BOOK REVIEW / A world in need of the common touch: 'Whose common future?' - The Ecologist: Earthscan, 9.95

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The Independent Online
REMEMBER the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), last year's Earth Summit? The 'once in a generation opportunity for the world community' that was going to launch the world into a new age of sustainable development and environmental protection? A year later, UNCED seems like a curiously forgettable, indeed largely forgotten, experience. But some aspects are worth salvaging, among them the Earth Summit special issue of the Ecologist magazine, now updated and published in paperback.

Rather than following the conference's distinctly partial agenda - which covered forests but not logging, climate but not cars, biodiversity but not free trade, and sustainable livelihoods for the poor but not for the rich - the Ecologist defines the real issue that underlies the environment and development debate: the worldwide enclosure of the commons.

Of course, there is nothing new about enclosure. By 1876, following almost two centuries of the process, 98.4 per cent of England was owned by 0.6 per cent of the people. The English peasantry was destroyed, to be replaced by a culturally dislocated industrial workforce with an army of surplus people ripe for export to the colonies.

In turn, the colonies were themselves turned into sources of raw materials for the empire's industries, through enclosure. Forests were fenced off and parcelled into reserves and concessions, the best land was taken for plantations and farms, rivers were dammed for irrigation and labour was mobilised through poll taxes and slavery - effectively, the enclosure of human liberty.

The end of colonialism failed to reverse or even stop enclosure. Instead the process was renamed 'development' and became more sophisticated, using economic and market mechanisms with guns never too far away. New national governments replaced colonial administrations, but often with little change in policy or outlook. And real power shifted to aid donors, transnational corporations, the International Monetary Fund and multilateral development banks, who found the 'developing' world's ever-growing burden of debt a powerful coercive implement. Throughout, the purpose of the effort remained the same: the enclosure of other people's land, labour and resources to fuel industrialism and economic growth.

Enclosure has also widened its scope. Patent law now extends to genetically engineered life forms (while the original, mostly tropical, genetic material remains unprotected). Markets, as well as being a mechanism of enclosure, are increasingly enclosed by monopolistic corporations that dominate entire economies. Fresh air, clean water, healthy food, an intact ozone layer and a stable climate are all being enclosed by industrial pollution.

Such enclosure is disastrous for those excluded. In extreme cases, such as Brazil or Indonesia, they may be killed in their thousands, or more commonly washed up as dispossessed 'rubbish people' or condemned to the sweatshop. Small wonder that some fast-developing Asian countries, including China, made it clear at the UN human rights conference now in progress that human rights are incompatible with development.

And enclosure is every bit as disastrous for the environment. The fabled 'tragedy of the commons' belies the fact that, given the chance, communities would prefer to regulate their commons, manage their resources sustainably and protect their environment. So where UNCED promoted a depersonalised 'global consciousness' and 'global environmentalist culture' untied to any particular place, the Ecologist insists that only local responsibility and decision-making can ultimately save the Earth.

Where UNCED put its faith in Western technology, governments, big business and faceless institutions to generate environmental benefits, the Ecologist backs ordinary people, grass-roots democracy and traditional knowledge. And where UNCED supported the accelerated enclosure of those commons that remain under the auspices of 'global management' and 'sustainable development', the Ecologist exhorts communities to defend their backyards, reclaim their stolen commons and restore what development has laid waste.