This post is an excerpt from The Great Awakening: New Modes of Life amidst Capitalist Ruins, edited by David Bollier and Anna Grear and published by Punctum Books. This is the first part of the chapter Awakening to an Ecology of the Commons, written by Michel Bauwens and Jose Ramos. You can find out more about the book and download it for free here.
Awakening to an Ecology of the Commons
We live in a transformative moment in human history, at once on the precipice of crisis and simultaneously awakening into a new awareness of ourselves as commoners and planetary beings.
For the individual, this transformative moment in human history feels more like a crisis than a transition — drawn out, full of dangers, obstacles, and growing pains. The moment, however, is the birth of the “planetary” as an element of human experience, and this transition is, according to our perspective, the transition from social orders based on exploitation to social orders based on generative mutuality. In this chapter, we explain the intertwined and integral emergence of the planetary and the commons as complementary fields of experience and their role in the reimagination of who we are.
1. The Commons as Mutualization for the Anthropocene
Much is now written about the so-called “Anthropocene,” a new epoch that signifies humanity as more than just a passive traveller on planet Earth. The Anthropocene signals humanity as a transformer, or a terraformer, of our planet — producing effects comparable to grand geological shifts.1 For the purpose of this discussion, we can distinguish three “movements” of the Anthropocene.
The first movement is, of course, the significance of humans as a species with planetary impacts. This is the popular definition of the Anthropocene — humanity has become such a powerful aggregate force that we can assign a geological era to ourselves! If this was the only dimension of the Anthropocene, however, we would be no different than the species that generated the first planetary crisis approximately 2.5 billion years ago, anaerobic cyanobacteria, which led to the Great Oxygenation Event where the planet was literally poisoned by excess oxygen, a waste product of cyanobacteria.2
Fortunately, the Anthropocene also signifies an awareness of ourselves as a planetary species with planetary impacts.3 We are not just blindly having an impact on the planet, we are increasingly aware of our powerful and precarious effects. We have the power to reflect on who we are, to evaluate what it means to be human. While the first movement of the Anthropocene — human instrumental power — is far more advanced than the second movement — reflective planetary awareness — , this second movement is catching up with the first, for obvious reasons.
Finally, a third movement of the Anthropocene closes the loop on the first two — reflexive planetary responses.4 Reflexive planetary responses signifies the capacity for humanity to leverage the second aspect (reflective planetary awareness) toward coordinated, intelligent responses to the challenges we collectively face. This third movement of the Anthropocene is by far the most embryonic, and yet ultimately the most crucial, without which we have little hope of any real long-term viability.
These three aspects play out a classic action learning cycle: act — reflect — change, but at a grand scale that we have only begun to experience today.
The body of ideas and research on the commons is a critical part of the second movement of the Anthropocene — our capacity to interpret and understand ourselves in the current era; while the praxis of the commons, termed “commoning,” is critical to the third movement of the Anthropocene — our reflexive planetary responses.
The stakes are high. The Anthropocene is a crucial time for humanity, in which our very survival is at stake. In this chapter, we want to argue for a crucial link between the necessity to reduce the human footprint on the planet and its natural resources, and the modality of the commons, i.e., the pooling and mutualization of resources.
This hypothesis was one of the key reasons for the creation of the P2P Foundation, as from the very beginning, we gave the following analysis of the global problematique:
1. Our current political economy proceeds from the point of view of permanent and unlimited growth, something which is both logically and physically impossible on a finite planet. We called this the “pseudo-abundance” of the material world.
2. Our current political economy proceeds from the point of view that marketization and commodification are the best way to manage and allocate immaterial resources as well, via intellectual property. This creates an artificial scarcity for what are objectively abundant resources, especially in the context of a digital society and its means of cheap reproduction and distribution of knowledge. We called this “artificial scarcity in the world of immaterial resources.”
3. The two first mistakes are compounded by the fact that our economic organization produces more and more human inequality.
The solution to this state of affairs seems obvious. It must be possible to have a political economy that respects the carrying capacity of our planet, and it must be possible to share the knowledge necessary to do so. At the same time, these two conditions must be accompanied by economic forms that respect social justice.
But what is the link between this desire for societal and planetary transformation, and the specific modality of the commons?
Following Alan Page Fiske in Structures of Social Life,5 and Karatani’s6 historical vision of the evolution in these modes of exchange, we can distinguish four modes for allocating resources:
1. Communal Shareholding or Pooling, i.e., provisioning systems are considered as a collective resource, collectively maintained and shared by a particular community of stakeholders according to their own rules and norms. This is the commons modality, which is both a shared set of resources, a joint activity, and a governance system.
2. Equality Matching, i.e., the gift economy as a system based on reciprocity, in which gifting and counter-gifting create social relations and maintain balance.
3. Authority Ranking, i.e., redistribution according to rank, which includes state-led redistribution. This modality becomes dominant with the emergence of class-based societies characterized by state formation.
4. Market Pricing, i.e., the exchange of resources according to “equal value,” which becomes dominant in the capitalist political economy.
Before creating the P2P Foundation in 2006, we had taken some time to study past societal transitions, and one of our findings was that mutualization had been an important element of the transition from the Roman system to the feudal system, which had a dramatically lower ecological footprint.7
Indeed, consider the mutualization of knowledge by the Catholic monastic communities, which were also the engineers of their time. According to Jean Gimpel in his book about the first medieval industrial revolution, Catholic communities were responsible for nearly all the technical innovations of that era.8 They effectively functioned to create commons across three corelated aspects. Firstly, the creation of a global European sphere of collaboration within the Catholic Church and its monastic orders through the mutualization of knowledge. Secondly, the collective property and distribution formats of monastic life, through the mutualization of shelter and shared units of production, the provision of shelter, culture, and spirituality, as well as a dramatically lower use of resources than that of the Roman elite. Thirdly, the relocalization of the economy around a subsistence economy based on feudal domains.
