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Report from the McPlanet conference

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
25th May 2012


Brian Davey and myself participated in a panel on the role of the digital commons in sustainability, at the McPlanet conference in Berlin earlier in May. We will feature a written version of our debate later on, and here belatedly because of my travels, a report on the issues by Brian, which is important in the context of the upcoming Rio+20.

Brian Davey:

Broken promises and naive expectations – that’s how many people at the McPlanet Conference held recently in Berlin clearly felt about the last two decades of environmental policies as the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth summit approaches – with the UN intending to organise another conference in Rio to mark the event.

The McPlanet conference of 19-22nd April held in Berlin was intended to prepare civil society organisations for the discussions in Rio – if discussions are what we can call the PR offensive by the corporations and their state sponsors. However, judging from the feeling at the conference, the UN, most governments, and the big corporate actors who are dominating these discussions are faced in advance with a serious crisis of credibility and even of legitimacy. Many activists and academics at McPlanet, noting the way that the corporations dominate state policy on the environment, seriously doubt that yet another top down conference will improve matters. In addition many are fiercely critical of the ideas being developed at the highest level, for example by the United Nations Environment Programme.

How “green” is the “Green Economy”?

That was clear right from early in the opening session when Achim Steiner, from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) defended the UNEPs recent 600-page report and recommendations towards a “Green Economy” which is one of the key documents preparing for Rio +20. It will not surprise that the UNEP vision for the Green Economy is one of “green growth” – combined with a place for yet more market-based instruments that measure up nature and put a price on it. In addition to carbon trading we will now get biodiversity trading, trading in water titles and instruments that supposedly certify the ecological soundness of soya and other products. Rio de Janeiro will have the first “Green Stock Exchange” while Brazil claims to be world leader in “green steel” exported to China, smelted using GMO modified eucalyptus. The same country has the cheapest electricity from the hydro power of big dams used for smelting aluminium, while its sugar cane is used to create what is presented as a “green fuel”. Behold the New “Green Economy” being born in emerging economies, the BRICS, that are rivalling the former great powers of Europe and the USA.

It is no wonder that people here are reluctant to participate any longer in the travesty – and that Steiner appeared to be struggling to maintain the participation of civil society organisations that is necessary to preserve the appearance so important to legitimising the process.

Why continue a one way “dialogue”?

The problem for Achim Steiner and the UNEP is that the core ideas of governments, corporations and their pet economists have been critiqued and found wanting by the organisations represented here. However, the criticisms are not being taken on board and so the question is inevitably being asked: what is the point in continuing with this one way dialogue?

What is happening instead is that many civil society organisations are developing quite different agendas from that of the corporate elite. To be able to pursue their different ideas civil society organisations are needing to organise independently. The no-growth=agenda, bottom-up processes around different kinds of non-consumer-focused lifestyles, the development of a solidarity economy to support the victims of the financial and ecological crises, the revival of commons in the global north and their protection in the global south are all linked alternatives to the relentless marketisation that is taking us to hell. And this alternative agenda needs to be got on with now – whether the corporate elite likes it or not.

So while Achim Steiner wants to promote the idea of Green Growth such ideas are not to be taken for granted as self-evident any more. On the platform with Steiner was Professor Tim Jackson whose report (which became a book), “Prosperity without Growth” has had a considerable impact. Jackson was economics commissioner for the British Government’s Sustainable Development Commission. It was the Commission’s job to advise the British Government. This they did – telling the British government that environmental sustainability was not achievable in a growth economy. The Sustainable Development Commission was closed down shortly afterwards.

That’s the kind of dialogue we have with governments and the corporate elite. The return to effort ratio? Zero.

Putting a price on nature speeds the problem up, it does not slow it down

Speaking as an economist myself I felt embarrassed when Achim Steiner addressed the conference with the usual assumptions that mainstream economists trot out – that the main problem is that ”natural capital” is “overused” “because it does not have a price”. Nature is being taken for free and so, instead, it has to be measured up and given a price in order to put the brakes on its use.

Not many in the audience believe that any more, if they ever did. When you turn the attributes of nature into commodities and give them a price that does not slow down their use – if anything use speeds up. Why? Because a price means that something is up for sale – and the banking and financial system can then create all the purchasing power needed to buy these new commodities and make a market in them.

The financial crisis and the ecological crisis

Indeed that is happening now. A great deal of this conference has been about the interplay between the financial crisis and the ecological crisis. A huge overhang of claims in the financial markets are not matched by an income (rent) derived from tangible resources in the real economy. This inflation of financial assets will melt down unless it can be converted into a rental stream from new assets – so what is going on is a rapacious grab for more rent-creating assets through the privatisation of state resources and in the so called “Green Economy”.

