Awakin Calls » David Bollier » Transcript
David Bollier: Wealth of the Commons
Theme: Wealth of the Commons
Guest: David Bollier
Host: Amit Dungarani
Moderator: Aryae Coopersmith
Amit: Today we're very fortunate to have none other than David Bollier as somebody who really embodies our theme of "The Wealth of the Commons." Today will certainly be a meaningful and insightful call. Our theme this week is "The Wealth of the Commons," and the common good. And when I think about what the commons means to me, or what the wealth of the commons is, the first pictures that come to mind are municipal, state, or national parks, and some of the national forests. I think about natural resources like water and minerals --- something that really belongs to the community, at least in theory, rather than anything owned by any single individual or even a corporation. When you take that idea another step further, and you think about it in terms of the 21st century, there's this idea of new sets of commons. I know this is something that David talks about. I know David talks about things like Wikipedia or open source software. It can also fall into the political, cultural and social realms as well. When we sent out the invitation this week, we asked many of you to reflect on the questions of "How do you remain connected to your community, to these commons? How do you remain connected different friends and neighbors and colleagues without money being a part of that interaction? They always say ‘The best things in life are free.’ Do you actually think that's really the case? Or what makes them free? And what kinds of things can we engage in, in our community, to restore this sense of trust or authenticity or shared commitment, where we're able to work with each other and protect what's really there for the commons?”
Since we have the pleasure of having Aryae as our moderator today, we can start by asking him to kick off the call by sharing some of his own thoughts. Then he can introduce David and take our conversation from there.
Aryae: I want to say "Amen" to your thoughts. To quickly add, for me at this stage in my career, I shifted out of working in the private space, in the business and corporate room, and decided I wanted to personally get off the money grid and see what could be done with people-to-people interactions that were not part of a commercially-oriented organization, which was what eventually led me to ServiceSpace. So for me, David's decades of work in the commons have a very personal relevance.
David lives in Amherst, Mass., and he has been exploring the commons as an author, as a political strategist, as an international activist, as a blogger, since the late 1990's. He`s been involved with co-founding all sorts of commons-related groups, such as The Commons Strategy Group. He's been a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center of the Annenberg School for Communication, and he writes technology-related reports for the Aspen Institute. He collaborated with television writer and producer Norman Lear on a variety of public affairs projects from 1985 to 2010. He's the writer, collaborator, and/or editor of 12 books about the commons, including his latest, "Think Like a Commoner," and the one whose title we're using today for our talk, "The Wealth of the Commons." Other books include "Silent Theft," "Brand Name Bullies (How are those for provocative titles?), "Viral Spiral," and "Green Governance." He attributes a lot of his work and his thinking to some of the experience he's had working with some extraordinary people, including political activist Ralph Nader, TV producer Norman Lear, and political economist Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize, which was shared in 2009 and was the only woman to have won the Nobel Prize in economics.
David Bollier, my first question to you is, "How would you describe your profession or your work in which you engage today?"
David: I live outside so many conventional occupations and institutions that it's really hard to describe, but I suppose I live at the intersection of academia, politics, activism, and journalism. I'm trying to get beyond some of the artificial boundaries of disciplines or institutions to suggest precisely these places where we come together and have things in common, and work together in common. I was fortunate enough to find a number of other people who were refugees from Washington politics or international activists, particularly in Europe, who are thinking along the same lines. There's actually quite an extensive network of people who are quite active in the commons as practitioners or as activists or policy activists or as academics.
My calling is trying to knit these things together and try to exploit strategic opportunities for moving the commons paradigm forward.
Aryae: As I'm listening to you describe what you're doing, I'm thinking of one of the big ideas you use in your writing, which is "enclosures." It sounds to me like what you're really saying is you're stepping outside of the enclosures of particular jobs and particular institutions and kind of working in a space outside of those enclosures.
David: I haven't really thought of it quite that way, except I would say so many of the ways our society works, especially economic policy and public policy and politics has a profoundly incorrect notion of what human beings are. We're supposed to be rational, utility-maximizing, materialistic individuals of the marketplace, for example, which makes our proper role as consumers. Or we're textbook citizens who are supposed to vote every four years and leave the rest of everything to bureaucratic experts and politicians to govern us. I think those are so profoundly erroneous that a lot of people --- and we've seen, of course, the lack of legitimacy and trust in government and the need for alternatives, because systems are falling apart. I think that's really what's motivating a lot of people to take action and responsibility themselves as commoners. There are many people who self-identify as commoners in trying to devise "do-it-ourself" collective solutions that are not dependent, at least directly, on markets or governments.
Aryae: I love the phrase "do it ourselves." I want to get back to basics here and ask you a very simple question. That is, how do you define the commons? What is it, and what isn't it?
David: A lot of people ask me that question. I think that while there are some defining parameters of commons, every commons is quite distinctive and unique because they come from different histories and traditions. People will have different geographic locations. They'll be dealing with different resources, from digital to natural to civic or social. So there is no single definition of a commons. However, you can say, crudely, that a commons is about a social system for sharing resources and for having a community. It's not just about resources, but it's also about the social community.
