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Rethinking Sustainable Development in terms of Commons

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Wouldn’t sustainable development initiatives, mechanisms and policies considerably gain in effectiveness if they were planned and assessed in relation to the principles, processes and practices of the commons?

The commons are a social system that intimately associates people or stakeholders with their resources and the participatory and mindful ways they are managing/producing/caring for them. Commons can be described in a variety of ways and along several dimensions. The three below function together as a whole:
  • As object, the commons are the Common Wealth, the assets that we inherit or create, use and change, and that serve our livelihood (our natural, social and cultural resources, genetic and biological diversity, knowledge, etc), that people pass on to future generations. These assets need to be nurtured, (re)generated and to be indiscriminately accessible to the greatest number. They must therefore be protected against capture, over-exploitation, depletion and abuse.
  • As practice, the commons are the Common Ethos of which people are an integral part; the culture and the relationships they build with each other, withtheir resources and with the earth, the ways of being and doing in common (caring, sharing, nurturing, replenishing our common assets with discernment, transparency, empathy, equity, justice, mindfulness…). This practice critically depends on sustained and adaptive know-how, on increased knowledge flows, and continuous collaboration and learning including ways of working together on problem solving. This practice takes multiple forms and names. Sustainable living and development is one of them.
  • As result, the commons are the Common Good, the outcomes of the practice (access, capacity, well being, quality of life, prosperity, abundance). They are the life blood of the process, those that make the world thrive, and become in turn assets to nurture…
Because of the relationships and interactions between these various elements, the commons are generative systems, which provide the tangible conditions that empower and enable communities in relation to their purpose and to the ecological contexts they find themselves in, at various levels and scales.
 
From this perspective, commons may serve as a medium for accelerating the adoption of sustainable practices that address social, environmental and economic dimensions in a cohesive and interconnected manner. Thus they help achieve sustainable development goals in a sustainable and robust manner.
 

Commons, open access resources, public domain must be protected

Today, organizations and in particular corporations in the private sector have multiple ways of protecting themselves against risks, depletion or abuse of their own assets, and of making provisions for regenerating their assets, or measuring and improving their intangible outputs…
 
Some of this has been secured through enclosure and appropriation of the commons or public domain assets as a means to maximize profit and capture value added and by transferring (externalizing) part of their risks and costs to society.
 
The commons for their part, have little means of protection and securing risks, assets and governance. In particular, public domain or open access resources are increasingly being privatized in order to have an ‘owner’ rather than be left to ‘mismanagement’ by the public sector or abuse by free riders -aka tragedy of the commons. This has had a devastating effect on access to resources and livelihoods of the poorest.
 
In particular when corporation start getting involved in the sustainability discussions, we need some criteria for knowing where to go. What could distinguish genuinely effective corporate sustainability policies and practices from what is regularly been decried as business as usual or greenwashing? What could prevent corporate sustainability initiatives or sustainability goals and policies to be either looked at suspiciously or considered as the silver bullet without any actual way to discriminate between the two?We are here on relatively new territory. Business’ endeavors have long been by construction dedicated to making the most profit out of what can be exploited -’supercharging’ productivity of human endeavor, or ‘drawing nutrients’ from the soil, to name a few, as highlighted in the latest UN Global Compact report. This is a revealing vocabulary, and there are fine lines between sustainable practices and over-exploitation to identify and watch. It is crucial that the sustainable endeavors of business or any human activity be conducted in a sustainable way, with a focal point that can connect all issues and efforts, and serve as a ‘vetting’ system to gage the sustainability of initiatives. The commons can be this connector and vetting system. The fine line has to do with whether and how an activity protects and nurtures the commons and public domain, which as living system give some materiality to the interconnections between the social, the economic and the environment.Because of their inherently fragile and exposed nature and their strong connections to human rights, the commons in all their dimensions must be protected. It is important that the principles and provisions for the commons, associating common assets, people and the modalities for taking care of the assets in an open and transparent way come to mind when creating policy and making tradeoffs in negotiations. Creating institutions to defend the commons and inscribing the principles of the commons in constitutions and law to protect the public domain would be a necessary step to start the process.

 

Below are a few provisions and principles related to the commons that could help design and assess sustainability initiatives, mechanisms and policies. They must be seen as a whole and be monitored in relation to one another.
 

