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Reflections on Issue Twenty-Six
Cooperating on the Commons
I’m pleased you found The Understory—my biweekly essays on consciousness during the climate emergency. If you’re here for the first time, hello! Enter your email below to get issues to your inbox, free.
Thank you to everyone who had a chance to read Issue Twenty-Six over the past few weeks. My apologies for being a bit delayed in sending these reflections. For those who have yet to read “Cooperating on the Commons,” the reflections from other readers below may be a good starting point, or you can read Part One or Part Two first.
The Understory reflections between issues are intended to share thoughtful comments from subscribers that expand upon and challenge parts of the previous issue. I am grateful for how the comments on this Issue expanded my own thinking, while also encouraging me to deepen my understanding. Before sharing those comments, I’d like to begin with a personal reflection based on my experience over the past week of a different kind of cooperation on the commons.
On August 9th my family left for a camping trip to one of the wildest parts of British Columbia. For five days, we lived inside an ecosystem. No walls to cordon us off. No barriers to keep bears, cougars, wolves, and smaller species from crossing into our human-occupied spaces. No city noise to obscure the sounds of the consistently crashing waves. We had the conveniences of a tent, imported foods, fibreglass surfboards, and more than enough clothing to keep us warm, but we had stripped back a lot of what normally keeps us protected. We came here to be exposed.
While this was our first time camping in Pacific Rim National Park, it was my third time to Tofino. However, this time was different because of the social contract we agreed to by staying inside the Park. To have and maintain the privilege of staying here we had to adhere to rules that were not centred on the comfort and convenience of human campers, but rather favoured and prioritized those species who permanently call the Park their home. We were “sharing an ecosystem” with animals who “rely on every part of this landscape for their survival.” By staying within the Park, we became relational to species, land, water, and continuous-time that is the Pacific Rim ecosystem. Our time was short here, but we needed to play by long-term rules. The consequences of failing to adhere to these rules would directly impact the lives of wildlife:
“When people leave their food out, bears and other wildlife lose their fear of humans. Once an animal gets used to human food, it becomes a risk to public safety, and may be destroyed. By keeping a ‘bare’ campsite, you are playing an important part in preventing the creation of ‘problem’ animals.”
To have the privilege of being part of this shared ecosystem, we needed to follow “The Bare Campsite Program” as outlined by Parks Canada in the brochure handed to each camper and also emailed in advance of arrival. Failure to adhere to a “Bare Campsite” would result in our camping permit being cancelled with no refund and potentially being charged under the Canada National Parks Act and Regulations.
This was one of the few times I can recently recall when permission to be part of and remain within an ecosystem was contingent upon our ability to practice acts of generosity towards other species. We were required to be generous to the ecosystem by ensuring that we not only left no trace (a standard for any camping) but also had no long-term impact. Failure to do so would result in our removal from the Park with the kind of “graduated sanctions” recommended by Ostrom.
The consequences of our behaviour also extend into the human world. On the north side of Long Beach (which stretches for 16 kilometres), my wife was greeted on the sand by two teenagers wearing orange shirts. It turned out the teenagers were members of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations —Indigenous communities who have thrived within this ecosystem since “time immemorial.” There is no line or division in the sand demarcating one part of the beach from another. And yet, there were different rules for crossing. The teenagers politely asked my wife to turn around, as the First Nation closed their part of the beach due to COVID. Of course, she kindly turned back, reflecting on the fact that we had inadvertently entered the Tla-o-qui-aht territory unknowingly not just on this trip, but on subsequent trips as well. Tribal Park Guardians are strategically placed to remind us of the rules of the ecosystem we are entering.
Both the “Bare Campsite” program and the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks Guardians mirror much of what I was writing about within Issue Twenty-Six answering Ostrom’s lifelong research question of how we can more effectively maintain “polycentric” centres of decision-making that function independently while recognizing an interdependent system of relations. Herein we found Ostrom’s eight Core Design Principles in play. We were surrounded by thriving polycentricity. Parks Canada describes this pluralism as “human-wildlife coexistence” to:
To exist together or at the same time.
