Our current path is that of a netocracy and the triumph of billionaires. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and their billionaire cohort will successfully follow their plans for customer service, fast delivery, cost cutting and labor saving. Eventually, they will own almost everything until, under staggering consumer debt loads and shrinking customer income, the system collapses and yet another bailout is no longer possible.
Broadly, the sustainable alternative to netocracy and hyper-privatization is the growth, health, and strengthening of commons regimes. The Commons is a realm quite different from that of private property or state. It is a social property that manifests the right to use and comes with the responsibility to protect and maintain.
The rights to use the global commons must be balanced by the responsibility to maintain and protect them. The consequences of economic activity must mean ecological improvement in the context of the pursuit of sustainability, and of social and ecological justice. This is the principle governing not just commons and commoners, but also public and private entities, governments, corporations and non-profits. There can be no privileged domain for pollution and self-destruction. The commons, its health, maintenance and protection is the core necessary for building an ecological civilization, for the health of the ecosphere, for freedom and for the community.
The commons and commons regimes emerge as an entity distinct from the nation in its public and private personas. The commons exists in practice; it is afforded recognition and protection under social practice, and by national and international law. It is the ground for community action, on the local level as well as in the global arena by means of participants operating in cyberspace. It is the venue within which we move from being disgruntled world slayers to river keepers and soil protectors, from employees and wage slaves to responsible and free women and men.
A commons does not mean an equal right to despoil and destroy. A commons means stewardship, in the context of an intergenerational perspective; it is to care, as Native American cultures say, for the 7th generation yet to come. It is thus rooted in a sense of ethics, rules, custom, limits and their enforcement; spatial and intergenerational consciousness; reciprocity; justice; and fairness. It is a social creation, a bio-social and bio-physical entity manifested as a partnership between social groups and biological, physical and cyberspace entities.
Conceive of the commons as a cybernetic information system that carefully monitors the consequences of its usage and takes healing action in response. Commons regimes embracing the air, water, soil, ocean, outer space and cyberspace on the local and global levels are crucial for the survival and prosperity of the ecosphere and human civilization. The commons and its health and well-being are the loci for the conduct of ecological economic growth.
Ecological economic growth (EEG) is predicated on economic growth leading to ecological improvement and regeneration, within the context of the pursuit of sustainability and ecological and social justice. This is made possible by means of comprehensive ecological market rules, laws, regulations, and a redefinition of fiduciary responsibility toward the ecological in building a zero-pollution, zero-waste civilization. For example, a system where globally renewable energy replaces all fossil fuel and nuclear power as early as possible; in which industrial production is governed by an industrial ecology where all outputs become useful inputs for other processes in a zero-pollution, zero-waste regime; and where the global ocean aquaculture of kelp and azolla becomes a major source of food, bio-energy, and enormous amounts of carbon sequestration. The health of the commons is dependent upon ecological economic growth; the success of the latter, in turn, is dependent upon the well-being of the commons. The rights and responsibilities of commoners, not just the EPA, protect and monitor the commons as an expression of primal self-interest.
A commons is therefore conceived as:
• A bio-social and bio-physical entity
• A cybernetic informational system and a network
• A self-managing system balancing rights to use and responsibilities to sustain
• Existing in time and space as a system with intergenerational consciousness and action
• A manifestation of social and community property with global impact and reach
• An ethical, cultural and legal expression of justice and fairness, of rights and self-protection
• An expression of social property as opposed to private or public private property
• A basis for community economy and enterprise
• A generator of sustainable wealth, food, products, services, art and serenity
• Manifesting in physical space, social space and cyberspace as a vital social entity
• A venue for the redefinition of economic growth in quality and intensity
• A basis for building an ecological civilization in response to industrial folly
A commons, like cyberspace, may be open to all, but, as in all commons, the right to use them is balanced by the responsibility of good conduct and the acts necessary to maintain them. For example, a cyber-commons may forbid spam, phishing and limit bandwidth. What is now more controversial, contested and deeply relevant, is the treatment of internet portals and social networks as publicly owned networks, as opposed to their proprietary use for extracting billions upon billions from internet users to create a global netocracy.
As Yochai Benkler points out in The Wealth of Networks, the increasing imposition of private property rights on networks both increases costs and reduces productivity, as well as interfering with the strength of networks and peer to peer production and creativity. “Ubiquitous low-cost processors, storage media, and networked conductivity have made it practically feasible for individuals, alone and in cooperation with others, to create and exchange information, knowledge and culture in patterns of social reciprocity, redistribution and sharing, rather than proprietary, market-based production.”
Traditionally, ofcourse, the commons was about local agricultural spaces to graze animals, such as the Boston Commons, or to cut wood, plant crops or to fish. It could be used by all local farmers and fishers, but abused by none. Nor could the commons be enclosed, i.e. fenced and privatized, and used for the creation of wealth and property for the few instead of the many. In some parishes in England and Wales, there was, and still is, the annual tradition of “the beating the bounds”, where the commons land is inspected and all rock walls and fences torn down. In Germany, communally owned municipal forests continue to be successfully maintained as a commons.
