Silke Helfrich on the International Commons Conference in Berlin

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Excerpt from a profile and extented interview by Richard Poynder, on the occasion of the Berlin Commons Conference



"RP: Would it be accurate to say that the commons encompasses components of a number of different movements that have emerged in recent years, including free and open source software (FOSS), Creative Commons, Green politics, and all the initiatives focused on helping the developing world etc.?

SH: That's right.

RP: Has it been a natural process of convergence?

SH: From a commoner’s perspective it is a natural process, but it is not immediately obvious that the different movements and their concerns have a lot in common.

RP: How do you mean?

SH: Let me give you an example: When we started to work on the commons in Latin America about six years ago we were working mainly with the eco- and social movements, who were critical of the impact that globalisation and the free trade paradigm were having. A colleague suggested that we should invite people from the free software movement to take part in our discussions.

While we did invite them, our first thought was: What does proprietary software have in common with genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Or, to put it the other way round, what does the free software movement stand for, and what could it possibly have in common with organisations fighting for GMO free regions? Likewise, what could it have in common with community supported agriculture (CSA), and with movements devoted to defending access to water and social control over their biotic resources?

But we quickly realised that they are all doing the same thing: defending their commons! So since then we have become committed to (and advocate for) the "convergence of movements".

RP: For those who have been following the development of the Internet much of the debate about the commons has emerged from the way in which people — particularly large multinational companies — have sought to enforce intellectual property rights in the digital environment. In parallel there has been a huge debate about the impact of patents on the developing world — patents on life-saving drugs, for instance, and patents on food crops. But seen from a historical perspective these debates are far from new — they have been repeated throughout history, and the commons as a concept goes back even before the infamous enclosures that took place in England in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

SH: That’s right. So to some extent we are talking about the renaissance of the commons.

And the reason why free software developers are engaged in the same struggle as, say, small farmers, is simple: when people defend the free use of digital code, as the free software movement does, they are defending our entitlement to control our communication tools. (Which is essential when you are talking about democracy).

And when people organise local seed-banks to preserve and share the enormous seed variety in their region, they too are simply defending their entitlement to use and reproduce the commons.

In doing so, by the way, they are making use of a cornucopia — because in the commons there is abundance.

RP: Nowadays we are usually told to think of the natural world in terms of scarcity rather abundance.

SH: Well, even natural resources are not scarce in themselves. They are finite, but that is not the same thing as scarce. The point is that if we are not able to use natural collective resources (our common pool resources) sustainably, then they are made scarce. By us!

The commons, I insist, is above all a rich and diverse resource pool that has been developed collectively. What is important is the community, or the people’s control of that resource pool, rather than top-down control. Herein lies the future!

That is precisely what awarding the Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom in 2009 was all about [On awarding the Prize, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences commented: “Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatised”].

It is also what the Right Livelihood Award [the so-called Alternative Nobel Prize] — is all about.

RP: Ok, so we are saying that a lot of different movements have emerged with similar goals, but those similarities are not immediately obvious?

SH: Correct. So it is important to make them transparent. The global movement of commoners today is eclectic and growing, but fragmented.

For instance, we can see a number of flourishing transnational commons movements (e.g. free software, Wikipedia, open access to scholarly journals etc.) — all of whom are from the cultural and digital realm, and all of whom are based on community collaboration and sharing.

Many other commons projects, however, are modest in size, locally based, and focused on natural resources. There are thousands of them, and they provide solutions that confirm the point ETC’s Pat Mooney frequently makes: “the solution comes from the edges”.

Right now these different groups barely know each other, but what they all have in common is that they are struggling to take control of their own lives.

Taken together all these movements are actually part of a big civic movement that is about to discover its own identity, just as the environmental movement did some 30 or 40 years ago. Co-operation is the best way for them to grow and become politically relevant. So the goal should be to persuade the various advocates that they have much to gain from working together.

RP: Would you agree that the Internet has played an important role in the emergence of these movements?

SH: I would. The Internet has been key in the development of global commons projects like free software and Wikipedia, and it greatly facilitates the sharing of ideas — which is key for becoming politically effective.

So the Internet allows us to cooperate beyond the traditional boundaries; and it allows us to take one of the most productive resources of our age — "knowledge and information management" — into our own hands.

Look at the AVAAZ – campaigns for instance. The number of people they are able to connect to and mobilise is amazing. [In 3 years, Avaaz has grown to 5.5 million members from every country on earth, becoming the largest global web movement in history].

One problem, however, is that many communities who are heavily reliant on web-based technologies are not really attuned to the fact that the more we access these kinds of technologies the more we tend to overuse our natural common pool resources. So I think we need to understand that "openness" in the digital realm and "sustainability" in the natural realm need to be addressed together.

RP: Can you expand on that?

SH: We need more than just free software and free hardware. We need free software and free hardware designed to make us independent of the need to acquire a constant stream of ever more resource-devouring gadgets.

So instead of going out every three years to buy a new laptop packed with software that requires paying large license fees to corporations, who then have control over our communication, we should aim to have just one open-hardware-modular-recyclable-computer that runs community-based free software and can last a lifetime.

This is quite a challenge, and it is one of the many challenges we will be discussing at the International Commons Conference. One of the key questions here is this: Is the idea of openness really compatible with the boundaries of (natural) common-pool resources?

RP: What is the overall objective of the International Commons Conference?

SH: To put it modestly (SMILE), the aim is to achieve a breakthrough in the international political debate on the commons, and a convergence of the scholars who are studying the commons and the commoners who are defending them in the field.

We believe that the conference will foster the planning and development of commons-based organisations and policy, as well as their networking capacity. And we hope that by the end of the conference a set of principles and long-term goals will have emerged.

The whole endeavour (or should I say adventure? SMILE) will surely contribute to what my colleague Michel Bauwens — co-organiser of the conference — calls “A Grand Coalition of the Commons”.

RP: I note that there is no dedicated web site or pre-publicity for the conference. And it is by invitation only. Is that because there is not yet a fully articulated consensus on the commons and its potential?

SH: No, we have a much better reason: There has been no need for pre-publicity for the conference. On the contrary, as I frequently find myself having to explain to people, the response to our first "save-the-date-call" for the conference was so overwhelmingly positive that we quickly realised we would be fully booked without any publicity. And in fact we are now more than fully booked.

The conference is by invitation only because we designed the conference programme for those who are already very familiar with the commons, be it through analysing the commons or through producing the commons. Consequently all our participants are specialists. Indeed each one of them would be qualified to address a keynote to the conference.

In other words, what we have designed is a networking conference for commoners from all over the world — and over 170 people from 34 countries have registered. That is quite an achievement, and has only been limited by the availability of space and resources.

I hope, however, that we’ll have a real World Commons Forum within a year or so (SMILE)." (