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Brian Davey: Beware of Fake Abundance

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
13th November 2010


My conclusion is that, to talk about abundance is a very misleading message. Commons have much to offer us – sharing ideas without intellectual property constraints will help us, sharing scarce production and energy and pooling production arrangement and infrastructures will too, sharing may bring us into human relationships with many psychological and emotional rewards. In that sense we may describe commons as “having a generative logic” – But an “abundance” is not a message that I agree with – if it taken to mean, or implied to mean, an abundance of material production. In my opinion to use the word “abundance” is a misleading picture of the future that we are heading into. An abundance of information about how we might make things is not the same as an abundance of things – it is an abundance of recipes not an abundance of food.

Contribution from Brian Davey of Feasta, reacting to the Berlin Commons Conference tension between Abundance and Scarcity.

Brian Davey:

“At the beginning of the final session of the international commons conference participants were invited to express their worries, criticisms and reservations. I stood up and said, roughly, the following:

The participants who make up the conference perhaps should have focused more on what kind of era we are living in. In the conference there seemed to be two general understandings and the different between them had not been brought out enough during the discussion.

On the one hand there were those for whom the commons were lifeboat institutions for collective control over vital resources in a world in crisis, a world in which production is likely to shrink because of runaway climate change, depleting energy and water and other resources. To a large degree these were people whose main focus of attention was on natural commons – the atmosphere and climate; water and the oceans; land and ecological systems…

On the other hand there were those for whom the commons represented an entirely new mode of peer to peer production, which, when no longer held back by the constraints imposed by intellectual property restrictions, had the potential to usher in a world of abundance….not only in the provision of free information services like Wikipedia, created collectively and available to everyone, but eventually extending into material production processes too – through open source design of material goods and the spreading of new ideas for cultivation. In short we stood at the beginning of an age of abundance….The participants with this view tended to be those involved in knowledge and cultural commons – eg those involved in developing software etc.

After the conference I think these issues are so important that I have written this follow up paper. Let me start it by observing that the environmental movement has long been involved in a debate with the political and economic mainstream that looks like this:

Environmentalists argue that we are actually approaching and overstepping material limits to growth and the “carrying capacity” of the planet’s ecological systems. Meanwhile the mainstream argues that we don’t need to worry about any such thing because technology and human ingenuity will see us through – so that growth can continue indefinitely into the future….

Now I was not aware of anyone in the Berlin Commons conference who was arguing for continued growth. And everyone I met in this conference seemed to be aware of climate change and peak oil and gas. Nevertheless, the “abundance” argument did seem to me to be, at least in part, a re-packaged variant of the “human ingenuity can see us through” position – with the interesting spin on it, that human ingenuity and creativity would see us through IF the corporate attempt to enclose and privatise knowledge through intellectual property (patents, copyright, royalties etc) can be lifted – so that intellectual creation can occur as a genuine collective process and anyone and everyone is free to take the ideas, designs, software and creations of others, to correct them, amend them, adapt them, further develop them, contribute to them and so on…..without having to pay through the nose for the privilege.

Now in my view you can take these ideas too far. But before I explain why I want to explain why I found this viewpoint refreshing and to isolate a few kernels of truth.

40 years ago in my Trotskyite youth I used to attend conferences which were almost the polar opposite of this one. Participants in these earlier conferences were concerned to establish and agree upon what was “the correct analysis”, the correct way of interpreting the world and what should be done about it. The “correct analysis” somehow always seemed to be what the people you knew closest thought – because you had worked out the ideas with them and, if you disagreed…..well….it would be uncomfortable for you to go to all the meetings and find that you were the odd person saying something different.).

But, of course, other people, often in or from other places, people who had other relationships, typically worked out a slightly different view of what was “correct”. So that meant that, for them, you were wrong, and, for you, they were wrong.

The conferences that resulted from this way of relating to “the truth” were frustrating and unproductive. I remember people remarking, with frustration, how the other factions didn’t budge an inch in their thinking and, no doubt, seen from their point of view, neither did we. Difference was a problem – other peoples different viewpoints were “wrong” while we were always “right”.

I cannot say that everyone had the same experience at the International Commons Conference. At least some people seemed to get frustrated – but my own experience was mainly one in which the participants there were at ease with the differences and prepared to engage with people with a different viewpoint in a relaxed way – and that was very refreshing.

