Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rebuilding the Commons

Common values. Common knowledge. Common world. These are required for a society to function. They must be built. They must be maintained. They must be respected.

They are in serious disrepair, and so is the global society that depends on them.

Last year, in a fictional retrospective from the next century (“A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century”) I suggested a “Commons Development and Maintenance Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (CDMA), which required all adult citizens to give one in seven days of their time to building and maintaining the commons.” I was thinking primarily of the physical resources we depend on, which are declining at such a rate that, given realistic expectations about people's performance, a goal of 14% annual growth in renewable and reusable resources will be necessary to avoid total calamity. Whatever mechanism we actually decide on, this work on the “common world” must be done on a worldwide basis, but it will be unsustainable without values to motivate people, and knowledge to have a decent chance of success.

Differences in values seem to be at the root of a lot of our problems. To the extent that we disagree, or our values don't extend to all others, we tend to work in opposition instead of toward a future where we can at least survive, and ideally all thrive. Communicating with each other about what we believe is right and wrong is critical to identifying and dealing with the differences that divide us, and finding any common ground that exists. If our values are too far apart, then we should seriously consider creating societies with shared values that do not have enough power to interfere with each other, but provide opportunities for their members to move if their values change (technically we already have such societies – nations and corporations – but many have both the power, and desire, to interfere with others).

The accuracy and accessibility of knowledge determines how well we can define and reach our goals. Common knowledge helps us to efficiently interact with each other and coordinate our activities. Education is perhaps the primary mechanism for creating common knowledge, and it is losing effectiveness for a number of reasons, not the least being that there is far too much disagreement about what should be “common.” There is also the problem that the quantity of information is so great that many people cannot personally verify its accuracy or usefulness, and must therefore depend upon other people to translate it and vouch for it, people who may have an incentive to distort or outright lie.

I have written extensively about each of these elements, and come to the conclusion that everyone should devote some time to “building and maintaining” them, in addition to avoiding their deterioration during other activities. Perhaps one day a week (14% of the time) is still a good target for any or all three, since they do depend on each other. My personal preference is to spend more time, especially on common values and knowledge since their deficit seems to be the greatest impediment to creating a healthy world.

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