The resemblance to our own circumstances is uncanny.
Faced with ecological and social challenges, we see a re-emergence of knowledge commons in the form of free software and open design communities; we see a drive towards mutualization of productive infrastructure, for example, the emergence of fablabs, makerspaces, coworking spaces and also the capitalist “sharing economy,” which is focused on creating platforms for underutilized resources; finally, we see new technologies around distributed manufacturing, prototyped in makerspaces and fablabs, which point to a re-organization of production under a “cosmo-local” model.9 We thus see strong resemblances between this and other historical patterns that correlate to our present-day situation.
The importance of mutualization and commons-based strategies today is strengthened by our reading of long-term historical change. Another example of this is provided by Whitaker, who offers a comparative review of 3,000 years of civilizational overshoots in Europe, Japan, and China.10 His central thesis is that elites in class-based societies overshoot their resource base, not as an exception but as a rule, and that the classes closely tied to actual production periodically revolt and create transformative social movements, which have historically taken a religious form.11 Thus, what we thought we were seeing in the post-Roman European transition may not be an exception, and can also be found in Chinese and Japanese history. In each of these transitions, the mutualization of infrastructure is a key element of the transformation.
Additionally, William Irwin Thompson earlier identified the civilizational tendency for overshoot across Babylonian, Greek, Roman, and European civilizations, where a civilization’s core growth comes at the expense of its peripheries, and where the overshoot ultimately undermines the viability of the core civilization itself. Thompson pointed toward a commons framework as a solution, an arrangement he termed enantiomorphic.12 Finally, Thomas Homer-Dixon’s detailed analysis of energy use within the Roman civilization came to a convergent view: growth dynamics were earlier based on large “energy returns on investment” (the amount of energy needed to exploit new energy sources), but diminished over time as social and ecological externalities mounted up.13
As a civilizational crisis emerges, a number of related dynamics can also emerge: the image of the future that helped to animate the extant civilization may begin to lose power.14 Images of the future may become dystopian, and narratives that are civilization-contradicting emerge and serve to unravel the core belief and logics that have wedded people to the old system.
A creative minority from a variety of perspectives produce new seed visions that attempt to offer solutions amidst crisis.15 Some of these may be “fantasy” visions and solutions that reiterate the core logic of empire without addressing its contradictions, giving people a false sense of hope. Some visions and solutions, however, are based on a square reading of their civilization’s contradictions (e.g., in our context, growth) and invite new pathways that are outside of the epistemological orbit of empire.16
The merit of this comparative review is in providing an understanding of the non-exceptionality, or even regularity, of civilizational overshoot. For example, Whitaker’s thesis and documentation argues that every class-based system founded on competition between elites creates a “degradative political economy” and an overuse of both internal and external resources. 17 Against this, in predictable fashion, eco-religious movements arise that stress the balance between the human and the human, the human and the totality (the divine), and the human and the environment. These ideas, led by religious reformers but followed by people who directly face the challenges of production and survival, give rise to temporary re-organizations of society. It is these commons-based transformations that allow overshooting systems to find new ways to work within the biocapacity of their own regions. It is this dynamic — which until now has played out on local, regionally limited scales — that is now necessary on a planetary scale.
1 Noel Castree, “The Anthropocene: A Primer for Geographers,” Geography 100, no. 2 (2015): 66–75.
2 Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
3 William I. Thompson, ed., Gaia, A Way of Knowing: Political Implications of the New Biology (Barrington: Lindisfarne Press, 1987).
4 Elena M. Bennett et al., “Bright Spots: Seeds of a Good Anthropocene,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 14, no. 8 (2016): 441–48.
5 Alan P. Fiske, Structures of Social Life: The Four Elementary Forms of Human Relations: Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, Market Pricing (New York: Free Press, 1991).
6 Kojin Karatani, The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange, trans. Michael K. Bourdaghs (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
7 Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1998). See also Mark D. Whitaker, Ecological Revolution: The Political Origins of Environmental Degradation and the Environmental Origins of Axial Religions: China, Japan, Europe (Cologne: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010).
8 Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (New York: Penguin Books, 1977).
9 Vasilis Kostakis et al., “Design Global, Manufacture Local: Exploring the Contours of an Emerging Productive Model,” Futures 73 (2015): 126–35.
10 Whitaker, Ecological Revolution.
12 William I. Thompson, Pacific Shift (New York: Random House, 1986).
13 Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe: Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2010).
14 Fred L. Polak, The Image of the Future: Enlightening the Past, Orientating the Present, Forecasting the Future (New York: Sythoff, 1961).
15 Johan Galtung, “Arnold Toynbee: Challenge and Response,” in Macrohistory and Macrohistorians, eds. Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah (New York: Praeger, 1997), 120–27.
16 Elise Boulding, “Futuristics and the Imaging Capacity of the West,” in Cultures of the Future, eds. Magoroh Maruyama and Arthur M. Harkins (The Hague: Mouton, 1978), 146–57.
17 Whitaker, Ecological Revolution, book abstract.
Teaser photo credit: Ship of Fools, By Hieronymus Bosch – http://www.hetnoordbrabantsmuseum.nl/english/press-jheronimus-bosch/persbeelden-eng/Previously: www.arthistory.cc : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8787863