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The Abundance of the Commons

One of the most spirited panels at the International Commons Conference in Berlin, Germany, in November 2010 dealt with “The Generative Logic of the Commons.” Is there indeed “abundance” in the commons, especially ones based on natural resources? Or do such ideas amount to a denial of nature’s finite limits? We continue this conversation here.1

Silke Helfrich: Roberto, when you talk about “abundance in the commons,” what are you talking about?

Roberto Verzola: I am talking of three things: the abundance of free – or low-cost information and knowledge, thanks to new information and communication technologies (ICTs); the abundance that continually asserts itself in biological systems despite human abuse and misuse; and the material abundance possible through the conscious design of closed-loop production processes fueled by renewable energy.

Picture a bottle. You can bottle water, food, air and most other goods for sale. If you use up the bottle’s content, it’s gone. But learning from a bottle of ideas will never deplete its contents. When we share ideas, we end up with more than we started with. That’s information abundance. Thanks to new ICTs, we can now share, search, and access much more of the world’s storehouse of knowledge than was possible in the past. Then, think of DNA. Nature also bottled them into genes, cells, organisms and species, and put an intrinsic urge in every living organism to reproduce one’s own kind. That’s biological abundance. And finally, consider a factory. Disarranged, it will produce little or nothing at all. But arranged in just the right way, it will start producing goods. That’s organized abundance.

Helfrich: “Biological abundance” reminds me of Andreas Weber, a contributor to this book, who once said: “Nature as a whole is the paradigm of the logic of the commons from the beginning. Nothing in nature is monopolized, everything is open source.”

Verzola: Yes, nature’s abundance is hard to miss: bacteria can double in number every half hour; some plants release a million pollen in a day; fish can release one to ten million eggs in one breeding season; a rice grain can produce a thousand grains in a planting season. In seas, reefs, lakes, swamps, grasslands, forests, and other ecosystems, abundant life blooms. Corporate and human acts may damage these ecosystems; but left alone, the abundance reasserts itself. Nature does not grow without limit, but it has no time limit. Species form into self-limiting food webs, creating balanced ecosystems that provide us with perpetual streams of new soil, clean air and water, food, stuff for clothes and houses, medicine, fuel, and other goods and services. By the way, nature is not only about interdependence. It is also about walls and barriers, to protect itself from an “outside.” Aquatic species, for example, can release egg and sperm into the same waters, but a sperm can fertilize no other egg but its own type. Genetically, species are virtual autarkies.

Brian Davey: As an ecological economist I find these ideas somewhat disturbing. Of course, the knowledge commons have much to offer. Sharing ideas without intellectual property constraints will help us, since much of a chair’s production or a car’s production is intellectual production. Sharing energy and pooling production arrangement and infrastructures will help too. But “abundance” as a message tends to neglect that there is a difference between an abundance of information and an abundance of material products – it takes energy and materials to produce objects. There can be an abundance of recipes at the same time as a shortage of food. Even the digital commons is based on an energy-guzzling infrastructure consisting of computers, the power supply, etc. Although well-meaning designers can engage in open source design processes trying to reduce the energy usage and material throughput in the maintenance of the internet infrastructure,2 the digital commons is not free. Making a personal computer costs 1800 kilowatt hours in electricity before it is even used.3 In my view the creativity that is freed up by knowledge commons cannot in and of itself lift the limits to growth. So, although the abundance of information will be helpful, it has a limited potential to mitigate the decline in production that is likely to arise through energy descent. In my view, the notion of abundance tends to wish away that the Planet Earth has simply a limited ecological carrying capacity.

Verzola: To play down the Internet because it provides recipes but not food is to miss its biggest benefit, which is our new ability to search, access, and share information and knowledge on a global scale in ways that were simply not possible in the past. Remember the saying? “Give someone fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Don’t look for food from the Internet. Look for sustainable ways of growing food, building shelters, and revitalizing our communities.

