Commons as a Different Engine of Innovation
* Speech: The Commons as a Different Engine of Innovation. Remarks by David Bollier
Source: The Illahee Lecture Series, 2011/. Searching for Solutions: Innovation for Public Good. Portland, Oregon. May 11, 2011
This evening, I’d like to get innovative about how we think about innovation itself. The corporate cliché is to “think outside the box.” That is such an inside-the-box way of thinking! I say let’s get rid of the box! Tonight I want to talk about a new vector of innovation: how we’re going to manage our dwindling, finite natural resources and arrest the pathological growth imperatives of our economy while recovering a more sane, socially constructive way of life for human beings. Now there’s a radical innovation challenge!
The subtext of most innovation-talk these days is efficiency and profitability. Innovation is essentially the bigger-better-faster ethic – the next super-computer or bio-engineered cow or Segue scooter. But the grim reality is that there are a whole class of societal problems that are not likely to become market opportunities, ever.
Worse, conventional markets, in the course of creating new wealth, are generating all sorts of illth, to use John Ruskin’s term. Illth consists of the costly, unintended byproducts that must be put on the ledger sheet in any calculation of our supposed wealth. Our market economy is generating whole new classes of illth such as global warming, biodiversity loss and species extinctions.
What this says to me is that we need to reconceptualize and expand the very meaning of innovation. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote. This helps explain our modern fetish about innovation. It’s magic! It’s a kind of secular religion, a magic carpet that we hope will transport us to an imagined consumer utopia beyond politics, poverty and strife.
So rather than deal with our grotesque levels of consumption and waste, it’s easier to place our bets on innovative “green technologies.” It’s easier to embrace “green capitalism” as a solution to our worsening bio-crisis because it won’t upset our addiction to growth and it doesn’t require that we change how we relate to nature. As always, economic growth is seen as the solution and prerequisite for tackling most any other problem.
But here’s the rub: As pressures to grow the economy intensify, it is accelerating the production of illth – and it is accelerating the commodification and propertization of resources that we own in common. It is worsening the ecological crisis, intensifying poverty and inequality and generating more material stuff that isn’t improving our happiness or social well-being.
The compulsion to capture and monetize our shared resources is often known as “enclosure.” It’s all about claiming private property rights in things that belong to all of us so that a company or industry can consolidate its market power and turn a buck. For example:
Multinational bottling companies are snapping up groundwater supplies around the world, turning what was once a gift of nature into proprietary, branded product. They are marking up the price of water more than hundred times the cost of tap water, disrupting local ecosystems and diminishing support for public water infrastructure.
Biotech companies and universities now own patents for one-fifth of the human genome. The biotech company Myriad Genetics of Salt Lake City claims a patent on a “breast cancer susceptibility gene” that guarantees it monopoly control over certain types of research. This means that the patent is actually blocking innovation.
An international land grab is now underway in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where foreign investors, including governments, are buying up farmland to grow food for their own populations, or simply as speculative investments. In either case the investors are displacing people who have relied upon ancestral lands for subsistence and cultural identity. These land grabs echo the English enclosure movement, which forced millions of commoners to migrate to large industrial cities where they became paupers, beggars and wage-slaves in the Satanic mills.
The cultural commons is under siege, too, as film studios, record labels and publishers expand the scope of copyright and trademark laws in an attempt to claim ownership rights in every marketable piece of shared culture. The music industry’s licensing body ASCAP once claimed that summer camps needed to pay “performance licenses” to sing copyrighted songs around the campfire. McDonald’s claims to own “Mc” as a prefix for restaurants, so you can’t name your place “McVegan” or “McSushi.”
By the metrics of our current economic system, all of these enclosures are “good” because they are “creating wealth” and adding to the Gross Domestic Product. But do they really enhance our social well-being, are they fair, and do they respect the environment? Dubious.
If we want to solve some of the world’s “wicked problems” – which is the challenge that this lecture series poses – we are going to have to think beyond the perimeter of permissible answers provided by neoliberal economics and public policy. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the so-called free market and its repertoire of technologies, its systems of law and governance, its centralized hierarchies and the social order it requires, will not take us where we need to go.
