Episode 106: The commons as an approach to governance, sustainable resource management and social wellbeing

bollier_logoIn this episode I connect with with David Bollier who is an author, activist, blogger and consultant. David lives in Amherst, Massachusetts and has for the last 15 years been exploring the paradigm of “the commons”. Our conversation is based on his recent book called Think Like a Commoner and in our dialogue we go into detail around some of the most important economic, social and cultural nuances inherent in the commons “way of life”. I would also like to add that David is collaborating with Michel Bauwens who is an earlier guest on this show, so you might want to check out that episode which indirectly touches upon similar ideas. Below you can read a summary of our conversation, but you are of course encouraged to download or listen to the whole podcast. We would also appreciate if your share this introductory resource with people who might be interested.

(2:00) David starts of by sharing his own story on how he became interested in the commons, and he points to the advent of the internet and the disillusionment with neoliberalism as two important factors that inspired him to research this particular field. For him it was clear that the commons paradigm was a viable solution to resource management and governance, while also being a way for people to co-create and self-organize the economic and social structures that are needed in a thriving and living community (as opposed to either top-down government or market driven policies).

(7:08) David then gives a short explanation of what the commons approach actually entails, although it’s not so easy to define the concept in a clear cut way. Nevertheless, some of the most salient and recognizable features are that it’s a way to manage resources in a way which is fair and equitable to everyone, while also being sustainable. Another important characteristic is that it’s often locally specific and contextualized and that it often emerges from vernacular culture. For instance, in Hawaii some surfers have created a commons that manages who can access certain waves (the resource in this case being the wave).

(10:20) We then discuss some fundamental questions related to human nature; are we by nature self serving individuals or is there some kind of “basic sanity” or “basic goodness” in our overall makeup? David suggests that from a historical perspective there is much evidence to prove that the standard model of homo economicus is flawed. Countless examples suggest that cooperation and care for others is an important part of human culture and that often self interest and common interests are aligned and not opposed. Maybe the dichotomy between altruism and selfishness is somewhat artificial?

(13:30) Another theme we explore is to what extent the advent of the commons, or rather, the rediscovery of the commons, is a form of devolution; do we have to go backwards, in a sense, to a more traditional way of governance? It seems that a commons approach was inherent in many traditional societies before modernity and liberalism commodified natural resources and made the market into the prime actant. So what is it that we have to learn from pre-modernity? Which values are maybe lost or overshadowed in the high pacing, individualistic and capitalistic oriented societies in the 21st century?

(17:00) If the commons, as a social practice and a way of governance would remerge as the organizing principle of society, who would “lose”? Where is it that we find the most resistance towards this kind of development? David points to many of the mythological stories or “mental models” of the 21st century, models that many today dispute, for instance economic growth and consumerism as a key to human fulfillment (see earlier episodes on the concept of “steady state economy” as just one example).

(19:27) David goes further in fleshing out some of the underlying design principles inherent in most commons, with reference to the work of Elinor Ostrom. Some of the most important principles are; to what degree is there a boundary around the resource being managed; do people have the opportunity to make their own rules regarding governance; is there a certain openness and accountability for those who are involved in the governing structure; are the commoners able to identify “free riders” and are they able to mitigate transgressions etc. David points to a well known example in India where farmers have begun to share their seeds in stead of buying them from Monsanto (see for instance navdanya.org for a closer look at this issue).

Book by David Bollier

Book by David Bollier

(22:50) Another important class of commons is “digital commons”, such as Wikipedia, open source software, open access scholarly journals and much more. I ask David in what way this podcast show could reflect some of the principles of the commons, or what I would have to do to align the show and the website with design principles that would make it into a commons. David also points to his own engagements in what he describes as a “sense-making community” consisting of activists and academics that are involved in the advancement of the commons-approach.

(27:40) We then explore the seeming polarity between state-driven and market-based approaches to governance and economic activity.  The commons represents a different paradigm that in many respects transcends the constraints and limitations found in both. The commons-approach is trying to create different types of social relationships than what is found in the more conventional structures. For instance, concepts such as “gift economy” challenge the dominant way of seeing human beings primarily as customers or consumers, rather pointing to how mutual relationships can support many basic needs in a society.

