The Commonwealth of Life by Peter G. Brown

The Commonwealth of Life: Economics for a Flourishing EarthThe Commonwealth of Life: Economics for a Flourishing Earth by Peter G. Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An inspiring vision is presented in a technical and academic work that contains some possibly troubling implications.

In January 2008 I was making one of my infrequent trips to Chapters-Indigo, a local big-box bookstore, and I saw this book set up for display in the social-science section. My eyes locked on the title, The Commonwealth of Life, and I felt a stirring of excitement. Even before I saw the endorsement by David Suzuki both printed on the cover and added as a sticker by the store, I knew I wanted to have this book. So I picked it up and shelled out the $19.99 (plus GST).

At home I eagerly dove in, highlighter in hand. My enthusiasm for the author’s idea and my own passion for the global environment carried me most of the way through the book, but before I got to the end I found that my enthusiasm had waned, and I left off reading it until I picked it up again just a week or so ago, in May 2013.

I hadn’t forgotten about the book in the meantime. Indeed, it had provoked me to do some more thinking of my own about the environment and my relationship with it. I found myself inspired by Peter Brown’s vision, but also found that I was taking issue with many of his points.

The basic idea is that the biosphere of Earth is in dire shape and rapidly getting worse, all because of human activity, but most especially because of the economic activity of the richest human societies. The root problem is philosophical: we degrade the environment because of how we understand our relationship with it. In the Judea-Christian West, the belief that God created man to be master of the world has led to the idea that the resources of Earth are all fruit put there by its creator for our enjoyment. The advent of a more secular, scientific outlook has not really changed this view, for now man, instead of representing the pinnacle of God’s creation, is seen rather as the product of evolution, whose technological prowess gives him a natural command of his habitat—which happens to be coextensive with Earth. Man has the same “right” to build factories and drag nets over the bottom of the oceans as giraffes have to browse leaves from high up in trees. Our respective natural endowments have led us to these behaviors.

Peter G. Brown proposes a radical revision of this philosophical view. In order to change our behavior as a species, we need to see ourselves, and our place in the natural world, differently. We need to see that the world and its life were not simply “put there” to serve our short-term ends, but that we ourselves are only a part of the great tapestry of life, and that if we want our own species to flourish in the long run, we must assume a responsibility that is commensurate with our powers. Eager to act on our “rights,” we have ignored our duties. We need a new philosophy that takes adequate account of these duties.

Brown’s vision is of the commonwealth of life: the biosphere as a single realm and each living thing as a kind of citizen of it. And as a “citizen” of the commonwealth of life, each living thing has certain rights. Humans, however, are in the unique position of having not only rights, but also duties. Those rights of other living things are also the duties of humanity; and our duties extend equally to those living things,human and other, that are not yet born. The overarching idea is that of stewardship: we are part of the environment of Earth, but we are also its trustees.

And what exactly are the rights that we humans are responsible for protecting? According to Brown, they are three, and they are adapted from the writings of the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke:

1. the right to bodily integrity

2. the right to religious, moral, and political choice

3. the right to subsistence

The second right, as stated, would apply only to humans, but I believe that Brown would say that living things should, in general, be allowed their own freedom. But certainly the first and third rights, Brown says, are held by all living things, and we humans should honor these rights because in these respects all other living things are our equals. We all equally wish to avoid physical harm and to nourish ourselves. And justice requires that equals be treated equally.

It’s a bold and seemingly reasonable thesis, but even though I am strongly attracted to this idea, I found that I was resisting certain aspects of it. One question for me is about the right to subsistence; I doubt that there is any such thing. For while I earnestly wish for all living things to be nourished, and I donate money to a charity that works to feed desperate people, I can’t find that anybody has a right to other people’s food or other property. I would say rather that everyone has a right not to be obstructed in his pursuit of subsistence. I have a right not to be blocked in trying to feed myself, but I can’t just show up at your door and say, “I’m hungry, where’s your fridge?”

I had an issue as well with the second right. Here my question is, why place limits of any kind on my freedom? Why are religious, moral, and political choices the only ones I have a “right” to? It might be answered that these are the most important freedoms, but when I see my freedoms being potentially curtailed in any way, I become wary. When I’m told which freedoms I’m getting, I wonder about the ones I’m not getting. For some reason, I don’t have a “right” to those other ones.

Because these three basic rights are the foundation of Brown’s commonwealth of life, I have some serious issues with it. I discovered as I read on that I also have some serious issues with how the commonwealth would be implemented. For while Brown is a proponent of private property and the operation of markets, he believes that the commonwealth of life can be realized only by the more or less severe curtailment of these institutions, and by the establishment of large new transnational bureaucracies. Who knows, maybe he’s right—but I hope not. The idea that our problems, including environmental problems, can be solved only by adding more government is one that I find both bleak and implausible. Whatever mess we’re in, to a large extent it’s been governments that have got us here. My view of government now is that it’s a necessary evil; if we are relying on it for our salvation, then we are in deep trouble indeed.

But the important question is whether the vision is worth realizing in the first place, and I’m enthusiastically in support of it. I still find the phrase the commonwealth of life to be evocative, poetic, and inspiring. The book itself mostly lacks those qualities, being rather wonkish, academic, and dry; but the vision is as strong as can be. I would love to help realize it. My hope is that it can be done not through the agency of an authoritarian world state run by some Green Stalin or Green Mao, but by inspired individuals who see that their own happiness, and that of their descendants, depends on their assumption of stewardship of our gorgeous mother Earth.

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