Non discriminatory access to resources:

History is filled with stories of enclosures and abuses of the commons. Any sustainable development goal should be associated with a non discriminatory access to resources. The latest developments around water are the most compelling. Asserting their right to the commons, the Bolivian people have reclaimed the management of their water utility in Cochabamba in 2000. The Italian city of Naples rejected the privatization of waterby referendum with a strong majority in 2011. Elinor Ostrom, nobel prize winner in economics in 2009 for her work on the commons, has shown that with adequate governance rules and application of know-how by communities, the tragedy of the commons did not apply and communities were better off.
 

People involved directly must participate in their own destiny and the decision making process

Communities must be encouraged and educated to cultivate and produce their own livelihoods and co-govern their utilities, services and resources, in relational dynamics that foster self-realization and adaptation.
 
When people consciously manage those resources that they and their children depend on for their survival and well-being, they tend to take good care of them. This is also part of Elinor Ostrom’s findings. That’s what makes the commons a system, with people (commoners) taking care (commoning) of their common assets (common goods). Commons cannot exist without commoners and commoning. This is the motto of the advocates of the commons approach.
 
Communities, groups and individuals develop a sense of ownership of the process, a sense of immediacy and transparency, of shared destiny and emotional experience that foster trust and resilience, and a shared ‘commons sense’. Local collaboration and peer to peer (P2P) dependencies are something graspable and immediate, and also expand awareness of what empowers one another and larger systems.
 
One very important characteristic of the commons is that stakeholders equitably share responsibility and benefits for the resources and context that they share, and that they govern and manage these in an open and transparent manner.
 
Commons based development helps people develop livelihoods and take charge of their own future in a sustainable and resilient way and can help sustainable development.
 
Anydefinition of the commons should associate the people who have a stake with open and transparent modes of governance.
 

Non discriminatory access to knowledge and right to share

Non-discriminatory access must protect the right to use, to share and to contribute knowledge and skills to distributed and open standard technologies that sustain the commons.
 
Know-how and knowledge are critical to managing a commons effectively. Needed know-how is related to practices as well as understanding each other and how to work together as a whole.
 
Both must be learned, promoting “connections” conversations to help build on interactions and facilitate integrated shifts in larger and smaller scale practices allowing stakeholders to discover new ways to solve their mutual problems.
 

Those who take from the commons must contribute to the commons.

Human activity benefits from access to all kinds of available resources and possibilities -the commons. This access to commons enables progress and development, but if there is a lack of awareness and protection, the commons are abused.
 
This is probably the toughest challenge for sustainable development, to shift from an ‘exploitative’ mindset (every possibility and resource whether natural, cultural, biological resource is there to be mined whatever the consequences) that has been cultivated by our western education system, to one that is mindful and aware of its limits. And that’s where we believe the commons can help, because the commons as a system give some materiality to the interconnections between social, economic and environment, with some meaning attached and can help ‘measure’ it.
 
Because the commons are a medium for development that needs to grow, it is important that any actor in the system become aware of how he benefits from the commons and how he may deplete or abuse the commons, so that he can make positive contributions to the commons by restoring or regenerating what has been depleted, or by sharing in the public domain or common pool some of the knowledge, know-how or added value generated in the process.
 
Open source software typically functions based on this principle. Anyone can take the existing code freely and improve it and then request his changes to be incorporated in the main code as a way to sustain the commons.
 
On the tangible side, depleting resources and soils, polluting rivers or endangering public health are ways of taking from the commons, as much as enclosure and over-exploitation of resources.
 
On the intangible side, inventors or creators benefit from existing knowledge and capabilities. Isaac Newton wrote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” meaning his discoveries were built on previous discoveries. Disney built an empire on animating tales that were in the public domain, but to date gave nothing back to the commons. Copyright laws are regularly being expanded to provide continued exploitation rights for licenses that could have been returned to the public domain long ago.
 
There is a fine line between protection and enclosure, between protection from abusive copy by competitors and closing access for the public to a whole domain of possibilities and enabling factors thus creating artificial scarcity. This line is clearly crossed if intellectual property rights do more to stifle than reward current creativity activity, or promote the destruction of cultural heritage.
 
Depletion or enclosure of the commons is a cost for society, a transfer of a cost from those few who reap the benefits of first access to the commons to society as a whole. These transfers must cease. Simply applying a tax or opening up rights to deplete fails to produce the awareness and conscience of what is at stake and to validly change the way things are done.
 
Value network analysis should be undertaken to establish how commons value is generated and flows into activities, how value is transformed by the activity, how it is captured and what ultimately comes out of the activity as output.
 

