Open Access

Contemplating the More-than-Human Commons

Collaborative Forest Management

This essay also appears in the issue “Dharma, Degrowth, and Climate Change” (Volume 5, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue

The Stern Review on The Economics of Climate Change claims that reducing emissions by more than 1 percent annually would generate a severe economic crisis, and yet, climate analysts tell us we need to reduce carbon emissions by 5.3 percent annually to limit global warming to 2°C.1 Moreover, there is no evidence that decoupling economic growth from environmental pressures is possible, and although politicians tout technical solutions to climate crisis, efficiency gains from technology usually increase the absolute amount of energy consumed.2 The stark reality is that capitalist accumulation cannot continue—the global economy must shrink.

Fortunately, there exist many experiments with non-capitalist modes of assessing and exchanging value, sharing goods and services, and making decisions that can help us transition to a more sustainable political economy based on principles of degrowth. One of the best ways to generate non-capitalist subjects, objects, and spaces comes from systems designed to manage common pool resources like the atmosphere, ocean, and forests. Commons-based systems depend upon self-governance and reciprocity. People rely on and take responsibility for each other, finding mutually beneficial ways to fulfill their needs. This also allows communities to define the guidelines and incentives for guiding their own economic behavior, affording people more autonomy and greater opportunity for protecting and cultivating shared values. Commons-based systems cut across the private/public, market/state dichotomy and present alternative economic arrangements defined by communities.

According to David Bollier, “As the grand, centralized market/state systems of the 20th century begin to implode through their own dysfunctionality, the commons will more swiftly step into the breach by offering more local, convivial and trusted systems of survival.”3 Already, there is evidence of this happening. The commons is spreading rapidly among communities hit hardest by recent financial crises and the failures of austerity policies. In response to the failures of the state and market, many crises-stricken areas, especially in Europe and South America, have developed solidarity economies to self-manage resources, thus insulating themselves from systemic shocks in the future. It seems likely that a community’s capacity to share will be crucial to its survival on a wetter, hotter, and meaner planet.

From the perspective of researchers, there are several different ways to define the commons. In most cases, the commons are understood to be material objects. For example, the atmosphere and ocean are global commons, because they are resources we must all learn to regulate and share collectively. This notion of the commons as material resource goes hand-in-hand with another notion that the commons can be both material and immaterial, a product of either nature or culture. Using this second definition enhances our appreciation for what is often undervalued by traditional economic measures such as care work, shared knowledge production, and cultural preservation. Together, both these perspectives are helpful in devising political and economic strategies for managing the commons, which remains the dominant interest of most commons researchers and policymakers.

Nevertheless, whether material or immaterial, the commons are viewed as a given concept or thing, ignoring that more fundamentally they are generated by social practices. In other words, there are no commons without commoners to enact them. From an enactive perspective, commons are not objects, but actions generated by many different actors in relationship. Whereas the prior notions assume that individuals need to be regulated and punished to prevent overconsumption (an assumption known as the tragedy of the commons), an enactive perspective on commons conceives the individual in relation to everyone (and everything) involved in co-managing the more-than-human commons. It therefore diverges from the prior two notions in assuming a relational epistemology rather than being premised on a liberal epistemology based on the individual. From a Buddhist perspective, one could say that the commons emerges co-dependently with a field of objects, forces, and passions entangling the human and nonhuman, living and non-living, organic and machinic.

The more-than-human commons thus does not dualistically separate the material and immaterial commons, the commons (as object) from the commoners (as subjects), nor does it separate humans from nonhumans. Instead, the commons are always understood as a more-than-human achievement, neither wholly produced by nature or culture. Commoning becomes, as Bayo Akomolafe points out, a material-discursive doing shaped by practices and values that engage humans with their environments.4 In Patterns of Commoning, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich argue that all commons exceed conceptual distinctions, because they are not things; rather, they are another way of being, thinking about, and shaping the world.5 Commoning is about sharing the responsibility for stewardship with the intent to construct a fair, free, and sustainable world—a goal that is all the more important given the unequal distribution of risks posed by intensifying climate change.

