Duties Beyond Borders: Towards a Society Built on Respect for All Life

Peter Brown’s latest book provides a dispassionate, rational and compelling argument for the need to change our economic, political and social systems in order to properly steward the planet, and practical ideas on how to do so.
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Conservationist Peter Brown moved a few years ago from Maryland, where he still manages a forest, to Quebec, where he also now manages a forest, to take up the role of Director of the McGill University School of Environment, where he continues to teach. His latest, innocuously named book The Commonwealth of Life was recommended by four environmentalists I respect enormously (and have written about), David Suzuki, Elizabeth May, Peter Singer and Herman Daly. I just finished reading the book and it’s astonishing.

Brown starts by laying out the false assumptions by which our economic, political and social systems currently operate:

  • that well-being can be measured by economic growth
  • that humans enjoy a unique moral place in the universe
  • that we can safely predict the consequences of our actions
  • that nation-states are morally privileged
  • that markets and democracy are mutually reinforcing institutions, and
  • that the world is largely unperturbed and unperturbable by human actions

The book systematically and thoroughly deconstructs these false assumptions and provides an alternative framework for the reorganization and management of our economic, political and social systems, that could create a society based on respect for all life on Earth, and at the same time, not coincidentally, maximize human well-being.

He starts with an argument, which he eloquently provides historical context for and then defends, that there are three rights that must be satisfied for a healthy, functioning society: the right of bodily integrity (freedom from injury and undue confinement), the right of moral, political and religious choice, and the right of subsistence (to make a decent living and hence provide for the basic needs of life).

He goes on to say that in a functioning society these rights are honoured through three duties: individual duty to respect the rights of others, government duty to enforce these rights when individuals abrogate them, and international organizations’ duty to enforce these rights when governments fail to do so. He then, again using historical, moral and philosophical argument, says that in our interdependent and finite world we must, to fulfill that duty, extend these rights across space (to all people of all nations), across time (to future generations), and (at least insofar as the first and third rights are concerned) to all other species that reason, communicate and feel pain. He further argues that such rights can only be granted and enforced if we have respect for the entire interconnected ‘commonwealth of life’ including not only all sentient species but the ecosystems in which they live as well. These duties and responsibilities of commonwealth are, he says, analogous to and natural extensions of our duties and responsibilities of citizenship. They are what he calls duties beyond borders (geographic, temporal and ecological). Not surprisingly, he calls the exercise of such duties stewardship.

Recognizing that this is groundbreaking argument, he rigorously raises and then dispels the objections that can be made to each of these theses, and analyzes and contrasts alternative theses for their ability to provide direction towards sustainable human well-being. He’s his own critic, diligent and rigorous in his analysis.

In Part Two he goes on to explain what changes to our economic, political and social systems will be needed to act on these duties, protect these rights and achieve a properly-stewarded commonwealth. Starting with the ‘stewardship economic’ system needed to restore, protect and enhance the commonwealth (and extension of Keynes’ definition of the function of classical economics to ‘protect human life and culture’), he argues that in order for the new economic system to entrench the three basic rights it is first necessary to constrain the extravagant and wasteful use of some resources (notably water, energy, forests, heavy metals and soil nutrients), which has been allowed to continue because of the pervasive myths that we are not significant actors in Earth’s biophysical systems. He counters the argument of “technological optimists” that prices, supply and demand will self-regulate the depletion of resources (implausible in the presence of market-distorting subsidies and in the absence of full-costing of resource extraction) and that new substitutes for scarce resources will always be found in sufficient time (because the cascading impact of the depleted resources on other parts of the ecosystem, including parts critical to our economy, can be catastrophic). He concludes his economic prescription by saying “The space between the lower boundary of satisfying basic rights, and the upper boundary allowing other life forms to flourish is the space for legitimate human wealth”. He need not add that, in today’s economy, that space is negative.

Turning to political systems, he sees the role of government as a trustee, acting only when individuals and groups fail to respect the commonwealth of life, or abrogate the three basic rights or their responsibility to protect them. Government therefore has seven duties:

  • duty to preserve and enhance the well-being of all
  • duty to discharge its obligations impartially
  • duty to uphold the three basic rights
  • duty to prohibit wasteful use of resources
  • duty to address crises of scarcity
  • duty to respect the virtue of commerce to optimize the production and distribution of necessities of life
  • duty to protect the commonwealth undiminished for future generations

He demonstrates that the exercise of such duties need be no more interventionist than existing government, and that it requires government to be altruistic, rather than merely responding to the collective parochial demands of today’s citizens, corporations and special interests. And he skewers the myth of the infallibility of ‘free’ markets, demonstrating that ‘free’ markets do not exist today, and never have.

Next up is the changes to social systems, to the functioning of civil society, which must intervene when necessary to check the excesses of both the economic and political systems, and give them direction. He shows why the most common solutions to dealing with the Tragedy of the Commons (those solutions being: making all property privately owned, or making all property government-owned) don’t work. He describes the essential aspects of property rights (right to exclude access, right to use, right to dispose) and proposes a merging of today’s property rights with a new public trust responsibility commensurate with those rights. This responsibility is identical to the seven duties of governments bulleted above, insofar as that property is concerned, and is consistent with the stewardship theme of Brown’s entire philosophy.