There are certain principles that tend to occur in various commons that work successfully. They tend to have certain ways of patrolling their resource to make sure that it's not being privatized or enclosed. They tend to have ways of identifying and punishing any free rides who abuse the resource. They tend to have a sense of community and rules for governance and traditions and rituals and customs for assuring the integrity and continuity of their community.
So you could say that a commons is focused on collective benefit from shared resources and the social system for doing that. You immediately start to get into a lot of complexity once you talk about particular commons, be they in the internet world, in subsistence economies in indigenous cultures, but that's partly the joy of a commons, too, is its absolute diversity --- as diverse as human beings.
One metaphor I like to use is that the commons is like DNA. Scientists will tell you that DNA is deliberately underspecified so that it can adapt to local circumstances. So we have the human race with the same DNA, but it's adapted in countless ways in different circumstances around the world --- historically, geographically, interpersonally. And so I think the commons is like DNA. It has these enormously diverse, you might even say fractal, manifestations.
Aryae: "Underspecified so that it can adapt to local circumstances." A very, very interesting concept. I was listening to Amit's introduction to the call, and he mentioned one idea many of us have thought of as the commons --- something like a national park or a national forest. It's there, it's for all of us to use, it's a public space. Would you think of that as a commons or not?
David: You raise a really interesting point. Partly because of our modern society and world view, and especially because of the economics profession, there's a tendency to treat a commons as a resource alone. So a national park is simply that plot of land, or forest. But in truth a commons is about something that is stewarded and managed actively as a social system. Therefore we can't just treat it as an inert piece of physical or intangible property. That means we have to become involved with the resource. We have to love it and take care of it and become involved in it and work with each other in how that gets managed. And that's arguably part of the problem with many resources alone. We've delegated to the government --- "the government will take care of it." Or the atmosphere or the oceans will just take care of themselves as a commons.
To be technical about it, those are common pool resources, but they have not yet become common because we don't have the systems to manage them properly in sustainable, respectful ways. Part of the drama here is about converting mere resources into beloved and stewarded social resources.
Aryae: So a shared forest would be part of the definition of a commons. It's the commonly shared resources, but it's not the whole thing because it's not necessarily the social infrastructure for caring for it and sustaining it, is that right?
David: Precisely. It's really interesting. In India, for example, there are many community forests that the government bureaucracy has taken over, trying to do it in an expert scientific fashion, but also becoming an access point for corruption and mismanagement. Whereas, with many community-owned forests, people want to live in those forests, they want it to last for their children and their future generations, so they often have a more intimate, local knowledge of the resource. They have memories and traditions and history with their resource. Therefore they tend to be better custodians of it. Which is not to say this is an either/or proposition. There's a lot that science and bureaucracy can also help with. But my point is, a commons really has to be loved, respected, engaged with, and known by people in social situation, and not simply treated as a mere physical thing.
Aryae: That's been very important for me. It's a new understanding for me, as you've been saying this.
I want to step back and ask another seemingly obvious question. And that is, a lot of people on this call are people who have had reasonably successful careers in the present and the past, or aiming in the future toward careers in the existing economic order of things --- careers in business, or technology, or medicine, or finance, or academia or whatever, and are contributing or expecting to contribute in those ways. Why should those of us who've had that kind of involvement in our lives really care a lot about the commons?
David: I suppose at the grander level, we all care about our children, families, and grandchildren. Most of us like to think that we have a larger connection to our neighbors, our towns, even our fellow-citizens. To that extent, the commons is a way to make meaningful commitments to those larger associations we all have. Which I think is part of the human condition too; to want to be part of something larger than ourselves as single individuals.
I think there's also a great joy and satisfaction and pleasure that comes from this kind of fellowship with others in managing things we love and that are important to each other. What's really interesting is how this whole idea is so off the radar map of conventional economics and policy. The only thing that matters there is that you have to be paid for something to do something of value. The point is that the commons generates a lot of these things in very unexpected ways, by people working together without any money or contracts or lawyers or marketing involved. That's really why people can and should become involved with commons.
Aryae: (Laughing) I love your opening up, "Oh, minor details --- if you care about your children, and the future, and your friends... is that all, okay, got it!"
One of your pet peeves, I gather from talking with you and also reading some of what you're written, is this notion of the tragedy of the commons. I want to play a little bit of Devil's advocate briefly with that if I may. The tragedy of the commons is such that if there's a common grazing land and everyone has our own sheep, that I as one person with sheep am going to try to maximize my value by having as many sheep as possible graze on that grazing land and everybody else is going to do the same. And left to normal human behavior, we'll overgraze the land and it won't be a resource for any of us. So to me, that idea, based on behavior that I've observed in myself and other people, seems pretty self-evident. If you have a resource pool that anyone can use, eventually it's going to get depleted. You have felt so strongly that this idea is incorrect and counterproductive. You've called it "the so-called tragedy of the commons. The meme that brainwashed a generation of undergraduates." Why are you so opposed to this idea?
David: Let me first say that, it's of course quite common for resources to be over-exploited. But I think the point is that this is less a function of the commons. In general, successful commons have ways of preventing over-exploitation. I find it more the tragedy of the market in which it routinely over-exploits. What you have to get back to is some empirical realities. For millennia, human beings have found ways not to over-exploit resources. Elinor Ostrom, the economist who won the Nobel Prize in 2009, studied literally hundreds of different natural resource commons around the world where there was no government and no markets and people had devised successful ways to not ruin the commons, the so-called tragedy.
