Even though GDP -- Gross Domestic Product -- has been castigated as a misleading statistic for years, it continues to be cited by politicians, economists and the press as a generally accepted proxy for societal progress.  The investor class has a big stake, after all, in conflating “the economy” with “human well-being.” 

What if it were shown that intensified market activity isn’t such a boon to humankind, after all?  That seems to be the goal of such alternative indices as the Gross National Happiness index (Bhutan), the Human Development Index (UNDP), the Happy Planet Index (New Economics Foundation), OECD Better Life Index, among others.

It is also the goal of the goal of the Genuine Progress Indicator, or GPI, a new metric that is explored in great detail by Ida Kubiszewski, Robert Costanza and a team of other economists in an April 30 paper in Ecological Economics.  Kubiszewski et al. make a rigorous attempt to estimate net social welfare by taking into account all sorts of factors that GDP ignores. 

The GPI still relies upon “personal consumption expenditures,” as does GDP, but GPI goes much further by taking into account such factors as income distribution, environmental costs, and the presence of crime and pollution.  The idea is to measure the depletion of “natural, social and human capital” that economic activity entails.  The GPI also seeks to measure positive factors in human well-being such as the benefits of volunteering and household work, and self-reported “life satisfaction.”  All told, the GPI uses 24 different component metrics.

It happens all around the world, every day – corporate enclosures of shared, sustainably managed renewable resources.  Brutal abuses of the land, colossal disruptions of communities.  And yet investors and corporate management always cast themselves as the champions of progress, civilization, jobs and the public good – and respectable opinion somehow accepts the ecological insanity of the plans as necessary.  We know the rest of the story. 

These thoughts were provoked by a recent commentary about a massive proposed open-pit mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska.  The project is being pushed by a British-Canadian corporate alliance, the Pebble Partnership, which audaciously claims that its mining could power “green energy initiatives.”  The Pebble Partnership's website helpfully notes that “the difference between being a stone age culture and a post-stone age culture is metal,” implying that the Pebble Mine is just another step forward for civilization and away from the Stone Age. 

The truth is that under a best-case scenario, the mining of copper, gold and molybdenum near Bristol Bay will destroy up to 90 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands.  The mining operations will supposedly confine billions of tons of mine tailings within 700-foot tall dams.  But in a place where earthquakes are common and the land is wet and the wilderness pristine….well, we all know that “accidents will happen.”  If the mine is built, you can be sure that a BP-style disaster will eventually ruin the biggest spawning grounds for sockeye salmon in the world.

Kester Brewin, a teacher of mathematics in South East London, was wondering why his son has been invited to countless pirate-themed birthday parties, but not any aggravated robbery themed parties.  What's the reason for our fascination with pirates?

 Brewin’s answer is an amazing 13-minute video talk  for TEDx Exeter (UK) based on his 2012 book, Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How they Can Save Us. The talk is a powerful account of 18th century piracy and a plea for all of us to become pirates as acts of radical emancipation.

For the full effect, I urge you to watch the full video....but here is a key excerpt transcribed from Brewin’s talk:

 

What I want to propose is that whenever we see pirates, we see a system in some kind of trouble, whether it involves politics, economics, spirituality, culture or the arts.  Pirates send us a signal that something that should be held in the hands of common people, has been taken away.

Now if we look back in history, the golden age of pirates, the early 1700s, we see England, Spain, France and Holland trying to enclose the new world of the Americas into their empires.  At this time we are right at the birth of emerging global capitalism.  The engine of this movement is the ship.  And the petrol in the engines are sailors. 

Some of the most interesting new commons are those that you don’t usually hear about, probably because they are so small or local.  I recently stumbled across the New Cross Commoners and was quite impressed with their zeal and ingenuity in exploring the meaning of commoning in their district of South London.  The “About” section of the New Cross Commoners website explains their mission quite nicely:

Capitalism is the term we can use to call the private / public system that dominates not only the economy but also our social relations and our lives. Our desires and efforts for a good life together get exploited by capitalism (see for example “Big Society”). Commoning can be a process of struggle to reclaim those efforts and desires for ourselves. A commoning that is worth of its name, one not entirely exploited by the private / public system, implies a degree of struggle against this private / public system. It also implies a negotiation amongst the people who produce it: we are “privatized” as well, we need to learn how to live together, how to take care of each other collectively.

To understand what is commoning in New Cross we’ll read and discuss texts together, and at the same time we’ll explore the neighbourhood to find out what processes of commoning are already part of the life of New Cross (we’ll start with communal gardens, housing associations, youth and community centres, and the New Cross library). We would like not only to understand the commoning already produced in New Cross, but also to produce new commoning here: to share and organize skills and resources in such a way that this sharing can become more and more autonomous from private / public interests, from the market, from interests that are not those of the people using them.

