Nature for Sale: The Commons Versus Commodities
By Giovanna Ricoveri
Published by Pluto Press

Hardback £3.99, available at Bookbusters

Review By Tim Barton

“We are simple people, with simple beliefs. We worship the sun, the moon and the stars on account of their shining brightness. We believe in fire because of its sudden heat; also water and earth because they nourish all things.”– Wulf, the pagan Saxon guide, in Brian Bates’s The Way of Wyrd.

Water and earth – these are traditionally ‘the commons’. Not only in early English law, but in cultures throughout the world, the four elements related to daily survival, and of the four these two were to be held in common and given respect. In order for a limited and/or seasonal resource to nourish, it must be rationed and nurtured.

As the nation developed and centralised power, land was gifted to high barons as reward for their service. The larger the scale of the putative state, the more divorced from our links with the land and nature we became. As the nation looked to other shores for trade and booty – as our empire began to flower and our piracy’s bounds fell away – the direct link between land and survival was increasingly severed. Cities grew, and their ports: foods came from abroad, peasants were turfed off their land and dragooned into the armies of industry and the military. Care for the soil, and for water and water courses, became increasingly honoured in the breach. Commodification pitches us all against nature.

INEQUALITY IS BUILT INTO PRIVATE PROPERTY

As trade has leaped from goods to finance, the people, too, have become otiose to the very rich – so now, pacts between lords and their vassals are also dishonoured. “Equity is built into usufruct rights since ownership is based on returns on labour. […] Inequality is built into private property based on ownership of capital since there is no limit on how much capital one can own and control and invest”, as Vandana Shiva notes in her introduction.

The commons can be defined as including more than land and water, to embrace, for example, our health service, our schools. “The commons are goods or means of subsistence which are not commodities, and therefore constitute a social arrangement that is the complete opposite of the one created by the market economy”. This extended commons was the subject of Guy Standing’s Plunder of the Commons, and there the broken pacts were laid bare in the context of British elites and the people.

THE ESCALATION OF NATURE’S CONSUMPTION

Ricoveri’s book, translated from the Italian, has a more global reach, and looks more closely at the nexus between the more ‘primitive’ concept of the commons and our relationship with nature. To sustain nature in a human-dominated environment requires a balanced relationship with the land. The Saxons understood this, as did other tribes elsewhere, in time and in space. Yet, we today have lost much of this fundamental awareness. She dismisses the ‘tragedy of the commons’ as propaganda and looks at traditional means of respectfully sharing and not over-using commons, indeed, of understanding nature’s web and place in it. The book analyses the “escalation of nature’s consumption” in the context of the long-time erosion of commons rights, and in the context of the new testosterone-enhanced end-game form of capitalism, ‘neoliberalism’. The historic decline of the commons and its accelerated destruction through modern commodification is addressed.

Finally, Ricoveri proposes a return to the commons, and the empowerment of community, as the cure for “the global crisis of capitalism in this historical phase”. As traditional communities have been destroyed and reconstituted, especially in resource-rich developing countries and over-developed ‘Western’ states, she discusses potential new loci of community that could and should be recognised, including: “associations and movements that are struggling to defend natural resources and local sustainability” as they “express the interests of a locality”. Suggestions for “real democracy, politics and political ecology” are on point: name-checking, for example, Murray Bookchin’s municipal citizenship ideas, “participatory budgets as defined in the World Social Forum”, and others. 

OUR RIGHT TO THE FUTURE

In her afterword, Ricoveri’s subject is our “right to the future”, and “the economy of permanence”. These counter-pose new balanced community against market and state-driven ideals. A new politics is seen as the oasis of hope, one no longer in hock to the modern polarisation between ‘left’ and ‘right’, characterised by the renunciation of the internationalist project by much of the European left, allowing rebellion to come instead from the far right. She advocates building instead a new decentered radical community-based politic ecology to fight an “acquiescence to globalisation’s one-and-only way of thinking, which has become dominant, […] through the greed, cynicism and arrogance of the multinationals and the sloth of government” (sound familiar?).

The rise in popularity of nature writing; of organisations like Extinction Rebellion; and the giddying spectacle of a teenage advocate from solo street protest to the global stage shows at least a turbid counter flow, and hopefully a full tidal movement back to a repaired relationship with the land. It isn’t a nice little conceit – it is a necessity for our survival.


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