Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Amazon River & the Tragedy of “The Tragedy of The Commons”


Environmentality: a militarized mentality... a pattern of thought that seeks to justify increases in national and civilian security by increasing insecurity; environmentalism turned into a policing action—Robert P. Marzec

Amazon floodplain
According to Robert Marzec, of the University of Minnesota, science has sought since the 1700s to emancipate human beings from their dependence on chance; the science and philosophy of men ultimately “brought about a form of securitization that changed the understanding of Nature from an entity on which one depended into an entity that posed a threat.”

The “natural world” became a primal chaos of danger and uncertainty from which civilized humanity must free itself. According to the philosophical and scientific men of the Enlightenment—Locke, Smith, Hobbes, Bacon, Descartes, and others—the environment had to be subdued—securitized—for humans to obtain their independence...humans had to emancipate themselves from their (unenclosed) environments. Environment (like womankind) became “the other”, whose vagaries needed to be subdued and cultivated.

Fast forward to December 1968 when Garrett Hardin published his paper in Science entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Neoliberal capitalists, right wing theorists, and new-colonial development agencies, embraced the term to justify their privatization model based on productivity and growth. This iconic paper “framed the debate about common property for the last 30 years, and has exerted a baleful influence upon international development and environmental policy, even after Hardin himself admitted that he had got it wrong, and rephrased his entire theory,” writes the Land Magazine.

The Commons & The Myth of Tragedy
Enclosures in Britain

Hardin initially argued that “the commons were a less-advanced form of social existence, one that existed without rules or regulations,” writes Robert Marzec in his book Militarizing the Environment. Hardin supposed that “humans were fundamentally self-interested and at war with one another, [and] this unregulated social space of existence would result in over exploitation and ultimate destruction of natural resources.”

Hardin vigorously applied this singular perspective to all kinds of “property” from fish populations to national parks and polluted steams to parking lots and he prescribed a singular solution: assigning private property or enclosure.

Alan Bates in "Far from the Madding Crowd"
“The shortcoming of the tragic myth of the commons,” writes The Land Magazine, “is its strangely unidimensional picture of human nature. The farmers in Hardin’s pasture do not seem to talk to one another. As individuals, they are alienated, rational, utilitarian-maximizing automatons and little else, the sum total of their social life is the grim Hobbesian struggle of each against all, and all together against the pasture in which they are trapped.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it is the opposite.

Hardin’s single-minded argument erroneously imposed the behaviour of a post-commons humanity—entrepreneurs trained in a capitalist enclosure model—on inhabitants who operated by other social paradigms in the commons. What Hardin overlooked, said E.P. Thompson, “is that commoners were not without common sense.” Hardin later retracted his use of something.

Inhabitancy vs. Entrepreneurship


The commons had developed a highly regulated social system of checks and balances against monopolization. Villages used functional mechanisms of seasonal distribution and redistribution, such as the “mead stick” system, to ensure that no single person would gain monopoly of the land. Each mead stick associated with a particular farmer was placed into a sac and drawn to determine which “mead-ow” a farmer got. Only the land considered suitable for crops was cultivated; the remainder was open for all to use for cattle.  Individuals who had access to the land were not entrepreneurs, bent on accumulating capital; they were inhabitants of the land and used it for sustenance rather than investment. The focus was on subsistence, not growth and production. The enclosure mentality, and its partner environmentality, arose like a warring specter over the human virtues of cooperation, compassion, fairness, and kindness.

When did we change? When—and why—did we get greedy for power?

The Tragedy of The Enclosures
Shepherd with dogs and sheep in England

According to Marzec, enclosures began “before the development of capitalism during the transformation from the Saxon system of tenure to the more militarized manorial system.” Enclosures really took hold in the feudal times, as tenure faded in favour of “manorial lords who desired the legal right to enclose for the purpose of increasing their wealth and, by extension, the ability to direct resources toward their defensive capacity.”

Marzec defines the enclosure movement by three actions: the eradication of inhabitancy, development of common law and a mandate to “improve land”.