The answer to your question is that people, when they have to live together and depend upon a certain resource for the livelihood, find ways to communicate with each other and negotiate with each other and not have this fictional ideal of themselves as isolated individuals, the way market society pictures us as isolated individuals. They begin to develop affiliations and ways of collaborating. We see this played out in countless different contexts. Especially the internet, where people come together and with no coercion or government or anything else, say "Let's create Wikipedia," or "Let's create Linux," the software system. I would say that's really the default way in which people self-organize on the internet, as opposed to markets, which are simply trying to make many off it all.
I agree that over-exploitation of resources occurs. The point is to try to devise commons-like governance and rules to prevent that. And that does happen spontaneously and naturally in many different contexts.
Aryae: So the key is the notion of the governance of rules. What have you learned, David, about situations or communities where people are more likely to work together in that way, where they create mutually accepted governments and situations where people are less likely to do that?
David: Well, I think that it generally happens more readily when people depend upon that for their subsistence or livelihoods, or when they're geographically based in a way that they have to depend upon each other. For example, in Greece right now, with all of their austerity problems and quite serious social needs, there's really been quite an upswell of commoning, peer production, and other types of behaviors to meet each others' needs without markets or governments, or the global finance community.
It occurs where people tend to have a shared need to begin with, and sometimes that comes quite naturally if you're in a certain geographic location and there's not a lot of people who can come and go. But sometimes in the most casual ways, like online people decide they can get better benefits from collaborating then trying to play out the "It's all for me" approach. I think people see a self-interest in collaboration, which is not the self-interest of the market and total personal gain, but more a self-interest that's more broadly satisfying to a human being than just maximum consumer benefit. There's conviviality and satisfaction in helping people. The commons elicits all of these aspects of human capacity that markets mobilize only just a tiny little bit --- "What's in it for me?"
It varies from what type of resource you're talking about. But it tends to form a different identity the way that certain fishermen's commons, people get an identity as a fisherman and it's a way of life. After a while, would you trade that way of life for more money or income? Some people will, but many people say, "This is who I am and that's why a commons is so important to me."
Aryae: I'd like to take a step back a little bit and ask you a more personal question or two if I may. You've spent a couple of decades plus with a passionate dedication to supporting the manifesting of the commons around the world. Can you share with us a little bit about your own personal path. How did you wind up doing that?
David: I guess it started --- I didn't know it at the time --- but in the 70's when I was working in Washington as a public interest advocate with [Ralph] Nader in another context. I saw a number of what I would now call the enclosures of the commons, where companies and industries often with the collusion of government were privatizing and turning into commodities and marketizing all these shared resources, from public lands to the airwaves for broadcasting, which are given away for free to broadcasters, to federal drug research, which the drug industry just patents and charges us an arm and a leg for our drugs, and many, many other things.
And I had that baseline of experience. Flash-forward to the late 90's when a number of things came together for me. One, I realized that conventional Washington politics, and even progressive politics, was not going to have the transformational impact that I think we need, especially on environmental issues. This was during the Clinton years. I also saw at this time the rise of the World Wide Web, which went broad in 1994. I saw a radically different form of production and social life that was neither market nor government based in how much it could do, most exemplified in the free and open source software movement. Around the same time, a number of friends who had once worked in Washington, and I, got together, and we created a small research institute called the Tomales Bay Institute north of San Francisco to explore the commons as an alternative intellectual, philosophical, and political paradigm.
That's really what set me on my path for developing this more fully, because I quickly discovered other friends and colleagues, especially internationally, who were quite, in some ways, far more advanced than I was in thinking about the commons. Because European countries don't quite have the aversion to some of this kind of thinking and talking. They don't have the same entrenched hostility to --- America had so demonized Communism that we almost couldn't think of anything collective as having legitimacy or value.
To play this out some more, I got deeply involved in a lot of technology and intellectual property issues and co-founded a Washington policy group called Public Knowledge, which is trying to defend our shared cultural and information commons from excessive copyright and patenting, which is another story unto itself.
A lot of these threads came together and I saw how the commons could not only help solve these economic or policy or political problems, but could speak to a different dimension within ourselves that our public life and culture really doesn't let us express or talk to. And I began to see how certain social and personal and spiritual dimensions are all wrapped up in what I call "commoning," the process for creating the commons, and the idea that the commons is really not a thing or physical, it's a process, it's a verb, not a noun. This speaks to the more existential nature of human beings, and how it can be fulfilled arguably far more in commons than in markets. Although I don't want to make this an either/or proposition, because of course we rely on markets for many things as well.
These are the paths that I've taken, and for the past five years especially I've been quite involved internationally, especially with people in Germany and Italy and France in developing these ideas of the commons and giving them some relevance within policy debates, and developing individual commons projects.
Aryae: As I'm listening to you telling your story, I'm hearing two themes that I've heard in other people who have talked with us on the Awakin Calls and other similar platforms. One is the falling-apart of things, of the ability of our political institutions to provide the change that's needed, and our current political, economic institutions to do what the world needs. And on the other hand, the perception that there are people all over the world spontaneously doing these kinds of creative processes which, if linked together, hold a hope of really turning things around. Both of those happen simultaneously.
