How do we keep the Commons Good?
By Maggie Hall, former Chair of Brighton Humanists, Humanists UK School Speaker and member of the Humanists UK Dialogue Network. In this article, she argues that one of the most important aspects of humanism is care for the basic elements of the environment: land, water, soil, and air. Life itself depends on it.
'The commons' is a term meaning those things which are, or should be, available to everyone, particularly natural resources, such as land, water, soil and air. In other words, the very basics of life. The population of the world is now around 8 billion (the UN chose 15th November 2022 as the date to mark this milestone, based on its modelling) and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the more of us there are, the more competition there is for the world’s natural resources. In many parts of the world, these are being expropriated by corrupt and greedy governments or diverted to large private corporations for profit, often resulting in pollution and the dispossession, criminalisation, and even murder of the very people who are best placed to preserve and protect them. In 2021, the human rights organisation Global Witness produced a report highlighting 227 lethal attacks during the previous year on people defending their homes, land, livelihoods, and ecosystems vital for biodiversity and a stable climate.
"For me, one of the most important aspects of humanism is concern for one’s fellow human beings, which encompasses care for the environment and other sentient beings, including wildlife. 'The commons' need to remain alive and flourishing if life itself is to do the same."
The seizing and controlling of land has long been used as a tool of oppression. In the Israeli-occupied West Bank of Palestine, Palestinians who once used the land for small-scale farming are no longer permitted to erect any buildings or even to plant trees. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, approximately forty-five non-Bengali indigenous communities have endured violent dispossession by state authorities and the land has suffered depletion through agricultural monoculture, hill-cutting and stone extraction by private corporations, the government and the military. The indigenous peoples who have been the guardians and stewards of these natural resources for generations face eviction and an increasing scarcity of land on which to live and grow food. In Nairobi’s Mukuru kwa Njenga settlement there have been violent mass evictions to make way for a toll road. Over 40,000 people were forcibly removed, two losing their lives. Invaluable land resources are being wrested from the hands of those who are not only entitled to use them as a human right, but also humankind’s best hope when it comes to living in harmony with our environment and the climate.
In 1995, Jakarta’s water supply was privatised by the notoriously corrupt and despotic Indonesian President, Suharto, as part of a sweetheart deal to secure infrastructure funding from the World Bank. The UK’s Thames Water was one of the companies involved. The predominantly poor population of the northern Rawa Badak district of Jakarta was only supplied with water once a day between 2 am and 5 am, whereas a neighbourhood of luxurious housing complexes for the wealthy elite enjoyed a much more reliable supply. This meant that the poorest in the community were at the mercy of private traders for drinking water, paying around 43 cents for a 4.5 litre container full, compared to the 35 cents per 1,000 litres rate for tap water. The private traders’ prices doubled when the tap water supply wasn’t working. In 2015, a civil society pressure group pursued a citizen lawsuit through the Central Jakarta District Court for an end to privatisation and a return to public water provision. A successful appeal by the private companies was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2017 and the contractual agreements with the private water companies were ended. This is an outstanding example of what dogged activism by ordinary citizens can achieve.
Rivers are not in the habit of confining themselves within political or geographical boundaries, a fact which gives rise to conflict and disputes, especially when dams are erected. The narrative that dams are monuments to modernity and symbols of prestige is a difficult one to resist, but the truth is that many indigenous peoples, usually in the poorest communities, suffer water scarcity and drought because of them. This has been the case in Assam (a state in northeastern India), in Turkey, where the Turks have been accused of using its upstream dams to withhold water from Syria as part of its war of attrition against the Kurdish population, and in Ethiopia and Egypt, where similar tensions exist between those two countries due to fears that Ethiopia’s new dam will cause water shortages in Egypt. In 2001, Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the UN, famously predicted that ‘fierce competition for freshwater may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future’.
Healthy soil is essential to life on our planet. Without it, nothing grows or lives. World Soil Day is held annually on 5th December as a means to focus attention on the importance of healthy soil and advocating for the sustainable management of soil resources. To quote the UK’s Soil Association: 'It sustains us, captures carbon, provides a home for billions of organisms and can help defend us against flooding and drought, but too often we're taught to think of it as dirt! As a result, many of the world's soils are now in crisis - degraded and eroding, often as a result of intensive farming practices'. Ninety-five per cent of our food is grown in soil, but intensive farming and over-use of chemical fertilisers means that over the last 70 years the nutrients in food have become seriously depleted. The situation is made clear by this excellent little video from the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. The GSP works with farmers around the world to encourage sustainable and regenerative methods of farming. Some farmers are now beginning to turn to agroecology, which replenishes the soil as well as cutting nitrous emissions from chemical fertilisers and drawing carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil. For example, since 2016 the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has been supporting its six million farmers to transition to a fully natural, chemical-free farming system, known as ‘community-managed natural farming’. After only two years, those farmers who have already begun to transition have found that their yields have matched or even exceeded those from more intensive chemical farming, and the word is spreading.
Air pollution is a global problem. It is a major cause of respiratory and heart diseases and stroke, and by some estimates accounts for as many as seven million premature deaths a year worldwide. Sources of ambient (outdoor) air pollution include vehicle emissions, chemical and power plants, waste incineration and industry. There is also the problem of domestic pollution from open fires and cooking stoves fuelled by kerosene, biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal. On its website, the World Health Organisation states: 'Policies and investments that support sustainable land use, cleaner household energy and transport, energy-efficient housing, power generation, industry, and better municipal waste management can effectively reduce key sources of ambient air pollution'. New coal mining operations are still being put into operation in spite of all the evidence of harm from fossil fuels, including atmospheric pollution. Just one of them will have devastating effects on two communities: in Queensland, Australia, where the coal will be extracted, and in Goa, India, where the coal is unloaded and where residents are already suffering from environmental pollution from coal dust, which collects in their houses and washes up on their beaches.
For me, one of the most important aspects of humanism is concern for one’s fellow human beings, which encompasses care for the environment and other sentient beings, including wildlife. 'The commons' need to remain alive and flourishing if life itself is to do the same. There are many organisations campaigning on these issues and I believe it behoves humanists to support them and lend their voices wherever the opportunity arises.
Further information and activism: