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P2P Trendfest (8): Context-Based Sustainability (metrics for the commons ?)

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st August 2014


“My sense is that the commons movement could benefit from deeper engagement with the corporate community, including activists who advocate for corporations to take full accountability for their impacts on capitals that are vital to stakeholder well-being. And I know that the sustainability context movement would benefit from expanding its advocacy base beyond the core of the corporate accountability community.”

Excerpted from Bill Baue:

“CBS is focused on measuring, managing and reporting sustainability performance at the organizational level — primarily, corporations. And CBS is rooted in capital theory, or the idea of multiple areas of capital stocks (natural, human, social, constructed and financial) that yield flows that ideally are harnessed for human well-being and managed to sustainably preserve their so-called carrying capacity. Of course, many (if not most) of these capital stocks are based in the commons as resources shared jointly by diverse individuals and entities.

My sense is that the commons movement could benefit from deeper engagement with the corporate community, including activists who advocate for corporations to take full accountability for their impacts on capitals that are vital to stakeholder well-being. And I know that the sustainability context movement would benefit from expanding its advocacy base beyond the core of the corporate accountability community.

Right now is an opportune moment to mobilize, as there are currently three major new standards being established in the corporate community, and all of them are adhering to capital theory, which arguably compels them to take account of impacts on the commons — or on capital resources that are shared amongst stakeholders.

These three are:

* International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC)

* Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB)

* Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR)”

David Bollier critically chimes in:

I don’t think the commons would mesh very well with Context-Based Sustainability, at least so far as I understand it. It sounds as if it is trying to quantify or monetize everything into capital stocks so that it can be put on the same discursive plane. But the commons is precisely about breaking up such “universal grid” approaches to understanding the world, including nature, and eschewing standard economic calculuses. Commoners generally insist upon the inherent diversity and localism of resources, people and social systems, and therefore resist quantitative, top-down, purely scientific approaches to nature (a term that itself connotes that nature is objective and separate from humanity).

From the perspective of my work and that of my colleagues, the commons are not simply resources or capital stocks that are shared; they are distinct social communities with their own self-organized governance rules, management practices and cultures that matter, especially in counterpoint to markets and the state. A commons is not the resource alone, in other words. So treating “the commons” as a capital stock would be seen by commoners as a category error and a misunderstanding of what the commons is truly about.

Finally, I am a bit skeptical about the willingness of the corporate community to voluntarily assent to standards that would truly empower commoners to manage resources in the ways they see fit. There would be too many power shifts and “inefficiencies” for most public corporations to accept. For all I know, there may be some constructive middle ground or points of mutual engagement between Context-Based Sustainability and commoners as I know them, but I am skeptical. You can get a better feel for the commons movement and their views from the website of a recent conference that I co-organized in Berlin, the Economics and the Commons Conference.”

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2 Responses to “P2P Trendfest (8): Context-Based Sustainability (metrics for the commons ?)”

  1. Mike Riddell Says:

    Bill is right. For commercial reasons, corporates must now begin to put purpose before profit. They are desperate to find new ways to align themselves with a common purpose – in other words they are ready to invest but what prevents them from doing so is the lack of a metric that measures the social value generated from their investment.

    The three metrics that Bill refers to are all in competition with one and other. He’s missed one out – The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). They’re all expensive to administer and the reports they produce are full of unintelligible goobledygook. Bullshit in other words.

    What’s happening is that we the community are devising our own time based metric that measures activities that make our community healthier wealthier and happier. These are activities such as teaching giving and learning.

    They all produce REAL VALUE.

    Value, and conventional methods of valuation are purely hypothetical, based on old fashioned methodology and don’t see the commons of any value. Hence why its a dumping ground for orgs that want to externalise their costs. That’s why we need to form our own accounting system – one that accounts for real not theoretical value.

    A metric that everyone can understand will enable a new incentives system to be created – one that values contribution to the common good – and one that links contribution to entitlement.

    This is a market based approach to protecting the commons. I don’t agree with David B’s perspective simply because there is a market for more sustainable behaviour. It simply hasn’t been opened up yet because the means of measuring it have not yet been devised. When that does happen we will enter the realms of new currencies that will i believe compete and defeat the unsustainability of money.

  2. Jessie Henshaw Says:

    Mike, I solidly agree with the desire for “real value” “commons metrics” metrics that people can understand. I’ve been working on that for years. It comes down to pushing the mind up a little “learning curve”. What people actually understand is money,and that’s what business decisions are based on too, we just don’t understand what money really does in the world around us.

    It turns out to be unexpectedly easy to measure, if done the right way. The problem has been the aversion people have to learning how to use money as a unit of measure for their share of the economy’s ESG impacts. That’s what I’ve shown how to do with the “World SDG” metrics, that I presented for consideration to the UN’s OWG and NGO groups working on Post 2015 development goals.

    What’s elementally sound environmental economics, and easily understood once you “get it”, is that on average (and that is of critical importance to include) the share of world impacts of any use of money is proportional to it’s share of GDP. Or say more simply, your share of “the impacts of the system” is equal, *on average*, to your share “of the system”. That’s elementary school arithmetic that turns our to be remarkably sound science too, in… average… circumstances. Yes it takes a little further study to tell what the exceptions might be, but the simple answer is that… on average… there are *NO* exceptions.

    The upshot is that the “average impacts” of how any business uses money to make money tend to be MUCH larger than the “traceable impacts”, by a factor of 2 to 10 or more. That’s because relying on tracing individual impacts leaves such a large fraction unaccounted for. Whether intended or not, businesses standardized around the accounting methods that count fewer impacts, taking responsibility only for the impacts directly traceable to their operations. Someone would need to WANT to discover how to “follow the money” to understand the true larger scale of outsourced impacts their operations directly request and pay for, obtaining the services they need to operate.

    The end result is that measuring shares of the impacts according to shares of the money greatly improves the real accuracy of the measures, the materiality of the data for decision making, and at the same time greatly simplifies the math needed in all but special situations. That’s the benefit of learning to understand what “average” means for “where the money goes”.

    The basic science behind “Systems Energy Assessment”(SEA) and links
    - http://synapse9.com/SEA

    An business balance sheet internalizing all measurable externalities with their economic costs to the future
    - http://synapse9.com/signals/2014/02/03/a-world-sdg/

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