Book Review: The Commons in an Age of Uncertainty: Decolonizing Nature, Economy, and Society by Franklin Obeng-Odoom

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In The Commons in the Age of Insecurity: Decolonizing Nature, Economy and Society, Franklin Obeng-Odoom examines scientific evidence on commons, highlights the weaknesses of existing concepts and pushes for a more radical vision of commoning land associated with the transformation of our broader social, political, economic and ecological systems. This book opens a way to envision the possibilities of a new world anchored on the commons, writes Maano Ramutsindela.

The Commons in the Age of Insecurity: Decolonizing Nature, Economy and Society. Franklin Obeng-Odoom. University of Toronto Press, 2021.

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The planetary emergency of our time has drawn people and institutions around the world to work to prevent the impending disaster. The message from the scientists is clear: the earth has reached its limits and both the planet and life on it are exposed to existential threats! Many of the proposals for what needs to be done are not new, but can be traced back to ideas and suggestions that have long been in the public eye, including the vision of the Club of Rome that circulated half a century ago. A common thread that runs through past and present ideas to save the planet and the ongoing concern for the future of life on earth is the global question of how to lay the foundation for a socio-ecological, Just society can put the environment as well as the people.

In The Commons in an Age of Uncertainty, Franklin Obeng-Odoom explores this question by juxtaposing the work of two influential theorists of the commons, Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom, and their supporters to rejuvenate the debates on the commons. To this end, it offers the reader a condensed but well-structured overview of the science of commons and the political economy of natural resources.

This overview is intended to show the weaknesses of known commons theories. Obeng-Odoom categorizes the Commonwealth Scholarship into “Conventional Wisdom” and “Western Left Consensus”. The Conventional Wisdom associated with Hardin’s work denotes the established belief that the commons can and should be protected and preserved by converting them into private property. She advocates using markets to solve social problems. Obeng-Odoom’s criticism of the process and consequences of the privatization of the commons is in line with critical social science research, which suggests that the privatization of nature has led to more ecological and social problems.

Photo credit: ‘Cloud Shadows’ by Christopher Griner licensed under CC BY 2.0

But Obeng-Odoom adds two important lessons to this research. First, he puts land at the center of the commons analysis to argue that commodified land is no longer general. Second, he emphasizes that the ecological classification of the problems of the Global South not only consolidates the power of the Global North over the region, but also enables the global South to be privatized. In this way, the privatization of nature has demographic and geographic characteristics.

Obeng-Odoom turns to the western left consensus associated with the work of Ostrom, considering cities as common goods because they are commonly created and shared around urban land, and city dwellers have common rights to the land, as clearly stated by activists pushing the right to the city.

Obeng-Odoom, however, is not convinced that Ostrom’s analysis of the urban commons is an alternative to Hardin’s view of privatization. He traces Ostrom’s analysis back to the idea of ​​urban commons and the notion of consumer sovereignty to argue that the analysis overemphasizes a public choice approach to socio-ecological problems. It is based on the belief that small urban communities in closed settlements can successfully govern themselves through rules without state intervention. According to him, Ostrom views gated communities, informal economies and slums as urban commons and prefers to use environmental taxes and behavioral change in urban commons as a solution to the urban ecological crisis. In doing so, argues Obeng-Odoom, ignores the consensus of the western left that informal economies grow out of oppression rather than freedom, are sustained by oppression, segregate communities and destroy the environment.

Throughout the book, Obeng-Odoom uses the criticism of conventional wisdom and consensus of the Western Left to lay the groundwork for his proposed “Radical Alternative”. The pillars of the Radical Alternative include just land, the creation of the welfare state, and the replacement of pension capitalism and its institutions with commons-based systems. Fair land denotes commoning land by reclaiming it as commons and protecting it from commodification. Commoning land is a necessary condition for the transformation of our social, political, economic and ecological systems. Obeng-Odoom uses land concepts rooted in pre-colonial Africa to demonstrate the value of this process. This raises the question of how commoning land takes place in Africa and the wider Global South after the disruption of land tenure relations by both colonialism and the world capitalist system. Ongoing land reform programs promoted by post-independent states complicate the process and purpose of commoning.

The welfare state, for its part, should underpin the Radical Alternative by reflecting the values ​​and aspirations of the society it serves. In other words, the welfare state should drive the march towards common goods and inclusive prosperity. In this way it should be an antithesis to the capitalist state. This is a bold proposal that requires the transformation of the state in the Global South. The proposal raises the question of how such a state could arise in a world system that restricts the functioning of states and at the same time transforms them. This question is more relevant in Africa, where the author draws most of his examples. Social scientists would be interested in what such a state looks like since it is neither market socialism nor state socialism. The third pillar, collective rent, has the potential to reverse the social, economic and environmental ills caused by rent theft. Such theft occurs when rent created by society is deducted and privately appropriated.

Throughout the book, Obeng-Odoom emphasizes that both Hardin and Ostrom and their followers misdiagnosed the socio-ecological problems and offered misinformed solutions. They neglect the internal and external conditions of the commons that are responsible for the distribution and control of natural resources. The author is provocative and nuanced analyzes the political ecology of cities, technologies, oil and water. He challenges land economists and proposes a new ecological political economy based on the conceptualization of land as a methodological approach. For him, land ownership is a research approach with which we can deepen our understanding of land not only as one of the key factors in production, but also as the identity of Africans and black societies around the world. In The Commons in an Age of Uncertainty, Obeng-Odoom opens a way to envision the possibilities of a new world anchored on the commons.

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Note: This article represents the views of the author and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Maano Ramutsindela University of Cape Town
Maano Ramutsindela is Professor of Geography at the University of Cape Town. He researches the political ecology of cross-border environments and green violence. He is Associate Editor of Politics, Territory, Governance and Executive Editor of The Violence of Conservation in Africa.


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