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Capitals & Commons: A Dialogue with David Bollier, Part One

Women crowd a well in the village of Kiral in northeastern Senegal. Wells in the area are often 75 meters deep and aren't always able to produce enough water for residents' daily needs. | Image credit: AP/Rebecca Blackwell (2012)

David BollierDavid Bollier is among the foremost global thinkers and advocates for the commons. #NewMetrics channel co-curator Bill Baue recently had the following discussion with Bollier about the potential intersections between the commons movement and emerging concepts and practices in the corporate sustainability movement.

Bill Baue: I see overlap between context-based sustainability (CBS) and the commons, so let me briefly outline my perspective. CBS is focused on measuring, managing and reporting sustainability performance at the organizational level — primarily, corporations. And CBS is rooted in capital theory, or the idea of multiple areas of capital stocks (natural, human, social, constructed and financial) that yield flows that ideally are harnessed for human well-being and managed to sustainably preserve their so-called carrying capacity. Of course, many (if not most) of these capital stocks are based in the commons as resources shared jointly by diverse individuals and entities.

My sense is that the commons movement could benefit from deeper engagement with the corporate community, including activists who advocate for corporations to take full accountability for their impacts on capitals that are vital to stakeholder well-being. And I know that the sustainability context movement would benefit from expanding its advocacy base beyond the core of the corporate accountability community.

Right now is an opportune moment to mobilize, as there are currently three major new standards being established in the corporate community, and all of them are adhering to capital theory, which arguably compels them to take account of impacts on the commons — or on capital resources that are shared amongst stakeholders. These three are:

  • International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC)
  • Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB)
  • Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR)

David Bollier: I don't think the commons would mesh very well with Context-Based Sustainability, at least so far as I understand it. It sounds as if it is trying to quantify or monetize everything into capital stocks so that it can be put on the same discursive plane. But the commons is precisely about breaking up such "universal grid" approaches to understanding the world, including nature, and eschewing standard economic calculuses. Commoners generally insist upon the inherent diversity and localism of resources, people and social systems, and therefore resist quantitative, top-down, purely scientific approaches to nature (a term that itself connotes that nature is objective and separate from humanity).

From the perspective of my work and that of my colleagues, the commons are not simply resources or capital stocks that are shared; they are distinct social communities with their own self-organized governance rules, management practices and cultures that matter, especially in counterpoint to markets and the state. A commons is not the resource alone, in other words. So treating "the commons" as a capital stock would be seen by commoners as a category error and a misunderstanding of what the commons is truly about.

Finally, I am a bit skeptical about the willingness of the corporate community to voluntarily assent to standards that would truly empower commoners to manage resources in the ways they see fit. There would be too many power shifts and "inefficiencies" for most public corporations to accept. For all I know, there may be some constructive middle ground or points of mutual engagement between Context-Based Sustainability and commoners as I know them, but I am skeptical. You can get a better feel for the commons movement and their views from the website of a recent conference that I co-organized in Berlin, the Economics and the Commons Conference.

Bill Baue: You're seeing the multi-capital model as inherently reductionist, an attempt to monetize and financialize the commons, when in fact it seeks to accurately depict the commons in ways that enhance accountability. I appreciate your concern that a multi-capital approach in the capital markets isn’t sufficient to address the need for community governance, but I think we're a long way off from such a world, and we're going to get there faster if we get the corporate community thinking in terms of using capitals borrowed from the commons. Because you are having impacts on capitals that are shared with stakeholders, the companies have an ethical obligation to measure those impacts and make sure they are sustainable. It's a self-accountability mechanism. The next step would be to then engage with stakeholders and see if they agree.  

It's true that power is rarely shared voluntarily, but companies are recognizing that these resources are limited and that their social license to operate is also limited. I see you working on the notion of revoking the corporate license to operate — that can be effective, because it brings the issue into the view of companies risk management mechanisms.

But ultimately change happens more effectively when organizations recognize that they have to take accountability themselves, rather than having it imposed from without. Actually, the external imposition of accountability works hand-in-hand with the internal embracing of accountability. In short, I think CBS and the commons can each achieve our goals best by recognizing the overlap in our perspectives, instead of "enclosing" our perspectives off from one another.

David Bollier: While we may aim at similar goals, I remain highly skeptical that the multi-capital model can be transformative either within corporate governance or in the broader body politic.

From my years in Washington, many at the elbow of my Nader friends engaged in regulatory politics — and from my six years with Norman Lear working on a CSR project honoring socially innovative companies — I have a very jaundiced perspective about the efficacy of self-regulating initiatives by business. They rarely have much bite or momentum or staying power. I of course respect such initiatives when entered into by executives of goodwill — but I am only too mindful of the discretionary nature of such schemes, especially when the going gets tough (lower profits, political heat, market competition).

