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Degrowth, the Book

In industrialized societies, where so many people regard economic growth as the essence of human progress, the idea of deliberately rejecting growth is seen as insane.  Yet that is more or less what the planet’s ecosystems are saying right now about the world economy. It’s also the message of an expanding movement, Degrowth, that is particularly strong in Europe and the global South. 

A few months ago I blogged about the massive Degrowth conference in Leipzig, Germany, that attracted 3,000 people from around the world. The basic point of the discussions was how to get beyond the fetish of growth, intellectually and practically, and how to transform our idea of “the economy” so that it incorporates such important values as democracy, social well-being and ecological limits.

Several of the movement’s leading figures have now released a rich anthology of essays, Degrowth:  A Vocabulary for a New Era (Routledge). It is the first English language book to comprehensively survey the burgeoning literature on degrowth.  More about the book on its website and an amusing three-minute video.  

The editors -- Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Giorgios Kallis – are three scholars at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, and members of the group Research & Degrowth. The editors describe degrowth as “a rejection of the illusion of growth and a call to repoliticize the public debate colonized by the idiom of economism.”  The basic idea is to find new ways to achieve “the democratically-led shrinking of production and consumption with the aim of achieving social justice and ecological sustainability.” 

Here’s how the book jacket describes the volume: 

We live in an era of stagnation, rapid impoverishment, rising inequalities and socio-ecological disasters. In the dominant discourse, these are effects of economic crisis, lack of growth or underdevelopment. This book argues that growth is the cause of these problems and that it has become uneconomic, ecologically unsustainable and intrinsically unjust.

When the language in use is inadequate to articulate what begs to be articulated, then it is time for a new vocabulary. A movement of activists and intellectuals, first starting in France and then spreading to the rest of the world, has called for the decolonization of public debate from the idiom of economism and the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective. ‘Degrowth’ (‘décroissance’) has come to signify for them the desired direction of societies that will use fewer natural resources and will organize themselves to live radically differently. ‘Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a degrowth society might look like.

I don’t normally feature crowdfunding campaigns in my blog because there are so many worthy ones to support.  But here are two projects that I have a special affection for:  An ambitious campaign by CommonsSpark to raise money for a new mapping project called “CommonsScope,” and a set of twelve workshops to build local economies hosted by STIR magazine in the UK. 

Ellen Friedman and her colleagues have done a great job in pulling together an amazing number of maps of commons from around the world, featuring such categories as water, transportation, local commons and art commons. In an Indiegogo campaign that hopes to raise $35,000, CommonSpark plans to build a web catalog of hundreds of commons-related maps, data visualizations, open data, and tools – “a knowledge commons about the commons.”

Friedman also notes that CommonSpark is creating a catalog of commons with thousands of profiles that will communicate the story of each commons (who is the community, what is the resource, what are the commoning practices, where is it located, etc) along with best practices and data visualizations to identify patterns of commoning.

The CommonSpark Collective doesn’t want just want to raise money to build this useful web tool; it wants to attract a larger community to help build and steward the new world atlas of commons. You can help the effort by helping build the inventory of commons, joining the community and contributing to the Indiegogo campaign.  If this is any inducment, I've agreed to be a "reward" for any donor that gives $2,500 or more.

The IASC Commons (International Association for the Study of Commons) has released a series of six short, artfully produced videos, “Commons in Action," that amount to short advertisements for important commons projects. 

Each begins with the words:  “Commons are forms of governance and governance strategies for resources created and owned collectively.  Commons are a reality today.”

The longest video, at four-and-a-half minutes, focuses on the newly created Workshop on Governing Knowledge Commons, which bills itself as “a collaborative, interdisciplinary research project based on studying cases of commons governance for knowledge and information resources. The Workshop and its methods are inspired by the work of The Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University.” 

Professor Michael Madison of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law is the host of the website.  The Workshop is a collaboration among prominent academic scholars of the knowledge commons such as Brett Frischmann (Cardozo School of Law), Charlotte Hess (Syracuse University), Charles Schweik (UMass Amherst), among others.

