Silke Helfrich on the commons and the upcoming International Commons Conference

Darren Hill mail at
Mon Oct 11 12:30:07 BST 2010

Excerpt from a profile and extented interview 
by *Richard Poynder*, on the occasion of the upcoming Berlin Commons 
Conference <>:

*Interview excerpts:*

/“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 

/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 

/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 

/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 

/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).” /

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