Sure, the Earth’s mineral abundance is nonrenewable, and Peak Oil will soon end the era of cheap fossil fuels. But there is a way out, if we learn how to reorganize production into closed-loop processes. Permaculture, for instance, designs farms that emulate an abundant ecosystem like a forest by putting together what is in effect a self-regenerating forest of useful crops. In industry, recycling is just a first step. The life cycle of every product must be reviewed to move towards true zero-waste production. We have to increase throughput and flow rather than accumulate and then use up stock. This is organized abundance, by design, when, through the right combination of production components, functions and processes, every byproduct is used in another production process and the whole thing is fueled by renewables. That is a long way off, though.

I think that focusing on the three types of abundance above will in general reduce, not raise, energy consumption. Yes, the energy efficiency of the new ICTs can be improved further. But we must look not only at their absolute energy consumption but also at the much higher consumption of the transport, manufacturing and other smoke-stack technologies that the new ICTs replace.

Wolfgang Hoeschele: I think we have to add that we also should keep our eyes open to the simple ways of using renewable energy sources that don’t require technology. For example, every time we hang our clothes to dry, we are using abundant solar energy.

Davey: I can accept this to a certain extent, but we also need to get a grip on the key fact that there are absolute limits. This is also true for the amount of solar and renewable energies available, no matter how ingenious we engineer an infrastructure to capture it, and no matter how good we are at capturing it in biomass. If we want the commons to produce “abundance,” we have to be aware of the fact that the power of raw sunshine at midday on a cloudless day is 1000W per square meter – but that is 1000W per square meter of area oriented towards the sun! To get the power per square meter of land area in Britain, where I live, we need to compensate for the tilt between the sun and the land, which reduces the intensity of midday sun to about 60 percent of its value at the equator. And of course it is not midday all the time.

Globally, total incoming solar radiation is 122 Petawatts, which is 10,000 times greater than the total primary energy supply used by humanity. However, given the low density with which it falls across the whole planet, harvesting it for production processes is a costly and energy-intensive process. Many current ideas for harvesting solar energy assume that we can do this through biomass and plant photosynthesis. Permaculture has much to offer – but it cannot resolve the fact that in Britain, there is only 100 watts falling per square meter of flat ground on average for plants to harvest. Nor can human ingenuity do much about the fact that the best plants in Europe can only convert 2 percent of solar energy into carbohydrates. Humans already appropriate 30-40 percent of Net Primary Production of the biomass as food, feed, fiber, and fuel with wood and crop residues supplying 10 percent of total global human energy use. In Europe, 70 percent of all plants are appropriated by humans. Similar things can be said about other renewable energy. The room for maneuver barely exists, if at all.4 No renewables will ever be able to provide an “abundance” if, by abundance we also mean material production abundance.

Hoeschele: Let us put the argument this way:material resources are abundant if they are used in non-depleting or non-degrading ways – for instance, breathing air, or resources that are plentiful enough to meet people’s needs, such as fisheries in places where people fish only a small portion of the sustainable yield.

Helfrich:Then we are actually talking about an “abundance with conditions,” a concept that may help us to go beyond the traditional eco-argumentation, which, as Franz Nahrada points out, usually “aggregates quantitative aspects of production processes and reproductive capabilities without looking at the interplay between them.” Michael Braungart, the father of the Cradle-to-Cradle principle,5 uses a simple image to illustrate this. When you have badly designed material production that produces waste (in an unholy alliance with an economic systems based on consumption, where we need to consume to make “the economy go round”), each additional activity in this badly designed production will increase scarcity. But it’s a scarcity we create by the way we produce and consume. The alternative is to design products as “parts of cascades of material re-use and up-cycling,” as Braungart suggests. And here is again where the (knowledge) commons come into play. If we want the commons to provide us with food and fuel and stuff, each activity has to be designed in such a way that it increases the base for other activities and thus creates abundance, which in my point of view is: enough to meet everybody’s needs.

Verzola: Exactly. The problem is that most economists today assume unlimited demand due to infinite wants. Under such assumptions, abundance is indeed impossible. But if people get satiated, then demand is finite and abundance becomes possible. Remember Mahatma Gandhi who said: “There is enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.”

Helfrich: I agree, but let me come back to the issue of production design. During our post-Berlin-Conference conversations, Franz Nahrada suggested that the decisive factor to redesign the way we produce is the interplay between our growing availability of information, code, and knowledge and the material world. What matters is our ability to conceive and design self-feeding and self supporting cycles and arrangements that can permanently harvest systemic gains from other inputs – for example, using the excess heat of a large server farm to warm human settlements. This is a systemic gain that results purely from design.