The banking and financial system is bust. But it is also “too big to fail” so, in the absence of the sort of reforms to the monetary system that would solve the crisis in a fundamental way, the insolvent banks and financial institutions need to be recapitalised. That means finding ways to transfer assets to the banks from households, from states bankrupted by the financial crisis and from nature. Central banks make available trillions of dollars, euros, sterling and other currencies to the banks at virtually zero rates of interest, and that money is then used to buy up derivative bets, loans to states at huge interest rates – and also land, entire harvests, carbon credits, biodiversity offsets and forests. Put a price on nature in these circumstances and nature will end up owned by the big finance houses – the big energy companies, the agricultural and biotechnology corporations, and the big engineering companies that work hand in glove with the banks.

The need to take “natural capital” out of the market, not put it into it

So what is the alternative? If we want to stop Nature being destroyed in the economic process we need to take so called “Natural Capital” out of the market, not put it in it. For example carbon-based fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. True that cannot be done over night – but the function of a policy like cap and share, which I advocated at this conference, is to ban the sale of fossil fuels without a permit. Then we need to limit the permits – to have a cap that is real – an absolute ceiling – and to reduce this cap as quickly as possible. The aim is to screw down the amount coming out of the ground in as quick a transition as possible. Furthermore, since these permits would be very valuable, the money raised in their sale should be shared among the people, not go to the kleptocrats in corporations and states.

In summary we need collective frameworks from which we all benefit that strictly limit the physical quantity that is extracted from Gaia, and then dumped back into it.

The key to protecting nature is not market pricing but control by communities after discussion and deliberation of what amount is safe to use, about what protects nature and what is fair in the community of users. That means we need to revive commons-based approaches to using resources and we need to protect the commons that still exist.

Over-used resources that are ‘free’ because they are being stolen

Another way of looking at the ecological crisis is that it is the result of centuries of exploitation and enclosure. Many “over used” resources were only ever “free” in the same way that stolen goods are “free”. A source of the wealth of nations that Adam Smith did not get around to describing was the enclosed land taken from the poor over several centuries in Britain, the land taken from the indigenous tribes and societies of the Americas, the wealth that originated in the slave trade and slave labour – while the land that the slaves came from was taken for rubber plantations, for diamonds and copper mining – and later for uranium and now for cobalt, used in mobile phones and other electronic equipment.

In this entire historical process the big money was not just, or even mainly, created by entrepreneurial ability, so much as by what has been close to theft when the places people lived and looked after were taken, first from the commoners in the Global North and then from the commoners, the indigenous peoples of the Americas and from the Global South. The process continues today. As Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth International explained, there is no record of the amount of oil taken from his country, Nigeria. The oil companies are not telling how much they have and are taking – and so the idea that they are paying for it all is simply not true. “External costs” means stealing from and trashing the commons without paying, and dumping back into the commons without paying.

The enclosures continue – corporate land grabbing

This process continues in resource and land grabbing in Africa. In the years between 2000 and 2010 an area 8 times the size of the UK has been grabbed for in Sub Saharan Africa It is justified with same idea that has always justified enclosing (stealing) land held by the poor as commons. The land of the poor, managed non-intensively under customary and commons rights is still being taken in deals between local elites and foreign corporations on the colonial justification that it is empty and underused – terra nullis – empty land, the property of nobody. The reality is different. This land, often rich in biodiversity and in carbon in the trees, the plants and soils has been managed non-intensively and protected by local peoples for generations. The land is only empty in the greed-blinded eyes of the money junkies. Local people are able to see the local eco-system, its flora and fauna, and make a life from places that they also see as their home.

So it is not true that the protection of the environment lies in marketising it. Nor is it true that there is no alternative. The alternative lies in protecting and enhancing the commons and commoning – where commoning means collective control by communities that protect the biological resource in the long term by protecting their homes and the unique places in which the communities have been rooted and have their ongoing life. In this way nature is protected by collective deliberation about its use based on long local knowledge and local care – care for place and care for the community at the same time. The kind of marketisation that drives people out of their homes to create dams, or spaces for plantations or open cast mines, cannot possibly reproduce this kind of care for people and place. To imagine that displaced communities can be compensated with cash and a high natural resource price is a collective criminal delusion of the financially insane. It not only destroys a key component of people’s identity, it destroys the very capacity and knowledge that best protects the environment. If there is anything to be said for, or any possibility for “development” it is only in so far as and through the initiatives of these local communities developing their own resources without outside pressure – using local knowledge about what the local environment will sustain.