To live in peace with each other.
This has left me to imagine what if we more explicitly create and state rules about what is expected of participants within an ecosystem to optimize its life-supporting functions? How can those rules be continuously adapted to ensure they are responsive for the thriving of all life? How do we manage the consequences of those who fail to adhere to these rules?
Some of the following reflections seek to answer these questions.
As Shared by Peter Tavernise on Part One
“This is the key question and realization, ‘What if human communities are capable of effectively self-organizing without private and centralized authorities?’ Based on the work of Rebecca Solnit, our world is not 'nature red of tooth and claw' but instead our crises are marked by humans coming to mutual aid and assistance. Chips are down, now, and we will need to neatly sidestep some of the existing (too old, too slow) structures to give room for new leadership styles, new leaders, new structures to come into being.
The intelligence test that we are currently failing is the continued cleaving to the illusion that we are somehow separate from our own biosphere. This is where any approaches to help large numbers of humans reach what Bill Plotkin and others have termed Eco-Awakening becomes important. We need a consciousness shift that will enable us to change our selves at the level of being, and then we will make the right choices and collaborate from that place, that way of being.
Clearly, one aspect of that is what you treat here, and what Tyson Yunkaporta has also mentioned—the concept of land ownership is one that no longer serves us as a species if it ever did serve the species (rather than only serving the oligarchy).
With regards to concepts of competition and scarcity, I'll simply point again at both Thich Nhat Hanh's jewel-like folio, Interbeing (in which he introduced his concept of 'enoughness'), and James P. Carse's wonderful book, Finite and Infinite Games. The planet and the universe provide more than enough for all—what is limiting us is the greed and fear of a relative few. Let us instead play the infinite game together.
China moved back and forth from the highly structured system of Confucianism in times of peace, to the highly fluid philosophy and way of being reflected in Taoism in times of massive disruption (war, famine, natural disasters, etc.). May we learn from that example and not cleave too tightly to our structures when they will not serve us. It is time to swim away from the sinking boat, and those who are stronger swimmers can assist others to bind together what we can to build a new floating community of our disparate parts.”
I am thankful to Peter for the invitation to embrace the possibility and creative spaces of the infinite game. Our world is filled with legacy structures that are no longer fit for purpose; whose contextual origins have long since evolved while the structures remained rigidly entrenched. Peter and I were both raised in a country whose political narrative of “constitutionality” reveres stasis and consistency with an 18th-century system of rules as a universal response to all the concerns and needs of 21st-century society. Institutions such as the Supreme Court and Congress become self-legitimizing through their determination to uphold a system of rules rather than adapt to our changing context. Politicians demonize other countries as competitors, which justifies entrenchment, fortification, and protection of seemingly scarce resources. This is the finite game. A game that is played for the purpose of winning.
I found Carse’s book hugely complementary to Ostrom’s and Axelrod’s writings in describing the infinite game of the commons. The book’s structure is 101 cascading correlates that distinguish between finite and infinite games. Carse argues that what most importantly differentiates finite and infinite games is the rules of play. In order to be a finite game, the rules have to be established before play, agreed upon by its players, and not changed during the course of play. However, in an infinite game, rules must change during the course of play to ensure there is no finite outcome—to ensure play continues.
To explain this distinction, Carse uses the analogy that rules for an infinite game:
“Are like the grammar of a living language, where those of a finite game are like the rules of debate. In the former case we observe rules as a way of continuing discourse with each other; in the latter we observe rules as a way of bringing the speech of another person to an end. The rules, or grammar, of a living language are always evolving to guarantee the meaningfulness of discourse, while the rules of debate must remain constant.”
I found this distinction between rigidity and adaptability a profound analogy for understanding our current plight on the commons. It seems that in many cases our institutions have confounded infinite games with finite ones, playing with a set of rules optimized for protection rather than emergence. As Peter suggests, a shift in consciousness reveals that our ability to play the game well—a context that supports the regeneration of our planet and thriving of all life—hinges upon our very ability as organizations, governments, communities, and individuals to be adaptive.
