies, no matter where they are. In tandem with them, we need to learn and grow, create bridges, and find ways of collaborating to begin, right now, the work of the future. As we scale up, we will need to include and embrace everyone’s needs and well-being in full if we are to operate with collective integrity.
Social orders that promote human prosperity
While the ideas we have been discussing point to a schematic frame, I don’t presume to know how things will unfold in the future. Different cultures will likely have different arrangements, and how the entire system will be coordinated is probably beyond our current imagination, given the level of strife we currently know.
Importantly, I do appreciate that prosocial governance arrangements will be participatory and collaborative. For those involved, when explicitly asked, it is expected that people will rise to the occasion to aim for a decision that works for everyone. When everything is on the table, and people trust that they are part of the solution, they eventually recognize that they cannot indefinitely advocate for something that works for them and doesn’t work for others. This focus on serving the whole provides an extraordinary incentive to hear, explore, and integrate input from others, as well as offer one’s own perspective in a manner most relevant to the concerns and needs of others.
Orchestrating such conversations would have us engaged in liberating (rather than accommodating) the potential for individuals; linking individual liberation to the systemic dimensions of the work; mobilizing the power of community to anchor change as a source of support, feedback, learning, and increased resources; and engaging in the kind of change that becomes possible when we re-discover our common ground of being human within our family and community settings, beyond the individual level.
What to do now
Since we cannot force things to move faster than what they do, and since the acceptance of what is, is part and parcel of this work, we cannot escape the reality that, for now, we don’t know what will create change. In fact, taking seriously the fundamental uncertainty and unpredictability of life in part means that even if we plan change, we have no way of knowing that the change we seek will ever happen. This is especially so for change at the scale and of the kind that is required to tackle the challenges of this century, which is about replacing the entire economic and governance structures on a global scale for everyone’s benefit. It’s never been done before, even though our economic structures have changed over the centuries in myriad ways. In large and complex human societies, we have never really had structures that truly support human needs fully consonant with that of the environment longer-term.
We need to envisage and plan for large-scale social change and replace the existing order of things for the better by unleashing our co-creativity and prototyping new governance models and co-existence with other living species we share this planet with. This is because we know, deep in our hearts, that much more is possible. At these times, many in the world are hungry for hope and a new direction. At such times we can use our small-scale local efforts to create alternatives, transform our consciousness, respond to the call to lead, offer inspiration and clarity, and make a decisive difference for others who are still skeptical. I believe that we are now being confronted by the most significant and critical moral junctures in our human history. Are you ready to join me in this crusade?
Even now, without transforming the entire social structure, we can sow the seeds of a better future by creating conditions in which people are fully heard, everyone’s needs are included, and a laser-like focus is placed on a genuine search for workable solutions without judgment of others.
You are invited
If your heart accords with this vision, I invite you to join me and become part of an emergent field of exploration, laying the micro-foundations of a transformative social infrastructure for the future. Be part of a living experiment in the truth that our attendant responsibility to love unreservedly can restore the flow of resources necessary to sustain all life. Under such conditions, I believe, human beings would grow to be people who can balance their well-being with that of others and the planet spontaneously and gracefully. Imagine what that would be like!
Read the entire three-part series "Reclaiming Our Common Ground of Being Human"
1 Paul W. B. Atkins, David Sloan Wilson, and Steve C. Hayes, ProSocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2019).
2 Anthony Biglan, Rebooting Capitalism: How We Can Forge a Society That Works for Everyone (USA: Values to Action, 2020).
3 Luke Georghiou, Jennifer Cassingena Harper, Michael Keenan, Ian Miles, and Rafael Popper, The Handbook of Technology Foresight: Concepts and Practice (UK: PRIME Series on Research and Innovation Policy, 2008).
4 Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. 2nd edn (New York: Guilford Press, 2012).
5 Miki Kashtan, Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working Together to Create a Nonviolent Future (Oakland, CA: Fearless Heart Publications, 2014).
6 Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
7 Robert Phaal, Clare Farrukh, and David Probert, Roadmapping for Strategy and Innovation: Aligning Technology and Markets in a Dynamic World (UK: University of Cambridge, 2010).
8 Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (London: Random House Business, 2017).
9 Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press, 2003).
10 Robert Styles, The Conversation. ed. by Exmond DeCruz. 2nd edn (Canada: Leanpub, 2021).
11 David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (Vintage, 2020).
12 Steven Wineman, Power-Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change (Steven Wineman, 3003).
13 Robert D. Zettle, Steven C. Hayes, Dermot Barnes-Holmes, and Anthony Biglan, The Wiley Handbook of Contextual Behavioral Science, Wiley Clinical Psychology Handbooks (USA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016).