By “neoliberal market order,” I’m talking about the faith that the best way to solve most societal problems is to expand individual property rights and let the free market do its thing. Ever since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher took power thirty years ago, in 1981, the “advanced” market societies of the world have pushed this ideology, insisting that the Invisible Hand will solve everything and yield the best of all possible worlds.
The high point of this thinking was probably 1991 when neoconservative historian Francis Fukayama famously declared “the end of history” with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ideological triumph of liberal democracy and free markets. Well, that had a good run of about twenty years. Then we had the near-collapse of Wall Street and the global economy; the betrayal of American freedoms and ideals as our nation went to war; the failure of international trade and “development” to alleviate poverty and inequality around the world after sixty years of trying; and now, the slow-motion collapse of the planet’s fisheries and coral reefs, the spread of mountain-top removal mining and deep-water oil drilling; and the arrival of Peak Oil and global warming.
While each of these issues is obviously complicated, they are all symptoms of a profound crisis of governance. The problem is not just government, mind you, whose shortcomings and corruption are all too familiar. It’s a crisis in our worldview and in the very systems of law, economics and social practice that we use to manage resources. It’s a failure to acknowledge that these are systemic issues and a failure to imagine some practical alternatives.
Which brings me to the focus of my talk, the commons as a source of innovation. I have been a student of the commons for more than a decade. For me, the most imperative, innovative thing that we can do is to step outside of the market paradigm and its norms and begin to cultivate some different ways of knowing and seeing, and begin to develop some different ways of relating to each other and to the Earth.
Government and markets will always have very important roles to play, of course. But if we are going to meet human needs in more equitable ways, rebuild our communities and enhance human dignity while respecting the finite gifts of nature, we must begin to pioneer some different modes of governance, resource management and social emancipation. I want to commend the commons as a third major sector of governance that can begin to confront the inherent limitations of what I call the market-state duopoly.
Now, for most people, any mention of the word “commons” immediately brings to mind the word “tragedy.” End of discussion. If you listen to most economists, the commons is always said to result in a tragedy. The classic example is – If you have a shared pasture upon which many herders can graze their cattle, no single herder will have a rational incentive to hold back – and so he will put as many cattle on the commons as possible, take as much as he can for himself. The pasture will inevitably be over-exploited and ruined: a “tragedy.”
This dogma has held sway in the popular mind and among economists since 1968, when biologist Garrett Hardin wrote his famous essay on the “tragedy of the commons.” It was a convenient parable because it implied that only a regime of private property rights and markets could solve the tragedy of the commons. If people had private ownership rights, they would be motivated to protect their grazing lands.
But Hardin was not describing a commons. He was describing a scenario in which there were no boundaries to the grazing land, no rules for managing it, and no community of users. But that’s not a commons. That’s an open-access regime, a free-for-all. A commons has boundaries, rules, punishment of free-riders, and social norms. A commons requires that there be a community willing to act as a steward of a resource.
Hardin’s misrepresentation of actual commons stuck in the public mind, however, and became an article of faith, thanks to economists and conservative pundits. And so the commons for the past two generations has been widely regarded as a failed paradigm.
Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University was the most prominent academic to rescue the commons by rebutting Hardin. It took years of painstaking field research and innovative theorizing, but in her pathbreaking 1990 book, Governing the Commons, Ostrom identified some basic design principles of successful commons. Over the past several decades, she and many colleagues have shown in hundreds of studies that people can and do successfully manage their land and water and forests and fisheries as commons. Some have done so for hundreds of years, such as the Swiss villagers who manage high mountain meadows and the huerta irrigation institutions in Spain.
Ostrom’s great achievement has been to buck the established wisdom of mainstream economics while spawning a fertile new field of study that combines political science, sociology and economic and other social sciences. She won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for this work.
I should perhaps interject here that a commons is not simply a thing or resource. It’s a resource plus a social community and the social values, rules and norms that they used to manage the resource. So the commons is an integrated socio-economic paradigm. But it is more than an obscure idea studied by policy wonks. I consider the commons a mystery of human inter-subjectivity, social life and politics. How and in what circumstances can human beings succeed in cooperatively managing resources?
Over the past two decades, the commons has moved way beyond the dry abstractions of the social sciences. It has become a robust, highly diversified transnational movement. I’d like to give you a sense of its breadth – and then circle back to explain why the commons is such a powerful vehicle for innovation – and how it differs from market-based innovation.