The New Cross Commoners website is an inspiration to other would-be commoners who may wish to rediscover commoning in their own neighborhoods and towns.  The group has held meetings at which they discuss essays by the commons historians such as Peter Linebaugh; Massimo De Angelis, and Silvia Federici, for example.  They have met together to brew beer and drink it when it was ready. 

For newcomers to the commons wishing to acquaint themselves with Elinor Ostrom’s work, it can be a hard slog.  Her scholarly treatises, while often quite insightful, can be quite dense in delivering their hard research results and refined insights.  It is a real pleasure, therefore, to greet Sustaining the Commons, a new undergraduate textbook that has just been published.  The book provides a general overview of the intellectual framework, concepts and applications of Ostrom’s research on the commons. 

Best of all, in a refreshing departure from most academic publishing, the authors of the 168-page book decided to make it available for free as a downloadable pdf file.  Just go to the book’s website and blog, http://sustainingthecommons.asu.edu.

Sustaining the Commons is by John M. Anderies and Marco A. Janssen, both associate professors at Arizona State University and directors of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, which is the publisher of the textbook.  Both authors worked with Ostrom from 2000 until her death in 2012.  Although Ostrom’s name is mostly associated with Indiana University, where she co-founded and ran the Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Ostrom was also a part-time research professor at ASU from 2006-2012.

Anderies and Janssen taught a course at ASU on Ostrom’s work, with a special focus on her books Governing the Commons (1990) and Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005).  Out of that teaching arose the idea for this book.  Ostrom herself saw and approved of the first draft of the book in April 2012, shortly before her death. 

The book is a lucid, logically presented introduction to the key concepts of Ostrom’s research.  There are chapters on “defining institutions,” “action arenas and action situations,” and “social dilemmas.”  There are also a series of case studies on the management of various types of common-pool resources – water, forests, domesticated animals – and a review of “design principles to sustain the commons.”  

There are a number of chapters on human behavior as it is studied by social science.  How do people make decisions about collective matters and how do they develop trust?  How are these behaviors studied in the laboratory?  What sorts of rules and social norms matter? 

In a talk at the American University of Beirut graduation, Noam Chomsky singled out protesters, including those in Taksim Square, as “at the forefront of a worldwide struggle to defend the global commons from the ravages of the wrecking ball of commercialization, environmental degradation and autocratic rule that is destroying Earth.”  (Text of talk is here.)  

The first part of Chomsky’s talk focused on the artificial political boundaries that define countries, most of them the result of military violence and coercion.  “The legitimacy of borders – for that matter of states – is at best conditional and temporary,” he said. “Almost all borders have been imposed and maintained by violence, and are quite arbitrary….Surveying the terrible conflicts in the world, almost all are the residue of imperial crimes and the borders they drew in their own interests.”  He proceeded to explore the meaning of this fact in the Middle East, where imperial powers have drawn so many of the national borders with little regard for the ethnic or ecological consequences.

Near the end of his talk, Chomsky pointed out how these powers are destroying the commons of the world:  

“Who owns the global atmosphere that is being polluted by heat-trapping gasses that have now ‘passed a long-feared milestone….reaching a concentration not seen on earth for millions of years,’ with awesome potential consequences, so we learned a month ago?  Or to adopt the phrase used by indigenous people throughout much of the world, who will defend the earth?  Who will uphold the rights of nature?  Who will adopt the role of stewards of the commons, our collective possession?  That the earth now desperately needs defense from impending environmental catastrophe is surely obvious to any rational and literate person.

In a major triumph for protecting genes as a commons, the US Supreme Court ruled last week that human genes cannot be owned and must be available to anyone for study and medical innovation.  The case involved a Utah company, Myriad Genetics, that had claimed patents on “breast cancer susceptibility genes,” which gave the company a monopoly on a $3,000 diagnostic test that could detect heightened risk of getting cancer.  The patents were widely criticized for impeding breast cancer research and stifling cheaper, more competitive diagnostic tests.

The Court’s unanimous ruling in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. held that “a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated….”  Myriad had claimed that its isolation of the critical BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in a person – a diagnosis that dramatically increases the risks of cancer in a person -- entitles it to patent those genes to the exclusion of others.

 But Justice Thomas held that “separating that gene from its surrounding genetic material is not an act of invention.”  The case was brought by an array of doctors, medical researchers and women’s health organizations that objected to the impact of the patents on research, competition and healthcare.

This sweeping ruling rolled back one of the most notorious enclosures of the past generation.  It also drew a bright line limiting the capacity to legally own a naturally occurring element of nature.  This is a significant legal development that one might not have expected from the Roberts Court.  I suspect that the sheer incoherence and contradictions of patent law were just becoming too egregious for any other outcome but this one.