In Part Three Brown extends the personal and government responsibilities to the international arena, arguing that the world is in essence a community of ‘fiduciary states’ (nations with stewardship responsibility). He says that individual nations and supra-national organizations (like the UN) must ensure that all nations exercise the seven duties transparently, and that each person and nation has a community responsibility to all others. In response to self-proclaimed ‘realists’ whose view of human nature is cynical and who see human motives as inherently opportunistic and Machiavellian, Brown counters with the Aristotelian view of human nature, and provides historical context to justify its greater plausibility. In response to the argument that nations ‘need’ to be able to act in their own self-interest, he reviews the entire history of nation-states and shows them to be a largely arbitrary and evolving concept, suggesting that they are readily adaptable to a more altruistic purpose and may in the future evolve or devolve into a very different form or disappear entirely in favour of other forms of government.

This is the part of the book I struggled with the most, for two reasons. First, I’ve gone on record as saying I think any solution to the current ecological crisis will require political and economic power to first devolve from nations to communities. Secondly, I’ve argued passionately in favour of the rights of national sovereignty, even, with limits, when the exercise of that sovereignty may sometimes offend our personal and cultural values. I’m re-thinking my positions on these two issues.

In the final chapter, Brown starts with a lovely quote from Albert Schweitzer:

Sooner or later there must dawn the true and final renaissance which will bring peace to the world.

He then lays out a 14-point action plan to migrate our economic, political and social systems to their new stewardship of the commonwealth roles:

  1. Assess the current state of the three basic rights in each country.
  2. Inventory the current state of productive resources, capacity to rebound to natural, sustainable levels, and capacity of ‘sinks’ to absorb human activity.
  3. Compile an overall global biological survey of ecosystem health and robustness.
  4. Design and construct new institutions to protect the commonwealth, modeled after Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons analysis of effective common pool resource management structures.
  5. Introduce new regulations and incentives (emphasis on the latter) to extend and entrench the three basic rights.
  6. Replace GDP with GPI and other, broader and more credible measures of well-being.
  7. Redirect central banks’ fiscal and monetary policy to incent effective stewardship instead of growth.
  8. Restructure tax systems to tax ‘bads’ instead of ‘goods’.
  9. Create national Councils of Stewardship to supplant Councils of Economic Advisers.
  10. Create incentives for good-stewardship substitutions e.g. grants, tax changes, short-term subsidies, that could, for example, lead to the elimination of the need to raise animals for food.
  11. Grant legal standing to future generations and other sentient species, so that actions can be launched on their behalf.
  12. Implement cosmopolitan education: teach stewardship, tolerance, and educate and fund research on good-stewardship substitutions for existing activities.
  13. Promulgate an international declaration of stewardship acknowledging our responsibilities and also the need for all people to take action to significantly reduce both human population and levels of consumption.
  14. Create an annual report of our stewardship and trusteeship of the planet.

Brown acknowledges that some of the countries that fail to provide the three basic rights will be belligerent in the face of pressure to do so. He recommends the program of treaties, oversight, sanctions, cooperative and collaborative institutions and agencies outlined in Richard Falk‘s book This Endangered Planet as a means of dealing with belligerents, rather than the hasty rush to war, which usually does more harm than good.

All in all, this slim (160 page) volume is a remarkable mix of idealism and pragmatism. Just one more recipe for saving the world, but one that has the weight of research, the intelligence to avoid rhetoric and blame, extraordinary sponsorship and scholarship and the common sense to take it one step and one country at a time. It deserves our attention. If people are unwilling to accept the duty of respect and responsibility that Brown calls for, we are all lost.

(Brown is working on a new book called Reverence for Life: A Philosophy for Civilization. I’ll let you know when it’s out.)

If there’s any reason this four-year-old book has not become a best-seller, it must be because it’s so hard to find: You’ll search Amazon in vain (though you may find it under its even more innocuous European title Ethics, Economics and International Relations). In Britain you can get it under the Canadian title from Politico’s Books. Americans will, alas, probably have to get their local bookseller to order it in — publisher and ISBN can be found here, or order it for CAD $20 from McNally Robinson, the great Canadian independent bookseller.

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2 Responses to Duties Beyond Borders: Towards a Society Built on Respect for All Life

  1. Jon Husband says:

    I am impressed withthe clarity of the false assumptions … it’s always telling when one reads something like that and recognizes one’s own thoughts but also recognizes that the new wording has distilled the thoughts down to the essence.And the deliciously and humanity-affiming-ly optimistic Schweitzer quote I probably read at the wrong time .. just before going to bed. I’ll probably have a bit of a tough time going to sleep (and so I find myself wishing I had this new book to read).

  2. The University of Ottawa library has a copy. I’m going to read it as soon as I’m done reading The War Against the Greens.

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