Examples of commoning vary widely according to local needs and customs. In the Vrancea Mountains of Romania, for instance, commoners have been managing the forests since the sixteenth century. Today, 65,000 hectares of forest are managed by village assemblies providing villagers equal access and rights to the forest. Harvested wood is either used for local consumption or sold, with all profits reinvested in local infrastructure, thereby preventing the state, market, and local officials from exploiting people and the land through unsustainable logging practices. For the villagers, “managing the forest is not all about calculations, performance, material value and revenues. It is also about affective relationships and symbolic meaning as reflected in collective memory, tradition and identity.”6

The inner dynamics of commoning preclude simple definitions of the commons, because as a practice, commoning shapes who we become. Particular commons can only be understood in their actual, embedded social and ecological circumstances, and in the subjective and emotional experience of those involved in commoning. In another forest commons in Rajasthan, India, villagers collectively tend the forest by mindfully cutting enough wood to sustain their multiple needs while ensuring the restoration of forest wealth.7 Both nature and culture are generative of the commons, and commoning describes the practice of responsibly relating to agential forces, human and non-human alike. In Bolivia, for instance, the Cochabamba water committees “share the same basic commitment to water as a living being, as something divine, as the basis for mutuality and complementarity.”8 Similarly, the Quechua communities in Peru design political and socioeconomic systems, called ayllu, to link individuals with the land, each other, and the spirit world. Their spiritual traditions and cultural values (embodied within a unique cosmovision) are integral to their cultivation techniques, barter and exchange practices, and stewardship of the agroecological region.9

Commoning not only creates sustainable systems—it also has the potential to birth entire new lifeways and worldviews premised on relationality and reciprocity. It generates worlds where we commune with each other and with the environment, as if every object is also a subject—a being worthy of our respect. To avoid civilizational collapse, Bhikkhu Bodhi says, we need to accept a relational worldview that affirms subjectivity across all life forms and indeed the cosmos itself, so that we view everything as a subject with its own experience and intrinsic value.10 To move beyond the notion of the commons as an object, either of nature (material) or culture (immaterial), one must critically examine present-day definitions of nature and culture—what we may alternatively call nature-cultures—and reassess the human-nature relationship in light of its history and our contemporary predicament.

(Un)Sustainable Nature-Cultures

Today’s socio-ecological crises have arisen from particular beliefs, lifestyles, institutions, and power structures that encourage unsustainable dynamics between humans and nature. Recent debates concerning the origins and significance of the Anthropocene have heightened global interest in better understanding this relationship. One of the main challenges to our understanding is of an epistemological nature. The very concept of Nature in the modern period was constituted by the separation of humans from nonhumans. This separation jointly promulgated speciesm and racism, since the ways in which we classify various animals and humans directs our ways of caring for them. Whether species are considered alien, invasive, or pests and whether people are likewise considered subhuman, foreign, or Other depends on categories that order life to establish places of belonging. Those who are excluded, whether the colonized species or peoples of this planet, are similarly objectified and treated instrumentally, as either natural or human resources. Capitalism’s appropriation and exploitation of nature extends this logic on a global scale via the biopolitical control of human and nonhuman populations.

In contrast to the separation and management of nature by humans, an alternative relational understanding of nature-cultures has emerged from discourses on the Anthropocene. Enlightenment views of Man and Nature are clearly breaking down and new lenses have appeared that view the Earth as a product of civilizational history, as much as natural history, and that view humanity as inhabited by other species and technologies. Posthumanists like Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti as well as new materialists  and process thinkers like Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, and Bruno Latour have become particularly interested in understanding the co-production of nature-cultures. For instance, Timothy Morton uses “mesh” as an apt metaphor for the entanglement of human and nonhuman objects, whether at the micro-level of gut bacteria or the macro-level of climate change.11 The defining environmental objects of our time, he argues, are hyper-objects which are distributed, non-local assemblages of human and nonhuman objects.12 Global warming is the quintessential hyper-object. It both surrounds us and is reflected in us. We can neither locate it, nor escape it; but we can know it intimately through the air we breathe and the products we purchase. It brings us face to face with the more-than-human commons.

