Enclosure of the Last Commons

The climate of this particular planet is going to hell in a handbasket. The reasonable, sensible, moderate types who got us into this mess all declare that the only solution is to allow trade of the carbon which pollutes our atmosphere. It is the only option on the mainstream table. But carbon trading isn’t just ineffective; it serves as a stalking horse for the commodification of our last public good. The natural environment.

The development of capitalism is fundamentally about the transfer of things into commodities that can be bought and sold on the market. A commodity is valuable because of its exchange value on the market, rather than having any intrinsic good. From the privatisation of communal farming land at the dawn of our economic system all the way to today’s sale of our private data, this process has continued expanding as each new entrepreneur sees the opportunity to make a buck. Supporters suggest that this encourages efficiency. Even if this was true, the process still robs us of a thing’s uniqueness and true value.

Most things have completed this transformation. Our labour power is a commodity to be bought and sold – any worker as good as any other. So too is our attention sold through social media and advertising. Books can be bought by the metre. Capital lurches from place to place, vampire-like, hunting for another victim. Ever more ingenious schemes are hatched to commodify the few bastions of common good. Even the night sky isn’t immune. But one glittering prize remains.

The natural environment, degraded though it may be, remains outside the grasp of capital. There is no co-contribution towards the air we breathe, nor an entry fee to view the glowing sunset. Dabs of green plants represent oases, free organisms calling to the worker’s chained mind. Birds happily wheel and caterwaul above the glittering towers of the city. They shit all over the stockbroker’s Mercedes.

Few of us individually might be willing to siphon off an allowance from our weekly paycheck to maintain clean air, water and habitat for the Latham’s Snipe. But these things are of an intrinsic, public good. We all benefit from their existence. They are not subject to the vagarities of the market, so we don’t have to choose which waterbirds to save, nor which atmospheric pollutants to prevent. The vampires sit patiently, waiting for the sun to set and an opportunity to present itself.

The sensible neoliberal experts, the same people who built this bloodless dystopia of corporate efficiency, now have an ingenious solution to the pesky climate problem their system created. The carbon polluting our atmosphere is to become another commodity to be traded. To an investor, every problem can be solved with market arbitrage.

A market price on not emitting carbon, like any other commodity, means that the wealthiest will have most access. For atmospheric carbon, which effects us all, this isn’t a major stumbling block (except that companies like Merck & Co look forward to expanding markets for their tropical disease cures). But once one pollutant is commodified, the inevitable logic of capital will extend this market to the others.

Once carbon trading is demonstrated, why should government directly regulate the levels of other pollutants? The reasonable experts will demand that we set the markets free to determine what externalities citizens are willing to pay to avoid! After all, it is much more efficient than heavy handed government regulation.

A clean atmosphere would be just another commodity to be traded, rather than an intrinsic human right. Imagine if clean air was only available to those with the ability to pay for it. If drinking water was sold to the highest bidder. If we had to crowdfund public parks. On the market, where wealth is power, this would be the case.

The favelas would choke in the smog – they just didn’t value their air enough to buy the premium package. Green places would exist only through the charity of the middle class, otherwise serving as cheap dispersal zones for factory effluent. The super rich would still jet off to the crisp air of Davos on their private planes.

Be wary of those who would offer you the chance to buy a clean atmosphere. For a deal like that comes with much more than you bargained for. The natural world is our last commons. The last refuge from the ravages of capital. Do the ghouls really want to save it, or do they just see another opportunity for profit?

We don’t need convoluted market proposals to commodify climate change. We just need real action.