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

A Maine lobster fishing cooperative | Image credit: Greg Hartford

David Bollier is among the foremost global thinkers and advocates for the commons. #NewMetrics channel co-curator Bill Baue conducted the following dialogue with Bollier. In part one, Baue and Bollier discussed whether there are intersections between the commons movement and emerging concepts and practices in the corporate sustainability movement. Here, they delve further into the debate.

Bill Baue: I agree that change most often comes from outside the entrenched, dysfunctional system, but I also believe it's most likely to take hold if the system's internal functioning has been lubricated for receptivity. Stated slightly differently, there's a whole lot of people I deeply respect working for change from within the system, so I opt to ally myself with them to support the work necessary for transformation, which I see as inevitable, be it voluntary or in response to systemic disruptions.

What I continue to hear from you is a kind of either/or that places the commons movement outside a reality that includes the current capitalist business world — which itself is undergoing transformation both from within (spurred by intrapreneurs applying more holistic thinking and models to business settings) and from without (in response to global crises and constraints that increasingly expose the gap between the theory of perpetual growth, free-market capitalism and thermodynamic realities). I respect your skepticism for a rosy-sounding, voluntary, discretionary relinquishing of power by business, which is exactly why I'm proposing that the commons movement engage directly with the business community, particularly the movements within the business community that recognize the need to change models toward sustainability. In other words, given that the business community is actively considering ways to internalize externalities onto its balance sheets (if for no other reason than self-interest to maintain social license to access common resources), it seems to make sense that the commons community would want to engage in this conversation and potentially influence it toward an outcome that benefits society more broadly, forging a more balanced relationship between commerce & the commons. 

More specifically, I see the inevitable need for common resource pools to be measured in order to manage their use within their carrying capacities. The term, which you use prominently in your recent interview with Francesca Rheannon, is perhaps best illustrated by the Ecological Footprint methodology, which is predicated on measuring and managing natural capital. CBS extends this same thinking to the organizational level, measuring whether individual companies are operating within the carrying capacities of various common capitals  or resource pools, if you will.

I'd be interested to hear what methodologies the commons community is using to measure and manage the carrying capacities of common resource pools, and how it allocates resources rationally and fairly amongst various users.

David Bollier: Yes, let’s “lubricate” the system to make it more receptive to a commons-oriented approach. This is quite evident in the surging interest in the “sharing economy” now emerging, at least in tech sectors. The value of open network platforms that host social sharing and collaboration is becoming highly generative  and often quite lucrative (e.g., Google, Facebook, etc). But for me the question is whether commoners will retain a basic sovereignty over the social value that they create, or will it be captured, privatized and monetized by clever entrepreneurs and investors with capital? 

You are certainly correct that more companies are starting to understand the holistic dimensions of ecosystems, and many are taking innovative, pro-active steps to make their companies “more green” and more community-responsive. That’s quite positive. Companies may claim that they are doing these things because (as you say) it is in their “self-interest to maintain social license to access common resources.” I consider this a high-minded posture. The political reality is that serious accountability for abuses of common resources is a remote risk that many, many companies are all too willing to take. Penalties and deterrents are embarrassingly small; the “social license” for the corporate form is not in danger of being revoked any time soon despite plummeting public trust.

My point is that so long as “socially responsible innovation” takes place within the existing macro-structures in globally integrated capital markets, in societies dependent upon ceaseless economic growth and consumerism, there will be strict limits to what can be achieved. The corporate form and public markets as constituted are straitjackets.

The appeal of the commons as a vehicle for dealing with many social and ecological issues is that the commons integrates production, consumption and governance into a single institutional (yet socially grounded) form. This greatly reduces the incentives to externalize costs. It cultivates an ethic of sufficiency instead of consumerism and growth. It nourishes shared moral and social commitments to collective goals that market culture cannot nourish. It integrates economic concerns with social and moral values. Spreadsheet-like calculation as a way of allocating resources becomes almost gauche. 

How then do commons allocate resources in rational, fair manners? It depends in part upon the resource (digital resources can be copied and shared for virtually no cost; natural resources tend to be finite and depletable), and it depends upon the particular community. But once the imperatives of growth and consumerism are replaced by a different governance structure and cultural orientation, many things become possible. 

The hallmark of a commons is that ability of members to devise their own constitutional, collective-choice and operational rules, based upon the dynamics of the specific resource, its ecological context, community norms and history, and so forth. These are among the key “design principles” discovered by the late Professor Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her painstaking fieldwork and theorizing about successful commons. Her work notably refutes the claims of Garrett Hardin and his “tragedy of the commons” parable, which describes an open-access free-for-all, not a commons with community, rules, monitoring, sanctions for free riders, etc.

There is no standard, off-the-shelf methodology for commons, even though there are some general principles that seem to recur. Land trusts, community-supported agriculture, the acequia irrigation systems of New Mexico, the lobster fisher commons in Maine, and the indigenous tribes of Peru who manage 900 potato varieties each have different systems. But this is precisely why commons tend to work: they are adapted to local circumstances and draw upon the moral commitments and creativity of participating commoners. They do not need to rely upon external administration that uses Soviet-style central planning and calculation, which may or may not take account of local conditions or be respected as politically or morally legitimate. Commons leverage and mobilize energies on the ground.

This is why it is important to distinguish a common-pool resource (CPR) from a commons. We’re not just talking about expert-driven management and administration of “resources” that simply need to be “rationally” allocated. We’re talking about highly distributed social systems of governance that engage people’s social practices, cultural identities and moral commitments — that elicit locally responsive approaches, rule-sets, social norms, etc. These are far more powerful and creative than most economists care to acknowledge.

Bill Baue: I welcome the vision you articulate of a commons community that (re)claims its sovereignty. In fact, the more organized the commons community is, the more efficient its engagement with business becomes, the better the ultimate outcomes are. As you point out, some commerce will arise (or re-establish itself) from the commons movement, as in the sharing economy. That said, I still see a long future of engagement between existing business forms and their stakeholders, and this is where I see overlap between the commons and context-based sustainainability. CBS is predicated on the notion that companies have ethical duties and obligations to support stakeholder well-being, primarily by sustainably managing their impacts on what you call common-pool resources and what I call common capitals. In the end, it doesn't really matter as much what we call them — I believe what matters most is that the resources serve human and ecological well-being first and foremost.

So the more you describe the particular dimensions of the commons, the more I see the commons community as perfectly suited to engage with existing companies to shift their practices toward taking accountability for their negative impacts — and optimally adopt new business models that generate positive impacts exclusively, designing negative impacts out of the system. This engagement would complement the existing trajectories of grassroots development of commons-oriented commerce (that you describe so eloquently) and the shift of the corporate community toward greater sustainability and accountability.

I realize there's potential risk in the commons community engaging with existing business, for fear of being co-opted. But I believe there's greater risk in not engaging, and thereby leaving the business community to find its own way on how to handle common resource pools.

Ultimately, I think you're right that we differ on the question of “how to change the fantasy of the market/state's aspirations for relentless growth” — but we don't disagree. I completely agree with you on the need for the commons movement to pursue its own work on creating a parallel alternative economy that will eventually supercede and thereby replace the current insanity of perpetual growth capitalism. I simply augment your vision of change from outside the current system with a vision of change from within the current system — a kind of Trojan Horse theory of change that embraces spreadsheets as a tool for change precisely by replacing the calculus of monetization with an economics that embeds respect for ecological thresholds and social foundations at its core. Given the urgency of our current environmental and social crises, I prefer multiplying the angles from which we approach the problems, not subtracting or dividing them.

 


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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