One may even argue that humans have always been more-than-human—inhabited by other species both in our phylogenetic structure and experience. On the one hand, evolutionary theory has illustrated that every species’ genome is a mosaic of genes from other unrelated species, transferred horizontally from one organism to another, rather than just vertically from parent to child.13 On the other hand, human-animal studies have explored ways in which humans are materially and discursively dependent on non-humans.14 Because climate change contests and reconfigures long-standing distinctions between the human, social, and natural sciences, the anthropocentric worldviews that have afforded humanity an exceptional identity and status must now give way to more embodied and situated knowledge-practices that view humanity in ecological terms. Expanding the notion of stewardship beyond anthropocentric lenses thus expands the discipline of political economy beyond the human sciences to the life sciences.

The Anthropocene does not just inaugurate a time when humanity’s impact on nature is experienced viscerally and globally. It also inaugurates a time when shaping the environment is understood to fundamentally shape what it means to be human. Human bodies are now understood to have no discernible limits with their environment. Consciousness and ecology cannot be separated, but are continuous and extended.15 Geological reality has become human reality.16 Subjectivity and agency are now understood to be distributed across vast human-nonhuman assemblages, and humanity is situated within networked sets of social, biological, and technical relations.

Of course, we have always coevolved with socio-technical advances, whether through the advent of writing, guns, or computers. Now, however, the scale and pace of change is increasing and we are witnessing important qualitative changes. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, says we stand at the precipice of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which new technologies fuse the physical, biological, and digital worlds.17 Our consciousness is now unloaded on smart devices and our lives are increasingly mediated by sophisticated brain-machine interfaces, smart algorithms, and biochemical devices.

These ongoing shifts in our cultural and scientific understanding of the human-nature relationship illustrate our together-ness with environments, objects, and nonhumans. But of course, there are many antecedent intellectual traditions that have explored such territory outside Western discourses. Many aboriginal peoples and premodern cultures practice embodied forms of knowing. These forms of knowing are often situated within relational worldviews that conceive humans as part of nature, and nature as not ontologically divided from humans, but as already co-constituted by humans and nonhumans. Buddhism is one such tradition that challenges the epistemological and ontological basis of Enlightenment thinking and the various bifurcations of nature/culture, subject/object, and mind/matter. Shinto Buddhism’s view of sentience, for example, is extended to both animate and inanimate matter; while Zen Master Dōgen famously claimed that mind is not other than mountains, rivers, the earth, sun, moon, or stars.18

Despite these alternative lineages of understanding, the legacy of a human-nature dichotomy persists. The wild and scenic images of Nature inherited from the Romantics remain influential among conservationists and consumerists alike. Popular campaigns to promote environmentalism or outdoor recreation likewise share the idea of Nature as a wild place unimpacted by human activity. The human-nature dichotomy was artificial to begin with, but of course, it created certain affordances. It allowed Enlightenment thinkers a means of domination, it allowed Romantics a means of escape, and today, it allows capitalists and consumers a commodity to exploit or derive pleasure from. But just as humans have always been more-than-human (posthuman), nature has always been more-than-nature (postnatural). Humans and nature have always been co-constituted, and this is only more evident today, given the reach of our technologies and the ways in which globalization entangles everything.

It is not surprising then that relational worldviews and ontologies like those found in Buddhism are increasingly relevant for our understanding of humanity’s role in the Anthropocene. The complexity of life in the Anthropocene not only questions the relationship between humans and nature; it also demands the development of an ethics that respects the dignity and agency of nonhuman actors, both living and nonliving. Extending commoning beyond peer-to-peer economics, so that we extend care to every being, becomes possible if it is enacted by commoners who follow an ethics of what I call intra-subjectivity. An ethics of intra-subjectivity demands understanding that nature is not an element separated from us, but co-produced in our daily interactions.19 Environmental ethics that uphold irreducible wholeness and seek reintegration between humans and nature are giving way to an ethics of coming undone. Climate change can more often be immediately experienced by understanding how one’s daily life is always already implicated in the co-production of (un)sustainable nature-cultures. Next, I will explore how Buddhism and contemplative practice afford resources for developing an ethics of intra-subjectivity in the more-than-human commons.

Ethics of Intra-Subjectivity

An ethics of intra-subjectivity distinguishes itself from the notion of inter-dependence, in so far as it highlights how relationships are not only externally dependent, but internally dependent and always present to one’s inner awareness. Intra-subjectivity thus explains how all beings are related vis-à-vis our experience of one another. Thus, the deeper we connect with our own suffering, the more we realize our suffering’s constituent relation to the suffering of others and the more we act to serve others as extensions of ourselves.

