Can the Digital Commons Save the Natural Commons

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Brian Davey and Michel Bauwens participated in a joint panel at the McPlanet Conference in Berlin.

Conference report from Brian at


  • Can the co-operative process of designing products - without intellectual property getting in the way - contribute to the preservation of natural resources?

Brian Davey:

Perhaps - but it can make the situation worse. The problem is not primarily one of product designs. Product design can decrease the amount of energy and materials used in individual products ´- but that is not the same as reducing the aggregate consumption of natural resources. The per product consumption of energy and materials can decline and the aggregate consumption increase - in fact this is what has been happening for two centuries.

In terms of climate the bottom line is that we are probably already over a safe limit and if we want to stay under a 2 degree line we need to limit CO2 emissions to 1 trillion tons carbon 2000-2050. That an absolute figure.

So one needs reducing frameworks - we need to design economy regulatory and control systems that constrain and reduce - that is a whole different matter. For example I support a policy called "cap and share" which could force real reductions in the use of the global atmosphere by requiring fossil fuel supplies to have a declining number of permits before they are allowed to bring fossil fuels out of the ground. If properly enforced that could provide a framework in which real natural resource reductions are imposed.

To achieve that we need to build well equipped and well informed global movements that are independent of corporations and the states in thrall to them - for that web based movement building tools - for example "coal swarm" can be very important.

Michel Bauwens:

It is important to see the practice and advocacy of open design and shared innovation commons in an integrative and 'wholistic' context. Our ecological issues are a function of a particular mode of production and a social formation that centers around profit maximisation and not only ignores natural externalities, but actively generates them through system overconsumption, while also privatising knowledge and innovation. In for-profit design, planned obsolescence is not a bug, but a feature, part and parcel of a system that is unsustainable in its very essence. Open design is one of the elements of a new mode of production, in which communities of contributors design for a shared innovation commons, to solve problems, and where the motivation for substandard design and planned obsolescence is organically absent from its logic. So open design communities generally design with sustainability in mind, and design means of production that are geared towards inclusion. The emerging model is for microfactories using 'personal fabrication' methodologies which are based on economies of scope (mutualizing joint infrastructure as well as knowledge) instead of economies of scale (where more resources are needed to be competitive and scale). The underlying philosophy is to produce on the basis of need, i.e. scaling up from one. Seen in this integrative context of an emerging mode of production that uses a different logic, means that open design is much more than just putting a design on a joint database, but is rather part of a sustainable production philosophy. Of course, it is not a magic wand, and must be seen in the context of other changes, such as cradle to cradle design and production methologies, as well as commons oriented policy solutions, such as cap and share. But in the face of really global problems and concerns, requiring systemic solutions, it is important that mankind disposes of global action and cooperation capabilities, that are not geared towards the profit motive, and for which digital commons are a crucial piece of the puzzle. The coal swarm is an actual example of that, but there are many more.

* Would that then mean that many throw-away products would become unnecessary?

Brian Davey:

The problem is this - the improvement in energy and material efficiency actually drives an increase in material and energy consumption in a number of ways. The mobile phone that is more energy efficient can take more applications - so the old ones get out of date and they are thrown away. So innovation is embodied and embeddied in new products and the old ones are considered obsolete. A knowledge commons that achieves this might be taking us further away from sustainability.

Along this process more and more energy is required in the production of the devices and the storage, transmission and processing of data - Greenpeace has just done a report on this drawing attention to the way in which data centres for telecoms networks are projected to consume nearly 2 billion kWh of electricity by 2020 - which is more than the electricity consumption of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined. The electricity demand for data centers in the USA is expected to grow by 19% this year. Most of it was by burning fossil fuels - with more carbon.

Michel Bauwens:

Brian Davey is rightly referring to Jevon's Paradox, i.e. when we invent a more efficient technology, it does not lead to the use of less resources, but actually to more, as our desires move on. Inventing a better lightbulb leads us to want more light for more purposes. This is a fair enough and true argument but when driven to its extreme, we also see how absurd it is: it would lead to an absolute stop on innovation, and an absolute lack of innovation would keep the existing system in place, so we are stuck. The solution therefore lies in innovation towards sustainability. Today's system of economies of scale leads to overproduction, which necessitates constant advertising to create and sustain artificial needs. But a system of production that designs for sustainability, uses biodegradable materials, and only produces for demand (scaling up from one), does not have that problem. It is clear that the current internet uses too much energy and is indeed part of the problem, but this energy use is also a function of the mode of production, i.e using giant server parks because the proprietary owners of our social media want to maintain control. We can just as easily imagine a distributed internet, that is linked to distributed renewable energy, as advocated and explained by Jeremy Rifkin in his book on the Third Industrial Revolution. But the most important argument is that the shift towards sustainability needs sizeable amounts of information and knowledge sharing, and we do need a knowledge infrastructure for this. What is interesting about the internet is that it was designed to survive a nuclear war, and that it can survive in many different ways, including ways that demand dramatically less energy. In many cases, knowledge advances can dramatically diminish the need for energy. None of this by itself, solves the Jevon's paradox, but again, it is not a case to argue for technological determinism, but to point towards socio-technical strategies, in which an integrative use of technology is part of a larger strategy for social change. Let's take an example: if farmers in a particular Andean biotope, invent a new breed of quinoa that is dramatically more productive, and could be used in a similar Himalayan biotope in say Bhutan, then it is only through a joint innovation commons that they can learn from each other. Neither the Monsanto's of this world, nor the governments elected through their financial support, will have enough of a vested interest to do this work 'for' the farmers. Farmers need to do this by themselves, and need a knowledge sharing infrastructure to do this.

