As we begin a new year, I thought it might be fun – and possibly useful – to try to identify where commons activism might make some breakthroughs in 2012. I won't venture specific predictions, which can easily miss the mark. But I do think we can usefully talk about areas of “quickening innovation” for the commons. Here's my list, along with brief explanations and speculations:
Digital and complementary currencies. As conventional national currencies crater and as digital networking technologies become more sophisticated, new sorts of commons-based currencies are emerging to fill the void. There is quite a bit of innovation going on in this space. Some new currencies are locally based; others are digital systems that can function globally. The rise of Bitcoin is only a hint of what may be coming down the pike. (See the terrific New Yorker profile of Bitcoin on October 10, 2011.) I am particularly fascinated by the Ven, a new international digital currency that is backed by real assets (about which I will blog shortly). In the meantime, a good way to acquaint yourself with the possibilities of alternative currencies is the book, Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies With Local Currencies, by Gwendolyn Hallsmith and Bernard Lietaer.
Crowdsourcing as a source of capital formation. I see two trends that appear destined to converge: one is the growing use of cooperatives, community land trusts, worker-ownership and social enterprises to democratize wealth and empower communities; and the second is the expansion of crowdsourcing as a way to raise capital for specific projects if not companies.
The first topic, the democratization of capital, has received renewed attention thanks to the re-publication of Gar Alperovitz's book, America Beyond Capitalism (Democracy Collaborative Press). The second topic, crowdsourcing as a new means to capitalize projeccts (and not simply elicit donations or group suggestions), has received less attention, perhaps because any successful equity crowdsourcing project will need to comply with securities law. Still, the efficiencies of equity crowdsourcing are irresistible – and its synergies with traditional forms of democratizing capital are obvious. This may be wishful thinking on my part, but I expect to see some developments here in the coming year. (Here's a great P2P Foundation overview of existing crowdsourcing projects.)
A new focus on commons governance models. It's clear that conventional governance by the nation-state is increasingly unable to meet real needs effectively. The political process in many putative democracies has become terminally polarized and corrupted; centralized bureaucracies are too rigid, inflexible and slow to respond nimbly to real-world problems; and corporations are fixated on returns to capital above all else. What's fascinating is how open platforms and commons-based governance are emerging as “competitors” to traditional government and markets. Why? Because they can perform so many functions with greater speed, flexibility, responsiveness and moral legitimacy.
The unmet challenge, however, is to develop a richer taxonomy of these possibilities. What are the most important data-points, and how should we understand their operational dynamics and principles? Can we move beyond the corporate mega-platforms of Facebook and Google, and begin to operationalize self-organized governance by quasi-sovereign commoners? Open networks are offering people the capacity to take responsibility for their own problems, initiate practical and effective innovations, and develop subcultures of long-term stewardship. Governments should be helping such efforts, if only to stave off their own legitimacy crises and to offset their waning powers to get things done.
New federations of commoners. The number and variety of commons-based projects out there are sufficiently dense that new linkages are developing as if by magic. I am inspired by how commoners fighting various enclosures – of water, public spaces, creative works, the Internet, and many others – are rapidly coalescing and cooperating to fight concentrated corporate power. New trans-national collaborations of commoners are flourishing, as seen in free and open source software, the Creative Commons world, the Wikipedians in scores of countries, and the open access publishing world.
Look at how the Arab Spring spread so quickly from Tunesia to Egypt and throughout the Middle East, and how those protests inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement, which itself spread virally in the blink of an eye. I predict that citizens may actually intervene and set the agenda for the two major presidential candidates (and particularly Obama), forcing them to respond to citizens and not merely retail their own highly scripted, media-driven campaigns. The crowdsourcing that Obama helped mobilize in his 2008 campaign -- but which he has abandoned for the past three years -- may well turn on him.
While commoners may have the leverage of open networks, and large, centralized institutions are far more vulnerable than they let on, those institutions and their leaders still have the raw power, force of law and nominal legitimacy. But the speed and power of self-organized networks should not be underestimated. One small example: the way that swarms of outraged consumers forced Verizon to roll back a new $2 charge for paying one's monthly bill online.
Progress in stopping global warming. Governments around the world continue to drag their feet in response to global warming. And why not? Their primary constituents are Big Oil and Big Coal, not the citizens of the world or future generations. But the world's climate is inexorably changing; some leading scientists now predict that climate change could become irreversible and destabilizing in only five years. The big question is whether the public mind can become mobilized in time, and whether governments can be forced to instigate new actions in time. I am greatly encouraged by the Atmospheric Trust Litigation, which I blogged about a few weeks ago. A U.S. federal court will be ruling on a lawsuit soon, and one of the fifty pending state lawsuits may also bear fruit.
Another major catalyst for addressing climate change will be the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in early June. The official conference is not likely to generate any serious breakthroughs in policy or economic thinking, but the alternative People's Summit and the massing of hundreds of citizen groups is likely to turn up the pressure on governments to take serious action. And some imaginative citizen initiatives are likely to emerge as well.
The emerging contours of the no-growth economy. It will take years for this new line of thinking to penetrate the mainstream, but serious efforts to imagine a sustainable, no-growth economy that gets beyond the pathologies of endless growth are gaining momentum. A few examples: Juliet Schor's book, Plenitude, Richard Heinberg's new book, The End of Growth, and the a major “Degrowth” conference in Venice in September. Growth is being blocked by serious resource depletion, growing environmental impacts and crushing levels of debt, argues Heinberg. These limits will force a major re-thinking of standard economic theories and a reinvention of commerce and money, he adds. The situation will have to become much more dire before these realities will be admitted, but on the other hand, the devastating loss of trust in established institutions leaves many people highly receptive to fresh alternatives.
I am sure there are other important developments that will surge to the fore in the coming year, but these are among the more powerful ones that I see right now.