Indeed when you adopted this relaxed acceptance of difference my experience was that you tended to find that the people with the different view were already aware of your viewpoint – they may not have agreed with it as the best explanation but sometimes they would accept it as plausible and another possible view.

Indeed I felt as if I was in a discussion in which participants who had different views, were regarded as useful for testing out one’s own views, useful for seeing a different perspective that one might not have had before. There was a sense that ideas and viewpoints are not fixed and right or wrong, but always in development and the differing ideas of other people were useful in helping one further develop one’s own ideas.

Here, I think, we have an emerging idea of one dimension of “commoning” in the “knowledge commons” . I suspect it has arisen from the experience of working things through in group processes of software design or of cultural production. Here you have an open mindedness that has arisen from the experience of open source software design and the group development of ideas – where “bugs” are regarded as inevitable, where they are ironed out in collective processes, where someone else can perhaps creatively develop something that one has done and intellectual creation is an inherently collective process.

So I think that what I was experiencing was indeed a collective “mode of production” at work – where “commoning”, means active participation in production, jointly with one’s peers. And this is non egoistical, non competitive, and not concerned with grabbing property rights and personal advantage – which would, after all, slow down and damage the collective process.

The idea that doing things in this way is much smoother and more creative I can really accept….up to a point. I can thus also accept, up to a point, that it is possible to conceive of responses to the ecological and economic crises, being developed and designed collectively and then applied to material production. I am aware, for example, that there are processes involved in designing “eco-cars” which are open source.

This idea can be extended even further from ideas and designs into material production. Thus it would not just be software and cultural works that might be created without intellectual property in peer to peer processes but material products made of “stuff” too – vehicles, furniture, gardens. (Peer to peer here means co-production without an intermediary or an organisation, like an employer, managing the entire process and then claiming the group product as its own).

At its most developed this leads to the idea that open source designs could be taken and used by anyone in local community work places. These places of “free infrastruture” would operate like resource centres and be equipped with computer steered machinery that would be able to create real material products out of the digital designs. (So called “Fab Labs” – see http://tangiblebit.com/ )

Well….that is where the theory of an intellectual commons goes into material production….. However, at this point however I think we need to come back to Earth. For these are visions of the future that I find difficult to believe in and I want to explain why.

The Berlin Commons conference documentation used a terminology about the “generative logic of the commons” to refer to the way in which commons can be and are productive. However, as some people pointed out, even the digital commons are based on a material and energy guzzling infrastructure – and although there may be well meaning designers engaged in open source design processes trying to reduce the energy usage and material throughput in the maintenance of the internet infrastructure, the digital commons is by no means a free lunch. Thus, for example, making a personal computer costs 1800kWh of energy and thus consumes 11 times its own weight in fossil fuels before it gets into use…and that’s also before we start to take into account all the other computers and much bigger servers it will need to be connected to and the energy they all take to run on…

But, for me, there are some important issues here that go way beyond the issues about the energy used to create and run the internet and its infrastructure. While it is true that a considerable part of the financial costs of many products arises out of the design process, and these costs are greater because of intellectual property impositions and the charging of rent for the intellectual property, nevertheless, the creativity that is freed up by knowledge commons operating without intellectual property restraints cannot in and of themselves lift the limits to growth which have been the core issue for ecological economists.

So it is from this standpoint that I find it difficult to go all the way with, for example, Roberto Verzola of the Philippine Greens, who wrote a paper for the Berlin Conference called “Abundance and the Generative Logic of the Commons”. Yes, I agree with Roberto that the internet is producing and abundance of “information and knowledge” but information abundance is not the same as material abundance.

For one thing an abundance of knowledge and information that some people have, can remain unknown to, or ignored, or otherwise unattended to, by the people and institutions that need and ought to know about that information and knowledge so that it is actually used.

In fact there is far more information and knowledge in the world than we can all possibly devote our attention to and a whole set of institutions exist to draw attention to the agendas of powerful interests who are operating in unsustainable ways,and to draw attention away from, to slander and to try to discredit information and knowledge about things which need urgent action. Thus, for example, there has been an abundance of information and knowledge for decades about unsustainable types of economic development and about sustainable alternatives – but there has also been a political economic power structure that has felt able to ignore it, and seduce the greater bulk of the population in rich countries to devote their attention to consumption, shopping, celebrity life styles, sports, and diverting entertainment. At the same time there has been a largely successful campaign to deliberately mislead people about climate change and other issues. So while there’s a lot of information there is a lot of ignorance too…… ignor – ance that is. This channelling of mass attention is based on highly sophisticated knowledge of human psychology – indeed the founder of the modern PR and marketing industry, Edward Bernays, repeatedly drew attention to his relationship to Signmund Freud, and his use of concepts that manipulate the emotional predispositions of masses of people to suit the power elite (including the bankers and the energy barons).

