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Is there a crisis in Open Source Ecology?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st April 2013


This is the third “mass leaving event” I know of in OSE history (others were in 2009 and 2011). There has also been a steady stream of individual volunteers leaving because of the poor management. Money spent on OSE has been wasteful thus far because the management has been wasteful – constantly destroying and rebuilding the community. This might well have been the last blow on OSE and widespread bad press will follow for the first time and the money sources will dry up.

“No new prototypes being published of any GVCS.” … Friends of the OSE project are wondering if there is a crisis in the OSE project.

A sample of contributions from the OSE Forum:

1.

All of the onsite developers/staff have left due to various challenges or personal reasons. Marcin attends TED conferences and gets lauded by the press, but has significant difficulty maintaining a team in the trenches. The organization is undergoing much needed backfill for legal compliance (audits/insurance/financial records), but has unfortunately burned many bridges with talented volunteers. Many of the passionate folk who have come onsite to develop the open source economy have left disillusioned with the organization’s management and culture.

2.

It is worth noting that OSE is hierarchically structured and that direct democracy is completely absent from its values. Folks should push for a democratized OSE/FeF giving participants democratic control over the group.

3.

The curse of kings. This is the number one killer of group projects that I’ve been involved in – a single charismatic leader-type who has trouble delegating, and isn’t into sharing power.
They always have a good reason for it – preserve the vision, keep the project focused, etc. But this is the result…a boom/bust cycle as interest dries up, then is regenerated, then dries up again along with funding.

Here is a testimony from a person that left:

“As for me, I left for a few reasons.

-Money. I was working out there for $10 per hour. Very small for the type of work I was doing- design and fabrication of the ironworker. I saw Marcin unwilling to pay even the most skilled labor more than $2k per month. If you aren’t even willing to pay that, how on earth can you expect any quality results? At best you will be getting college students, like me, wanting to contribute, who don’t have the skills to make a quality product. Or, you will be getting people doing it as a side thing, guaranteeing no results. I saw the bank accounts, and knew the organization had more than $400k in the bank. As a result, there was nobody there designing the machines. I didn’t feel qualified to be designing this stuff. I felt like there should have been experts out there designing it so I could built it. There was nobody. I felt like I was defrauding the investors.

-Lies about the quality of the products. The brick press produced shit for bricks. They didn’t have one flat surface on them. I personally built 4 of these, which were all shipped out without proper testing. One was shipped out a year after it was supposed to be. The power cube worked for a week AT THE LONGEST.

-Unsafe living conditions and insufficient infrastructure- when I was there, the well water was contaminated, and Marcin refused to fix it. There was literally algae the water tanks, and he was doing nothing to fix it. We had to either buy all water at the store, or drink from the RO system, which I had to personally install. The RO hardly produced 1/2 gallon per day to be spent among 15+ people because of the low pressure coming from the pump at the well. The well was also not producing enough to accomodate all the people there, so we could only use toilets to poop, and had to have VERY short showers.”

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9 Responses to “Is there a crisis in Open Source Ecology?”

  1. Ale Fernandez Says:

    Hi,

    I think OSE could do with becoming more of a network, than centred on Marcin’s own land and work, and problem areas. I’d kind of like him to get on with being an engineer and inventor and not have to run a community at the same time. An assembly + work group format for an action group would be great, so that a a more democratic situation might emerge, but I appreciate there are so many views on this, and it’s really important. What kind of society are we building via these more technological forays into sustainability? How will they be organised and what kind of economy should they have? I think these and more spiritual aspects of life, or just any area we can think of should be reexamined as much as possible, a human revolution, be it p2p, OSE or otherwise – where we can fit what is needed amongst these 50 metallic designs in our blueprints. Either way, people will need ways to communicate. In our spanish social network software Lorea (.org), there is an assembly module – people can post “decisions” to a board so information can be added in a pre-commented order during assemblies, and notes are taken right into it and turned into actions in a task system. There are surely other ways to use technology to similarly link decentralised groups trying out aspects of OSE worldwide, and I hope the p2p foundation can say something about how “interest groups” might one day self-organise and function as today’s nation states(!) – or more practically, what aspects of culture, software or hardware might aid collaboration and decision-making today. There is always a founder’s power in a situation like this though, the power to change minds and lead even within these more horizontal structures. I hope that Marcin can make a positive use of this like a benign dictator might in an open source software project, and appreciate that there are also many other ways of running the project and the farm, and of concieving of what OSE should mean to people: a collective worldwide project to build a network of tech friendly eco empowered spaces, or the particular problems or accomplishments of a single person’s ability to get and use fundraising money? Maybe the project itself will just fork, but I really hope it doesn’t stop altogether, and what has been done so far has been fantastic, and will certainly influence whatever comes next.

  2. Nenad Lazarov Says:

    Hi,

    Have you thought about some firewall which will stop psychopaths from entering the collaborative societies at the first place? We had a lot of trouble with our leader here at Pirate Movement of Serbia and separated in two organizations, but it seems there is no end to coming of them and trying to take the power and form a hierarchy. So, I was thinking, based on my good experience with companies who had psycho tests and interview with psychologists as a prerequisite to enter the organization, to try the same in Pirate Movement. I wasn’t able to convince others yet, but we will see what the time will bring. Open Source with Shield :D

  3. Ale Fernandez Says:

    Totally – you can have a closed group or semi-closed initially so as to ensure the organisation sticks to the original plan etc. “Visioning” or just plainly talking about everyone’s expectations or ideas of what it means to be in your particular community or group – doing that a lot can help to show up dual or multiple visions that can lead to big problems later on. Promises of a new society (or just house) tend to bring out people who are somehow escaping broken aspects of their lives, and I’ve witnessed a protest camp fail, and heard of many more initiatives fail, because of people who take on key roles but won’t let others join in or somehow discourage others from doing so. The seminal book on communities – “Creating a life together” by Diana Leafe Christian talks a lot about this kind of thing and is worth a read. When I joined a housing coop there was a simple quiz and initial meeting and dinner with the rest of the inhabitants, which I found really useful for both parties, sometimes you don’t need a psychologist to spot a crazy person, and you might actually want a bit of madness (of the positive, non-dominant and non-violent artistic kind) if it helps with creativity, cuts the groupthink and keeps it interesting!

