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The Growing Voice of the Global Commons

on Sun, 12/19/2010 - 19:57

The International Commons Conference  in Berlin on November 1-2 was an historic milestone in the emergence of the global commons movement.  Bringing together 180 or so commons activists, educators, and policy makers was a heroic effort by the conference organizers, particularly Silke Helfrich, David Bollier, and Michel Bauwens.

One of the interesting challenges that surfaced was the difference in perspective of those working with the tangible commons, such as natural resources, and those working with the intangible commons such as open-source software or free culture.  In many respects this is understandable since there are indeed differences in value-creation and sustainability algorithms between the two as noted in the simple chart below.  This is intuitively obvious.  For example, the more a forest is used, the more stress is generated on that particular ecosystem.  If not carefully managed, the value of the resource can decline.  In the digital world the more an open-source resource is used, such as Linux or Drupal, the more value it has.  This intangible value creation is congruent with Metcalfe's Law.

After the conference David Bollier and I commented that what didn't quite surface in Berlin was a meta-framework or meta-narrative that transcends the differences and included all commons:tangible and intangible.

In my view, such a meta-framework must take three critical dimensions into account: (1) value, (2) context, and (3) basis.

  • Value. Particularly since World War II, human affairs have been dominated by an ethos that equates value and price.  And price, in turn, is mediated or determined through market mechanisms.  In recent times this tendency has been injected with steroids.  It's "natural” for the average MBA student to feel that anything can (and probably should) be monetized.  Such thinking, taken far enough, becomes grotesque.  For example, the Optimum Population Trust is advocating the creation of a market that allows for buying carbon offsets through reducing births in high-birth-rate countries.  Researcher Sian Sullivan notes, "Through 'PopOffsets' (, then, the life of an 'unwanted' African baby, becomes 'valued' according to its equivalence to the reductions in estimated carbon emissions represented by its prevented birth, and its ensuing absent-presence as a carbon 'non-person'."

The commons offers a value formulation framework that is much more elastic than the market as the chart below notes.  It may indeed make sense to monetize a forest so that a commons forest trust can regulate logging rents.  But the commons also allows for the declaration of intrinsic value that does not need to be justified to the market.  What is the price of walking through a hardwood forest in autumn?  What is the price of standing beneath a giant Sequoia and looking skyward?  The commons orientation also allows us to extend our time orientation as we consider requirements for future generations.

  • Context.  A well-known industrialist once quipped, "We live in an age of undue pragmatism.”  This "undue pragmatism” affects many dimensions of human affairs:political, social, economic, and cultural.  All and all, one can say that we live in fractured societies that impose a glass ceiling on the possibilities of human existence.  Understanding how we got to this point requires thoughtful reflection.  It is useful to delineate the systems and the interdependencies that contribute to our current state of affairs. The largest, most pervasive systems are often the most invisible:a monetary system whose very growth demands ever-increasing levels of debt, a civil law system that enshrines private property to the exclusion of other options, a view of human security that requires ever-escalating militarization, and so on.  Such systems reinforce perceptions of scarcity that lead to competition, fear, and aggression.

The commons start with different premises:that abundance can be generated through cooperation, that life is not a zero-sum game, and that ordinary people possess the intelligence and foresight to self-organize and manage their affairs.  And, by the way, such principles apply to both the tangible and intangible commons. 

  • Basis.  Without exception, all human and institutional structures are based on presumptions about reality.  This tends to be uninspected but is critically important.  The Copernican Revolution was not only a shift from a geocentric to heliocentric view of the solar system.  It affected the basis of governance structures in Europe including the Church and the monarchy.  In the present day the insights of quantum mechanics are slowly seeping into the Western worldview and accord with what mystics, East and West, have said for centuries:the universe is an inherent unity.  This unity is not the result of some evolutionary process of increasing interconnectedness, but it is, rather, a priori or prior to any sense of apparent difference.   As the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger noted, "multiplicity is only apparent.  In truth, there is only one mind."

Why are these ontological foundations important for the commons?  As commoners attempt to engage existing institutions in the public and private sectors to protect and support various commons, they need not come hat-in-hand like some downtrodden NGO.  No, the commons can make claims of sovereignty that are antecedent to the establishment of either the public or private sectors.  This is not merely antecedent in terms of time, but is, rather, congruent with our deepening understanding of reality. 

My sense is that the next two years will be remarkably fertile as commoners worldwide begin to find our collective voice.  It's as if its faint murmurings are almost audible.  Please tell me, what do you hear?