Wikipedia is an outstanding example of a global informational commons, as are open source software programs and operating systems like Ubuntu; originally released in 2004, the latest version, Ubuntu 20.04 was issued in 2020. Ubuntu is produced and maintained by users and operates in ten desktop environments. Its name arises from the Zulu phrase "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu", which literally means that a person is a person through other people, or “I am because you are”.
There are an ever increasing number of online commons in the form of scientific journals used and maintained by contributors. Commons copyright offers the opportunity to use and freely distribute, but not to sell. As a writer, it is an interesting experience to find articles I have written being sold without permission by private data bases and without any payment to me. This is a modern version of an enclosure, where the informational material is seized and access to information or the ability to communicate and search lies with a handful of corporate entities; they use it for their continuous enrichment from the billions making use of the informational commons. It is tantamount to making everyone pay tolls to a private entity for walking on public streets or traveling on public roads.
It's important to recognize that the creation of the World Wide Web by the CERN physicist Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 was not a commercial venture, but an effort to create a global informational commons. The development of internet protocols TCP/IP was by the U.S. government agency DARPA, while the GPS system was invented by Roger Easton, an engineer working on the Explorer satellite program for the U.S. Navy. Tim-Berners Lee is not a billionaire; while Jeff Bezos has become the world's richest person as a result of the freely shared work of Tim-Berners Lee being used. Roger Easton received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, not billions in royalties from the use of the GPS.
The Billionaire Netocracy
There are competing visions of the future. One is of a fully privatized world run by trillionaires, consisting of labor free self-driving cars; of robot factories; of robot and drone warehouses and enormous server farms with skeletal high tech staff; of global offshoring for all work; and of a competitive gig economy for whatever jobs cannot be performed by increasingly capable artificial intelligence apps. Of course, this is also a recipe for the destruction of economic demand and the ability to sustain the economic viability of the profit machine, as well as for the impoverishment of much of the population. As Keynes noted, you cannot push on a string to move an economy.
The world of the billionaire netocracy is strikingly played out in exploding homelessness in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles; housing and rental prices have soared in response to the influx of well paid executives and technical workers of Silicon Valley linked companies and other information age high tech entities. In Seattle, depression style tent cities have sprung up under highway overpasses as high tech bosses oppose both taxation for public housing and unionization. In Venice Beach in Los Angeles, customers at fancy beachside bistros look out at the tents of the homeless on the sand only a few yards away.
It is clear that economic efficiency, equity, justice and democracy are all in conflict with the ongoing privatization of commons property. The health of our future ecological economy and society lies in a convergence of commons rights and responsibilities with the market rules, laws and regulations guiding the private and public sector.
Paradoxically, on the technological level, there may be similarities between a world of zero-polluting robot factories, driverless cars and the increasing use of artificial intelligence in an alternative future of broad prosperity, creativity and happiness; a world based on peer to peer relationships, dynamic commons regimes, trade in information, local production, and self-provisioning by means of customized 3-D production using organic and renewable inputs.
The difference is based on mechanisms for the fair distribution of the social product that provides every person with a fair and just share, and the right to a living stipend in exchange for meeting defined responsibilities. This means that work will result in creative, self-defined and self-managed action within the commons.
Tragedy of the Commons?
There is always tension between private domains, the commons and open access regimes. Open access means a right to use with no responsibility to protect and maintain. This is the kind of abusive “freedom” that leads to abuse and the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” More accurately, this should be called the “tragedy of subjecting a commons to open access.” The 21st century is very much concerned not only with land tenure and ocean tenure property issues, but also with issues around cyberspace, and informational tenure and ownership questions.
Is global cyberspace to be ruled by a private property regime for the endless profit of two classes of private property holders? This refers to (1) owners of platform gateways that facilitate interconnection, communication and commerce in the form of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu, TenCent and others to come, and (2) owners of intellectual property rights that will encompass not merely code for software, but informational content in all its diverse forms, including genetic code and its applications in bio-medicine, production code for manufacture using 3-D printing, as well as digitized music, film, entertainment, literature and insurance.
Economically, this is the recipe consolidation of rent seeking, of oligopoly, monopoly and monopsony (where there is only one buyer) that concentrates wealth, increase prices, and creates barriers to entry and competition in the interest of private profit. It is also, as the Gilded Age demonstrated, a recipe for an eventual trust-busting reform and economic collapse.
The central issue is that the continued consolidation of a billionaire netocracy will reflect a failure to constrain and transform the ecological and social abuses of informational and industrial business as usual. This will mean the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, and a much greater likelihood that there will be no effective efforts to reverse climate change and escape the impending global ecological catastrophe. A netocracy, of course, will also undermine the strength and productivity of networks that will continue to exist as semi-renegade internet “free zones”.
In the proprietary world, there is no free information or free lunch. Every bit and byte is for sale at a price the market will bear. Researching the commons, I found numerous academic journal articles on the strength of the commons and of networks hidden behind pay walls. Shutting the door also closes minds; it short circuits that flash of inspiration, insight and creativity that can lead in new and potentially world-changing directions.