  4. yeam Says:

    I don’t understand why OSE insist on doing it all at once. There is no point in one location going DIY on all fronts simulataneously. It is too early for that. Distribute the process and have different teams, at different locations work at design and construction of tools. Assemblage comes later.

  5. H Luce Says:

    It’s not that the people who start these things are necessarily “psychopaths” or “sociopaths”, it’s that these “collaborative societies” aren’t collaborative in the least, they’re entrepreneurial businesses built along the lines of the traditional at-will employment wage labor model.

    For example, there’s a grocery “co-op” I know of where one person has pulled this sort of thing off for about 30 years; every five years or so, he collects a new set of “investors” who have (powerless) seats on the “Board of Directors”. It’s difficult to know how lucrative this arrangement is for him, since he keeps the books, he’s been treasurer since he got involved. But the prices at the store are significantly higher for the same goods sold in other stores in the city, and he pays his five employees minimum wage or less, no health insurance, no Social Security, no worker’s comp insurance, no unemployment insurance. He attracts idealistic people as employees and customers – that’s how the place stays in business – and every five years or so there’s a “financial crisis” in which he pulls in a new crop of people to “invest” a couple hundred thousand dollars in the grocery to “keep hope alive” or whatever. It’s a scam, of course.

    From what I’ve seen of Open Source Ecology, it appears to have a similar sort of feel, the strong leader who controls everything – I wonder who keeps the financial records – the new crops of idealistic employees who get paid minimum wage and no benefits, the donations gathered in by fundraisers from rich idealistic people, the cycling of people and so on… and the end result is that the entrepreneur and his close associates get rich, not only from the profits made on goods sold, but by also returning to his employees a fraction of the value they produce – and the entrepreneur constantly seeks to minimize the “cost of labor” to maximize his own take.

    Of course, volunteer labor (or slave labor) is the ultimate in “labor cost” minimization – that’s why so many consumer goods are made in slave labor camps in China and in the prison-industrial complex in the US. Entrepreneurs who start “collaborative societies” are just looking for free labor – or the cheapest kind of labor – and there is a more than sufficient quantity of unemployed (and perhaps unemployable) idealistic college grads to provide this free or cheap labor. At some point, when the entrepreneur has amassed enough intellectual and monetary capital and has a product with a market in place and the physical plant to produce it, he goes into the “for-profit” business organization model and the “collaborative society” model is cast aside.

  6. H Luce Says:

    Any enterprise which advertises itself as a “collaborative society” and yet is run as an entrepreneurial business with a small or one-man leadership group, accountable to no one within that “society”, should not be recognized as a “collaborative society” but rather as an attempt by an entrepreneur to amass enough intellectual and monetary capital and get a product with a market in place and the physical plant to produce it at the expense of his work force, in order to go into a “for-profit” business organization.

    A true collaborative society should have the following properties:
    1. The members of the society are partners and co-owners, each with an equal share in the business;
    2. Each member owns the right to an equal share of the profits generated, and the right to decide whether to take his or her full share, to put part of the share back into the business for the acquisition of capital goods, and has the right to inspect the financial records of the society at any time;
    3. The decision-making takes place by a consensus process, which necessarily limits the size of the society.

    Of course, questions will arise, and more rules will have to be put down to deal with those questions, but these seem to be a minimum set.

    Here’s the current version of the Rochdale Principles:

    “Values

    Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.

    Principles

    The co-operative principles are guidelines by which co-operatives put their values into practice.

    1. Voluntary and Open Membership

    Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

    2. Democratic Member Control

    Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organised in a democratic manner.

    3. Member Economic Participation

    Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co-operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.

    4. Autonomy and Independence

    Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organisations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organisations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.

    5. Education, Training and Information

    Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.

    6. Co-operation among Co-operatives

    Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

    7. Concern for Community

    Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.” (from http://ica.coop/en/what-co-op/co-operative-identity-values-principles)

    Of course, democratic control can be fairly easily subverted by means of voting blocs to convert the cooperative into a regular for-profit business which is why a consensus process, along with the fractionation of ownership of the capital, including intellectual property (perhaps under a variant of the Creative Commons licensing scheme) and capital improvements, should be used in order to thwart attempts at this.

    Here’s an interesting look at the development and history of the Rochdale project: usaskstudies.coop/pdf-files/Rochdale.pdf

  7. Siku Says:

    New film gets exclusive look inside Open Source Ecology’s Factor E Farm. Check out this video on what happening in Missouri. https://vimeo.com/62637602

  8. Michel Bauwens Says:

    wonderful!

  9. My Problem With The Open Source Ecology Project Says:

    [...] Ecology project have been chewed up and spit out over the years. Further digging around here and here also hinted at the depth of revisionism (note the missing entries) that the Open Source Ecology [...]

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