Developing the Meta Services for the Eco-Social Economy

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= on developing a framework for an eco-social economy - includings its arrangements to manage natural commons

Text proposed by Feasta, Ireland. By Brian Davey with the assistance of John Jopling.

The full paper can be obtained via Brian Davey <[email protected]>. (An shorter version of this paper, edited by Ranjan Chaudhuri is to appear in the Indian newspaper, The Hindu)



Introduction

Excerpt:

"This paper is to open a discussion about how civil society organisations can make themselves more effective in addressing environmental and developmental issues. What are the keys to unlock our potential for bringing about change on the scale needed to reverse current global trends? The focus of much of the work of NGOs and civil society organisations is on what government and inter-governmental policy should be – as well as campaigning for private corporations to clean up their act. In both these cases we find ourselves up against systems with systemic limitations on their freedom to respond positively - the necessity to promote economic growth in the case of governments and in the case of private corporations the necessity to promote shareholder value above all other considerations. However, there is also a growing sector that directly engages in social and environmental entrepreneurism in its own right, effectively subsidised by the self sacrifice and determination of their members. These organisations and movements pioneer new approaches, provide models for citizen engagement and are vehicles to acquire the skills that will be needed in the future. The question we ask here is how can these movements become the dominant global system?


Examples of the kind of projects that might network together and evolve into a new eco social economy are Transition Initiatives, Permaculture projects, Eco-Teams, the Slow Food Movement, Community Energy Companies, Community Gardens and City Farms, Community Transport schemes, eco-villages and the like. In his book Blessed Unrest, author Paul Hawken suggests that there are anything between one half to two million organisations on the planet active on environmental issues, indigenous rights and social justice. Evolved to respond to local conditions with locally developed ideas many organisations have emerged under conditions of political indifference or hostility. While some organisations start off campaigning in reaction to what they oppose, many then pro-actively pioneer DIY model projects to demonstrate alternative ideas in practice. These are often small - but seedling projects can grow, cluster and network. Such exemplary projects are a vital part of the solution – but together with the campaigning NGOs they will not be enough either. What is suggested here is that a third component is needed. The suggestion is that there is now, in addition, a compelling case for developing institutions to hold in trust and manage collective commons resources that are being over-used, depleted and/or polluted to the point of collapse, like the earth's atmosphere, the earth's oceans, fresh water resources and land masses. This is not a role for the state, for states were not established to protect these resources and are usually captured by powerful self-interested actors. What is missing at the moment is a set of institutional frameworks to independently manage commons resources in stewardship, to limit the use of these resources, restore them to health and ensure that, to the extent they are used, they are used to the benefit of everyone equally – including future generations who have a right to receive these resources in good health."

Text

Brian Davey With amendment and changes from John Jopling

May-June 2010

Draft 2:


Introduction

"This paper is to open a discussion about how civil society organisations can make themselves more effective in addressing environmental and developmental issues. What are the keys to unlock our potential for bringing about change on the scale needed to reverse current global trends? The focus of much of the work of NGOs and civil society organisations is on what government and inter-governmental policy should be – as well as campaigning for private corporations to clean up their act. In both these cases we find ourselves up against systems with systemic limitations on their freedom to respond positively - the necessity to promote economic growth in the case of governments and in the case of private corporations the necessity to promote shareholder value above all other considerations. However, there is also a growing sector that directly engages in social and environmental entrepreneurism in its own right, effectively subsidised by the self sacrifice and determination of their members. These organisations and movements pioneer new approaches, provide models for citizen engagement and are vehicles to acquire the skills that will be needed in the future. The question we ask here is how can these movements become the dominant global system?


Examples of the kind of projects that might network together and evolve into a new eco social economy are Transition Initiatives, Permaculture projects, Eco-Teams, the Slow Food Movement, Community Energy Companies, Community Gardens and City Farms, Community Transport schemes, eco-villages and the like. In his book Blessed Unrest, author Paul Hawken suggests that there are anything between one half to two million organisations on the planet active on environmental issues, indigenous rights and social justice. Evolved to respond to local conditions with locally developed ideas many organisations have emerged under conditions of political indifference or hostility. While some organisations start off campaigning in reaction to what they oppose, many then pro-actively pioneer DIY model projects to demonstrate alternative ideas in practice. These are often small - but seedling projects can grow, cluster and network. Such exemplary projects are a vital part of the solution – but together with the campaigning NGOs they will not be enough either. What is suggested here is that a third component is needed. The suggestion is that there is now, in addition, a compelling case for developing institutions to hold in trust and manage collective commons resources that are being over-used, depleted and/or polluted to the point of collapse, like the earth's atmosphere, the earth's oceans, fresh water resources and land masses. This is not a role for the state, for states were not established to protect these resources and are usually captured by powerful self-interested actors. What is missing at the moment is a set of institutional frameworks to independently manage commons resources in stewardship, to limit the use of these resources, restore them to health and ensure that, to the extent they are used, they are used to the benefit of everyone equally – including future generations who have a right to receive these resources in good health. Under the influence of neo-liberal economics there is a general assumption that we need market based frameworks for managing collective resources like the earth's atmosphere. To the extent that we need markets at all (and much of the solution to the ecological crisis is in the eco-design of self supply, improving the household or local community sectors) then we don't need market based frameworks - we need framework based markets. Before depleted and polluted resources are released into the economy, what we are proposing here is that there should be a set of completely independent organisations that have a legal mandate to protect the continuance of life on the planet equitably by ensuring that economic uses for these resources do not overstep ecological capacity limits. They must have an independence akin to that which central banks do…for the biological currency of life must be protected. Since states have failed to set these organisations up, this is a historic task for civil society actors to create. Civil society today is the only sector capable of creating the institutional frameworks that could enable millions of people to collective manage the earth's commons – natural, social and cultural.


