The Earth: A community of advantage

This post is the follow-up to the previous in presenting core ideas in my recent book chapter draft contributed to the volume edited by Martin Bohle “Geo-societal narratives – contextualising geosciences” (Palgrave). I present a solution to the dilemma in political epistemology that I pinpointed, namely that economists often argue that the market is beyond human control, that we can only regulate certain aspects, and that we should avoid interfering directly. As I argued in previous posts, this implies that we cannot control technosphere evolution: If we accept guidance of markets for our human societies (such as which technology would emerge in the future), we must also recognize that the technosphere is beyond our control. If that is the case, how can we adopt the position of responsible designers of the technosphere as a regulatory layer in the Earth system? Is the ‘Geo-Leviathan’ or ‘Eco-dictatorship’ the only alternative?

Economics tells us that we can build guardrails for market evolution: Apart from direct legal constraints, this is the creation of certain structures of rights: Think of emission rights, which do not outrightly prohibit emissions, but impose costs, though indirectly, via the scarcity of rights, and then propel market competition to run down the costs. Nobody knows how exactly this will be finally achieved, we leave that to the market as ‘discovery procedure’. Now, can we imagine that this approach would be also applied in a geocentric economics as outlined in the previous post?

Rights are always conceived as rights of humans because they seem to be tied to the notion of agency, which only humans claim. But in recent decades, this anthropocentric notion of agency received fatal blows by new approaches in the social sciences that highlighted the distributed nature of agency. After all, rights are an essential determinant of agency, and their creation and enforcement requires a complex assemblage of functions that are not only humans (the judge) but also technologies (the prison). Agency is scaffolded and often only enabled by combining human agents with artefacts (the laptop I am writing on is just one example). In fact, economics has always employed an abstract notion of right, i.e. the legal person, as in the construct of the free-standing corporation. The corporation is a non-human agent that is owned and represented by humans, but clearly is also locus of autonomous agentive functions that emerge from the complex interplay between the various human agents.

My proposal is simple: In a geocentric economy, non-human agents would be legal persons that are owned by non-humans. Think of wolves owning a legal person that acts on their behalf, represented by human managers. This is perfectly possible. Of course, there are two fundamental difficulties. The first is, how can we determine the range and type of non-human agents, because, after all, we cannot expect wolves suddenly ‘wake up’, talk to us and set-up a company. We humans must do that on their behalf. Second, even if we do that, how can we know the interests of the wolves, the owners?

Regarding the first question, my proposal ties up with the existing literature and even legal procedures that emerged in the past decades on the ‘rights of nature’: I prefer to talk about ‘Rights of Earth’. This literature has already discussed the possibility to assign the status of legal persons to natural entities, even including rivers. I conclude that the creation of legal persons must be designed as a process on the constitutional level: Once Rights of Earth have been assigned a similar status as human rights, a political and societal deliberation would be triggered culminating in the establishment of legal persons, which would be certainly specific to the ecological context of the respective body politic. The constitution obliges humans to act in this way, and it is always a state in transition, as the process will continuously unfold, driven by societal discourses, political debates, political entrepreneurship etc..

Once legal persons are established, human representatives will start to figure out the interests of the owners and the assets that they control. The procedures are familiar, as they are employed in analysing ecosystem services already, for example. That means, we harness the full potential of the Earth sciences and the life sciences to build legal persons as avatars of agency of non-humans. This sounds like science fiction? Yes! But in the context of technology, the role of science fiction in actually propelling technological change is well recognized (for example, virtual reality was first invented in science fiction, as well as laptops etc.). The same applies for envisioning avatars of wolves and breathing life into them.

What next? Once non-human agents are in place, the market will do its job (among other social domains, such as government), just as economists argue in the anthropocentric scenario. Human representatives will act to pursue the interests of their owners, and this will result in a plethora of activities that guide the discovery of new knowledge about ecosystems, the worlds of non-humans, and the construction of new institutions that regulate the technosphere. For example, non-human legal persons – wolves – may have claims on territory that is currently exploited by humans for mining. Currently, environmental externalities of mining are only considered in litigation among humans, and eventually the damage would be mostly measured in terms of ecosystem services damage, which is measured by human welfare. When it comes to losses in biodiversity, responsibility must be assumed by government regulating mining. But if non-humans assume agency as legal persons, they can directly litigate over the damages, and the assessment of harm would explicitly include their interests, as reconstructed according to the state of knowledge in the sciences. One result would be that the legal person would receive compensation, and that money must be invested in the interest of the owners. Wolves Inc. would emerge as a business entity that funds conservation projects or might even litigate over discrimination against wolves in human imaginaries.

Much detail must be added, of course, but I hope that readers get the gist of my idea. I call this ‘Earth as a community of advantage’. This term originated with J. S. Mill as describing the market, and was recently taken up by the economist and philosopher Robert Sugden. Sugden elaborates on the term in detailing a contractarian approach to markets that eschews neoclassical foundations in concepts of rationality and optimization. People take part in markets, because the new opportunities for specialization and exchange create advantages for everybody, but nobody gives up individual autonomy: What is essential for markets is cooperation, and competition is only a form of cooperating. In the same vein, I conceive the Earth as a community of advantage in which all forms of life gain from specialization and exchange, as envisaged by Charles Darwin in his famous paragraph on the ‘entangled bank’. We must project this community into an institutional framework for human action, akin to a virtual reality, which populates our human world with non-human agents whose rights we recognize and with whom we interact on equal footing. This will harness the powers of markets to the common good of the Earth, without imposing one perspective or one goal on humans. We perform the Earth as a community of advantage.

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