Biotech experts now expect that new diagnostic tests will be offered that dramatically lower the costs of assessing one’s risk of cancer.  It is also likely that there will be more robust, innovative research focused on these genes now that the risk of patent infringement has been swept aside.  It’s been estimated that there may be about 8,700 gene patents that might be jeopardized by the Myriad decision. 

Who would have thought that New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman would give a glowing endorsement of the commons?  Writing about the severe political and economic gridlock plaguing Egypt, Friedman lavishes great praise on the country’s “impressive but small group of environmental activists, many of whom were also involved in the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.” 

This leads Friedman to ponder the virtues of the commons as a solution to some of Egypt’s most intractable problems.  He writes:

…the truth is that any faction here – the youth, the army, the Muslim Brotherhood – that thinks it can rule Egypt alone and make the others disappear is fooling itself.  (Ditto in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.)  Because Egypt is in such a deep hole, and the reforms needed so painful, they can be accomplished only if everyone shares in the responsibility and ownership of the transition through a national unity coalition.  In that sense Egyptians today desperately need a ‘peace process’ – not with Israel, but with one another.

Everyone has to take responsibility for the commons, rather than just grabbing their own.  That is the real cultural revolution that has to happen for Egypt to revive.  And that’s where the environmentalists here have such an advantage over the politicians, because all they think about is the commons – resources that have to be shared.  Egypt’s commons – its bridges, roads, parks, coral reefs – are crumbling. 

Our knowledge about what makes digital commons work is terribly under-theorized.  Yes, there are famous works by Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler, and there are lots of projects and websites that are based on commoning such as like Wikipedia, free software, Arduino, open access journals, among countless others.  But can we identify core principles for organizing digital commons?  Can we use that knowledge to engineer the evolution of new commons?  Identifying such principles just might let us move beyond “openness” as the ultimate goal of online life, to a more sustainable goal, the self-governed commons.

It has been a pleasure to discover that some computer scientists are actively exploring how Elinor Ostrom’s principles for successful commons might be applied to the design of software.  Consider this intriguing essay title: "Axiomatization of Socio-Economic Principles for Self-Organizing Institutions: Concepts, Experiments and Challenges,“ which appeared in the ACM Transactions on Autonomous and Adaptive Systems, in December 2012.  

The piece is by British electrical and electronic engineer Jeremy Pitt and two co-authors, Julia Schaumeier and Alexander Artikis. The abstract is here.  Unfortunately, the full article is behind a paywall, consigning it to a narrow readership.  I shall quote from the abstract here because it hints at the general thinking of tech experts who realize that the social and the technical must be artfully blended:

We address the problem of engineering self-organising electronic institutions for resource allocation in open, embedded and resource-constrained systems.  In such systems, there is decentralised control, competition for resources and an expectation of both intentional and unintentional errors.  The ‘optimal’ distribution of resources is then less important than the sustainability of the distribution mechanism, in terms of endurance and fairness, based on collective decision-making and tolerance of unintentional errors.  In these circumstances, we propose to model resource allocation as a common-pool resource management problem, and develop a formal characterization of Elinor Ostrom’s socio-economic principles for enduring institutions. 

The Still City Project

Amidst the cacophony of modern life, I am always so grateful when I discover a haven of silence, a place of deliberate stillness for contemplation and awareness of being.  What a pleasure to discover a fascinating new research project called Still City being pursued by Monnik, a Dutch “collective and laboratory for investigation, imagination and storytelling.”  Based in Amsterdam, Monnik’s work “concentrates on how persons and society need to reconfigure or reassess their relationship with their self-constructed modern world.”

The Still City project is explained this way on its website:

This is a project about stillness. We are living in an increasingly urban world, in which growth is the central tenet. Growth, in all its cultural translations and incarnations, has been the cornerstone of modernity. Most of our parables stress the virtues of personal growth, economic growth, demographic growth and technological innovation. Forms of growth that are considered deeply intertwined, simultaneous, and interchangeable. But what happens when growth is no longer feasible, or when it becomes undesirable? What happens to a city when growth based on ‘Bigger, Better and More of it’, becomes unsustainable? What happens when a city stops growing but doesn’t shrink either? What kind of values and narratives will emerge when the notions of economic growth and personal growth disconnect? How will people relate to labor, love, family, individuality, community, history and the future? Is there such a thing as a mature city?

Still City Project is a search for a dynamic urban culture that is not based on growth. The Still City can be understood as a sustainable and inclusive society. A society that wants to leave the more negative connotations of the notion ‘growth’ behind to find post-expansion, post-depletion and post-exploitation value-systems. The ambition of the project is to construct urban scenarios that will help us understand how a post-growth society could function.

Monnik is currently engaged in a series of interviews with international thinkers in various disciplines, and “people-on-the-ground” who are trying to deal with “the everyday reality of growth, and non-growth, in our society.”  The group hopes to develop some scenarios on how post-growth circumstances would change the urban environment, and publish the results in The Still City Scenario Machine

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