Cultivating a seed bed of projects

Facilitating a positive future requires the cultivation of the global seed bed of projects. Seedling projects can develop stronger if they become part of a larger sector with its own ethics, identity and networked co-ordination. While big governments struggle to agree on substantive responses to interlinked crises we can, in the meantime, develop more effective engagement by helping these civil society organisations help each other through methods to enable more effective co-ordination and coherence. Effective co-ordination will need to accommodate considerable heterogeneity. In his book Paul Hawken stresses the diversity of all the organisations that have emerged to fit so many different places and situations. This is both a strength and a weakness. Observers at Copenhagen who attended civil society meetings referred to the cacophony of different policies and approaches hindering the exercise of a coherent influence. Only in a few places do these kind of small scale local initiatives have their views reflected in government policies. Indeed for some organisations, where there is any political expression at all, it is at the global level – for example at UN climate conferences like the COP. While the world media focuses on intergovernmental negotiations at the “Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC” another process has been occurring – alongside the ineffectual and chaotic intergovernmental horse trading, thousands of civil society activists networked and exchanged ideas. At Copenhagen this process appears to have reached the end of the line. Not only did many civil society organisations choose to be outside of a process which they judged was going nowhere, many organisations who came, as they thought, to attend the main event, found themselves quite literally locked out in the cold while in the hall a few world leaders squabbled and were not able to achieve agreement.


Top Down versus horizontal co-ordination frameworks, the role of the Viable Systems Model

So what is to be done? How are the entrepreneurial projects to be co-ordinated and how will the emerging movement to hold the earths commons resources in trust manage themselves? The two processes are, as already explained, not quite the same – nonetheless both have much to gain by using principles from management cybernetics and systems thinking. In this thinking maximal autonomy of action is reserved at the lowest level – in the smallest units.


Self evidently a micro elite of mega powerful government leaders and mega powerful corporate institutions cannot heal the world – what are needed are frameworks in which each house, community, garden, field, farm, forest, river and stream is healed locally - by responsible people and their local organisations. These entrepreneurial initiatives need to be encouraged and supported by frameworks also established by millions of people coming together to endorse charters of principle to manage the commons and setting up appropriate organisations, outside the mainstream political process. In neither case can this be done in a top down fashion. Most of the co-ordination frameworks common in the modern world are governance frameworks. They are essentially rule based systems within government or in the management of other kinds of organisations. These have a top-down and command and control character. Following the ideas of Thomas Hobbes from the 17th century, government is seen as the operations of the thinking head regulating the active body of citizens by telling them what to do. Instead of regarding co-ordination in the eco-social economy as the re-jigging of top down arrangements another approach is to think of improving horizontal co-ordination and networking between the local projects. One kind of arrangement that could be used to do this is called viable systems modelling, or VSM for short, a form of organisational framework designed by a far too little known organisation expert called Stafford Beer. The underlying assumption of VSM is that it is not efficient to pass all major decisions up to the highest level to hand down their decisions and regulations from on high – it is very rarely necessary and, indeed, it is often inefficient to do this. Top down co-ordinators typically have less detailed information about immediate local conditions even though they claim to have the wider picture, the overview. The image of Hobbesian decision making is a conscious head telling “the body politic” what it should do. However in the human body the head does not tell the heart how fast it should beat and most processes in the human body occur autonomically. Stafford Beer saw that just as 'Top down' does not work in the human body, or any other natural system, the same applies as between the members of any organisation. The same also applies across the diversities and differences between civil society organisations that are becoming active on environmental issues.