An ethics of intra-subjectivity allows us to more intimately understand how we co-produce nature-cultures and how they may more positively address systemic socio-ecological crises. Developing an ethics of care that extends to the many differently abled, human and nonhuman, beings in the Anthropocene entails queering our notions of subjectivity and agency. This will help to answer complex questions about what it means to be human, whose lives matter, how we gift and protect human dignity, and how we envision the collective conditions of transformation toward a more convivial and hospitable world.

Commoning is a mode of relating to each other, both materially and interpersonally, through an enhanced understanding of our non-separateness, our co-dependence, and together-ness. Well-established commons that integrate cooperatives and grassroots organizations, such as Cecosesola in Venezuela or Cooperativa Integral Catalana in Spain, provide for the needs of everyone in their diverse communities by practicing transparency, equality, and respect. Building trust and exercising responsibility are the essential ingredients that allow for successful self-management and self-organization.20 As described by ubuntu,21 I am because you are. Applied to the Buddhist figure of the bodhisattva, one might understand that one’s liberation is co-produced by another’s liberation, as an entanglement of our worldly and spiritual fates. Expanding inclusivity becomes about enhancing everyone’s freedom—not just the marginalized. And since consciousness is supported and maintained by material infrastructures and desires, material transformation and transformation of consciousness go hand-in-hand.

Though little recognized, commoning also has this dual valence as a pattern of both material and social-spiritual exchange—an exchange between individuals and communities who self-organize and take responsibility for one another. Unlike policy makers who often manage common-pool resources by policing and regulating rational self-interest, commoners themselves manage the commons out of a sense of emotional attachment to the land and community. In the fisheries off the west coast of Scotland, for example, fishermen follow “’gentlemen’s agreements’ that emerge out of community commitments and obligations.”22 Likewise, the open-source and digital commons movements provide evidence of how voluntary exchanges enhance public access to education and resources. The global community of volunteers who share data and information on OpenStreetMap, for example, provides a wide variety of responders with the resources and information on health facilities, government buildings, and public utilities that prove essential to provide disaster relief for those in need.23 In both cases, commoners are not acting out of rational self-interest, but rather are taking care of one another’s needs according to a felt sense of commitment to others, human and nonhuman.

Deep resonances already exist between Buddhist and contemplative mindsets and the more-than-human commons. For example, one of Buddhism’s core commitments is to ensure the safety of all beings. Many preconditions of social and ecological crises are created by collective cultures of irresponsibility and unaccountability. Committed Buddhists may thus view diverse forms of commoning as appropriate responses to climate change, whether by practicing commoning through agroecology, arts and culture, digital technology, exchange and credit systems, knowledge production, or in codesigning neighborhood and urban environments. When the state and market do not offer security and refuge, we can provide it for one another; individual irresponsibility can be overcome by taking greater collective responsibility. According to this view, self-care becomes intrinsically tied to other-care, and exchanging one’s self-interest for the interest of others is re-envisioned as caring for oneself in service to the community.24 As the bodhisattva would say, liberation will come for all of us, or none of us.

In the case of climate change, awakened bodhisattvas embody the literal meaning of com-passion as suffering-with. They feel the anxiety of the aggrieved and the aggressed—not only the ones who will suffer tomorrow, but the ones who already suffer today. The capacity to disregard climate change is predicated on the abject neglect of those who already suffer its effects—the climate refugees, the impoverished, and the famished. Opening oneself to  vulnerability and suffering is thus a political act of solidarity, because exposing oneself to injustice allows one to relinquish positions of privilege, which in turn liberates the oppressed and provides the conditions for their wellbeing.

Awakening not only means suffering this collective suffering, but being compelled to compassionate action. Com-passion in this sense is not understood exclusively as a subjective disposition—as empathic resonance. It is, as Bhikkhu Bodhi calls it, conscientious compassion, because it “gives birth to a fierce determination to uplift others, to tackle the causes of their suffering, and to establish the social, economic, and political conditions that will enable everyone to flourish and live in harmony.”25 Studies on virtual reality show that people who feel what life is like from the perspective of plants and animals are more motivated to behave in environmentally friendly ways.26 Compassion isn’t compassion unless it is embodied, enacted, and extended to others.