History demonstrates that it is “enclosures—the dominant paradigm of modernity—that contribute to the exploitation of resources and the over-population of the planet,” writes Marzec. “The very idea of a cash crop—an environmental ‘improvement’ that compromises biodiversity in favour of anthropological gain— depends on the logic of enclosure.” Within the enclosure paradigm the entrepreneur is the essential human half of a machine that transforms a valueless chaotic ecosystem into a “surplus” of power and production. When did we lose our connection to Nature? When did it become just resource to be cultivated and improved?

Versailles gardens
European Enlightenment thinkers and political theorists of the 1600s and 1700s created the architecture of neoliberalism. Writing during the time of enclosing transformations, they all developed notions of human nature as warring, selfish and only interested in personal gain that organized its struggle and freedom around the cultivation/subjugation of the earth.

By the late 1700s, landscape began to be perceived through its utility. Even beauty was perceived according to whether a landscape was cultivated and ordered or wild and chaotic. Louis the Fourteenth’s Versailles gardens was totally based on the premise of order and the suppression of Nature’s chaos to the will of ‘man’. “Enclosed spaces were characterized as remarkable, beautiful, and pleasant, full of grace and gaiety. Open areas were labelled as promiscuous, and inhabitants of open areas as wild, and in as rough a state as the country they dwell in. Ecosystems came to be identified as useful or bare,” writes Marzec. I recently ran across this viewpoint in a 2016 article by Huffington Post in which Canada was described as mostly “empty”—as in empty of enclosed communities of people. The fact that these areas are rich with boreal forest, all kinds of life and many commons communities of indigenous people was totally disregarded by using the term “empty”.

The Age of Enclosure

According to Marzec, the true age of enclosure is the twenty-first century. He describes as example the long history of destructive development and environmental degradation in northern Brazil, where over four hundred years of colonial rule and development have naturally evolved into the neocolonial age of environmentality. Northern Brazil is the location of Camacari (owned by Brasken), the Western hemisphere’s largest petrochemical complex, with fifty thousand employees who work with chemicals, “such as benzene and alcohols, that affect the Amazon’s central and peripheral nervous system. Workers operate with little awareness of these chemicals’ toxicity,” writes Marzec. Camacari provides chemicals to Dow and Innova and in 2010 they acquired Sunoco.

Enclosing the Amazon

Amazon River
The Amazon River carries more than a fifth of all the freshwater that flows into the sea of the entire planet. This is five times more than it’s nearest competitor, the Congo, and twenty times more than the Mississippi River. Outside of the glaciated polar regions, half to two-thirds of the fresh water on the Earth is present in the Amazon, Marzec tells us. “This vast amount of water is increasingly polluted with arsenic, mercury and other highly toxic substances from mining and smelting,” writes Marzec. Only forty years ago, Amazon water was drinkable; now, with mining, industry and sewage from its millions of inhabitants, Amazon waters must be purified through some means.
Amazon River at sunset


Sadly, those in power have embraced Hardin’s tragic commons theory to steer towards enclosure as a means to save the forests (and the water). Researchers have estimated that within five years, an area the size of Virginia will have been handed over to private corporations and entrepreneurs to manage at their discretion. Along with those developers, the United States increasingly strengthens its military presence in Brazil, ensuring access by its corporations to Brazil’s energy reserves and putting pressure on ecosystems and associated indigenous populations that inhabit those territories. Invariably, writes Marzec, “indigenous territories are subsumed into programs of energy exploitation.”

We know where this will lead. And that is the real tragedy.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"A Cult of Ignorance" by Isaac Asimov, 1980

Isaac Asimov
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."--Isaac Asimov, 1980

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Water Is… Recommended Summer Read by Water Canada Magazine

“Water Is…” (Pixl Press) by Nina Munteanu was among several books recommended by Water Canada as a good summer read for 2017.

One of Canada’s premiere magazines on issues of water and water management, Water Canada suggested recharging this summer with “the latest selection of winning water management fiction and non-fiction.” 

The list comprised mostly of 2017 publications, but included a few late arrivals from 2016.


Recommendations included:

“Water, Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity” (NYU Press) by Jeremy Schmidt is an intellectual history of America’s water management philosophy. Debates over how human impacts on the planet, writes Water Canada, are connected to a new geological epoch—“the Anthropocene”—tend to focus on either the social causes of environmental crises or scientific assessments of the Earth system. Schmidt shows how, when it comes to water, the two are one and the same. The very way we think about managing water resources validates putting ever more water to use for some human purposes at the expense of others.




