The 1999 Report of the Commission on Global Governance lists ‘the atmosphere, the outer space, the oceans beyond national jurisdiction, the related environment and life-support systems that contribute to the support of human life’ as commons. However, in this blog, I explore the futures as commons. For futures, I refer to the encompassing idea of the many possible futures, as well as the discipline and methodologies of foresight. Commons, on the other hand, is defined as ‘shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest’. The futures are indeed a resource in which all humans share an interest. It is a resource that can transform the present, not just of humanity, but also of nature. It can create a vision for the future and change the trajectory of planetary and maybe even cosmic circumstance.
In recent years, the definition of commons has gone beyond the physical commons. It started to include intangibles, shared legacy such as culture, science, the arts, and information, and even digital commons such as the internet. However, whether tangible or not, there are three issues that need to be addressed. First, the commons are being claimed and privatized by the privileged few, sometimes mismanaged or squandered. Second - the framing of the function of commons, solely for the support of human life, to sustain human civilization - seems limited. Third, anything that could be used to control or transform civilizational, planetary, and even cosmic conditions must be governed as commons. As I explore these, I will explain why I view the futures as commons.
First, let us look at how the commons are colonized, manipulated, or taken advantage of by a few. Although the futures field has been around for decades, it is still not mainstream. The pandemic has opened people up to the realization of the need for foresight. One might think there would be much demand. But could a lack of supply be the cause that it hasn’t fully caught up? Or has anybody noticed that many foresight books, conferences, journals, and workshops, are mostly led by male futurists of a certain age, often white? In this context, people are likely well meaning, despite these circumstances. In fact, we should be grateful for the pioneers of foresight for leading the way. But keeping foresight in the halls of privilege, expensive and inaccessible, does not benefit the majority. With this great need for foresight comes a great, collective responsibility for futurists. A futurist may be well-meaning in the practice of their profession, but as long as they have not jumped out of the elitist wagon and recognized their transformative role for the wider society and even the future of the planet, they are still part of the perpetuation of the current hegemony. We need to find a better way to make futures reach those who need it most: the most vulnerable, the less privileged, the marginalized.
Much like other commons such as the land, air, and water, the futures can be monopolized by a small segment of people in spaces of privilege, education, political, and economic power. The people who are able to access the experts, the tools and the resources of the futures have an unfair advantage over those who are not. This exclusivity might perpetuate exploitation, inequities, and dominance of certain people, organizations, and nations. I see the futures as a tool for justice. But justice cannot exist if its tools are left in the hands of a few. The futures need to be decolonized and democratized.
While Paul Hartzog explores the definition of a global commons, I suggest that we consider the idea of an even broader definition for futures as commons. I propose the definition of futures as deep commons, maybe even ‘cosmic’ commons. I choose the term cosmic because it goes beyond the realms of the tangible and intangible commons currently being recognized. The futures as commons embraces both the tangible and intangible and should include the futures knowledge base, the tools and methodologies of practice, and most importantly, the future generations of beings, and the opportunities to shape the possibilities of future time.
As Garett Hardin mentioned in his seminal essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, ‘the population problem has no technical solution’. I liken the colonized and exclusive futures to the great challenge that Hardin dealt with in his essay and would also say - as he did - that ‘it requires a fundamental extension in morality’.
This point brings us to the second issue of the current limited view on the function of commons. In terms of what the futures as commons serve or support, it must extend beyond humans. Traditional commons are viewed for the support of humans in the present and the future. This view of commons is too narrow. It is a great disservice to the function and purpose of defining commons in the first place. Limiting the commons to its functions only for humans could, in fact, result in the opposite. It could be detrimental for humans in the long run.
I view commons more for itself, serving itself to maintain itself - commons for commons, nature for nature - as opposed to the idea of nature serving only man. I recognize the intrinsic value of nature as it exists to serve itself as a whole, and not one aspect of it over another. It is important to point this out and the same applies to intangible commons such as the futures. In the same vein, the futures have a function for itself, and not just for a single species. Futures for futures. We envision and shape the future to have a future for humans, animals, nature, the planet as a whole, and the cosmos; not just for ourselves nor the future generations of humans only.
Third, let’s look at the governance of the tools of change as commons. An important aspect of the futures and other commons such as the information commons is the element of time. Indeed, the element of time is present in all commons in the way that they presuppose incessant governance and sustainability. Time could be shared or traded, but must never be amassed and controlled by a few. In the movie In Time, time is the currency with which people buy everything, including their life. People own and work for time, however, over time its value diminishes. More time is needed to ‘buy’ necessities and life minutes, which eventually results in the control and monopoly of time by those who are able to accumulate more of it. The movie is a great metaphor for what could become of commons. The commons, including futures must be maintained and utilized for the benefit of all, not just a few.
This brings me to the right of use and ownership of commons. We are aware of our common stake in the physical and non-physical commons. The futures are not viewed as commons, which diminishes claim and right to it. However, there are some bright spots. Some practitioners in the field are starting to work for democratization and decolonization of the discipline. Some organizations are focused on the creation of intergenerationally just futures. Many participatory tools are emerging, but more democratized deployment is key. The futures are a powerful means to shape our cosmic destiny. It is time to claim the futures as commons, and in doing share it with everyone who could make use of it for planetary and cosmic advantage.
Hess, C. 2006. “Research on the Commons, Common-Pool Resources, and Common Property”. Digital Library of the Commons. Retrieved September 15, 2021 from https://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/contentguidelines.
Hardin, Garret. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Science, New Series, Vol. 162, №3859.
Hartzog, Paul. 2003. Global Commons: Is Definition Possible? University of Utah.
Niccol, Andrew. 2011. In Time [Film]. 20th Century Fox.
Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons, The evolution of institutions for collective action. Indiana University.
@ Shiela R Castillo 2021