Secondly even if the abundance of information were to be used helpfully in the search for solutions to our problems this information abundance could only to a limited degree be converted into an abundance of material goods – or more accurately, it has a limited potential to mitigate the decline in production that is likely to arise through energy descent.

Let me be careful to note that Roberto is well aware of peak oil but I do not fully agree with his point of view when he writes in his paper that:

” The massive bulk of water, carbon, iron, silicon and other minerals on Earth as well as energy from the sun are also wellsprings of abundance.

“The Earth’s mineral abundance is non renewable a\nd must be managed differently from renewable solar energy.

“As oil production peaks, for instance, cheap abundant oil will come to an end. Peak oil should teach us an unforgettable lesson in abundance management. Those who miss the lesson will go for more coal, nuclear power and agrofuels. Those who get it will shift to clean renewables, energy efficiency and planned “descent”. Transition Towns are leading the way.

“Solar energy makes possible other abundant energy resources such as water, wind and wood. In 2009, renewables supplied 25% of total world energy capacity, thanks to China’s surging interest in biogas, windpower and photovoltaics. Germany, too. Photovoltaics are made from semiconducting silicon, the material base of the digital revolution (Do you recall how expensive LCD projectors were ten years ago?) If photovoltaics follow similar plunging price trends as other digital goods. we can look forward to a Solar Age soon. Hydrogen from water also promises another abundant energy source.

“In passing let me cite one more wellspring of abundance: webs of positive human relationships in caring communities, which generate feelings of peace, contentment, love happiness and other psychic rewards which defy quantification”

(From “Abundance and the Generative logic of the Commons” by Roberto Verzola, Philippine Greens.Keynote speech for Stream III

Roberto’s message seems to be – yes, there will be peak oil and it will be a problem but it will only be a problem if the wrong energy technologies are adopted in response. If we embrace energy efficiency, and renewable energy technologies which are falling rapidly in price, then there will not be a problem – there will still be abundance – and that’s not to mention a non measurable abundance of good feelings from positive human relations. (Quite what Roberto means by the word “descent” is not clear to me).

As an ecological economist I find these ideas disturbing in this kind of conference. They seem to contradict 100% the “Limits to Growth” arguments developed originally in the study commissioned by the Club of Rome in the 1970s and subsequently updated and confirmed by study after study.

I can fully accept the possibility of a non measurable abundance of good feelings arising out of positive human relationships….although whether that possibility will in any way be actualised depends on our succeess, or lack of success, in re-developing the commons and commoning as the basis of human relationships…..however the notion of an abundance in material abundance I do not find credible. This wishes away the fact that Planet Earth has a limited ecological carrying capacity and all the studies show we have already overshot it considerably.

Lets go back to basics. First of all how do we explain and measure what material production does occur? A good way of doing this is to take the amount of energy that is applied in economic processes, adjusting the measure of energy for the efficiency with which the energy is delivered in the transformation of materials and “stuff” that becomes embodied in products. Then you get a measure of the amount of “work” done in material production – where the word “work” is not a reference to human labour, but to the physics of the application of energy to the transformation and movement of materials – physical processes that are subject to the laws of thermodynamics. Thus the amount of material production in the economy is related to how much energy is applied AND how efficiently it is applied.

In fact, this way of looking at production, and production growth, does exceedingly well when it is applied to real data. Two authors Ayres and Warr – used this way of thinking to study growth in the US economy. Between 1900 and 1975 it provide an almost perfect explanation for the trend growth of material production.

See: http://www.iea.org/work/2004/eewp/ayres-paper1.pdf

Now there is still a place in this model for human ingenuity to improve the efficiency with which energy is delivered to production. And there is some place for immaterial production which might grow. But immaterial production has to be embedded and embodied in material processes and things too – even a hair cut requires, scissors, premises, a chair, lighting….