“A River Captured: The Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change” (RMB Books) By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes reviews key historical events that preceded the Treaty, including the Depression-era construction of Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington, a project that resulted in the extirpation of prolific runs of chinook, coho and sockeye into B.C. Prompted by concerns over the 1948 flood, American and Canadian political leaders began to focus their policy energy on governing the flow of the snow-charged Columbia to suit agricultural and industrial interests. Water Canada writes, “Referring to national and provincial politics, First Nations history, and ecology, the narrative weaves from the present day to the past and back again in an engaging and unflinching examination of how and why Canada decided to sell water storage rights to American interests. The resulting Treaty flooded three major river valleys with four dams, all constructed in a single decade.”

“Border Flows: A Century of the Canadian-American Water Relationship” (University of Calgary Press), Lynne Heasley and Daniel Macfarlane, editors, explore and discuss Canada-U.S. governance. Water Canada writes, “Ranging across the continent, from the Great Lakes to the Northwest Passage to the Salish Sea, the histories in Border Flows offer critical insights into the historical struggle to care for these vital waters. From multiple perspectives, the book reveals alternative paradigms in water history, law, and policy at scales from the local to the transnational. Students, concerned citizens, and policymakers alike will benefit from the lessons to be found along this critical international border.”


“New York 2140” (Orbit) by Kim Stanley Robinson is a novel set in New York City following major sea level rises due to climate change. Water Canada writes, “The book explores a full eight separate narratives: the market trader, who finds opportunities where others find trouble; the detective, whose work will never disappear, along with the lawyers, of course; an Internet star; a building’s manager; and two boys who don’t live there, but have no other home—and who are more important to its future than anyone might imagine. Lastly there are the coders, temporary residents on the roof, whose disappearance triggers a sequence of events that threatens the existence of all– and even the long-hidden foundations on which the city rests.”


“The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” (WW Norton & Company Inc. Press) by Dan Egan is a frank discussion of the threat under which the five Great Lakes currently suffer. This book, writes Water Canada is “prize-winning reporter Dan Egan’s compulsively readable portrait of an ecological catastrophe happening right before our eyes, blending the epic story of the lakes with an examination of the perils they face and the ways we can restore and preserve them for generations to come…Egan explores why outbreaks of toxic algae stemming from the over-application of farm fertilizer have left massive biological “dead zones” that threaten the supply of fresh water. He examines fluctuations in the levels of the lakes caused by manmade climate change and overzealous dredging of shipping channels. And he reports on the chronic threats to siphon off Great Lakes water to slake drier regions of America or to be sold abroad.”

Downstream: reimagining water” (Wilfred Laurier University Press) by Dorothy Christian & Rita Wong “brings together artists, writers, scientists, scholars, environmentalists, and activists who understand that our shared human need for clean water is crucial to building peace and good relationships with one another and the planet. This book explores the key roles that culture, arts, and the humanities play in supporting healthy water-based ecology and provides local, global, and Indigenous perspectives on water that help to guide our societies in a time of global warming. The contributions range from practical to visionary, and each of the four sections closes with a poem to encourage personal freedom along with collective care,” writes Water Canada.


Water Is…The Meaning of Water (Pixl Press) by Nina Munteanu “explores the many dimension of H2O—the practical, the physical, and the magical. Water Is… represents the culmination of over twenty-five years of her study of water. During her consulting career for industry and government, Munteanu discovered a great disparity between humanity’s use, appreciation, and understanding of water. This set in motion a quest to further explore our most incredible yet largely misunderstood and undervalued substance. Part history, part science and part philosophy and spirituality, Water Is…combines personal journey with scientific discovery that explores water’s many “identities” and ultimately our own.”



Water Canada is a Canadian magazine that provides news and feature articles on water and water management. They currently co-host the Canadian Water Summit, a gathering of professionals from the water industry including academia, NGOs, local communities, cleantech, industry associations, manufacturing and government. “Delegates will explore opportunities to collaborate on water technology and infrastructure finance, ‘blue economy’ growth and climate change resilience through progressive policies, smart business and bold investment leadership.” This year’s summit will occur June 22, 2017 at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in Toronto.