Valuing the commons by cooperatively sharing the gifts of life

Written by Daniel Christian Wahl

The practice of ‘commoning’ — to collaboratively hold a natural or cultural resource as a ‘commons’ — is a way to collaborate in safeguarding the gifts of nature and culture that people share in a particular place and that humanity shares collectively. [This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures,published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

A regenerative culture will value and responsibly steward the biocultural commons we all depend upon: clean air, clean water, healthy ecosystems functions, abundant bioproductivity, on the one hand, and the fruits of diverse cultures (as epiphenomena of nature) on the other hand. This cultural heritage includes music, art, science, dance, literature, languages, liberator technologies like the open Internet, and the stories and questions of wisdom that have guided humanity on its journey so far.

In most indigenous cultures the natural resources generated in a particular place along with cultural traditions and knowledge are not anyone’s ‘private property’ but are regarded as a ‘commons’ held in trust and stewardship by all, for the benefit of all. What is held in a ‘commons’ is not to be owned but to be cared for and regenerated so it can be passed on to the next generation in as good or better condition than the current generation received it.

As such, the commons of a particular locality or culture are a birthright of that community. The commons are about relationships and belonging, about interbeing rather than separation. Holding things in ‘common’ invites people to collaborate and share the abundance provided by a particular place and culture, while private (or corporate) ownership creates artificial scarcity and separation, driving us to compete.

Gareth Hardin’s 1968 article ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ offered a convenient justification for rapid privatization (enclosure) of the gifts of life during the period of rapid economic growth that saw the rise of large multinational corporations. Hardin argued that, with the population increasing, people would inevitably over-exploit and destroy the commons, and suggested that regulating population growth was the most important way to end the tragedy of the commons. He stressed that “every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody’s personal liberty” (1968: 1248), yet his work has since been used to justify more enclosure of the commons through privatization and strict government regulation. This process continues today.

Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, spent her life working on an economics of collaboration rather than competition. She demonstrated that “communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time” (1990: 1). She reviewed a number of successful and unsuccessful cases of communities governing a common resource; and identified a set of ‘design principles’ leading to successful collective management of the commons:

  1. define the community of people sharing the commons
  2. adapt rules of use to the type of commons and its users
  3. commoners themselves have to set the rules
  4. the state of the commons has to be monitored in an accountable way
  5. abuse by individuals needs to be curbed in a gradual way

— Elinor Ostrom (1990: 185–186)

These principles basically encourage collaboration and discourage competition by creating a common interest community.

In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in exploring what a commons- based collaborative economy would look like. Online resources include On the Commons, David Bollier’s News and Perspectives on the Commons and the P2P Foundation.

David Bollier explains that effectively “a commons arises whenever a given community decides to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard to equitable access, use and sustainability”. Importantly, the commons is not simply a resource but “a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resource” (Bollier, 2011).

Creating regenerative cultures will critically depend on our ability to collaborate in managing local, regional and global resources collectively. We need to learn the art of commoning.

Traditional commons systems have been small scale and usually focused on the collective stewardship of natural resources. About two billion people around the world still depend for their livelihood on commonly managed forests, fisheries, water and other natural resources. In spreading the practice of managing common resources collectively at the local and regional scale, we also need to connect local and regional ‘commoners’ into networks of national and global collaborations.

Enclosure is theft! Through this process, individuals or institutions claim the gifts of life as private property. A massive wave of enclosure took place with the institutionalization of nation states and colonization. During the last 50 years, aggressive economic globalization and the spread of corporate exploitative capitalism have gone hand in hand with a further wave of enclosure of the commons. The world over, we have witnessed “the expropriation and commercialization of shared resources, usually for private market gain”. Examples of this practice are “the patenting of genes and lifeforms, the use of copyrights to lock up creativity and culture, the privatization of water and land, and attempts to transform the open Internet into a closed, proprietary marketplace” (Bollier, 2011).

As we are aiming to create regenerative cultures locally, regionally, nationally and globally we have to safeguard the remaining commons and re-establish commons-based resource management at various scales. We have to collectively ‘live into’ the important question:

How can the practice of ‘commoning’ offer a scale-linking way to manage the gifts of nature and culture collectively?

David Bollier suggests: “to actualize the commons and deter market enclosures, we need innovations in law, public policy, commons-based governance, social practice and culture. All of these will manifest a very different worldview than now prevails in established governance systems, particularly those of the State and Market” (ibid).

Creating a collaborative economy requires a shift in worldview and cultural narrative from separation to interbeing. Human beings are capable of empathy and collaboration just as much as they can be self-interested and competitive. Would we not create a healthier culture if our economic system was structurally designed in such a way that it incentivised collaborative behaviour and created conditions that made competition unnecessary?

Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens (2014) have explored what mature, commons- based peer production within a collaborative economic model might look like. They distinguish two scenarios that would both contribute: the global commons (GC) scenario in which the commoners create infrastructures for global sharing; and the resilient communities (RC) scenario in which the commoners design for increased local self- reliance through sharing and governing resources locally. Kostakis and Bauwens do not pretend to have definitive answers, rather they explore a number of questions and pathways that might help us build a collaborative economy.

The spirit of ‘living the questions’ so that we may one day ‘live into the answers’ which this book promotes can also be found in the work of the P2P Foundation and in the radical experimentation and disruptive innovation of the ‘Cooperativa Integral Catalana’ (CIC) set up in 2010. The CIC understands itself as a “transitional initiative for social transformation from below, through self-management, self-organization and networking” (CIC, 2015). Recently the CIC launched ‘Fair Coop’ as “the Earth cooperative for a fair economy” and introduced a new cryptocurrency called ‘Faircoin’ –“hacking the money markets to introduce the virus of cooperation” (Fair Coop, 2014). Such culturally creative Horizon2+ and Horizon3 experiments are examples of (salutogenic) design for infectious health, enabling us to share the gifts of nature and culture collaboratively. [more on the 3 Horizon framework for transformative innovation]

SOURCE: Daniel Christian Wahl