There are many possible alternatives to provide fair access to information, such as the payment by all of small fees for blanket access to intellectual property, to a limited scope of patent rights; for example, never for genes, as opposed to gene therapies resulting from genes. An Israeli company is working on an effective multi-modal treatment and cure for almost all cancers customized to an individual’s particular cancer cells, that appears to be effective in early trials.
Shall this remain proprietary information for sale only for those who can afford what the traffic will bear, or will it become a universal benefit for humanity that will swiftly lead to other startling applications? Their work did not arise from thin air as inventions with a patent lasting a generation or more, but from the contributions of thousands and thousands of others, often gifted to the public domain or financed from public and non-profit sources.
Strengthening of Commons Regimes
The strengthening of commons regimes, or establishing the right to use them while maintaining and protecting them, must become the rules of the road; not just for commons, but for private and public entities and their conduct. Yes, by fits and starts a global renewable energy transformation is underway, even as the conduct of industrial business as usual remains interrupted, global carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase, and the rich get richer. A different kind of global convergence is well underway in a world that is glorious for a tiny billionaire class, comfortable indeed for the 1%, and fine for the professional and well educated 10%. It is not simply that the consequences of continuing business as unusual will be sub-optimal and lead to familiar denouements of economic collapse, but that global consequences will be broadly fatal for much of the planet's species and for the continuation of a global industrial civilization.
An Ecological Future: The Fateful Four
The ecological future arises most broadly from a global convergence on:
• Ecological economic growth
• Social and ecological justice
• Ecological improvement, locally and globally
• Transforming a war system to a peace system
Global and Local Commons regimes and networks are the underlying structure and basis for building an ecological future. These four goals above are more than a statement of high-minded ideals and dewy eyed dreams; they are a path for both reversing climate change and for building a sustainable, prosperous and peaceful ecological civilization.
The rights and responsibilities governing the local and global commons must become the basic guides of conduct for all. This must be if property is common, private, public and offers open access. We cannot survive in a world walled off into ecological commons and open-access areas for maximum exploitation. Commons, as well as private and public open access systems, will be in continual contact. The grand global convergence is for ecological economic growth, social and ecological justice, ecological improvement, and building a peace system.
This grand convergence means an ongoing diversity of forms. The growth of commons self-management, and law and regulation based on using them with a responsibility to maintain and sustain them, means that a wide range of public and private property based entities can survive and thrive in commons regimes. The rise of an ecological civilization will be characterized, in particular, by the rise of commons regimes as both formal and informal structures that mediate and mitigate the conduct on a local and global scale in pursuit of ecological ends.
On a grand scale, this means the evolution in commons and statute law locally, nationally and internationally; this the same as international human rights constituting both individual and collective rights expressed in law, as well as by individuals and communities. The successful commons regime is an exquisite expression of the relationship between the individuals and the group, between freedom and community.
On a global scale there must be a common law expressed, protected and codified by local, national, international law and by a treaty of Rights and Responsibilities of the Commons. This is meant to be expressed and codified not just by the United Nations, but by commons regime and local, state, national and international governments.
Manifesting Commons Rights and Responsibilities in Law and Custom
A charter for commons Rights and Responsibilities needs to be laid out both for the Commons, encompassing its inhabitants and users, from local space to global and cyber space. This should be expressed on all levels and in all domains, and reflect the principle of subsidiarity. Those most directly affected must have the most significant input.
Thus the decision by a group of farmers or fishers to use and maintain their farm, woodland or fishing grounds is largely their decision, to the extent that it harmonizes with broader issues facing the commons. For example, rules by a fishing commons to maintain a sustainable catch might conflict with broader needs; such as the global need to limit the catch of both very small fish and very large fish so that fish stocks and the ecology are maintained, and the need to limit use of certain types of nets that harm turtles and marine mammals which may not be of concern to the local fishers.
The charters, rules and customs of local commons should be harmonized and supported by law and recognized as a precedent under common law. For example, the attempt to build tar sands oil pipelines across farmland and rivers and above crucial aquifers, was made possible by state and federal law and by the powers of eminent domain against the rights and expressed interests of local farmers, ranchers and Native American tribes and their oft trampled upon treaty rights and sovereignty. The rights of the commons on both the local and global levels must not be violated on the basis of economic expediency; they need to be protected.
In summation, the movement toward a sustainable, peaceful and productive world centered on improving the health of the global commons is crucial for the rise of an ecological civilization. This is not a brief for human perfection. It means the strengthening of local powers over all aspects of our lives. Neither corporations nor governments have the right to despoil the commons, but must conduct themselves in accord with ecological market rules and laws that protect and defend the commons, support ecological and social justice and a global convergence on sustainable norms and a good life for all.
The overwhelming power of this ecological transformation is that it does not require being imposed from above and with the consent of the wealthy, but must and will arise from an insistent transformative global ecological movement from below, expressed not just in the decisions of nations, but by the acts that constitute the basis for our current and future well-being.
There is an intricate dance unfolding between the commons and commoners, and the powers and prerogatives of governments and of personal, private and social property. Each neighborhood, city and state must chart its own course within the context of ecological norms. It is the sharing, common purpose and convergence between ecological means and ecological ends that will represent the shape of an emergent ecological social order.