(32:30) David goes on to describe some of the reasons for why the traditional commons became eradicated through what is known as the “enclosure movement”. Starting already in medieval times people who had a certain economic status cooperated with people in power and systematically privatized and commodified farmlands and natural resources that were earlier governed through locally created customs. Essentially, the commoners were dispossessed and similar practices have proliferated ever since leading to extreme forms of commodification and privatization. For instance, 20% of the human genome is now patented and many places around the world natural water resources are being seized by commercial companies.

(36:35) We then explore in what ways the commons can facilitate a wholesome and sustainable way of life. David sites one of the authors who has inspired him the most, namely Karl Polanyi and his historical overview on how the traditional societal structures became replaced by the capitalist market and neoliberal economic policy.

(40:00) Towards the end David shares how he intends to go forward. He is interested in upscaling the commons-approach so that it can become a stronger force in dealing with larger resources and broader societal issues. For instance, how can we govern the atmosphere? In this regard the political scene is an important avenue for him to engage. Another point is how to devise new forms of law in cooperation with the state, laws that can enable commoners to become effective stewards of our society.

If you feel inspired or provoked by our conversation feel free to add your comments after the interview. You can also send in a written piece of work and get it published together with this episode. Further details can be found here.

Episode linker:
David Bollier, personal blog
Think Like a Commoner, book written by Bollier


James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (34) er lærer og arbeider i Osloskolen. Han har bred erfaring innenfor dialogbasert prosessledelse, nærværstrening og konflikthåndtering. Ta kontakt med James på følgende adresse: james.arnfinsen @ gmail.com
James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (34) is a teacher, his subjects being geography, religious studies and sports science. He is currently working as a teacher in Oslo, Norway. In his spare time he practices Aikido, a Japanese martial art.
  • James Arnfinsen

    This episode has now also been re-published on Resilience.org, a website which is hosted by the Post Carbon Institute. I intend to follow up this fruitful co-operation with them in the future (this is the third episode which I have re-published on resilience.org). http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-09-26/the-commons-as-an-approach-to-governance-sustainable-resource-management-and-social-wellbeing

  • http://permaliv.blogspot.no/ Øyvind Holmstad

    Takk for dette intervjuet! Det er tid for å skape vår felles fremtid, “the Commons”. Jeg benytter bevisst ordet “commons” fram til vi får en bedre betegnelse på norsk enn allmenningen, da det engelske ordet dekker opp for mer enn det norske, og har bedre røtter, noe jeg har redegjort for i en annen kommentartråd: http://www.levevei.no/2014/08/episode-102-to-nomader-pa-vandring-gjennom-livet/

    David Bollier har også utgitt ei annen banebrytende bok, den første innen en ny tematikk, noe som til fulle viser hvilken stor og nytenkende tenker Bollier er.

    – Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons: http://commonslawproject.org/

    Jeg har ikke lest denne boka, men har ved et par anledninger spurt kommunen om hjelp og råd, og da har jeg fått til svar at “dette er et privatrettslig anliggende som kommunen ikke har noe med”.

    Ordet “privatrettslig” får det virkelig til å grøsse nedover ryggen på meg, jeg synes det er et aldeles grusomt forferdelig ord. Det leder tankene mot det atomiserte individet og alles kamp mot alle, med røtter i de verste sosialdarwinistiske forestillinger. Den private eiendomsretten er også innbakt her, som bl.a. ble utformet for å rettslig kunne tilrane seg landet fra de opprinnelige amerikanerne: http://leveveg.blogspot.no/2014/06/the-fateful-choice-pilgrims-assign.html

    Så jeg sitter igjen med en sterk følelse av at Bolliers lovforståelse er av den ytterste betydning for å skape en felles bærekraftig fremtid. Norges lover bør revideres med utgangspunkt i Bolliers verk, slik at hva som nå er privatrettslig blir erstattet med “commons”-lov. Vi er jo alle del av et utvidet fellesskap, det privatrettslige er kun en illusjon og et symptom på et sykt samfunn.

    Håper “Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons” blir et sentralt verk ved lovfakultetene for framtida.

    Dessuten MÅ Bolliers bøker oversettes til norsk!

    • James Arnfinsen

      Jeg snakket med en stipendiat på NTNU som hevdet at “allmenningheten” er det norske begrepet..

      • http://permaliv.blogspot.no/ Øyvind Holmstad

        Interessant! Men hva blir det på nynorsk, hvor man helst skal unngå ord med het-endelser, da dette egentlig er en tysk bøyningsform?

        Det er vel i dag delvis akseptert med heit-endelser, men personlig liker jeg ikke dette. F.eks. benytter man ikke begrepet “menigheit” på nynorsk, men kyrkjelyd.

