2013-2014 Theme: Re-envisioning the Commons

Humanity is called to imagine an ethic that not only acknowledges but emulates the ways by which life thrives on Earth. How do we act, when we truly understand that we live in complete dependence on an Earth that is interconnected, interdependent, finite, and resilient?

                                                     -- The Blue River Declaration, November 4 2011

There is perhaps no more urgent task facing us at this time than answering the question posed by The Blue Quorum above.[i] As we hurl towards mass extinction at the rate of hundreds of species a day, and degrade this Earth that is our only home, how do we put our imaginations and efforts into creating nested collectives of humans and other-than-humans where life is allowed and encouraged to flourish? The Blue River Quorum rightly frames the challenges that face us as rooted in knowledge and its relationship to conduct:  What values and meanings do we bring to our relations with the life that surrounds us?  If change is what we need, what imaginative horizons must we overcome to think outside the box and anew?

The 2013-14 COE Think Tank engages these questions under the rubric of “the Commons.”  Of course, the original “commons” was a place with physical reality; but in the years since biologist Garrett Hardin’s much-cited 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” the phrase “the Commons” has come to pack within itself a multiplicity of public and scholarly meanings. To some, like Hardin and those in conversation with him, the Commons speaks to the impossibility of liberal visions of freedom in the face of population growth that inevitably exhausts common resources.  To others, the concept captures the tension between modern economic rationality and alternative cultural systems for organizing communities and livelihoods. Still others see within it the tension between the local interests of human and nonhuman species and the challenges posed by global environmental problems like climate change, deforestation, and pollution.  For others still, the Commons highlights the urgency of collective political action on social and environmental problems. In each case, whether taken as a place with physical reality or taken as metaphor, the Commons serves as meeting ground – of living things and ideas.

Our think tank will engage with the “Commons” as meeting ground in both these senses to think about moral ecology.  First, taking it as metaphor, we want to enlarge the already robust interdisciplinary discourse between economists, political scientists, environmental scientists, ecologists and ethicists on the management of common property resources by bringing into the conversation the humanities and the performing arts.  Since ideas govern action, how might we understand and re-envision our ideas of nature and culture, resource and wealth, growth and scarcity, freedom and the commons to respond otherwise to the life around us?  Second, taking the “commons” as a physical reality, we propose to enlarge thinking about the Wesleyan and Middletown community that is our commons by conjoining our scholarly work with the efforts of student groups like The Long Lane Farm Collective, WesWild, and WesFresh, and other parties on our campus committed to local food sovereignty and social justice as well as to a light carbon footprint on this land that is our home.  With this bridge of theory and praxis, we aim to grow epistemological and methodological repertoires for re-envisioning our relations within and with the Commons.

[i] The Blue River Quorum was convened in October 2011 by the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word, with funding from the Shotpouch Foundation, the Oregon Council for the Humanities, and the U.S. Forest Service.  The Quorum comprised an interdisciplinary group of 24 peoples including moral philosophers, ecologists, environmental scientists, social scientists, writers, poets, and environmental activists to reflect on moral imaginations of our relationship with nature. 

2013-2014 Scholars' Research:

  • Frédérique Apffel-Marglin, Menakka and Essel Bailey '66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment
  • Paul Erickson, Assistant Professor of History and Science in Society
  • Gillian Goslinga, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Science in Society
  • Nicole Stanton, Associate Professor of Dance