Let’s start first with the diverse commons of nature. There are an estimated two billion people whose daily survival depends upon access to fisheries, forests, irrigation water, rivers and lakes, wild game and farm land that are managed as commons. Yet amazingly, the popular introductory economics textbooks by Samuelson & Nordhaus and by Stiglitz & Walsh entirely ignore the commons!
Of course, this should not be entirely surprising. For the past sixty years, the so-called “developed” nations of the world have sought to integrate the peasants and indigenous peoples of the world into global markets. The basic idea is to convert them into employees and consumers. This is supposedly how they will “develop” and escape hunger and poverty, and come to know the glories of entrepreneurialism and consumerism.
The whole enterprise of “development” has been a mixed success at best, and a disaster in so many other cases. It has left poor people at the mercy of volatile global markets and speculators without really solving hunger, poverty or inequality. Worse, the former commoners have been cut off from their traditional sources of culture and mutual support, and stigmatized as losers in the marketplace. That is why, for example, some 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the past decade – a story that gets very little coverage because it conflicts with the business narrative of India as a fierce economic tiger.
So this is the real cost of enclosure: The connections that bind a community together – its control of resources, traditions and rules – are destroyed. When the U.S. Government tried to vanquish Native Americans in the 1800s, the first thing that it insisted upon, as a legal precondition for U.S. citizenship, was that Native Americans abandon their common ownership regimes, and assign individual property rights to everyone. I can think of no better way of destroying a people.
So rather than focusing primarily on capital-driven types of innovation, which require us to become creatures of the market, I think we need to pay more attention to commons-based innovation. The results are more likely to be socially and ecologically benign, if not more effective over the long term. Let me give a few examples.
This is a photo of Rajendra Singh, the founder of Tarun Bharat Sangh (or TBS, which stands for Young India Association). Singh and TBS has healed the local ecosystem in Rajasthan – where several rivers had completely dried up – by applying some near-forgotten indigenous Indian knowledge about hydrology. His idea was to treat the groundwater and rivers as commons, subject to community stewardship and participation, and to re-instill a sense of sacred obligation to the water.
By building small dams with water reservoirs, TBS was able to bring the Arvari River and four other once-dry riverbeds back to life and to raise groundwater levels by 20 feet. The soil has become more fertile and wetter, too, which means that people who once abandoned the area are moving back to farm and start businesses.
I was in India in January, so I have another such story of how a self-organized commons overcame free-market pathologies. In the small village of Erakulapally some two hours west of Hyderabad, a community of rural, poor women from the lowest caste in the country – so-called dalit – used to be bonded laborers working on a landlord’s farm. They earned only enough to eat one meal a day. Then they came up with the idea of searching for and regenerating dozens of traditional seeds, seeds that their ancestors had grown for centuries and brilliantly adapted to the semi-arid ecosystem and climate of Andhra Pradesh.
By finding and then sharing the seeds among themselves rather than buying proprietary modern seeds, the women were able to resurrect their more sustainable, nutritious agricultural crops. They were able to grow the food themselves and emancipate themselves from a market economy that was never going to serve their interests because they would never earn enough money. I might add, these women achieved food security without relying upon outside experts or government subsidies. This model has spread, and there are now some 5,000 women in 75 villages who share seeds and farming advice with each other. (Remarkably, the women, who are not literate, use camcorders to make homemade videos of their farming methods and advice.)
What’s really interesting is how the Internet is now helping to take this model of “cooperative innovation” to new places. The System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, consists of hundreds of farmers in 40 different countries, from Cuba to Sri Lanka to India, who are using the Internet to improve the growing of rice. Rather than adopting the conventional farming practices promoted by seed and pesticide companies – and rather than use GMOs, chemicals, and monoculture planting – rice farmers have formed their own bottom-up global social network to trade farming insights and increase the yields of indigenous rice varieties. It’s a kind of “open source agriculture” based on some ancient principles of cooperation.