“Green technologies” lead to resource extraction too

Unfortunately such communities are not allowed to opt out of globalisation. In the global south ”development” is often, perhaps mainly, an externally originated pressure to extract and take away local resources and export them to the Global North – or to the newly developing “Tiger” economies like India, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and China – where elites are fostering a consumer middle class as clients of the state to base their power upon. The new “green technologies” require new and different types of resources. Offshore wind must be a lighter technology – hence a need for rare earths. Batteries, a key component of the new “green economy” requires lithium or cobalt in the electric cars. Suddenly such materials become the “strategically important” resources of the future.

A global consumer economy based on fossil fuels is now to be found not just in the old colonial powers. It is being supplemented, displaced even, by a new resource colonialism from the BRICs and the Tigers. In Africa that is leading to the perpetuation of the centuries long nightmare of direct, and now indirect, colonial exploitation and destruction. To advance their control of resources, outside interests play a vicious game of “sovereignty speculation” – identifying countries like the Sudan that are thought likely to break up, the big money junkies invest in the purchase of lands and other interests in order to be in a strong position to do what they like when local political institutions collapse.

In South America on the other hand the situation is more complex. The high prices for resources like lithium for batteries creates opportunities for Bolivia which has channelled the financial returns into social programmes. But this creates a paradox in which governments like those of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, that have come to power with the support of the poor and indigeous peoples, maintain their revenues and programmes by perpetuating environmentally destructive programmes of resource extraction.

No simple solutions

A sober look at what is happening globally teaches us that there are no simple solutions and no panaceas that are going to work everywhere. At one point Achim Steiner of UNEP pleaded against the kind of critique of the UN’s green economics which only criticises and provides no alternative approaches. Tim Jackson too pleaded for an acknowledgement and recognition that in the relationship between the economy and environment there are real dilemmas for which there were no pat solutions. This reminded me of a remark by Chris Martenson that peak oil and the limits to growth are better described as a predicament than as a problem. There are solutions for problems but for predicaments there are merely outcomes. These outcomes may be better or worse, but they are unlikely to be ideal.

Better outcomes through commons based solutions

With that acknowledged it seems to me that Steiner was unable to hear when conference participants were indeed talking about alternatives – when they spoke about the commons. The crucial issue is to determine what are the appropriate frameworks in which communities can develop production without breaching ecological resource limits and in a way that is protects all members. At the moment the discourse about sustainability, the environment and the economy, is posed as a goal for states and corporations using market frameworks. But observation shows that the apparent choice between state and corporations turns out to be no choice at all – with market frameworks driving new technologies that are themselves destructive of people and environments.

Commons are different because they work through collective deliberation over the relationship between a community and the resources that it uses – they cannot exist without “commoning” – jointly deciding and involving how to manage a resource to ensure that it is not underused or overused.

At this conference a major event was the publication of a German language edition collection of essays about the commons – with the english language version appearing later this year in the USA. The book, Commons. Fuer eine neue Politik jenseits von Markt und Staat edited by Silke Helfrich and the Heinrich Boell Foundation contains examples from around the world of commons-based approaches to managing depletable resources, that have been positive, while managing within natural limits. (An example are fisheries along the Chilean coast – one article in the book is based on an english language article about this to be found here ).

Commons have their problems too – energy consumption by digital commons

Yet commons too have their issues. One of the discussions at this conference was about the difference between digital knowledge commons and natural commons. A renewed interest in commons in the over-developed world has arisen because of the experience of the constraints that arise when patents, copyright and private intellectual property rights are imposed across the activity of the internet – with the idea that this is preventing the full potential of the internet whose products are non-rival. (Non-rival because, if I share a file or document I do not have to do without it myself – whereas if I share a glass of water then what has been made available to another person is no longer available for me).

Creative commons unconstrained by intellectual property are fantastic – or they would be except that they use a huge amount of energy. To make it possible for this document to be on a website, it will have to be stored in a data centre somewhere. So for me to get it there and for you to download and read it involves energy and resource usage. As I pointed out at the conference a recent report by Greenpeace suggests that on current rates of growth by 2020 data centres could be consuming 2 billion kWh per year of electricity – more than the current electricity consumption of France + Germany + Canada + Brazil. With current rates of growth energy usage by the internet is doubling every 5 years – so were that trend to be continued in 30 years it would be consuming the entire world’s energy supply. The conclusion is that the digital commons is not sustainable either – in so far as it is based on an energy-guzzling platform which, if you project forward current trends, cannot possibly continue to develop in the way that it is doing.

We live in interesting times – and that is a curse, not reason for celebration. In Rio in 1992 world leaders promised that economic and social life would be arranged in order not to compromise the living conditions for future generations. Twenty years later there is much talk of the growth of the green economy providing jobs and a way out of the dilemmas of the environmentally destructive economy. That promise does not ring true – and even within the ideas and practices of those most aware of the problems, in the green movement itself, we are tangled in some serious predicaments.

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