David: I think you're right. I think they're even related to each other. I think part of the problem is that we don't have the shared language and cultural traditions and identity to give visibility to these very disparate and isolated self-organized activities. I see the commons as a way to link everything as diverse as permaculture and open design and manufacturing on digital platforms --- the fab labs, the hacker spaces --- to indigenous peoples, who are trying to protect their way of life and the integrity of their cultures, to communities that are trying to create community charters to protect outside investors and corporations from using them as resource colonies. I find that the commons language is a way of giving greater cultural salience to a phenomenon that is really quite widespread. The mainstream doesn't recognize it or doesn't want to recognize it, and in the media, it doesn't fit within a lot of their predetermined narratives. So it, too, has trouble understanding it. But it is there, it is quite extensive, and it's really the source of a great potential.
Aryae: Along those lines, David, could you give us a couple of quick examples that come to your mind of commons, the sort of commons you've been seeing around the world today... maybe one in agriculture and land use and one in culture and intellectual property.
David: Here's a fascinating one. There's a lot of interesting crossovers between the digital world --- internet spaces --- and the physical world, especially, say agriculture. There's a project called the System for Rice Intensification which is kind of like open-source agriculture. You have farmers from the Philippines and Sri Lanka and Cuba and India who have found each other through an online platform to collaborate on improving the agronomy, the way they raise crops, to improve rice yield. They do this without GMOs or pesticides or herbicides, but simply the way the rice is cultivated. They have improved yields three, four, five times over conventional rice agriculture. They've been able to share this information over the internet. This has been a total bottom-up phenomenon, self-organized by the farmers themselves, without ministries or universities directing the whole affair.
That's one example of the kind of ingenuity that people can bring to these kinds of spaces. I'll give you a few other examples. In Helsinki, there's a really remarkable time bank. Some of you may be familiar with these credit-bartering systems, where people can give an hour of their time for anything from lawn mowing to elder care to providing professional advice. You get a credit that goes into the time bank, that you can use yourself, or for a family member. This has proven to be extremely successful in Helsinki and in many other places around the world as a way to meet needs when people don't have money, so especially older people or perhaps poor people might be who might most use this. But it's also a way of creating community among people while meeting needs. I find that a very compelling type of example.
Beyond these individual commons there are now efforts to create infrastructure at a higher level to promote commoning. For example, in Spain, there's a group called Goteo, which is a crowdfunding platform only for commons-related projects. They screen projects to make sure they're commons-based and assess their follow-through as well. They have produced all sorts of interesting things, for example an open source environmental monitoring kit for citizens, or a collaborative mapping project that depicts the political and economic power relationships within Spain. Or a compact foldable 3-D printer that's made by the community and distributed through the peer production distribution process. Goteo is a fascinating example of taking these things to yet another level and developing infrastructure for commoning.
Aryae: This is really interesting. It sounds like a commons of commons.
David: (Laughs) I think in some ways this movement is maturing to a degree that people are saying "We need these larger systems." I myself have been thinking we need to devise a new field of inquiry called "Law for the Commons." Meaning, there's dozens of examples of people hacking the conventional law to make it serve the purposes of a common. Most conventional law promotes private property, market activity, and economic growth as opposed to collaboration. There are exceptions, of course, like cooperatives and land trusts, but for the most part they themselves are hacks on conventional state law. I think it's a ripe moment to try to bring together the diverse types of creative hacks on law and try to start a new field of legal inquiry and activism called "Law for the Commons." And show that there are a lot of similarities between these indigenous peoples' commons and community ordinances that are trying to keep out fracking. They would have a lot to say to each other. And there's a lot of parallels between people who are trying to save conventional seeds from being patented and privatized, who want seed sharing, and there's a whole lot of similarity between seed sharing and what the open source software movement did in devising legal licenses.
Aryae: When you're talking about a commons of commons, it reminds of an idea that Nipun Mehta has been talking about now for a long time with this community, and that is what he calls Gandhi 3.0, which is many to many. Communities supporting other communities. That gets me to a question that you and I started to discuss earlier this week, that I want to bring out now. From your perspective of having seen different kinds of commons all over the world, what does ServiceSpace look like to you as a commons? How is the commons community that we create here together similar to other commons, and how is it, maybe, different?
David: It's most definitely a commons in that it is this shared, consensual activity of mutual support around shared goals. No question. I suppose it might be different in the sense that you don't have a conventional resource that you're managing, per se. It's more of an interpersonal and spiritual sharing and fellowship. To that extent it may be different from most conventional commons. The other difference might be that it is less engaged with the economic or political policy world. I don't want to say that all commons necessarily do that, because oftentimes commons only get involved in those worlds when they start to come after them, or take over their resources. In fact, that's one of the beauties of a commons, that you don't have to rely on those larger institutional structures.
That said, trying to grow the commons sensibility into developed institutions that can last and engage a lot of people often require the kind of engagements with markets and the world and not just to be a social community.
Those are the things that are similar and different, but there's no question that the ServiceSpace world is a rather extensive and robust commons.
Aryae: Is there anything I haven't asked you, or that you and I haven't discussed, that you think would be important to share with us?