And when it comes to producing stuff you cannot keep on increasing the efficiency of energy delivery to production processes and nor can you keep on increasing energy inputs either – especially at a point in history when the concentrated power made possible by burning fossil fuel energy sources starts to dwindle because of depletion, going over the peak of oil production, gas peak and coal peak….(not to mention the atmospheric use peak which we passed some time ago).

But what about renewable energies? Can these not be the basis of “abundance” – that is the argument of Roberto and I don’t agree.

We need to get a grip on the key fact that there is an absolute limit on the amount of solar and renewable energies available, no matter how ingenious and cheap we engineer an infrastructure to capture it, and no matter how good we are as gardeners and permaculture designers to capture it through plants.

The “generative logic of the commons” has to work with the fact that the power of raw sunshine at midday on a cloudless day is 1000W per square metre – but that is 1000 W per m2 of area oriented towards the sun, not per m2 of land area. To get the power per m2 of land area in Britain, where I live, we need to compensate for the tilt between the sun and the land, which reduces the intensity of midday sun to about 60% of its value at the equator. And of course it is not midday all the time. And of course in Britain, and many other places it is cloudy a lot of the time. In a typical UK location the sun shines during just 34% of daylight hours.

Globally total incoming solar radiation is 122 Petawatts which is 4 orders of magnitude greater than the total primary energy supply used by humanity – but given the low density with which it falls across the whole planet harvesting it for production processes is a costly energy intensive process. Many of the current ideas for harvesting this solar energy for human use assume that we can do this through biomass and plant based photosynthesis. Perhaps indeed permaculture has much to offer us – but it cannot resolve the fact that in Britain, after cloud cover and all the other issues there is only 100 watts falling on each meter of flat ground on average for the plants to harvest. Nor can human ingenuity and the generatice logic of the commons do much about the fact that the best plants, for example, in Europe, can only convert 2% of that solar energy into carbohydrates.

What’s more its as well to remember that humans already appropriate 30-40% of Net Primary Production of the planet (biomass) as food, feed, fiber, and fuel with wood and crop residues supplying 10% of total global human energy use. Even a relatively small increase, pushing human use of biomass up to 50% of the planets biomass production would undermine and destroy many hugely important eco-system services. In fact, because of the climate crisis, we need to be using biomass to capture CO2 out of the atmosphere. The room for maneovre barely exists, if at all.

Similar things can be said about other renewable energy resources. Yes, they are part of the future. yes they are part of what is needed. Yes, ingenuity can increase their efficiency in harvesting energy. But no they cannot and will not ever be able to provide an “abundance” if, by abundance we mean material production abundance.

With current human use of energy globally at about 13 Tera watts in 2005 as a measure we need to take in the significance of the fact that, after solar energy

“No other renewable energy resource can provide more than 10 TW. Generous estimates of technically feasible maxima (economically acceptable rates would be much lower) are less than 10 TW for wind, less than 5 TW for ocean waves, less than 2 TW for hydroelectricity and less than 1 TW for geothermal and tidal energy and for ocean currents. ” (Vaclav Smil “Energy in Nature and Society. General Energetics of Complex Systems.” MIT Press, 2008, p382-383).

So lets review the argument. Material abundance requires an abundance of energy to do the physical work of transforming and moving around matter to turn good ideas and designs into products available to users. At the moment humanity uses about 13 TW of energy and this quantity is set to shrink quite dramatically in availability. No matter how clever we are the amount that we can replace from renewables is also strictly limited ….a renewable energy infrastructure will take considerable energy to construct and will have to concentrate natural energy fluxes dispersed over wide geographical areas. Moreover these natural energy fluxes are themselves subject to absolute limits in their availability.

My conclusion is that, to talk about abundance is a very misleading message. Commons have much to offer us – sharing ideas without intellectual property constraints will help us, sharing scarce production and energy and pooling production arrangement and infrastructures will too, sharing may bring us into human relationships with many psychological and emotional rewards. In that sense we may describe commons as “having a generative logic” – But an “abundance” is not a message that I agree with – if it taken to mean, or implied to mean, an abundance of material production. In my opinion to use the word “abundance” is a misleading picture of the future that we are heading into.

An abundance of information about how we might make things is not the same as an abundance of things – it is an abundance of recipes not an abundance of food.”

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One Response to “Brian Davey: Beware of Fake Abundance”

  1. Suggested reading on Sustainability – ewaste workshop Says:

    [...] Beware of Fake Abundance – Brian Davey http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/brian-davey-beware-of-fake-abundance/2010/11/13 [...]

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