Governments are so accustomed to dictating their will, through coercion if necessary, that they find it unimaginable that people might willingly – and with creativity and enthusiasm – self-organize themselves to take care of urgent needs.  So pause a moment to behold the remarkable Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan.  This settlement of 85,000 displaced Syrians is showing how even desperate, resource-poor people can show enormous creativity and self-organization, and turn their "camp" into a "city."

In many respects, Zaatari bears an uncanny resemblance to the DIY dynamics of the Burning Man encampment in the Nevada desert – an annual gathering that attracts more than 65,000 people for a week.  Both eschew "government" in favor of self-organized governance.  Both confer opportunities and responsibilities and individuals, and facilitate bottom-up initiatives through lightweight infrastructures.

As the New York Times reported on July 4, the Zaatari camp has “neighborhoods, gentrification, a growing economy and, under the circumstances, something approaching normalcy, though every refugee longs to return home. There is even a travel agency that will provide a pickup service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for the refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.”  Times’ urbanist/architecture critic Michel Kimmelman declares that “Zaatari’s evolution points more broadly to a whole new way of thinking about one of the most pressing crises on the planet.”

This is the fifth of a series of six essays by Professor Burns Weston and me, derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published by Cambridge University Press. The essays originally appeared on CSRWire. I am re-posting them here to introduce the paperback edition, which was recently released.

Our last essay outlined the great appeal of the commons as a way to deal with so many of our many ecological crises. The commons, readers may recall, is a social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.

Pixelache Helsinki 2014

It’s probably too late for most of us to attend, but this Friday through Sunday, June 6-8, Pixelache Helsinki 2014 will host an international two-day trans-disciplinary event on “The Commons.”   

Apart from keynote lectures planned in advance, the agenda of activities of activities at Camp Pixelache – especially the participatory workshops – will be an "unconference" -- i.e., determined by the attendees themselves at the beginning of the event. Attendance is free of charge.

The event will be held on Vartiosaari, a nature island surrounded by eastern suburbs of Helsinki.  The organizers note that the island “is currently under-threat of full-scale residential development by Helsinki City Planning Department, and there is a grassroots campaign to protect its particular qualities, in which artists & cultural practitioners are involved. We are hoping that the occasion of Camp Pixelache can also provide a discussion forum around Helsinki-Commons issues.”

First of all, I love the logo for Camp Pixcelache (see below).  Striking!

The French-based group OuiShare recognized five exemplary projects in the “collaborative economy” at its recent OuiShare Fest conference in Paris. The three-day event was itself was a remarkable gathering of more than 1,000 passionate fans of innovative models of sharing and mutual support. 

The OuiShare awards focused on five broad categories – collaborative consumption, open knowledge, crowdfunding and P2P banking, makers and open manufacturing, and open and horizontal governance.  With 127 applications from 31 countries, it was a rather competitive field.

The winners this year included one of my favorites, Guerrilla Translation, “a collaborative hub for authors and translators to network and share stimulating ideas internationally.”  The group describes itself as “exporters of fine interlinguistic memes,” adding: 

Guerrilla Translation is building bridges between cultures, starting with Spanish and English. We select written and video pieces with a focus on constructive change and long-range analysis, translate them, and share them.  We’re connecting authors with new audiences, and people with new ideas, shared through technology but created in a very personal, artisanal way.  We feel strongly that translation is best handled not by software, but instead, by committed and passionate translators working together to achieve the highest level of professional quality in our work.

The nine-month effort in Ecuador to develop a new vision and policy architecture for commons-based peer production is coming into much sharper focus.  To refresh your memory on this project, the Government of Ecuador last year commissioned the FLOK Society (FLOK = “Free, libre, open knowledge”) to come up with a thoughtful plan for enabling every sector of Ecuador to be organized into open knowledge commons, to the maximum degree possible.  The project has now released a transition plan accompanied by more than a dozen policy frameworks for specific social and economic domains.

The main document can be read here – and here is a version that anyone can comment upon.  Here is series of specific sectoral policy proposals.  

What makes the FLOK Society report so significant is its informed analysis of global trends in the production of knowledge and culture -- and its bold attempt to reformulate state policies to assure maximum social benefits flow from them. The “advanced” industrial economies continue to cling to archaic intellectual property regimes that ignore network dynamics and prey upon the value created by nonmarket communities.  But Ecuador’s path-breaking project seeks to go beyond neoliberal economics and policy. Many of us are excited because the FLOK Society report is a comprehensive, sophisticated and integrated synthesis for moving to the next stage of commoning and peer production on open networks.