We’re also seeing the invention of some new institutional forms to protect traditional commons. Ten years ago, the Peruvians created the Potato Park as a “landscape conservation” commons. The indigenous tribes of the Andes have full stewardship rights over a tremendous diversity of native potato species and varieties. This is important because some multinational agro-biotech firms have shown an interest in acquiring patents on the potatoes that their ancestors developed over thousands of years – a model of collaborative innovation. The Potato Park is a regime that lets the natives continue to control some 900 varieties of native potatoes while recognizing them as a “collective biocultural heritage” deserving of protection from international patents and trade.
Let me quickly add that institutional innovation to protect the commons is not confined to impoverished countries. In Phoenix, Arizona, the so-called Solar Commons project is building solar energy panels on public rights-of-way. It then plans to sell the electricity to businesses and channel the revenues into a trust that will kick off dividends to support affordable housing. The Solar Commons is neither a municipal agency nor a private business. It’s a commons-based trust – a new vehicle for innovation and social equity.
Perhaps the most powerful force propelling the commons paradigm forward is the Internet, which amounts to a colossal hosting infrastructure for commons. As I describe in my book, Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own, the rise of the World Wide Web in 1994 unleashed an incredible wave of innovation, much of it driven by self-organized social commons.
One reason: the Internet allows low-cost social communication and organization on a global scale. This has enabled digital communities to undercut the enormous overhead costs associated with conventional markets. The commons out-compete by out-cooperating. I call this “The Great Value Shift,” a term that points to a deep structural change in how value is created for commerce and culture.
Markets require multiple layers of expensive overhead in the form of bureaucracy and lawyers, talent recruitment and talent promotion, branding and marketing, complicated financing, and much else. Now imagine how a social community of trust and cooperation working on a light-weight software infrastructure can just do lots of similar work for free or at very low cost.
Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler has written in his landmark book, The Wealth of Networks, “What we are seeing now is the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.” Benkler’s term for this phenomenon is “commons-based peer production.” By that, he means systems that are collaborative and nonproprietary, and based on “sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other.”
Open platforms on the Internet are forcing a shift not only in business strategy and organizational behavior, but in the very definition of wealth. On the Internet, wealth is not just financial wealth, nor is it necessarily privately held. Wealth generated through open platforms is often socially created value that is shared, evolving and non-monetized. It hovers in the air, so to speak, accessible to everyone. Think of the hundreds of millions of photos on Flickr or the millions of Wikipedia entries. Think of websites like WikiLeaks, which has no paid staff and no physical headquarters, and think of the humble origins of many popular blogs and Web archives.
Socially created value has always existed, of course, but it hasn’t always been culturally legible or consequential. Conventional economics literally doesn’t “see” it because it is not quantifiable or monetized. Socially created value doesn’t contribute directly to anyone’s bottom line. So markets have generally ignored it. The whole idea is confusing to traditional economists because socially created value is not encased in private property rights….so how could it be valuable? It can’t be traded in the marketplace. It has no price tag.
But the commons is showing that you don’t need markets or government to create something that has great value. The commons is, in fact, a very different value proposition, one that is dedicated to generating indivisible, socially embedded common wealth. The commons are not “tragic,” but highly generative – it’s just that the common wealth is not necessarily privatized and monetized.
This is a serious innovation – not innovation as a cool new technology or product, but rather, innovation as a worldview and socio-economic management paradigm. The commons is a new/old way of generating value. It accomplishes useful things outside of the marketplace and government. It’s a kind of do-it-yourself project and policy platform that can interconnect with other commons and begin to challenge “real world” institutions.
The bestiary of commons is now so large and varied that there is what amounts to a Commons Sector – a distinct realm of commons that revolve around knowledge, culture and creativity.
There is, for example, the vast network of free and open source software programmers who created GNU Linux and thousands of other shareable software programs which are vital elements of the Internet, enterprise computing and personal computing. We see the commons among the 91,000 volunteer-Wikipedians who have contributed more than 17 million entries in more than 270 different languages.
There are millions of digital artists and authors in more than seventy countries who use Creative Commons licenses to signal that their works can be freely shared, without permission or payment. You see the CC licenses on blogs, remix music, video mashups and many academic journals.
There are now more than 6,200 open access scholarly journals owned and controlled by academics themselves. Historically, academics have produced mountains of great research, then peer-reviewed it and handed it over to commercial journals who then claim the copyright in everything and charge ridiculous subscription prices. Now academics are discovering the virtue of publishing their works online under Creative Commons licenses, making them free to everyone in perpetuity.