* Or could the sharing of our knowledge even contribute to making the ecological crisis worse?

Brian Davey:

Yes, this is a danger. If web knowledge means that creativity and new products come on the market even faster then from an ecological point of view that is not necessarily a good thing - it may be a curse. Saving energy in one place can reduce costs and thereby release purchasing power for other production projects and products via the Jevons effect. The energy efficiency of the internet is increasing by a factor of ten ever 5 years - nevertheless the absolute energy usage of the internet doubles every five years - the two are related. The doubling is BECAUSE of the increased energy efficiency. To say that the internet can save energy and demateralise the economy because, for example, people can talk on skype rather than fly to see each other misses the point - by not flying and saving that energy money is also saved that is then invested in some other usage of energy and materials.

These new designs represent new uses for ever scarcer energy and resources. It depends what knowledge we share for what purposes. The chief thing that we want better designs for now are the brakes to this process.

* For what do we need commons in our thinking about a post growth economy?

The reason for a post growth economy is that we are overshooting the limits to growth - we are overusing energy, materials, the earth's sinks (including the atmosphere ] - so if we are to restrain our use we need to do that in a fair way. At the moment we have a real danger that the limits to growth (particularly more expensive energy) will help to collapse the finance sector. The solution of central banks to that is to make virtually free money to a parasitical sector. A broken banking and the finance sector will be re-capitalised by transferring real resources to them - the harvests and the land and the carbon that they buy up using virtually interest free money created by central banks to rescue them.

Economists tell us that by putting a price on natural resources that this creates a restraint on their use. That is rubbish - it puts them up for sale - and then the banking system and central banks create all the purchasing power needed to acquire them. In order to protect natural resources they must be taken out of the market - and put under the collective control of responsible communities. Where they have been overused the aim is to install systems that take natural resources out of the market as quickly as possible. For example, a permit system that rapidly reduces the amount of fossil fuel that is allowed out of the ground.

We need commons thinking too as there is a lot of carbon and bio-diversity in the lands managed by indigenous peoples as commons - for example in Sub Saharan Africa and there is a corporate land grab going on that will complete the global process of enclosure of the last few centuries and destroy crucial eco-systems. These lands are not uncultivated they have been managed non intensively by indigenous peoples.

There is virtually no more scope for human appropriation of photosynthsis on the planet beyond what currently happens. Humanity already appropriate 30-40% of the biomass products of photosynthesis on the planet as food, feed, fibre, and fuel, with wood and crop residues supplying around 10% of global energy usage. That is 60% in East Asia and 70% of photosynthesis in Western Europe....We cannot go any further in this process without fatally weakening eco-systems, increasing carbon emissions and destroying biodiversity. That means the remaining ecosystems have to be protected and these are largely the land commons of poor people in Africa, Latin America an elsewhere.

To protect this carbon in forests and soils and to protect biodiversity we need to protect the poorest people on the earth - because they are currently having their land taken from them in a continuation of the global enclosure process. It is in places like Africa and Latin America where nearly a quarter of the world's population live where this situation is happening most. It is important to support these people and to protect their management and protection of carbon and other resources against the depredations of land enclosures and resource grabbing corporations. Between 2000 - and 2010 an area in Sub Saharan Africa 8 times the size of the UK has been grabbed by corporations.

We also need to value and protect the tacit knowledge of natural resource management in many natural commons run by indigenous peoples for centuries. These people's know most about this land as they have lived there for centuries. We are not the experts, they are.

We also need commons thinking to give people whose lives are thrown into chaos in the coming turmoil new places and communities to join - so that they can re-boot their lives. As regards commons in the over-developed economies there are a different set of issues. In the developed economies we need to create or re-create new commons spaces and places where people thrown into personal crisis by the limits to growth and disaster capitalism - can find and share resources to meet their essential needs and mutual support in doing so. (like community gardens, community supported agriculture etc).

We need these new pools of resources, land and skills in developed countries to share the burden of adjustment fairly, otherwise we will have conflicts.

* What characterises the difference between natural and digital commons?

Brian Davey:

Natural commons are characterised by management arrangements to limit use to and to share that use. Digital commons are characterised by encouragement to increase use. Natural commons are about the essentials of life and usually characterised by a low energy density or density of their products and throughputs. They are often managed by the poorest people in the world. Digital commons are energy and materials intensive and typically managed by relatively privilged people in the global north. The knowledge and the illusions that they contain tend to be formal and quantative. Land commons tend to have informal, tacit and hands on knowledge.