A guiding idea in this effort is Buen Vivir (Sumak Kawsay) or “good living,” an indigenous peoples’ concept that refers to a life that balances material, social and spiritual needs and satisfactions (i.e., getting beyond compulsive material growth and consumerism).  FLOK Society researchers realize that Buen Vivir is impossible without Buen Conocer (Sumak Yachay), which is the idea of “good knowledge.”  Ecuadorian President Correa himself has urged young people to achieve and fight for this open knowledge societ

A fascinating report produced by the Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai-based think tank, shows that cooperation across political boundaries in the management of water correlates quite highly with peace – and that the lack of cooperation correlates highly with the risk of war. 

The report states its conclusions quite bluntly:  “Any two countries engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war for any reason whatsoever.”  The report offer intriguing evidence that commoning around water ought to be seen as a significant factor in national security and peace – and as a way of avoiding war and other armed conflict. 

Trans-boundary water cooperation, as defined by the report, does not simply consist of two countries signing a treaty or exchanging data about water.  It means serious political, administrative, policy and scientific cooperation. (Thanks, James Quilligan, for alerting me to this report.)

To give the level of cooperation some precision, the report’s authors came up with a “Water Cooperation Quotient” for 146 countries, based on ten parameters.  These include the existence of formal agreements between countries for cooperation; the existence of a permanent commission to deal with water matters; joint technical projects; ministerial meetings that make water a priority; coordination of water quality and pollution control; consultation on the construction of dams or reservoirs; among other factors. 

One of the most striking findings of the report:  “Out of 148 countries sharing water resources, 37 do not engage in active water cooperation.  Any two or more of these 37 countries face a risk of war in the future.”  The regions of the world that face a higher risk of war – i.e., countries with low or nonexistent levels of trans-boundary water cooperation – are in East Africa, Middle East, and Asia. 

This means that roughly one fourth of the nations of the world “exposes its population to insecurity in its relations with its neighbors.”  It also means that water bodies that are not subject to cooperative management are suffering from serious ecological decline – reductions in the surface area of lakes, deeper levels of rivers, pollution, and so forth.

The report notes the particular cooperative actions that countries have taken to manage their respective water supplies.  Singapore, with no natural water resources of its own, reduced its pressures on Malaysia by sourcing water from rainfall, recycling, desalination and imports.  South Africa obtains access to water in a river that it shares with Lesotho, and in exchange is helping the less-developed Lesotho build dams that provide hydropower and economic development.

Cartographers of the Commons

How far we’ve come in ten years!  In 2004 a number of us at the Tomales Bay Institute – the predecessor to On the Commons – tried to get a number of small communities to conduct what we called “local commons surveys.”  The idea was to encourage people to make their own inventory of the many overlooked commons that touch their everyday lives, and especially those that are threatened by enclosure.  By making commons more visible, we reasoned, people might begin to organize to defend them.  It was a great idea, but only one or two communities actually got it together to survey their local commons.  A valiant experiment with modest results. 

Now we are the midst of a veritable explosion of commons mapping projects.  In October alone, there have been two loud thunderclaps of activity along these lines -- the MapJams organized by  Shareable.net and Ville en biens communs in France. 

The MapJam took place this month in over fifty cities in the US, Europe, Australia and Arab nations.  The process consisted of people meeting up to share what they know about sharing projects in their communities.  They ten categorized the results, co-created a map and spread the word.  It’s all part of the new Sharing Cities Project launched by Shareable.

Many of the new cartographers of the commons are overlaying specific sharing projects and commons on top of Google Maps.  Here, for example, is a map from Share Denver. And here is the map from Sharing City Berlin.  

As if by cosmic coincidence, hundreds of self-organized commoners in dozens of communities in France and Francophone nations recently participated in a similar exercise. Hosted by Villes en biens communs, many communities produced maps while others hosted workshops, experiments or convivial meet-ups.  All of them focused on the commons.

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