Meta-System Functions

What is needed instead is a methodology which clarifies what to do in those limited circumstances where the primary activities of organisations and movements – ecological cultivation, sustainable transport, energy efficiency work and the like – require some way of regulating their relations through a meta-system. The question is - how does one run this meta system as a co-ordinative service rather than as command and control over the other activities telling them what they must do in an authoritarian fashion? Beer's insight was that essentially all meta system co-ordinating functions are of 4 types – to deal with conflicts, to achieve synergy, to maintain a dynamic assessment of changing operational environments which are evolving in space and time and, finally, the maintenance of overall common identity. This can be illustrated with examples of how to co-ordinate eco-social entrepreneur projects as well as how to co-ordinate the framework conditions of economic activity through the operation of commons trusts.


Co-ordinating eco-social project and their networks

Suppose a number of community garden projects in a city decide to co-ordinate their work in order to become more effective. There might be potential conflicts for this group where they all wish to call upon a limited pot of finance to develop their work – in this case there is a need for a conflict resolution process. Additionally co-ordination may allow for a variety of synergies. By working together they purchase inputs jointly to the advantage of all or organise a local market together. Those are operational issues of the here and now type. In addition they can share arrangements to ensure appropriate adaptation to an evolving environment – researching the likely future demand for services, monitoring public policy changes on land or finance, researching good practice from outside the area altogether. Finally there are those issues defining general ethics and principles for community cultivation projects reflecting shared purpose and values – which may, for example, determine whether other projects be invited to share their joint arrangements or which they may decide to defend together if public policy seems to be challenging what they are seeking to represent and uphold. What has happened here is that by installing arrangements for performing these basic functions of conflict resolution, maximising synergies, the dynamic assessment of changing environments and maintenance of common identity, the participating community garden groups have created something larger than the sum of its parts, an entity that has an existence of its own and which is capable of acting in ways that the individual groups could not possibly have done. At the same time, for most purposes each group will have autonomy to act as it thinks best and these levels of co-ordination would only be engaged under agreed circumstances where the network as a whole is threatened by the actions of one group or where, by common agreement, there is mutual benefit in doing so. Beyond the work of the community cultivation projects there are other networks where thinking about other processes are required – for example a wider community food sector including cooking, and healthy eating projects. It would then be possible for the cooperative of community garden groups to build a wider local food cooperative by setting up arrangements for performing the same four basic 'meta-system' fictions in relation to the various players in the field of local food, thus creating an effective entity at that level. And so on. Beer's model is 'recursive' The point is that at each level what has been created is a system that has a certain independence of action, in a very real sense a life of its own, no longer dependent on, and easily thwarted, by the existing decision-making structures which are at present the only 'legitimate' channels of so-called democratic government, but which are generally flawed by majority voting systems, party politics, lobbying on behalf of corporate interests and corporate dominated media. What is put forward here is that by building in this way from the bottom up, on the foundations of the participants in the movement Paul Hawken describes, organisational structures can be created capable in replacing the dysfunctional architecture of today's world.


Co-ordinating and managing the commons trusts

Although commons trusts would have somewhat different purposes, they too would have an internal structure that was flat, with co-ordinative meta management services in order to ensure that decisions get taken at the lowest level with maximal autonomy for local action subject to the maintenance of overall coherence. For example, a Sky Trust – working as a network internationally, to manage the earth's atmospheric commons would have departments to manage its primary operational programmes in the interests of all – like a programme to bring down greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible in a way which shared the revenues from doing that equitably, like a department to encourage the preservation and enhancement of land based carbon sinks, like a department working on methane and other kinds of emissions. In addition it would need a diplomatic service to resolve the many conflicts that arise in climate mitigation – which would however only intervene as and when required. There would be another department to encourage synergies in climate mitigation – for example, working together across boundararies to exchange ideas and good practice as and when appropriate – but not interfering otherwise. Of course there would be a need for a processes to research the changing conditions in which the Sky Trust operated – a department working on the evolving understanding of the climate science, the changing economic conditions and technologies. Finally there would be a need for generic policies that create the overall identity and values holding the whole process together. In regard to such generic policies it is important that trusts are set up on the basis of explicit charters that state the principles that underpin them and hold those in trustee roles responsible for the health of the resource on clear metrics (like target greenhouse gas concentrations which would be safe for a Sky Trust ) and in the interests of everyone equally. In conclusion. Much of the effort of activists when confronted by problems like the climate crisis is to “tell the government” what they should be doing – as well as to tell corporations what they should not do. There is still a place for this. However a collection of ad hoc policies by government and corporations is not achieving much. We need an architecture for dealing with these problems and we will pretty much have to create it ourselves. This is not the same as saying we are indifferent to what governments and corporations are doing and will do. At some point in this different way of approaching the problems we will want the government to buy into and legitimise and support what we are doing – and for corporations to only be allowed to work within the framework conditions that we have set up that protect the planet and civil society. But we've got to get on and set this up ourselves. No one else will. If not us then who? If not now then when?"