Another fascinating offshoot is the Open Educational Resources movement, which creates and shares open textbooks and curricula and learning materials. So, for example, there is MIT’s Open CourseWare, which has put all of MIT’s curricular materials online for free. MIT’s innovation has profoundly influenced the teaching of physics and other scientific fields in China and in smaller, isolated countries. It has also spawned a OpenCourseWare Consortium that now has more than 120 member universities and educational institutions around the world.
A key reason that the commons is so innovative is that it is able to draw upon social behaviors that the mainstream economy rejects as trivial or irrelevant. In typical markets, you’re supposed to be a hard-bitten, competitive rationalist seeking to maximize your material self-interest. On the Internet commons, you’ll get skewered and ostracized for such behavior. Because in a commons, what is valued is friendship and cooperation. It’s all about social reciprocity and trust. People who are affirmatively helpful to the community will rise to the top – because that way, everyone is better off.
Here’s another reason why commons can be so innovative. They can tackle projects that markets consider to be too marginal or risky. Precisely because a commons is not organized to maximize private profit, its members are willing to experiment and innovate. New ideas can emerge from the periphery with barely any financial support. Value is not created through the power of money, but through individual self-selection for tasks, passionate engagement, serendipitous discovery, experimentation and peer-based recognition of achievement. Human curiosity and community needs can drive new innovation. Private capital no longer has a monopoly on the future of innovation.
One reason that digital commons can incubate a more diverse range of innovation than the market is because a market needs to sell product. A commons needs only meet people’s needs in a socially attractive, practical way. A company can innovate only by drawing upon its own employees and resources. But a digital commons can draw upon the talent of the entire world.
Consider, for example, the Blender Institute, an Amsterdam nonprofit that produces computer-generated animated films. This is a still from one of their films, Big Buck Bunny. The Blender Institute productions are as technically sophisticated and creative as anything put out by Pixar, but its projects draw upon a global corps of talent who have utter creative freedom. The films are released under open source licenses and can be downloaded for free, but the enterprise makes money by selling official DVDs, complete with outtakes and the open-source code.
Or consider the Open Prosthetics Project, which invites anyone to contribute to the design of a prosthetic limb or the specification of limbs that ought to be designed even if they don’t know how to do it. This has generated such unexpected innovations as limbs specifically designed for rock-climbers and an arm designed for fishing.
Or consider the Crisis Commons, a global network of “barcamp” and “hackathon” events that bring together volunteer techies who specialize in crisis-response innovatation. So, for example, after the Haiti earthquake in 2009, thousands of volunteers stepped up to deal with the humanitarian crisis there by building Web-based translation tools, people finders and maps showing routes to empty hospital beds.
One of the leading gurus on this bottom-up style of innovation is Professor Eric von Hippel of M.I.T., the author of a book called Democratizing Innovation. Von Hippel has spent much of his career documenting how consumers – and communities of users – are among the most powerful sources of innovation. It’s wasn’t some corporate R&D department that came up with the idea of center-pivot irrigation sprinklers used in the West, or Gatorade, the mountain bike, desktop publishing, email, and the sports bra. Those innovations were all dreamed up by ordinary, individual users.
Von Hippel estimates that 77 percent of the innovations in scientific instruments originates from users. Sports enthusiasts like windsurfers, cyclists and fly fishermen are the ones who tinker with their equipment and come up with new product ideas. Ice climbers came up with the idea of putting a leash on their ice-picks so that they could hang on them while climbing frozen waterfalls. The commoners, in short, are co-producers and co-innovators.
There is now a burgeoning movement to bring open source principles to the physical world. Community networks like Open Source Ecology and the Open Source Hardware and Design Alliance are working to develop replicable, shareable equipment for modern off-the-grid “resilient communities.” Open Source Ecology writes:
By our analysis, most of the technologies needed for a sustainable and pleasant standard of living could be reduced to the cost of scrap metal + labor. There is immense potential for social transformation once this technology is fully developed for building interconnected self-sufficient communities, since people will be freed from material constraints and able to seek self-actualization.