Taking responsibility for our active involvement in the Anthropocene also requires that we contemplate our relationship to everyday objects as if they were all-in-us. As Karen Litfin illustrates, meditatively walking around shopping malls can catalyze greater awareness than meditating on the cushion.27 Not only does my consumption afford me privilege, but my privilege to consume without regard to its social and ecological consequences jeopardizes the survival and wellbeing of marginalized populations, human and nonhuman alike. The practice of contemplating the more-than-human commons is a refusal to disregard these costs.

Tracing commodity chains can be understood as a way to more deeply understand the karma of one’s consumption. Whereas global capitalism thrives off abstraction, separating producers and consumers by great distances and timescales; contemplating the more-than-human commons makes the abstract concrete. By contemplating one’s use of everyday items like computers and iPhones, one sees the histories of colonialism, racism, and environmental harm implicated in their use and production. Likewise, in contemplating climate change, contemplative practices can make the abstract statistical analysis of typical climate communications into concrete experiences. This can help sensitize us to the civilizational upheaval afoot, so that we can move beyond denial toward realistic, morally informed action.

Thich Nhat Hanh has famously said that “now we need a collective enlightenment to stop the course of destruction.”28 The future Buddha, Maitreya, he said, could be a community, not an individual.29 Similarly, Buddhist and contemplative practices of the future could be understood and practiced as commons. Buddhism’s historic emphasis on personal liberation—in itself a revolution during the Axial Age—would then shift to focus on communal liberation. Likewise, secular mindfulness communities that now emphasize individual happiness and wellbeing could redefine contemplative practices to reflect the full range of human experience, taking into account the undervalued potential of negative emotions and injustice as objects of meditation.

This is an important shift to be making, since contemplating today’s injustices can allow us to recognize false promises. It would help us recognize, for instance, that green tech fixes that encourage greater consumption, that refuse to acknowledge embodied energy costs, and that distract from systemic (structural, behavioral, and cultural) changes hold out the promise of a future predicated on the impoverishment of the present. If we embody an ecological self, Ruben L.F. Habito says, then “we can experience the fact that the mountains are being denuded, the rivers are heavily polluted, [and] the great wide earth is wracked with pain.”30 Contemplating so-called “dark” realities can help connect us to the more-than-human commons.

When we’re faced with “darkness,” if our impulse is to run away or eliminate it from sight rather than probing deeper and understanding it, then the culture of positivity and hope we’ve built becomes an ideology that squashes critical inquiry and compassionate responses to whatever it opts to disregard. Confronting injustice through contemplative practice allows us to better understand and empathize with the world, beyond our privilege, and gives us the energy to fight injustice, rather than turn a blind eye to it.

Since denial is so widespread, and is promoted by our culture of knee-jerk positivity and hope, people need to be provoked by the strange, dark, and undesirable. After all, the first noble truth is that people have to sit with suffering. Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology extends this truth toward our understanding of intra-subjectivity. He says, “The struggle to have solidarity with lifeforms is the struggle to include specters and spectrality… Dark ecology is… about how do you actually coexist nonviolently with as many beings as possible?”31 That is as good an aim as any when contemplating the more-than-human commons. As a society, we are by and large not facing up to the suffering of climate change, and until we do, we’ll continue to place hope outside ourselves (in governance and technology) or fall prey to denial and despair. To actively heal and transform the suffering of climate change, we have to contemplate our place in the more-than-human commons and take responsibility for our collective wellbeing through practices of commoning.

Zack Walsh is a PhD candidate in the Process Studies graduate program at Claremont School of Theology. His research is transdisciplinary, exploring process-relational, contemplative, and engaged Buddhist approaches to political economy, sustainability, and China. His most recent writings provide critical and constructive reflection on mindfulness trends, while developing contemplative pedagogies and practices for addressing social and ecological issues. He is a research specialist at Toward Ecological Civilization, the Institute for the Postmodern Development of China, and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. He has also received lay precepts from Fo Guang Shan, an engaged Buddhist organization based in Taiwan, and attended numerous meditation and monastic retreats in Thailand, China, and Taiwan. For further information and publications, please connect:,, and

Illustration by Alicia Brown

To cite this essay: Zack Walsh, “Contemplating the More-than-Human Commons,” The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics 5, no. 1 (2018): 5-18.

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