Hoeschele: So far, so good, but there is another problem, which you already referred to. It arises from the very design of the dominant economy. It is certainly the major barrier to triggering those “cascades of abundance by self-feeding and self supporting cycles and arrangements.” Oddly enough, mainstream economists and market players often deny real material limits (they suggest unlimited abundance of resources such as petrol), while at the same time telling us that we always face scarcity because our unlimited wants will always exceed the available resources.

For example, they will say that there is no basis to assertions that we will soon face “Peak Oil.” But if anybody suggests that we not drill for oil in Alaska, or Ecuador, or anywhere else, then this particular oil is considered essential for our economic development. Meanwhile, any efforts to consume less oil by driving less are considered “bad for the economy” because that will generate less employment. You are supposed to consume more even if you personally have no interest in consuming more, in order to “boost employment.” People are said not to be altruistic – but then they are asked to consume more for altruistic reasons!

Helfrich: “Consumption for altruistic reasons” – could you explain this more?

Hoeschele: Our present economy is designed in such a way that it sees no value in abundant resources because you cannot sell them at a high profit margin. You cannot package air for breathing and then sell it to somebody. Where fish are abundant you can sell them, but only at a modest price. In other words, only exchange value is recognized, use value is not. But use value is what matters in the commons. Today it is advantageous for entrepreneurs to make abundant resources scarce so that they can then be sold at a higher price and generate more exchange value. For example, if demand is increased beyond available supply, the goods become scarce. Think of the hype around iPads, or bottled drinking water sold at a price up to 10,000 times the cost of tap water by suggesting that it is more pure. The argument I make in my book6 is that the work of making abundant resources scarce is not left to individual initiative but is done by scarcity-generating institutions such as inequitable property arrangements, gender and racial hierarchies, car-oriented urban planning, and a money system dominated by central banks. Scarcity can be produced by manipulating either the supply or demand of a commodity such that demand exceeds supply. In this sense, there is scarcity even when there is a huge amount of production or if there are plenty of resources available.

Helfrich: In short, our current economy cannot deal with abundance!

Hoeschele: One can put it this way: Our current economy maximizes inefficiency of consumption in order to generate the demand needed to justify ever-increasing production and therefore an ever-increasing consumption, or waste, of natural resources. That is the very problem. Remember – our economies depend on an always growing GDP. In such a context, increased efficiency of production does nothing – or not enough – to address issues of “resource limitedness.” If it would do so, it would destroy our economic system. But if we remain addicted to oil while supplies diminish, prices will skyrocket! This is why oil companies tend to downplay the imminence of diminishing oil supplies.

Helfrich: Does that mean that we can benefit from the potential of abundant resources only if we become more independent from both finite resources such as fossil fuels and from the restraints built into our economic system, which forces market players to make resources scarce in order to convert them into commodities?

Hoeschele: I think so. And independence means freedom. We’ll all be more free as a result! If we refashion our cities so that everybody can get around, including the old, the young, the poor, the rich, the ones who own cars as well as the ones who don’t, then a lot of our dependence on oil evaporates, and at the same time we have more choices about how to move about. If oil prices decline because we don’t need that oil anymore – then we’ve got abundance, and we’ve brought down those oil corporations as well! Our food systems are also built on scarcity, where growing food only makes sense if it’s sold at a sufficient profit margin. Reviving subsistence-oriented production, community gardens and the like can make good, healthy food available at low cost, something that commercial agriculture is too often unable to do.

An economics of abundance seek out these kinds of strategies of providing for our needs; it is not an economics that assumes that abundance exists, but one that analyzes modes of scarcity generation such as the ones I mentioned above, and that points out ways to counteract them. Just as scarcity is socially constructed (and is very real, as real as a humanly constructed building), so also abundance has to be created. Under current circumstances, this is a daunting task, but one that we must face. In short, my contention is that real material limits to resources exist, but that we can also live in abundance – defined as the condition when all people, now and in the future, are enabled to thrive.