David: We've covered quite a lot of ground and we can go in any number of directions, but for me the thing that is most important in underscoring is that the world of the commons really opens up a lot of doors and solution spaces that are not otherwise visible through conventional institutions and conventional world views. I think there's really a strong imperative for different types of commoners to begin to find each other and open up new types of conversations, because I think that's the kind of regenerative good will, imagination, innovation, that the world needs. And that it is not going to come from venture capitalists, the politicians, Wall Street, and a lot of the conventional, so-called respected institutions.
I want to leave with a message or sense that there's a lot that we can each do. We can all find our individual affinity groups and talent groups to move the commons idea forward.
Aryae: This is just personally so exciting to me, David, because you're talking about both changing the world and change that's happening all over with very practical things that any of us can do in our own lives, in our own communities.
David: It's not an ideological or doctrinal things, it's about real-life relationships and practical needs. And I think that's really its saving grace. Because it doesn't become this totalistic abstraction with ideological trappings. It becomes a lived experiential thing, which is ultimately where the change has to come from.
Amit: Thank you, Aryae, what a wonderful conversation you've guided us with David. We're all very lucky to have you be our guide today.
Mark Roest (Caller): I wanted to ask how I can get involved in David's work. I'm with a battery company (International Development at Seawave Battery, Member of Board of Directors at Electronic Technology Development Center), and we want to set up battery factories, but more specifically conversion shops to convert vehicles from gasoline and diesel to battery power. The costs are going to drop through the floor very soon. Traditional common law supported the commons, and it was deliberately buried. There are still unions that are into the commons and worker owned stuff, and Gar Alperovitz talked about setting up worker owned factories, and support from Mondragon in Spain. I would really like to know how to get involved, and share what I've been developing and what other people I work with have been developing.
David: I wish I had more internal capacities or an organization. I'm working as a solo practitioner in collaboration with a variety of institutional partners. I can more readily refer you to people than do something myself. That said, I welcome people to check out what I'm working on through my blot, which is bollier.org .
As far as the comments about cars, there's a whole flourishing world of open source vehicles. Check out the Wikispeed, which is trying to devise an extremely fuel efficient, lightweight and affordable open source designed car, designed globally through many collaborators and that can be produced locally. Perhaps that sensibility, technique, and community could be devised for some of these hybrids or conversions. I'm not enough of an expert to know that world enough, but it sounds very promising.
As far as the mention of co-ops and the mention of Garl Perovitz, a really powerful, robust realm of possibility, and Garl has been doing fantastic work in Cleveland. And I think the cooperative approach to things is gaining a lot of momentum as people see the benefits from their own energies, instead of it being siphoned away or being appropriated by predatory corporations. I think there is fortunately quite a network of cooperatives and cooperative-enabling institutions that can help in that regard. But I would immediately add that the co-op world also needs a good surge of innovation and moving into the digital world. I think a lot of co-op structures could be applied constructively so that we have cooperative "ubers" instead of "Uber." Or cooperative "airbnb's" instead of venture capital driven "Airbnb."
You raised a lot of important concerns. I wish I could help you more than I can.
Amit: We just had someone who wrote in, and they had just read a review of your book "Think Like a Commoner" by Ralph Nader. In the beginning you mentioned Ralph Nader as being one of your inspirations. So our caller's [Micky O'Toole] question asks, "How did it make you feel, or how cool was it to have one of your inspirations write such a great review?" The review really helped to understand the idea of the commons.
David: Ralph was an inspiration because he pioneered a lot of the work. He had a 1980 conference that was highly influential to me. It was called "Controlling What We Own." It was focusing on public land and airwaves and federal research and many other resources that the government basically gives away or sells at a discount, or manages quite terribly. Ralph was a direct inspiration when I worked with him in the 70's and 80's, and I've remained friends with him. It's been one of the more nourishing friendships in terms of my political understanding. So of course I felt greatly inspired by Ralph not only by that work but by his person and his own tenacity and imagination in grappling with some really deeply-rooted problems that we have.
Amit: You had mentioned that we're not necessarily going to find some of these solutions from Wall Street or the v.c.'s [venture capitalists] but there are some that argue the exact opposite. I'm not sure if you have come across a book called "Abundance" by Dr. Peter Diamandis. In there he talks about how there are a lot of different problems that we come across. The widening gap between the privileged few and the rest of the world. And saying the only way we'll eventually end up closing those gaps is through innovation. That we will always find a way through technology, through various resources, which is often funded through that community. I'm curious how you would respond to that sort of outlook.
David: I think the question is innovation for whom, and how is it designed to be innovative? We've seen how Uber is fantastically innovative in shaking up, in positive ways, the taxi industry, which was quasi-monopolies and not very good service. But we've also seen how they've been terribly predatory and exploitative in not having employees and therefore free-riding on society by not paying benefits and vacation and so forth.
So the question I think that comes to mind is innovation in itself has to be for people and widely shared and not simply capturing social benefits for those with the investment resources. I would also add that I think many commons are extremely innovative in their own right. They simply don't monetize it and make moguls out of people. It's shared wealth that's not necessarily put into stock options or seen as tradeable wealth. It's community wealth. And I think it's community innovation. If you look at the open source world, its innovation has far exceeded the proprietary innovation of Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, and the rest. They have their own value to add to the system. But the open source world is extremely powerful in innovation. So part of this is a matter of optics and recognizing that the commons is very innovative in its own right.
