Rethinking ownership is key to solving the climate crisis

Mathew Lawrence writes that we need to overhaul the private, profit-driven ownership models wrecking the climate and the economy

May 1, 2019 · 7 min read

This afternoon, Parliament will debate whether to declare a climate emergency.  Yet whether Westminster declares it or not, the crisis is upon us. We have little more than a decade to rapidly and radically transform the institutions, infrastructure, and ways of life of the carbon age or face catastrophic climate breakdown, where those with the least responsibility will bear the highest price. This is a daunting political project, one of deep creation, of radical, hopeful natality, that must be negotiated together with great care. Yet we cannot avoid radical change. Given the scale of disruption hurtling toward us, it is inevitable; the key question is in which direction, at what pace, cost, and to whose benefit.

Transformation on  the speed and scale required will require new forms of stewardship of nature, labour, and capital. In place of extractive, concentrated, and footloose forms of property, a net zero society that sustains a good quality of life for all must be anchored in ownership models that are sustainable, democratic and purposeful by design. The alternative will drive accelerating climate breakdown and continue to generate stark inequalities.

The dominance of global production by giant corporations, whose ownership is intermediated by a financial system that too often acts as an extractive rentier instead of an effective steward, will reinforce sharp divides in power, status and reward. Economic and ecological extractivism as the watchword of unsustainable ‘value creation’, over purposeful, innovative, sustainable forms of enterprise, will drive us deeper into environmental deficit. And a relentless cannibalisation of nature and human labour to drive GDP growth will exhaust the very natural and social systems upon which we all depend. Without reform, in other words, the status quo guarantees mounting crisis.

Instead, we must democratise ownership at scale. Democratic ownership means a radical expansion of ownership rights to ensure we all share in the wealth we create in common, the pluralisation of ownership models in place of today’s excessive monoculturalism, and a rewiring of enterprise and institutions so we all have a stake and a say in decision-making that shapes our workplaces, communities, and society. The ambition for a democratic economy is simple but systemic: the steady, irreversible replacement of today’s unequal and extractive economy with institutions that share the wealth we create in common, where deep freedom, solidarity, and capability are a universal inheritance, and which respects environmental limits and social rights.

Common Wealth is a new organisation that been formed to design models of ownership for a democratic and sustainable economy: to design institutions for alternative futures. Our focus is on six systemically vital areas where a new, pluralistic and inventive arrangement of property and control rights can undergird a future of shared plenty. Securing public affluence through a reimagined, de-commodified social commons, from care and housing to transport and broadband. Reimagining collective rights to data and ownership of digital technologies and infrastructures for a digital commons in place of private enclosure by the tech giants. Transforming business ownership and control to give us all a stake and a say in our common wealth.  Ensuring finance is a good servant to society, not bad master, from the extractivist practices of today to purposeful and committed investment tomorrow. Reclaiming nature’s gift, land, through new models of ownership that allow all of us to share in the wealth beneath us, from urban to rural spaces, from housing and planning to agriculture. Overarching everything is our commitment to reimagining the stewardship of the natural commons.

Justice in ecological reproduction will mean expanding and protecting the natural commons through new forms of common ownership and management, from rewilding to new ways of managing land, agriculture, biodiversity, and ecosystems. From water tables to topsoil, stewarding natural systems in new ways will be crucial to ensuring a sustainable future, challenging the logic that all of nature is an infinite asset waiting to be turned into profit. Just ecological reproduction will be reparative in practice, focusing on restoring degraded ecosystems, both urban and rural, and on repairing the deep social and environmental damages done – past, present, and future – to marginalised communities everywhere who have borne the brunt of extractivism and ecological destruction. This must be led by and for those too long excluded from economic power.

Community ownership, meanwhile, can play a critical role in rapidly scaling a decentralised, renewable energy network, from generation to distribution to consumption. Moreover, it will give communities a stake in the development and benefits of zero-carbon technologies. At the same time, new forms of public ownership are likely to be necessary if we want to transform the operation of major extractive companies and deflate the systemically dangerous carbon bubble on a safe timescale. This may seem radical. Yet we simply do not have time for the alternatives, or for the consequences of timidity. We must end the creeping pace of incrementalism whose mantra is ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’. Transformative ambition is needed today.

Taken together, an ambitious agenda of ecological reproduction will therefore need new forms of public and community ownership and the democratic management of the natural commons, at multiple scales, from the local and national to regional and global. Critically, it will require the mobilisation of social power behind these demands. After all, the political crisis of climate change consists precisely in knowing many of technical solutions needed to decarbonise rapidly, yet not being able to overcome public inertia and entrenched, powerful actors opposed to change. Strategies for alternative forms of ownership are therefore doubly useful as they can help mobilise communities behind transformation by putting economic power and control in their hands, and against embedded elites, while remaking our encounter with nature in the process.

Of course, alternative models of ownership are not the only things required to drive the changes we need at the speed required. More ambition and balance between fiscal and monetary policy, a modern industrial strategy that centres the everyday economy and social and ecological reproduction as much as frontier technologies and firms, a radically democratic state that gives proper powers to towns and cities, a more progressive tax system, the re-regulation of work in all its forms to ensure dignity and security, a universal and ambitious 21st century welfare state that expands our capacity to live well and free outside the marketplace, new forms of internationalism that challenge the hierarchies and failures of real existing multilateralism. All these are needed and more.

Yet history teaches us that new models of ownership are vital to driving deep changes in our society, whether it was nationalisation that underpinned the post-war consensus, or privatisation that helped usher in neoliberalism. As we confront our greatest collective challenge in the shape of climate crisis, we will need a restless experimentalism in ownership models, a commitment to exploring the plasticity of institutional arrangements in ways that develop democratic power and sustainable relationships in all domains of life. We do not have a choice. This is an emergency after all.


Mathew Lawrence is Director of Common Wealth, a new think tank that designs ownership models for a democratic and sustainable economy.

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