Digital commons can get entangled in the growth dynamic going on in the larger processes beyond them. Natural commons have to be managed to prevent over use that rapidly becomes visible in low input organic processes. Many local land and water commons are also specfically local - the internet and digital commons strive towards global and de-localised conditions.

At the risk of a caricature we can say then that these are differences of resource and energy intensity - and also, in respect of many natural commons in the Global South, between "the first" and " the last" in global society. Although not exclusively the digital commons operate globally, the natural commons locally, digital commons network from cities and offices and high tech machinery - natural commons often operate from rural fields and grazing areas, are remote and use an intimate knowledge of natural system, digital commons are mainly high status, male, clean, highly specialised, highly conceptual, literate and numerate - natural commons are often low status, often run with women with children playing a significant role. Moreover the work in the natural commons is on handed down knowledge and skills that is not recorded but is tacit and where there is a deep feel of natural and biological systems. That is a bit of a caricature no doubt but I think there is enough truth to highlight crucial differences.

* What do they produce and how do they reproduce each other?

Brian Davey:

At the moment natural commons produce and reproduce themselves principally through solar energy while, unfortunately, digital commons reproduce themselves on technical and infrastructural platforms that are principally powered through carbon energy.

Digital commons offer concrete solutions for concrete problems and in the process secure social control over knowledge, codes and content. But do they show ways out of the ecological crisis?

Only on the condition that there are effective "watertight" frameworks that actually reduce aggregate consumption of carbon, water, materials etc -

* Is the debate about the knowledge commons an impulse for real dematerialisation?

Brian Davey:

Depends what you mean by "impulse". As already said - they might be able to help, perhaps even be described as "necessary" to dematerialisation in developed economies but are not sufficient in and of themselves.

What's more the taken for granted assumption of growth and consumption life styles in developed countries is already very dangerous as a context for digital commoners. When some digital commoners start promising "abundance" and what they can do to help the economy grow I start to get alarmed.

If yes, in what ways and how are they to be realised

The realisation will not and cannot lie in the digital economy as such but will depend on external policies and frameworks adopted to manage reductions in natural resource usages....

* How can sustainability become important themes for digital commoners?

Brian Davey:

By challenging digital commoners with the question of whether the internet, itself, is sustainable over the next few decades:

About 5 years ago the internet was using about 1 to 2% of the global energy supply. A half of that was the embodied energy that had gone into producing the devices and the other half was the energy "consumed" using them. That doesn't sound a lot and, what's more, the energy efficiency of the internet was increasing by an order of magnitude (ie a ten times improvement) every 5 years. (That is the energy used to process and send so many bytes of information). Again, very reassuring......but...then you learn this:

Internet energy usage doubles every 5 years too.

Now - you might be tempted to think that total energy usage doubles ever 5 years DESPITE the increase in energy efficiency - but its more likely that it doubles ever 5 years BECAUSE of the rise in energy efficiency. This is the well known phenomena called the Jevons effect, observed by Jevons in the 19th century, that when the efficiency with which coal was used increased so too did the absolute increase quantity of coal. Cheapening the system encourages an innovation process that increases total use.

But what, then would be the effect of a doubling every 5 years. Say we start of at 2% of global energy. In 5 years it is 4%. In 10 years it is 8%. In 15 years it is 16%. In 20 years it is 32%. In 25 years it is 64%. In 30 it is 132%....

So is the internet sustainable at its current rate of development? If we simply project forward current development processes then in half a lifetime it is using all the energy currently used in the world....assuming that the global energy supply is stable - yet there are good reasons to think that the global energy system will not be in crisis. There must come a crunch period within that period....particularly when there is a crunch competition between using energy for food creation or using energy to feed this energy voracious monster called the internet...

I fear that too many digital commoners might be caught in the idea that our problems are to be solved by technical solutions - and the digital commons is a way to these technical solutions. People sitting for 8 hours a day in front of screens may be highly productive of ideas but someone has to feed, clothe and accomodate them before they can sit down in front of the screen. To counteract the problems that may arise with this digital commoners need to set up or get involved in natural commons. It would be foolish to deny that computers and the internet have a role helping spread the case and ideas of projects like community gardens, community supported agriculture, community energy projects and community resource centres - after all I'm sitting in front of a computer and sharing ideas like that here and now.

What is really dangerous though is that people think that their main contribution can and will be from what they provide from a keyboard when in order to really understand how natural commons work you actually have to go outside and get your hands dirty before and after you put through reflections about your experience through the computer. So the best way for digital commoners to get a sense of what is involved in natural commns is to establish develop and get involved in natural commons in the developed countries - in other words pooled resource management in cultivation or the use of water or space like community gardens, community supported agriculture or involvement in eco-communities.

* How can different commons communities learn from each other?

Brian Davey:

There are perhaps things to be learned in the over developed societies in which we live - for example between the revived natural commons projects and other approaches which pool resources - and perhaps digital commoners can show us a thing or two about how to build networked movements, as well as how to manage and regulate global resource commons.

The much more difficult challenge is to create meaningful dialogue and learning between digital commoners in the global north and indigenous people in the global south - there I fear there is such a gulf in experience that it will be hard to create a meaningful communication - between the first and the last."