Amit: I feel there is an apathy in the sense of thinking about these things that are part of the commons. I wonder, are we as a society as a whole, just not educated enough? Are we being distracted by things going on, so that all of a sudden these resources, like the airwaves or other resources, are just given at a discount or on the cheap to these private corporations, and we're not mobilizing enough to reclaim that back?
David: Part of it is that consumerist culture is tremendously seductive and corporate advertising and corporate market culture is tremendously distracting and diverting. It focuses our attention away from many serious things we should be paying attention to, and doesn't care to develop this kind of knowledge. I would say in addition that in some ways when you talk about these commons, you're talking about the resources, and really our challenge is to develop these social systems, the collaborations and the institutions to really develop engagement with them. That's precisely the kind of unmet challenge of finding ways to get better affiliation and control of these resources than the government has done, and to turn them into commons. In many isolated ways on smaller scales, it's happening all over. I think we need to federate those examples and make them more visible as a way to get people more engaged and committed and understanding. To go back to my original point, the mainstream market culture and political life tend to disenfranchise and distract us rather than focusing our attention where it should be.
Caller (Michelle Ehlers, San Jose, CA) : Thank you so much for this very deep and rich conversation. It's one that's near and dear to my heart. I have been working for many, many years in the realm that I call transformational global leadership, generating fulfillment of a seemingly impossible vision for every human being, and what does that take. And I spent a number of years studying the whole arena of the commons, been involved in numerous time banks, and went off the money grid for quite a while. Now I'm seeing the United Nations' sustainable development goals as a unifying conversation for the planet, which is absolutely critical. So I found myself going back in to local politics, global politics, working with the United Nations. I’ll be going to New York to participate in the adopting of sustainable development goals. I'm doing it purposefully as a committed global citizen not affiliated with any organization, to try and keep alive some of the conversation. And it's a big challenge when big companies and governments are getting together even though there's a mandate from the Secretary General to involve... local efforts. I'm wondering what you see as how the commons and global endeavor like the sustainable development goals can interact and interconnect, and what you see about that.
David: First of all, congratulations and that work you're doing. I think you're heading right into the belly of the beast, however, in the sense that many UN deliberations are so dominated by nation-states and corporate influence that it's hard to get a sustainable foothold to leverage things. That's the ongoing structural problem that many of us commoners face, much as I welcome the UN's trying to host that discussion.
In some ways, the burden is on us as citizens to organize more aggressively and visibly to use those opportunities to move things forward. For me, the bottom line is trying to propagate this language and cultural vision because that's going to be the more durable strategic thing that we can do rather than just one policy battle or another.
Caller (Michelle): I agree with you. Can I ask one other specific question? One of the things I've seen is that very often the world of the commons and the people that are working in the commons uses language that is very anti-government, anti-business. The world of the commons is often invisible to the governmental, business world. Public/private partnerships.... I got really excited about until I got in there and found out it's about government and business... I'm in there saying, "Hello!" There's something I see in the dance between them and the coordination between them and I don't see much of that, and I'm wondering what you think about that.
David: There's actually some fascinating new developments in urban commons which are trying to develop what you might call public/commons partnerships. One prime example: in Bologna, Italy, the government has devised something called the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons. Essentially, neighbors or citizen groups can say "We want this park fixed up, we want the graffiti taken off here, we want to run our own kindergartens.” They will go to the city government, and the city government will provide technical support and financial support as needed, not in a "Go away, we don't want to offload our responsibilities," but more, "We want to enable genuine civil society initiatives." They have more than 90 such examples in Bologna, which is a terrific civic revival, as well as getting things done arguably more cheaply than the government could do it. This is now being emulated by a few dozen cities in Italy.
So what I'm suggesting is, there are a number of these fledgling examples of government/common collaboration. But part of the challenge is getting the whole commons ethic, sensibility, and proposals more mature, so they can interact in a more powerful way against government, which otherwise wants to co-opt the good will and public image rather than deal as a straight partner with commoners....
Michelle (Caller): I'd love to talk to you further about how to use your expertise to get it into what I'm doing and help shore up what my capacities are in the places I'm playing.
David: Drop me a note on my email. You can find it on my website. We can follow through.
Michelle (Caller): Thank you. Thank you for what you're doing on behalf of humanity. Thank you, thank you.
Caller (Unidentified): Thank you, David, for your work. I've been reading in the commons space. I'm an engineer by training, so I've been exposed in a variety of ways to the free and open source software movement for probably close to a decade now. So I'm familiar with that world, and for the last few years I've discovered Elinor Ostrom's work and actually recently defended a dissertation which was in the middle, in between her work and technology space, not in open source software. My experience is as a no-longer-young person, but once a young person, growing up in the society we've all grown up in, thinking a lot and reading a lot about the commons and issues in global justice, sustainability and so forth. It was always one of tension and frustration, of longing to live in a world that I was reading people describe and collectively imagine, and now that I've finished the doctoral degree, and am working in a large organization, something I've noticed is that really highly-trained people who find deep resonance with these ideas is that they experience in their everyday lives a severe shortage of time. One struck me as you were discussing with the previous caller to ask is "In what way, and obviously time banks is a concrete institutional answer to this question, but in what way can we better organize, or better allocate the time of, for example, the programmers that are building systems like Uber?