The "enlightened self-interest" approach may motivate some companies, especially privately held companies with visionary founders/CEOs, but they are rarely in the vanguard of an effective transformative force. That usually must come from without. Sorry, but that's what the political and legal history of health, safety and environmental regulation shows  and even the looming environmental Armageddon is not changing environmental policies and practices very fast.

You are quite right that companies do indeed need to learn how to metabolize new norms and practices ("take accountability themselves"). But the impetus for these new practices & norms usually comes from outside, and is generally foisted upon them, usually through politics or law, and not voluntarily embraced, especially when conventional wisdom says that new practices/norms work to the detriment of shareholders (This has changed somewhat in recent years as advocacy groups — recognizing that Congress and regulatory agencies are not fair-minded, evidence-driven arbiters — have shifted tactics toward damaging corporate brands and reputations. It’s more effective.).

I am not working to revoke corporate licenses to operate (although that's not a bad notion in general, where warranted), but on providing competition to the market sector in general by withdrawing from the dependencies and predations that it cultivates, and shifting production & governance to the commons, which functions outside of the direct ambit of both markets and government, and therefore has a relative economic, political and intellectual independence and self-sufficiency.

As I said earlier, I think that the use of the term "capital" to describe non-market resources and social realms — apparently as a bid to win corporate respect and attention? — is inherently misleading and potentially dangerous. Social, ecological and labor-related concerns are not in fact commodities or capital; they are living systems that have their own dynamics. Calling them "capital" can easily lead people to think that one can monetize and financialize these realms  that quantitative languages are more or less "accurate."

But just as cost-benefit analysis forces ethical and health issues to be squeezed into an inappropriate epistemology (quantitative, spreadsheet-like thinking), so multi-capital is likely to have similar outcomes, notwithstanding sincere aspirations to be mindful of the "real," more complex dimensions of the situation.  What's to stop the multi-capital approach from degenerating into a language of financialization? “Capital” is a financial term, after all.

I realize that one goal is to establish so-called "objective criteria" to facilitate a more honest conversation among stakeholders (which used to be the purpose of government regulatory processes before they were corrupted). But "objective, scientific" criteria are highly susceptible to serious methodological gaming, as the whole history of cost/benefit and risk analysis shows. (See my co-edited book, "Sophisticated Sabotage: The Intellectual Games Used to Subvert Responsible Regulation.") And even with certain "objective" numbers, the social and political significance of those numbers are interpreted very differently (Cf. the climate change group vs. the Heritage Foundation vs. the US Government).

I don't want to blindly discourage such efforts as the multi-capital approach, and I would be happy to be proven wrong (i.e., that many large companies actually buy into this analysis and find it useful in reducing their externalities, becoming responsive to stakeholders, etc.). But I find even this rosy scenario inadequate because the commons movement seeks a shift in "sovereignty" — control over rules, norms, governance — from corporations and investors, to self-organized commoners. It seeks its own, novel types of commons-based governance institutions, not a squishy, split-the-difference rapprochement with the corporate sector on its economic terms.

Most segments of the commons world that I know have little interest in having their concepts and commitments translated into the language of business because that is precisely what will co-opt and neuter certain core values (the inalienability of common-pool resources; vernacular self-determination, etc). This may be denigrated as a utopian political mission (not achievable in our lifetimes), but I find the contemporary market/state's aspirations for relentless growth to be the real utopian fantasy. The question is how to change the latter fantasy. It is on this that we perhaps disagree.

In principle I see the potential for a common ground to be found between certain business sectors and the commons, as I noted in a blog post the other day ("Social Banking and the Commons"). But a prerequisite is acknowledging the fundamentally different character of the commons and negotiating with it as an independent sector with its own sovereign interests (expressed in its own language).  It is not just one among many stakeholders willing to engage in reframing its interests as "social capital." This commons alternative is something that the multi-capital approach can't accommodate, I'm afraid. As a situated form of social governance with non-economic priorities that tend to resist quantification or standardized assessment, the commons proposes a different mindset toward resources, governance and community. Indeed, that’s largely the point: to honor the inalienable, the non-fungible, the unique particulars of a locality and its history and culture.    

Sure, businesses must be engaged with to help transform them and society ... But I am interested in finding different, more catalytic terms of engagement and greater bargaining power than what you are proposing.

Part two ...

As an internationally recognized expert on sustainability context, online stakeholder engagement, and sustainability communications, Bill Baue designs systemic transformation. He's co-founder of a number of companies and initiatives:

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