Economics must concentrate on growing the commons. Growth that depletes the commons must be stopped

The commons are both an input to the dynamic interactions mentioned above and their output. For progress to materialize for all, or for development to really be sustainable, our common assets must remain stable or increase. The commons in all their diversity and all the types of value they create must grow. Ideally each sustainability initiative should be geared towards growing the commons and the number of those who can access and benefit from the livelihood the commons enables,while preventing their depletion. Finance must be used to grow the commons
 

Focus on needs, use value and regenerative models rather than on exchange value and material flows

Our economy’s current purpose is to maximize flows of material in a linear extract, transform, dispose type of model on the basis of artificial abundance (exponential drawing on resources as if they were endless), and to maximize exchange value by generating artificial scarcities (via enclosures of vital resources, including seeds and knowledge). It is a machine for perpetual growth that uses its profits and its knowledge to continually escalate its demands on humanity and on the earth and to constantly multiply its capacity to inflate itself as private wealth and power. As it faces limitations of real resources, it is brittle and prone to breakdown, undermining productive activity as well as leading to the abuse of the commons in a never ending spiral.
 
The challenge we are facing is to ensure the conditions under which our economy can be viable and sustainable, and improve at the same time the material and non-material (intellectual, emotional, spiritual…) wellbeing of the people, and the viability of the commons that enables it.
 
Focus must be put on regenerative models such as “circular economy” based on closed loops and systems resilience, and new approaches of production, consumption and ownership that optimize the flow of goods and services over time in relation to a diminishing size of non renewable resources that can give way to new approaches of business co-evolution and integration of the commons that do not assume abundance of finished resources and do not base business models on artificial scarcity.
 

Monitoring at the system level: Triple monitoring of status of an asset, usage of a practice AND resulting outcome

Indicators must be set up to monitor the three dimensions of the commons together to make sure that one of the dimensions does not grow to the detriment of the others. The approach is iterative, to test how things behave on the ground through trial and error, tolerance for mistakes and ongoing reflection.
 

Difficulties and precautions in the applications of these principles

  • Really empowering those who need it the most, associating people in the decision process, and changing the power distribution from centralized to decentralized, from ‘west’ to ‘south’. This means letting go of some forms of power and control.
  • Avoiding potential co-optation and misappropriation of the process if applied in a non systemic manner without associating people/practices with assets and outcomes to their specific contexts. Corporations -or any other type of organization- cannot assume the right to unilaterally govern or manage, and therefore enclose, the commons or what is currently in the public domain.
  • Monitoring for unintended consequences and finding the points of limit when something beneficial can become toxic because conditions have changed or because over utilization of a practice or model and reduction of the variety of possible responses affects resilience and can make things brittle.
  • Finding the balance between the fair protection against unfair competition and fair compensation of research and initial investments and the enclosure of whole domains of activity and resources, creating artificial scarcities that put the users/consumers/communities at the mercy of ‘the markets’ and of abuse of dominant positions.

Questions to be asked when making policy recommendations, reassessed through on-going monitoring processes.

In particular as a vetting process and means to identify potential tradeoffs

  • How is it linked to the commons as a system?
  • What context does it address?
  • What people/practices, assets and outcomes does it associate?
  • What dimension of the commons does it grow/stop depleting?
  • What dimensions of the commons does it put at risk?
  • What are the consequences on other external commons?
  • Which are the trade-offs to condider?
  • What are the risks of enclosure, abuse, over-exploitation?
  • Who has access? How is over-usage and depletion protected?
  • How is enclosure, appropriation, abusive exploitation prevented?
  • Who are the stakeholders? How are they involved?
  • How open and transparent are the decision processes and modes of governance?
  • Where does the power lie?
  • What are the learning and conflict resolution mechanisms in place?
  • How does this contribute to empowering and enabling self-realization and self-healing at the individual and community level?
  • What elements or circumstances could make it become detrimental to the commons?
  • What are the assessment and correction mechanisms in place?
  • How are assets, practices and outcomes assessed in inter-related ways?
  • What are the mechanisms in place to avoid misinterpretation and misappropriation of the goal, target and indicator?

This is adapted from a recommendation I posted to the UN-NGLS Civil Society Consultation on SDG’s following the release of four UN Reports that will help determine the global post-2015 agenda for sustainable development. It is available as a collaborative document in the Institutionalizing the Commons project group that will further work on framing the commons principles for them to be better embedded in constitution, law and policy at various levels. To pursue the work at the UN, but also at the EU, national, regional and local institutional levels. Please join the group to start collaborating!

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