It is difficult to imagine a sustainable society without literate, responsible, self-critical people, difficult to imagine sustainable neighborhood transformation without conscious social interactions; we are social beings, and as such curious, communicative, and collaborative, born to share our lives with others. The ongoing commodification of public health and public education – everything held in common – has made it a matter of survival to be in charge of our social reality, in short, to create, connect, and protect independent alternatives. Given that they are based on equality and mutually beneficial practices, these alternatives can aptly be termed social commons. They are not necessarily local, but centered around human needs in contrast to the prevailing systems of domination and subordination that tend to be profit-centered and controlled by the few. By all accounts, this implies a radical change of focus, moving our conscious actions in a new direction, putting the health of people and the planet before profit.
However, if alternative systems and practices are to become widely adopted, they must become real alternatives for all people, substituting Earth-destroying institutions with Earth-restoring ones, while also replacing money as we know it, that is, as a measure of abstract value and a means of exchange. The corrupting power of money and the ongoing subordination of the entire planet to capital makes this a most urgent issue, impossible to avoid even in the short term. We cannot break free from currency markets and global value-chains, unless we take control of the mediation of social relations, begin to adopt more egalitarian and spatially rooted forms of human interaction, undermining the centrality of money as a means of mediation of human relations.
Put differently, if we are to end the monopolization of control and centralization of power, these commons have to be designed and governed in a way that does not allow the few to destroy for the many, including future generations. Still, social systems decoupled from capitalist processes must have certain properties that make it possible to agree upon and contribute to their further development, be reasonably easy to adapt to a variety of local and regional conditions, and, consequently, build on social trust. From a survival perspective, it makes sense to experiment with a variety of alternatives.
The failure of capitalism as a social system is an imperative to radically transform our neighborhoods – large and small, urban and rural – into spatially rooted, social commons. For if we accept that our lived spaces are appropriate starting points for sustainable human development, indeed, birthplaces of non-violent and self-mediated relations, they certainly allow us to create a variety of social commons that facilitate the emergence of an ecological society. In such a neighborhood-centered society, social commons (in particular, energy, water, soil, food, and health commons) would frame our lives, from birth to death, involving us in a number of creative and democratic processes. No one would be excluded from any process that determines our common future. No one would be exploited or made expendable. Not only would spatially rooted systems and practices become integral to our lives: they would be instrumental in the decommodification, demilitarization, and detoxification of society. Democratically controlled and collectively built and sustained from below, self-governing and self-regulating social commons would help us to realize our potential, however, without destroying the biological foundation of all human development.
The creation of social commons is as much about reshaping democracy and materializing new social systems as it is about the historical-geographical process of forming a long-term sustainable relation to nature. Despite being perceived and treated as a free gift to capitalists or the private property of individuals, or, no less contradictory, as if it was unnecessary for our survival, nature has never been an externality, something separate from us. The commodification and destruction of nature has turned out to be a dead end for humanity, but it is still a profitable one. It is still legal to pollute the atmosphere and the oceans, to use biocides that are harmful to soil and water organisms, and to keep animals in captivity – all for the sake of profit. Past ignorance is a tragic historical fact, not a good excuse for continued destruction. On the contrary, if it is our relation to nature that ultimately defines what humanity is and can become, delimiting what kind of society we can create, we can do a lot better. If nature-inspired social change is what we need to survive, it is definitely time to reconnect with nature.