Because in a way, I don't want to imply that the people writing software for Uber are somehow better, smarter, and more qualified than people who are working for less money on open source projects or community projects, or as programmers for non-profits (I did that for several years as well). In a lot of ways, our talent, and also in some ways the social capital, of people who are in positions of power is tied in up in existing organizations and existing systems for allocating resources generally. And of course human capital and time and attention are part of that. And in my experience as a young person, being highly motivated, trying to work on the commons in substantive practical ways to the furthering of the commons as a paradigm for organizing, was that I couldn't do it because I didn't have enough resources in terms of money and also resources in terms of time. I offer that as an experience rather than a concrete question.
David: You're making a rather profound point, which I think is accurate. I think part of it is the function of various commons institutions at least within modern industrialized societies, versus, say, so-called developing countries. Not having the institutional supports for the commons. In some ways, a lot of these things are voluntary or donated time, and that's hard to come by in a market society that demands all of your time, and all of your relationships have to be mediated by money. So it's hard to opt out of that. I think we're at the early stages of commons being a pool to de-commodify ourselves from our dependence on markets, and therefore recovering more of our time.
The more long-term answer is, we have to devise these new institutional structures. We're going to be.... participating in a workshop I co-organized in a couple weeks called "Capital for the Commons," and we're trying to figure out some innovative ways to build on existing things from the co-op world, monetary policy, alternative currencies, in ways that the value that's generated by a community could be recycled within that community and therefore get a virtuous cycle going that would help extricate us from conventional market institutions, and in the process, free up our time, but also perhaps make us more whole human beings. That may be an unsatisfying answer because it's long-term and partial, but that's the direction we need to go.
Aryae: My question is a follow-up to the question the previous caller asked. And that is, David, very simply at the level of practical advice, what you say to a young person today who might be graduating from college or graduating from graduate school and has been headed toward a career in business or technology or finance or some professional work and is also interested in aligning with the commons movement? What advice would you give to that person for moving forward with their career?
David: Two main things. One, develop and enrich your understanding of the commons as a lens for perceiving and understanding the world. Because once you go down that path as other people have told me there's no turning back (laughs). You'll start to see the world in a different way, in a way that makes more emotional and spiritual sense, that explains a lot more and is more satisfying. The richer you can develop the understanding the more equipped and powerful you'll be for navigating the world.
The second thing, I would say, is identify your own talents and passions and find those commons-based projects and organizations that are addressing those passions. There's a wide diversity of organizations and projects that are trying to develop the commons idea, some of which are in the very early stages, some of which are further along. But there's plenty of opportunity for creative, imaginative engagement. The problem of course is that these are not off-the-shelf livelihoods, generally, so everybody sort of has to "roll their own" for now, and have to make it work within very irregular contexts. That's maybe a downside from giving up a traditional career, in which perhaps the whole career trajectory is already plotted out. This is more of a creative unfolding through engagement, which I find enlivening. But it also has its risks and uncertainties that we have to deal with. But I think that just goes with living life and being a commoner.
Aryae: It sounds like you're saying two things: one is, prepare ;yourself on an understanding level to understand what's going on with the commons movement, and the second is, begin to find ways to engage.
David: And it has to be in ways that matter to you. It will be different for different people. So that's why the commons is not against individualism. I think it elicits and enriches our individualism in a community context. My wife Wendy has a question.
Wendy (Caller): I'm going to tag on to Aryae's question but do it from the different age spectrum, the opposite age spectrum. Are you finding that elders are starting to join the commons movement? That you're finding more elders being interested in joining and actually participating in the commons movement?
David: I can't say I've seen that as a specific cohort that is more visible. I hate to disappoint you by saying that, but perhaps my own vision needs to be corrected, and there's more elder engagement than I'm aware of. I think there are plenty of elder people involved in the commons. I don't mean to suggest that. I'm saying, as a cohort I don't see that happening.
Wendy: The other question I was going to ask is going back to some recent history; in the 60's and 70's, so many of us were part of the cooperative movement, communes, that kind of thing, and I'm wondering, is the reason why this is taking off in a larger realm, is it due to the internet, is it because other systems are falling apart, or is there some other reason why you see that at this particular time the commons movement is expanding.
David: I think there's a variety of reasons and you mentioned two of them. The internet has I think cultivated a different sensibility toward private property, meaning "dysfunctional, not necessarily what I need, I need access," and has also developed a different sensibility toward cooperation, group engagement. There's some unfinished business of the 60's in terms of economic democracy and the sharing of benefits that really got nipped in the bud when neoliberalism kicked in, in the early 60's, with Reagan and Thatcher, and I think we've had 30 years, 35 years of neoliberal capitalism which has pushed and pushed and pushed market culture and sensibilities and categories of behavior to the ultimate degree, so that life forms are patented, genes are patented, words are trademarked. Basically the invasion of market sensibility into every nook and cranny of life has provoked some reaction, saying, "No, human dignity requires certain limits to market behavior," and I think the commons is one staging area for that cultural revolution, which people are trying to push back on ubiquitous, in-your-face markets.