As Shared by Mark B. Moulton on Part One
“If identifying problem subset(s), informing, and counting the many who are interested regardless of nation-states, corporate interests might be a goal. Some hints are drawn from Dee Hock's Birth of the Chaordic Age.”
I haven’t yet had time to read Hock’s book, but am vaguely familiar with his organizational theories through the writing of Peter Senge. The Fast Company article, “The Trillion-Dollar Vision of Dee Hock,” offers a quick overview of the thinking Hock uses to shape corporate culture and strategy at Visa. I see the corollary that Mark draws between Ostrom’s thinking about polycentric organizations and Hock’s that “the organization had to be based on biological concepts to evolve, in effect, to invent and organize itself.” Fast Company quotes Hock in 2006 with an observation no less prescient today than it was 15 years ago:
“We are at that very point in time when a 400-year-old age is dying and another is struggling to be born—a shifting of culture, science, society, and institutions enormously greater than the world has ever experienced. Ahead, the possibility of the regeneration of individuality, liberty, community, and ethics such as the world has never known, and a harmony with nature, with one another, and with the divine intelligence such as the world has never dreamed.”
Hock was at least a decade or more ahead of the curve in seeing the possibilities of a regenerative framing that could reshape communities, organizations, and nations. Rather than attempting a prescriptive leadership approach that seeks to anticipate all the potential challenges an organization might face, Hock instead advocates creating the conditions for organizations to rapidly adapt with creativity and imagination. His mantra for Visa was an “enabling organizations...whose product is coordination.”
Hock’s principles indeed share strong resonance with Axelrod’s and Ostrom’s research, and serves as an excellent example of the evolutionary organizational form Atkins, Sloan Wilson & Hayes seek to awaken in Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups.
As Shared by Peter Tavernise on Part Two
“More than 10,000 years of Indigenous history here, in Australia, and in regions of Africa and round the world disprove the Tragedy of the Commons. When the colonists arrived, Turtle Island was a set of interlocking, well-managed ecosystems that was optimized for each Tribe and region in deepest reciprocity (Braiding Sweetgrass) not a wild frontier. I've just finished Dr. Apela Colorado's delicious Woman Between The Worlds, which came out last week (print, audio—the latter I recommend as always). She is the founder of the World Indigenous Science Network, and is the author of such papers as "To Re-Enact is to Remember: Envisioning a Shamanic Research Protocol in Archeology." reading the latter now, and finding much resonance between her work and Ostrom's. And what are Tribal regions other than ‘multiple centers of semiautonomous decision-making in overlapping, optimally sized groups?’
And Prosocial, my goodness, exactly: ‘a wholly new environment in which we’re asked to cooperate, not just with those we know well but also with people who are practically strangers—that is, not just with “us” but also with “them.”’ What we will come to realize is that it is ALL "us." But after centuries of rule by divide and conquer, that will take some work and process of undoing, relearning.
We do so in large part by going inside first, discovering self-love, self-compassion, and only then returning to the commons to begin to share and relate from that place. This is where Axelrod and almost any other social scientists/economists lose the thread. Tit for tat only matters to Homo Economicus, who as Della Duncan has declared, is dead—if he ever actually existed other than as a lever to convince us that we should all be living from a sense of scarcity and self-interest, so the wealth could keep moving up to the oligarchy.
It strikes me today, that none of these complex social systems and solutions are needed if we relate from love and from a sense of the sacred (Gaia, sacred self, and sacred other). These systems are all, in fact, coming from a need to control what cannot be controlled. I sympathize, it is a very human impulse. We can restore the balance of the sacred masculine and feminine, which has for a few thousand years been horrifically out of balance. Within ourselves and within our societies.
‘Each of us must step up to create the structural conditions for the communities we need to emerge.’ Yes! And we start by creating those conditions within ourselves.
Finally, also yes, a group can become an evolutionary entity—is anything ever not? We all evolve as individuals and as a collective. Everything is evolving at all times.”