One of the more interesting prototypes is the LifeTrac, a low-cost, multipurpose open source tractor that is intended to be modular, inexpensive and easy to build and maintain — in other words, not complex, expensive and proprietary. I know of several projects attempting to build open-source automobiles.
While many initiatives are local, they are starting to inter-connect and cross-fertilize each other via the Internet. This is how many local, physically based commons may go viral. There are a whole range of what I call “eco-digital commons,” in which Internet technologies are being used to help monitor and manage the environment.
For example, “participatory sensing” projects. These are Internet communities that invite citizens to use cell phone cameras, motion sensors, GPS and other electronic systems to gather and aggregate large amounts of environmental data. People make their own local counts of birds and butterflies, for example, or monitor water quality or document the spread of invasive species. Local data can be aggregated to create entirely new types of environmental knowledge and interventions. There are groups like the Global Villages Network and Appropedia that act as clearinghouses of local innovation and help spread it globally.
In a time when global markets are steam-rolling over our communities, the commons offers a way to reassert a sense of place and re-embed markets in social community. And so we have a blizzard of innovations such as the Slow Food movement and Community Supported Agriculture. The number of farmers markets has skyrocketed over the past ten years, and people are rediscovering local crops and plants.
I have always admired Portland’s City Repair project for their creative zeal in using rights-of-way and the arts to reinvigorate neighborhoods. I’ve loved all the free-cycle projects and community gardens and buy-local campaigns, which are now starting to build some new synergies for localism. Just last week here in Portland, my former colleague Jay Walljaster spoke at the Commons Convergence event about his new book, All That We Share.
The City of Linz, Austria, has recently initiated a plan to make their entire urban region an open information commons. The city already provides free wifi hotspots, email accounts for every citizen and web hosting for noncommercial content. Now it wants the region to embrace open source software, Creative Commons licenses, open data platforms, open street maps and open educational resources. City officials believe that the regional information commons will stimulate digital innovators to produce locally useful information tools while encouraging greater civic engagement and more robust economic development.
While the classical commons is local and face-to-face, and the Internet has enabled new types of cooperation among strangers, there are some interesting examples of state-sanctioned or state-administered commons. (Let me emphasize, these are hybrid commons because they mix the commons and state into a new type of institution.) The most famous state-sanctioned commons is probably the Alaska Permanent Fund. In 1980, The Alaska legislature created the Fund, which is essentially a stakeholder trust, which acts as the trustee for royalties that oil companies pay to drill oil on state lands. Every citizen in the state has a share in the trust fund, and every year, every Alaskan resident receives a dividend of around $1,500. The Fund’s endowment is now around $41 billion.
This brilliant model inspired my friend and commons activist Peter Barnes to develop his Sky Trust idea, also known as cap-and-dividend. This is a proposed trust fund for revenues that would be generated by auctioning off the right to emit carbon into the atmosphere. Until the Republicans stepped in to deny global warming, cap-and-dividend was the leading proposal in the U.S. Senate for dealing with it.
More recently, Peter Barnes’ work and the success of the Alaska Permanent Fund has inspired some legislators in Vermont to propose a Vermont Common Assets Fund to charge for the extraction of groundwater and other natural resources owned by the citizens of the state.
I could name many other fascinating, innovative commons projects, but you surely get the idea. What I find refreshing about the commons is that it goes beyond political ideology, and shifts the frame of discussion for how we talk about managing resources. It knits together the economic, political, cultural and humanistic into one coherent framework. It deals with real human beings, not the fictitious, rational, utility-maximizing cartoons of human beings that economists talk about.
It is the holistic nature of the commons paradigm that makes it so attractive. That’s because commoners have less motivation to externalize costs onto the environment or to shift product-design risks onto consumers, in the way that the market does. When you have to “eat your own dog food,” as they say in Silicon Valley, then you make sure that it’s real tasty and wholesome – and not some marketable slop that you try to hoodwink some poor sucker into buying. That’s why Linux is a better operating system than Windows.
A commons can empower individuals to help themselves in a community context. In so doing, it helps reconnect people with each other, and with the earth. It thereby helps regenerate personal meaning and social tradition. It fosters more sustainable management of ecological resources. In short, the commons can be an embryonic force for good and a force to check the neoliberal juggernaut.