        Så om “allmenningheten” kan være et brukandes ord for bokmål, håper jeg enda at man kan komme opp med noe mer “urnorsk” for nynorsk.

        Kanskje blir det “allmenningskapen” på nynorsk, som for “borgarskapen”?

        Da synes jeg det tross alt blir bedre med “allmenningheiten”.

        Uansett føler jeg at det blir litt klumsete. Tenk å skulle oversette Bolliers bok med “Hvordan tenke som en allmenninger”.

        Men det er mye på norsk som klinger bedre på engelsk. Kanskje noe vi bare må leve med, også i dette tilfellet?

  • James Arnfinsen

    I´m currently reading Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi´s new book A Systems View on Life and in chapter 11 that describes human evolution I found this interesting paragraph that ties into something Bollier mentioned, that is that humans have always shared and cooperated, at least to some degree:

    The entire evolutionary history of the human species, from the emergence of H. habilis to the agricultural revolution almost 2 million years later, coincided with the famous ice ages. During these cold periods, when sheets of ice covered large parts of Europe and the Americas, as well as small areas in Asia, many animal species of tropical origin became extinct and were replaced by more robust, wooly species – oxen, mammoths, bisons, and the like – which could withstand the harsh conditions of the ice ages. The early humans hunted those animals with stone-tipped axes and spears, feasted on them by the fire in their caves and used the animals’ fur to protect themselves from the bitter cold. Hunting together they also shared their food and this sharing of food became another catalyst for human civilization and culture, eventually bringing forth the mythical, spiritual, and artistic dimensions of human consciousness. (page 243)

  • James Arnfinsen

    Jeremy Rifkin interviewed in the Huffington Post (04.03.2015) about the future of economy. Amongst other trends he points to the commons-approach:

    The European: The collaborative commons are one of the main pillars of this new economy that you describe in your book. What makes you think that these commons don’t fall prey to the selfish human behavior that has caused the “tragedy of the commons” — the depletion of common property by free riders?

    Rifkin: Garrett Hardin who focused on the phenomenon that selfish individuals behave contrary to the whole group’s long-term best interests by depleting some common resource, got it completely wrong. He forgot or ignored the fact that throughout history, there have been sanctions for the violation of commons. Free riders will be expelled. Have you ever spent time in the Alps?

    The European: Yes

    Rifkin: Beautiful landscapes! Two thirds of the businesses there have been in commons agreements for over a thousand years and they are still viable. Some of it is private property but these businesses share the forests, the rivers, the resources and there are no free riders because everybody knows everybody and violations would lead to immediate expulsion. They would lose their entire being as part of this community and therefore restrain from acting selfishly. A commons only works if it’s self-policing. And it’s always been like that and will remain so.

    The European: How will self-policing work in the new economy you are describing?

    Rifkin: It already is! It’s called reputation sites. If you share your car over the Internet or put your services at someone’s disposal but they are not satisfactory, you will get a bad review and that’s it – you’re out. The people who set up these sharing-sites like Uber or Airbnb didn’t even have to study the commons, they just independently figured out how to create the same set of principles that people came up thousands of years ago.


  • http://permaliv.blogspot.no/ Øyvind Holmstad

    Bollier, Bauwens and Helfrich just launched a new website; “Commons Strategies Group”: http://commonsstrategies.org/who-we-are/

  • http://permaliv.blogspot.no/ Øyvind Holmstad

    Ny fri ebok om byen og allmenningene; “Build the City”: http://static1.squarespace.com/static/526e5978e4b0b83086a1fede/t/55ef5142e4b05354020f674a/1441747266058/Build+the+City_eBook.pdf

    David Bollier om boka: http://bollier.org/blog/%E2%80%9Cbuild-city%E2%80%9D-critical-role-art-culture-commoning

    “The essays of “Build the City” celebrate the idea that ordinary people – tenants, families, artists, the precariat, migrants, community groups, activists – have a legitimate role in participating in their own city. The metropolis is not the privileged preserve of the wealthy, industrialists, investors, and landlords. It is a place where commoners have meaningful power and access to what they need.”

    Et trist eksempel fra Gjøvik nå i førjulsstria om hvordan det kan gå når man ser det slik at byen tilhører investorene og teknokratene, og ikke allmenningheten: http://permaliv.blogspot.no/2015/12/vulgr-elite-modernisme-ved-hunnselvas.html