The Promise of the Commons. (Culture)

By Rowe, Jonathan | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

The Promise of the Commons. (Culture)


Rowe, Jonathan, Earth Island Journal


Words are a form of magic. They conjure thought out of the confusion of experience, and they form the lens through which we see the world. Politics is largely a contest over words--over a version of reality. Those whose words prevail, rule; and those who rule choose the words.

Nowhere is this more evident than in economics. Though couched in the trappings of science, economics is basically a word game. Define anything produced as a "good," and the debate is over before it starts. Who wouldn't want more "goods?" Define "growth" to mean simply an increase in monetary expenditure, and you can claim economic "progress" even if much of that expenditure results from "goods" that are not so good--the obesity and medical bills arising from junk food, for example.

Such words are tools of power. They drive thought towards predetermined ends. Where would the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal be without the term "market" to cast a devotional glow upon the most mundane commercial transaction? It would be left with just a welter of little issues to complain about--a tax matter over here, a trade or regulatory matter over there. These would be separate things, joined only by the fact of economic interest, which would be on the table for all to see.

The word "market," by contrast, invests these little money issues with a cosmic significance. It turns the mundane acts of selling and getting into a cosmology, and greed into the engine of a divine plan. The Wall Street Journal editorial writers do not have to articulate this, of course. The agenda is embedded in the word, which turns one facet of human experience into a summation of all existence. Within the cosmology of the market there is little room or justification for anything that is not the market. As in language, so in life. In the beginning was the word, indeed.

It was a great achievement of the environmental movement to open a crack in the cosmology. The concerns that came together in the movement existed long before the movement itself: "Resource conservation, wilderness preservation, public health reform, population control, ecology, energy conservation, anti-pollution regulation, and occupational health campaigns," as Mark Dowie recounts them in his book, Losing Ground. But these were enclaves within the old gestalt; and most public health workers, say, did not see themselves as part of a movement that included hunters and fishing people as well.

Then Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, and the many became one. They were now aspects of the environment, a realm of reality and value that ties outside the market and that the market is not automatically entitled to claim or degrade. The word invested the smallest parts with the significance of the whole, much as the term "market" had done for business. Smog no longer was just smog; snail darters no longer were just little fish. They now were parts of larger system, in which the health of the whole was bound up with the health of the smallest parts.

For millions, the term "environment" provided a link between their intuitive concerns about the world and a larger and potentially political whole. It gave the concerns a name, and therefore a reality; and this galvanized a movement that changed the nation's political map. Now however, the movement is stalled and on the defensive. The signal triumph of the year--the defeat of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--was a defensive victory, and rested on a slim majority in the US Senate. (See page 20.)

Given the forces arrayed against the environment, this is not surprising. It hasn't helped that the movement has become so institutionalized and centered in Washington. But there's a problem also with the word. The "environment" suggests something at the edges of daily experience rather than central to it. In reality, of course; nothing is more central than air, water, and the rest. But the impression lingers. …

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