There's many other reasons as well, I think, that we could talk about, from the failure of a lot of political institutions and political parties. You could even trace it back to a lot of Enlightenment categories that privileged the individual and rationality over all else. But that's a much longer, more complex conversation.
Wendy: Thank you so much, and it's wonderful hearing about the work that you're doing. It's very inspirational. Thank you.
Amit: David, I wanted to come back to something you had said earlier in the call. You've been giving some really nice examples of these various communities in Italy or in Spain, and you had mentioned there seems almost more openness or willingness, in individuals in Europe, to working toward the commons, and I'm curious what you've come across here in the United States, where you've seen some of that willingness, or just working really well and that would serve as examples.
David: Precisely for this curiosity, a German colleague, Silke Helfrich, and I have produced a new book that is coming out in a month called "Patterns of Commoning." It consists of more than 50 specific profiles of notable, successful commons around the world in different contexts to show the diversity of commons and how they work. The focus is more on the internal governance and social dynamics of these different commons.
But you asked about here in the U.S. There's a number that I could talk about. One that is really interesting is, in Rhode Island there's a commons of and for artists called AS 220, which was the street address of the place of the place in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. It's, by hook and crook, acquiring a few buildings in the downtown area when it was a very troubled part of town, and renovating them and making them available to artists. They now have this fabulous asset, worth millions of dollars, which they provide not to do art for corporate patrons or rich society matrons, for ordinary artists who are everybody from print makers and musicians to fab labs and hacker spaces to printers. It's a wonderful example of using the resource for the artistic community rather than being treated by government or corporate patrons in a different way. They're very self-governing. I find that a really inspirational example.
Some of these stories are really transnational in the sense of these virtual, digital communities, like the Libreoffice story, which is an open source word processing program that's an alternative to Word. I find that extremely inspirational. Or similarly, the OpenStreetMap team, which are a group of people who use the open source street map mapping software to help out in humanitarian crises. The former director of that is an American, so there's quite an American presence on that.
There's a woman in Austin who runs a group called Commons Spark. She's been quite focused on developing collaborative mappings of commons projects. This is again similar to what I mentioned earlier, of Goteo in Spain, that is crowdfunding for commons. She's trying to call attention to various commons by providing maps that give access to different sorts of commons around the world.
There's a group called the Great Lakes Commons that's trying to cultivate a new sensibility for protecting the Great Lakes in a way that engages people, and indigenous people, in collaboration, to develop ways of protecting the Lake and call attention to the way they depend upon it for water, for recreation, for spiritual renewal. So they're trying both toe develop themselves as a community as well as engage with policy-makers on this different framework than, say, conventional policy advocates.
Those are a handful of examples domestically. I want to mention another one. There's a group in Chicago that is aspiring to, or soon is expected to develop, a so-called "chamber of commons," where they will essentially federate a lot of the regional commons in their area to be mutually supportive. This is a model that holds a lot of promise for helping people to see the breadth of possibilities they can do in their locality or region.
Amit: It certainly sounds promising. Certainly more than a "chamber of commerce." I like that idea, "chamber of commons."
David: I should mention some of the obvious things, which perhaps are less cutting-edge but are extremely valuable: land trusts; cooperatives; complementary currencies, like the Berkshares in western Massachusetts, or the Ithaca Hours. There's a lot of these things that have been around for a while that perhaps don't understand themselves as commons, but truly are, in their functioning. In some ways the value of talking about the commons is not simply as a buzzword or marketing phrase, but a way of seeing a different ethic and logic and sensibility that connects us with other groups that may not seem obviously related to us.
Amit: I agree, and I'm thinking about the election cycles that are coming up, and I would love to see some of this discussion come more to the mainstream set of conversations so people really start to think about this. I really appreciate all of your shares and insights today. If you have any thoughts on that, in terms of the political realm and being part of the public discussion, I would love to hear that.
David: I do think that it's important to engage with political discussion. I have one abiding worry, which is what I call "commons-washing," where people will claim the word, especially corporate or other types, to claim a certain moral credibility or high ground when in fact they’re not committed to commoning and the whole ethic. In some ways I want to be able to engage with mainstream people from a position of greater focus and strength and not be set up for co-optation or misunderstanding. That's going to happen however and whenever one starts to engage mainstream. It's just a risk that I wanted to earmark.
Amit: As a final question, how can we as the larger ServiceSpace community support your work?
David: Well, I enjoy having people who are interested in this topic and can move it forward. People may have ideas that don't occur to me, and that's part of the joy and benefit of all of this. So if people have ideas for how things could move forward, I'd love to hear from them. I can't say I have huge capacities to move forward, but I would love to facilitate people in their own work, and connect them with people, if I can. That's supportive to me. Perhaps people know of doors that could be opened that would be useful to me or my commons colleagues, either in terms of institutional partners or funders. I'd love to hear about them. People might have strategic ideas that again I may not be able to personally follow through on, but I might know someone who does. Or I might be able to offer modest critiques. Those are some of the ways people could help me, but on the other hand I would prefer that they find a way to develop commoning for themselves.
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.