Rather than unpacking all the wisdom that Peter shares, I’d like to compliment it with this quote from Carse:
“No one can play a game alone. One cannot be human by oneself. There is no selfhood where there is no community. We do not relate to others as the persons we are; we are who we are in relating to others.
Simultaneously the others with whom we are in relation are themselves in relation. We cannot relate to anyone who is not also relating to us. Our social existence has, therefore, an inescapably fluid character. This is not to say that we live in a fluid context, but that our lives are themselves fluid. As in the Zen image we are not the stones over which the stream of the world flows; we are the stream itself. As we shall see, this ceaseless change does not mean discontinuity; rather change is itself the very basis of our continuity as persons. Only that which can change can continue: this is the principle by which infinite players live…
Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, by the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.
There is but one infinite game.”
As Shared by Mike den Haan on Part Two
“I found myself a bit mesmerized by this helpful explanation of something that is universally known but not understood. I believe that, at a fundamental and intuitive level, all humans (perhaps all sentient beings) understand that: we are relational beings, we are all interconnected and that our immediate context can provide the richest experience for decision making, living and being. Yet, so few in my own immediate community context truly understand this. It is so curious how Ostrom has provided a rational understanding of this idea in a way which validates ancient knowledge but provides language and structure those who are open to hearing it. So...we are relational beings for whom our immediate context (small groups) provides the richest experience for creating new and better futures. This is ancient and powerful wisdom.”
Mike’s comment reminds me to finish the story that I began from The Book of Trespass in Part One. As you may recall, while walking with his mother one day in the countryside, a man on a quad bike confronts Nick Hayes and says, “You’ve no right to be here. You’re trespassing.” Hayes reflects on this experience as casting a kind of spell upon them as if it “had tied our feet and dragged us away...We felt a flush of guilt, a moral sense of being in the wrong, but there was also a sense of being wronged.”
Hayes could not escape this feeling, nor the potential consequences of being fined for further trespasses on private property. One day Hayes decides to approach the farmhouse and ask the property owner for “permissive access.” He knocks on the door, and describes how the situation unfolds:
“We spent fifteen slightly awkward minutes in his front garden, rocking on our heels, looking out across the valley. There was a heritage to his presence on this side of the valley that carried authority I couldn’t deny. He had been born in the front room behind us and had taken over the farm from his father. He had known that land for seven decades longer than me. We discussed the various parts of the wood we both knew and he told me that our firepit had in fact been a clay mine for bricks in the 1800s, and maybe even 2,000 years before, since the Romans were also fond of good brick. Beside us, in the yard, covered in creepers, was a large boulder, a Sarsen stone, which, more than 10,000 years ago, had been carried from Liverpool by a glacier. It was a historical pin in the landscape and the succession of houses and barns of the property that been built around it. He was happy to let me make fires in the dell, and didn’t mind me drawing on the land.”
In fifteen minutes of time together, the spell of trespass had been lifted. By acknowledging—as Mike shares—that Hayes and the farmer were in relation and that they are interconnected through land and time, the concept of trespass, of privacy, loses its legitimacy. By acknowledging our interconnectedness, we come to realize that we can all cooperate on the commons for a healthier living planet.
Fellow infinite players, I hope this time between issues provides the space for further discovery and reflection.
Go forth and make a difference in the week ahead. This week I’ll be meeting with a group of concerned individuals pooling our talents into how we can help bring forth a more regenerative region, cooperatively with guidance from Ostrom and Axelrod.
See you next week with Issue Twenty-Seven.
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Why I Write The Understory
We have crossed the climate-change threshold from emerging to urgent, which demands a transformative response. The complexity of climate change demands continued focus and the courage to take bold action. I've found that the persistence of climate consciousness improves resilience to the noise and distractions of daily life in service of a bigger (and most of the time invisible) long-term cause.
The Understory is my way of organizing the natural and human-made curiosities that are presently altering my worldview. Within the words, research, and actions of others lies the inspiration for personal and organizational journeys. I hope that my work here helps to inform not just my persistent consciousness but yours as well.