Now I must hasten to add that commons is no panacea. Commoners have plenty of disagreements and conflicts; just look at Wikipedia’s governance. Commoners often fail because of bad leadership or bad governance structures; just look at the many failed fisheries and forest commons in poor countries.
Most commons exist within a larger system of political power and markets, and so it’s important to have policy structures to recognize and protect the commons. Commons also exist within distinct historical and cultural contexts – and these, too, can affect the success or failure of a commons. It’s also true that the politics of managing finite resources like water and land are quite a bit more challenging than managing “infinite” resources like knowledge and culture.
So please don’t let me leave with you the impression that the commons is somehow a magic bullet that is somehow exempt from the frailties of humanity and history. There are many challenges to be met in devising supportive public policies for commons and in building ways for the commons and markets to “play nicely” together.
Still, the commons does offer a powerful way to re-conceptualize economics at a time when neoliberal economics has reached a dead-end. And it is a way to revitalize democracy when conventional representative democracy is terribly corrupted and virtually impervious to reform.
R. Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” That’s the real appeal of the commons. It can build something that works and serves real needs. It’s not just an ideological mantra.
Cicero also had a great line: “Freedom is participation in power.” The commons decentralizes power and invites participation. People are invited to contribute their creativity on a decentralized, horizontal scale, rather than become supplicants to the elites who manage a centralized, expert-driven, legalistic hierarchy, such as our regulatory system.
The commons doesn’t try to roll everything up into standardized, commoditized, fungible units – the way that global markets do. Rather, it’s all about re-embedding market activity within a social community so that resource management can become socially responsive and accountable.
This ethic is spreading around the world – in isolated pockets of innovation, and among trans-national tribes of commoners. There are free software hackers, Creative Commons users and Wikipedians. Open access scholars and open-educational resource advocates. There are indigenous peoples are working together to protect their traditional cultures and agro-ecological knowledge from copyright and patent grabs. And, as I said earlier, two billion subsistence commoners.
A lot of the energy for the commons is coming from international sources. Just last month, the Supreme Court of India officially recognized the rights of commoners to be protected against market enclosure – in this case, real estate development of a village pond. Bolivians have rewritten their constitution to give Mother Nature explicit legal rights of standing to be represented in court – and their president, Evo Morales, is urging the United Nations to ratify a treaty to the same effect.
Last November the Commons Strategy Group and I co-organized the first International Commons Conference, in Berlin, with the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The event brought together 200 self-identified commoners from 35 countries around the world – activist farmers from the Philippines, hackers from Spain, Croatians trying to protect their urban spaces, American academics, the minister of patrimony from Ecuador. That event released a lot of energy, including a forthcoming anthology of essays about the commons, due out in the spring of 2012.
For me, it is the ethic of the commons that may be most compelling. Alain Lipietz, a French political figure and student of the commons, traces the word “commons” to William the Conqueror and the Normans – not the English, interestingly. The commons supposedly comes from the Norman word commun, which comes from the word munus, which means both “gift” and “counter-gift,” as a duty.
I think we need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. The expansion of centralized political and market structures has tragically eclipsed our need for gifts and duties. We rely on money and state bureaucracies for everything. And so we forget what Ivan Illich called the “vernacular domain” – the spaces in our everyday life in which we create and shape and negotiate our sense of how things should be: the commons.
Our basic challenge is to rediscover “commoning” – the commons as a verb, the commons as a set of social practices. “The allure of commoning,” historian Peter Linebaugh has written, “arises from the mutualism of shared resources. Everything is used, nothing is wasted. Reciprocity, sense of self, willingness to argue, long memory, collective celebration and mutual aid are traits of the commoner.”
So, let me conclude: I see the commons as an important scaffolding for reinventing governance and economic thought, and in pioneering new models of innovation to meet our needs. The great thing is, we can innovate where we stand, with the talents that we have, with communities of like-minded, resourceful people, on projects that matters to us.
In a way, the commons is about reinventing democracy in a time when our representative democracy has become so corrupted and dysfunctional. The commons offers us some practical ways to build new types of participatory and transparent democratic structures. Although this is very much a work-in-progress, I see the commons as one of the few areas of life about which I am exceedingly hopeful. Why? Because it’s already taking off. When theory needs to catch up with practice, you know that something powerful is going on.