NEGATIVE COMMONS: TAKING THE PROBLEM BACKWARDS?
For more than 5 years, the 27th Region has cultivated an interest in the evolution of the commons movement and sought to study this question from the perspective of the transformation of public action, through various programs: Enacting the commons (a Europe-wide survey), Juristes Embarqués (an experimentation through the legal angle) or more recently Lieux Communs (experiments related to the revitalization of territories). What they share is the search for new forms of governance, a new administrative posture and new democratic tools.
During a webinar in December 2020, we invited a philosopher (Alexandre Monnin) and a jurist (Lionel Maurel) to discuss the notion of negative commons with Laura Pandelle, designer and discussant on that occasion. If it is still only at an exploratory stage and has few concrete incarnations, it seemed interesting to start digging into this notion before, later, and if it lends itself to it, investigating how it may echo the public actors' needs. This was also an opportunity of framing the discussion in such a way as to avoid the pitfall of making the concept too catch-all and inoperative. An exercise of balance, between theoretical construction and applicability...
NEGATIVE COMMONS, WHAT'S NEW?
Negative commons refer to "resources", material or immaterial, that are "negative", either visibly, such as wastes, abandoned nuclear power plants, polluted soils or some toxic or contested cultural legacies, or less visibly and more ambiguously (some economic and managerial models, supply chains, ICT, etc.). The notion represents, first of all, a tool for broadening the classical theory of commons, beyond the Ostromian perspective of a collective management of positive or desirable resources.
If the notion of negative commons is still under construction, it is defined from the inception with regards to the Anthropocene, the question being: how can we share the responsibility and the weight of the realities built and generated since the industrial revolution ? - thus allowing to give an even more acute political dimension to the commons movement. Indeed, this perspective calls into question the notion of resources and an approach oriented towards the latter's "management", which is widespread within this movement. "To consider a forest as a resource only helps to bound us to an extractivist logic, at a time when we are seeking to develop new relations with living beings." explains Lionel Maurel.
Finally, the notion underlines and politicizes the divergences within communities that deal with commons, which up until now had been expressed mainly in the academic field. Thus, if we take the example of the digital world, a line of tension could emerge more clearly around the notion of negative commons, between communities that continue to attach a positive and progressive value to digital innovations and those who develop a radically critical approach to digital technologies in general, particularly with regard to their ecological weight (energy consumption, dependency on ore and rare earths, etc.) and social impact (the precariousness of "click" and gig workers, the prevalence of surveillance, etc.).
TAKING CARE OF OUR LEGACIES?
Some undesirable products of "our" contemporary societies and lifestyles thus require collective care: nuclear waste, digital infrastructure, industrial wasteland, unhealthy buildings, pesticides, etc. "Should we simply attribute a negative value to these phenomena, in order to try to get rid of them, or are we not sometimes forced to go beyond this perspective by politicizing different modes of relationship to these realities when they impose themselves upon us?" asks Alexandre Monnin. The project he co-founded, Closing worlds, puts at the heart of its action this notion of undesirable heritage and legacy and thus, negative commons.
This notion seeks to change the perspective on how to deal with these negative legacies, by questioning not only how resource are managed but also the system in which it is inserted. The American city of Centreville (Illinois), whose population suffers from great poverty, illustrates this proposal. Living conditions there have inexorably deteriorated, leading to a landscape of Lovecraftian dimension: wastewater is no longer evacuated, generating nauseating odors and bacterial contamination, and buildings have collapsed because the subsoil has become too soft, all symptoms of neglect by accretion. The example of this city shows the systemic degradation caused by the superimposition of large-scale organized environmental deterioration and a precarious social system, and points to the impossibility of leaving the inhabitants of degraded environments alone in charge of their rehabilitation. It point ot an asymmetry between the commons and the negative commons from the point of view of the communities associated with the "resources": while the definition of the community should be as local as possible in the case of "positive" commons, the main challenge of negative commons consists, on the contrary, in enlarging the community confronted with these realities in order to establish, politically and sometimes in a conflictual manner, new bonds of solidarity (think, for example, of the problem of reparation for slavery and the injustices that still result from it, in the United States as elsewhere) between the stakeholders, thus intertwining issues of ecological balance and social justice.
The prism of the negative commons invites to consider territories through the lens of their interdependencies with other territories in order to rethink what makes them inhabitable, broadening the actors concerned by the negative commons beyond the inhabitants who directly suffer from them, and to include other neighboring (or non-neighboring but related) communities in order to jointly take charge of such a legacies. To achieve this goal, what kind of institutions should be designed, and what new forms of mobilization should be imagined? This approach, even if it does not intend to answer these questions directly and concretely today, resonates in any case with research which, following Anna Tsing, invites us to think not only about risk, limits and resilience, but also about the various and multiple irreversible transformations that are currently affecting the roots of our world.
A POLITICAL VISION
There is therefore a need for new representative bodies, new institutions to articulate these negative commons and to question our interdependencies. For Alexandre Monnin, the setting up of collective inquiry dynamics would be a relevant prerequisite for studying which subject or resource could, on a given territory, be understood as a negative commons. An proposition that resonates with initiatives such as the "June 17 call against the re-intoxication of the world" inviting inhabitants of industrialized territories to investigate around them in order to understand the effects of major technical infrastructures on our world. The idiosyncratic character of the positivity or negativity of a resource also leads everyone to question its uses and dependencies and to cast them in a global political light.
The notion also invites commoners to a change in scale of action. Since the work of Elinor Ostrom, the local level has found resonated with commoners by allowing local collectives to claim and defend their legitimacy with regard to the management of resources of which they are the primary beneficiaries. Nevertheless, if this scale remains relevant for organizing and bringing out negative commons, it seems insufficient to deal with problems related to interdependencies. It is then a question of going beyond the local level alone to foster a multi-scalar dimension, forging new alliances and new power relationships between actors in the "territory" - the latter being redeployed on several geographical and temporal scales. The trajectory of the zero waste movement illustrates this evolution: while it initially relied on domestic recycling, the promise to solve the problem through individual actions quickly reached its limits, leading the community to structure itself collectively to hold public authorities and waste-producing companies accountable.
Beyond the theoretical discourse, the notion of negative commons has an experimental character needs to be anchored in reality to be properly understood and seized by communities and civil society alike. How does this notion resonate within your territories, with which subjects, crises, points of tension could it be articulated and brought to light in a different way? To what extent could it represent a paradigm shift for public actors, for example by re-reading the relationship to actual or potential crises or by shedding light on current debates, by highlighting and providing tools to probe the interdependence between territories, by establishing new shared modes of mobilization and planning, such as the Scottish Community Chartering for example...?
Would you like to continue the conversation and help us, in dialogue with Lionel Maurel and Alexandre Monnin to delve deeper into this subject, for example by exploring the extent to which the concept could serve as a critical reading grid for questioning certain administrative projects (development plans, etc.)? Do not hesitate to contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org)!
Some references to go futher: Le zero déchet et l'émergence des communs négatifs - Lionel Maurel ; Penser le territoire à l'heure de l'Anthropocène - à propos des communs négatifs" - Alexandre Monnin
Finally, you can also watch the entire webinar below:
Authors: Claire Annereau, with contributions from Sylvine Bois-Choussy, Julien Defait, Lionel Maurel, Alexandre Monnin, Laura Pandelle
(Translation: DeepL and Alexandre Monnin)