One of the central contradictions of capitalism is that it demands perpetual growth. Think about it: ever since the global recession began in 2008 we have been bombarded with the message that we urgently need to return the world’s economy to at least 3 percent GDP growth per year. Anything less means we’re in a “crisis”. But how is it possible to have perpetual growth on a finite planet? Isn’t there something wrong with the maths here?
GDP measures the total market value of all of the things that we turn into commodities and sell for money. For example, if you cut down a forest and sell the timber, GDP goes up. But GDP includes no cost accounting. It does not measure the cost of losing the forest as a future resource, as a home for people or endangered species, or as a vital sinkhole for carbon dioxide. In other words, the very logic of GDP focuses our attention on accumulation and growth while masking the destruction that it causes.
As long as we continue turning nature into products to sell, and as long as we do this more each year than the one before, then, according to the world’s dominant measure of success, we’re doing well. Consider the sheer scale of the production and consumption that this requires. To maintain 3 percent GDP growth means finding more than $2 trillion worth of new money every year – that’s the equivalent of the size of the entire global economy of 1970. Where is all that growth going to come from?
The process of transforming nature into commodities opens up an important question: who owns the trees that cover the land, the minerals beneath the soil, or the fish in the oceans? Don’t these things belong to everyone in common? When corporations and states assume the right to destroy essential forests, mine mountains of finite minerals, and strip the seas of life, they are taking something that rightly belongs to everyone, that is needed for all life to exist, and selling it off for their own private advantage. This is called “enclosure” of the commons.
This process of enclosure is gaining pace all over the world, particularly in the global South. As a condition for receiving loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), developing countries are being forced to privatise their commons – to enclose them for private use. This means giving multinational corporations the right to exploit their natural resources and public services for private profit, to the benefit of a tiny elite rather than for the good of the people, and with little consideration for the planet. In the past few decades, the World Bank alone has privatized more than $2 trillion worth of public assets in developing countries.
We can also see this happening with land, and at a very rapid pace. In the past decade alone, land exceeding the size of Western Europe has been grabbed from developing countries by corporations, usually for large-scale monoculture projects (e.g. growing tea for commercial sale). Sometimes this involves evicting indigenous people from the territory they have inhabited for hundreds of years. This practice is now so pervasive, and the logic of perpetual growth so ingrained, that we are seeing schemes like the UN’s REDD+ initiative, using the guise of development and environmental protection to provide political legitimacy, and money, for corporate land grabs.
Global warming is also a form of enclosure. In the insatiable pursuit of profit and GDP, corporations and states are willing to pump our common atmosphere full of pollutants. The cost is born by people and the environment in the form of the climate change that is already beginning to destroy the planet and people’s livelihoods at a devastating rate, especially in the global South. In other words, they are socialising the costs while privatising the profit.
Enclosure has gone so far that we are now beginning to see the privatisation of life itself, such as in the form of seeds and plants. Corporations like Monsanto are rushing to claim patents on seed and plant varieties that have been developed by small farmers over the course of millennia. The World Trade Organization and various bi- and multi-lateral trade agreements – such as the forthcoming TPP – enforce rules that extend these patents for an unprecedented period of time, with harsh penalties for small farmers who violate them
These forms of enclosure are responsible for causing massive social inequalities and environmental destruction. If we want to have any hope of stopping these trends, we need to start reclaiming our commons. They belong to everyone.