The Market or the Public Domain? Global Governance and the Asymmetry of Power

By Daniel Drache | Go to book overview

8

Avoiding the tragedy of the commons

Greening governance through the market or the public domain?

Keith Stewart1

Contemporary environmental policy is torn between a corporate-led attempt to privatize the commons, and efforts to build a vibrant public domain capable of governing the commons in a more democratic, equitable and ecologically sustainable manner. To date, it is the former political project, which has prevailed. The 'tragedy of the commons', i.e., the destruction of collective assets, such as eco-systems, through the pursuit of private gain, continues unabated while the institutions capable of defending the environmental commons against new enclosures and encroachments are being systematically weakened.

To understand this situation, we must examine how the promise of the second wave of environmental concern, which arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s has been betrayed by the shifting of environmental governance out of the public domain and into the private sphere. This shift has been accomplished through the adoption of 'market environmentalism' and the creation of a privatized commons in order to de-politicize and thus mute environmental concern. The response to the environmental crisis is thus shifted away from collective responses to the challenges posed by ecological interconnectedness and into the privatized world of individualistic consumer choice among a range of options governed by corporate investment decisions.

While the empirical evidence presented below is drawn primarily from the Canadian experience, market environmentalism is not limited to Canada. The Canadian case is, however, an interesting one for two reasons. First, Canada has portrayed itself as an environmental leader, yet the enthusiastic endorsement of sustainable development by Canadian political and economic elites has not resulted in significant environmental improvements. Second, Canada has a tradition of a strong public regulatory system (at least relative to the United States) but since the mid 1980s, its state agencies have been downsized and restructured along market lines. Not surprisingly, this 'marketization of the state' has spilled over into the realm of environmental governance.

The principal argument of this chapter is that 'market environmentalism' represents a profoundly mistaken response to the environmental problematic. It will, in fact, replicate and entrench ecologically and socially destructive dynamics. To truly avoid the tragedy of the commons, we must build the institutions, norms and social relations capable of integrating ecological criteria and concerns into all aspects of

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