Davey: I am glad that Wolfgang has defined what he means by abundance. What still is lacking in this discussion is a definition of abundance that we agree on. However, Wolfgang’s definition is not the one that I would use. My Oxford Dictionary of English defines “abundance” as “quantity more than sufficient, plenty.... affluence, wealth.” This is what I’ve been taking it to mean.

I totally agree with the notion of striving to organize the economic system to promote well being – and defining well being as “the condition that all people, now and in the future, are enabled to thrive.”

And I think that this well being would involve a condition where people do not have to worry about their material needs because they have sufficient resources for these needs and can therefore devote themselves to their free creative interests and the improvement in the quality of their relationships. I agree on the importance of that.

I also agree that the current economic system deliberately seeks to promote dissatisfaction with what people already have in the interests of selling more. This creates a feeling of scarcity and want where really people already have more than is sufficient...They certainly do in developed consumer societies. Further, this promotion of dissatisfaction fosters a motivation system that is not associated with psychological well being. It is based on extrinsic motivations, where people do things because of the money or status but not because of the intrinsic value of doing them. There is also the encouragement of a narrow individualism so people fail to act fully as members of communities and see their place in nature. Therefore, I think “commoning” would be enormously helpful to address these issues and help people to become more fulfilled. It doesn’t matter a lot that one cannot, in my view, have material abundance for all because it is not in that direction that a satisfying life lies.

Verzola: I’d like to add one more idea. People should become aware of the various sources of abundance for another reason. The same institutions that create artificial scarcity also want to monopolize the sources of abundance, and for exactly the same reason: profitmaking. Because sources of abundance are often part of the commons (knowledge, natural resources, infrastructure, etc.), people have a right to their use, to a voice in the decision-making, and to a stake in their ownership.

Helfrich: Brian, you once said: “I think a movement based on abundance is more likely to attract armed men than a movement based on sufficiency.” Do you stick to this statement?

Davey: Well, words and messages are slippery. I still think the slogan of abundance has the potential to be misleading, and misled people might get angry. Once put into circulation other people may not use it as we would like. I think it is better to have a clear message about the need for collective psychological adjustment to the limits of our world – for sharing fairly and seeking life satisfactions that are different from the activities and goals of a consumer society. In fact I think that we agree on that.

Verzola: Brian, “abundance” is not just a slogan; it is a real phenomenon, both on the Internet and in nature. We can make it visible. Even from a purely economic perspective, it is impossible to miss the abundance that keeps reasserting itself within ecosystems. Some scarcities, of course, are just as real. But it seems more important to me to watch out for articifial scarcities, as Wolfgang points out. And we must be wary of pseudo-abundance. Nonetheless, if we want to create real abundance to attain a minimum level of material comfort for all, we must master abundance concepts so that we can, by conscious design, build cascades of abundance, for the good of humanity.

Davey: When you, Roberto, argue for emphasizing the abundant side of reality if the other side appears gloomy, I don’t accept this at all. We must stay in touch with all sides of reality, no matter how painful. Sometimes things are as bad as they seem, and rather than being cheerily upbeat it’s better to stay in touch with things as they are. The psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed a model of the stages people typically (if not always) go through on learning that they are dying or about to suffer a great loss. These are denial, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. I fear that there’s an element of denial and wishful thinking in all of this. Yes, nature is abundant – but it also has die-outs and extinction events.

To me, the chief problem of all this abundance stuff is that it might delay emotionally coming to terms with the profound impact of humankind on the fecundity of nature and the exhaustion of energy supplies – without which the information in the seeds and in our software cannot fully evolve. To really take in the threats of climate change and Peak Oil is to be affected emotionally. Many people suffer grief because the future that they saw for themselves and for their children is not there anymore. I think that it is with, or after, the despair that one achieves acceptance and a commitment to constructive action – together with a different kind of hope, one based on realism.

Hoeschele: I think in the end we really agree on far more than on what we disagree about. Yet, I’d like to say something more in favor of using words like “abundance,” and that is the widespread view that environmentalists are nay-sayers, that they want us to give up the good things in life, and become saintly hermits who renounce wealth for the greater good of the earth and the myriad species that exist here. I know that I’ve just drawn a caricature, but I find that this image really hurts the cause of trying to develop sustainable ways of living on this planet. When you juxtapose this image with the consumerist barrage of messages, then very few people are going to embrace a new lifestyle of reduced resource consumption.

The message I am trying to convey is that our current conditions are actually a condition of scarcity. Our wants and needs for commodities are always kept in excess of supply (a “feeling of scarcity” if you wish, but the people feeling scarcity can’t usually tell the difference between the feeling and some objective reality out there). Instead, if we take another path, we can experience the abundance of having potential access to far more than we need, and the sense of security that comes with this. This opens up far more space for creativity, for generosity, for human relationships of care and mutual support, that foster each individual’s personal growth. In my experience, talking about abundance does not lead to fear (an emotion which I feel is intimately tied up with scarcity), but rather to enthusiasm, and to the creativity that we need in order to contribute to an economy built on positive human relationships.

Verzola: We should not underestimate the value of a positive message. Reality may be 90 percent bad and only 10 percent good, but to dwell 90 percent of the time on the bad will cause cynicism, despair and a feeling of powerlessness.

Davey: But we can take the view that if reality is 90 percent bad, then that is what it is – 90 percent bad with 10 percent good. As the psychiatrist R. D. Laing puts it, “The only pain we can avoid in life is the pain caused by trying to avoid pain.”

The literature on the psychology of values and motivations suggests that concentrating on the dark side of something can actually be better for producing more profound shifts in people’s attitudes. Clive Hamilton and Tim Kasser once said at a conference at Oxford University that deep reflection on death (usually thought of as “bad”), is better at producing a shift in profound values. They recommend that environmental campaigns avoid appealing to selfish desires such as, “Ten ways you can save money by reducing your carbon emissions.” I think it is possible to connect messages with the idea of cooperation and non-material benefits. Instead, at present, most governments and environmental organizations adopt a “don’t scare the horses” approach, fearful that exposing people fully to the scientific predictions will immobilize them.

Hoeschele: But still, it is important if we choose an imagery of death and dying, or of healing. While acceptance leading to resignation is appropriate in the case of death and dying, in the case of healing it is also important to feel and recognize the pain, but this does not lead to resignation – but to a rallying of one’s self-healing capacity. That’s the abundance, which can then lead to healing despite odds that doctors (the rational ones) have considered impossible. This isn’t just wishful thinking (if it were, I wouldn’t support it), but something much more powerful.

Davey: Therapist Oliver James argues in his book Affluenza that there is a distinction between positive thinking and positive volition. He considers positive thinking a form of denial that is not helpful. But maybe we can agree on this: one has to recognize and acknowledge that one has a serious health problem, in which death is possible, in order to take that health problem seriously enough that one sets about working on the tasks involved in healing. We may then take steps to work to get better – but still are able to stay in touch with the reality.

Helfrich: Marianne Grönemeyer once wrote, “Abundance (the German word is literally “overflowing”) has taken on a dissonant overtone. Not the overflowing, but the superfluous, is the meaning that has pushed itself to the foreground.” Perhaps our debate can contribute to reversing this tendency and to foreground the things we really have or need in abundance: knowledge, information, healthy relationships, cooperation, and the full potential of self-organization. All of them are essential in the commons.

Many thanks for this conversation!

  • 1. Additional information can be found at http://p2pfoundation.net/Abundance_of_Food_vs_the_Abundance_of_Recipes
  • 2. See also the essay on peer-to-peer production projects by Christian Siefkes.
  • 3. McKay, David J.C.: “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air,” UIT Cambridge, 2009, p. 94, at www.withouthotair.com
  • 4. See Vaclav Smil’s monumental study, Energy in Nature and Society. General Energetics of Complex Systems (MIT Press, 2008), pp 382-383.
  • 5. Cradle to Cradle design, or “C2C,” is a school of design that seeks to emulate natural processes so that all waste can be treated as inputs to useful processes, much as an ecosystem recirculates all material in circular, regenerative flows. This requires a holistic approach that attempts to make economic, industrial and social systems more organically interdependent and waste-free.
  • 6. Hoeschele, Wolfgang. 2010. The Economics of Abundance: A Political Economy of Freedom, Equity, and Sustainability. Aldershot, UK. Gower Publishing.

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