Jose Ramos on Cosmo-Localization for the Anthropocene Transition

The following is a thoughtful and clear talk by our associate Jose Ramos about one of the central priorities of the P2P Foundation: the creation of a cosmo-local production system in which ‘what is light is shared globally’, in open design commons, and ‘what is heavy is produced locally’, by generative economic entities. Jose introduces why this is needed, and cites our research about the ‘Thermodynamics of Peer Production’, or how the smart mutualization of infrastructures could eliminate as much as 80% of the material footprint of humanity, making for a ecologically balanced Anthropocene. He ends with three transition scenarios of how this transformation may unfold.


Jose Ramos: I had the great pleasure last month of speaking in a symposium hosted by the Anthropocene Transition Project, a project run by Ken McLeod from the University of Technology Sydney’s School of Business. The symposium was entitled “After Growth, Reimagining Economies for the Anthropocene”, held 17 July 2017. Coming to learn about the project, I am truly impressed by its scope and dimensions, and I believe it represents the kinds of conversations and work that we need to have in order to address the challenges that we face. Many thanks to Ken and others for the opportunity. Here’s a link to the talk. Below is a transcript of the talk. In the live talk I had to cut out certain bits to fit it into the symposium time allocation, so the script has elements not in the live talk.

Cosmo-localization for the Anthropocene Transition 

The Anthropocene signifies humans as a species with planetary impacts. Importantly it also signifies us as a species of emerging planetary awareness. In this talk I will discuss this first dimension – human instrumental power – and this second dimension – reflective human awareness – together with the idea for cosmo-localization. We are seemingly in a pitched race between two aspects of ourselves. human instrumental power and reflective human awareness. The first aspect of our self is inventive and creative and impactful. Technology liberates energy, and energy flows back into human systems increasing their power.

Our species is playing out an unconscious expiation of the wild, a deep seeded need to create order and stability from the rhythmic and uncertain dynamics of our prehistoric existence… technologies primal power, which liberated us from the uncertainty of our prehistorical lives of ecological interdependence, competitiveness and precarity.

When this dominion of God’s chosen species had only regional impacts we could continue to play out this logic of endless displacement. But now we have reached the full circle of the contradiction. When the impacts are globally distributed and future negating, there are no “other” places to displace these onto. We humans have reached the limit of the capacity to play out this unconscious model of civilization as god’s chosen.

As William Irwin Thompson argued:

If we make such things as Agent Orange or plutonium, they are simply not going to go away, for there is no way in which to put them. If we force animals into concentration camps in feed lots, we will become sick from the antibiotics with which we inject them; if we force nature into mono-crop agribusiness, we will become sprayed by our own pesticides; if we move into genetic engineering, we’ll have genetic pollution; if we develop genetic engineering into evolutionary engineering, we will have evolutionary pollution. Industrial civilization never seems to learn, from DDT or thalidomide, plutonium or dioxin; catastrophe is not an accidental by-product of an otherwise good system of progress and control; catastrophe is an ecology’s response to being treated in an industrial manner…. Precisely because pollution cannot go away, we must generate only those kinds of pollution we can live with. Precisely because enemies won’t go away, for the fundamentalists’ process of inciting hate only creates enemies without end, we have no choice but to love our enemies. The enantiomorphic polity of the future must have capitalists and socialists, Israelis and Palestinians, Bahais and Shiites, evengelicals and Episcopalians. (Thompson, 1985, pp140-141)

In 2001 A Space Odyssey there is a scene in which the protohuman throws a bone into the air, and as it spins it becomes a space station floating through space. This is the first act in the drama of technology’s triumph. The next acts play out in the histories of technology and conquest that we all know so well – from the wheel to railroads to computers. Towards the end of the film, this same human-created technology plays out the end of this drama, the artificially intelligent system that runs the spaceship – Hal 9000, decides it doesn’t need us anymore.

How I interpret this …. Is it about the human disownment of the deeper logic of our relationship to technology (human instrumental power) and the world. When emancipatory instrumental power becomes homicidal, ecocidal, humanicidal, it is because an aspect of ourself has been disowned.

This is where we are now – and films like 2001 A Space Odyssey and many other films simply play out what our collective unconscious already knows and wants to affirm – that the human instrumental relationship with the world is in deep contradiction to our own existence. This emerging awareness is that second aspect of the self.

This self observes, reflects… it understands that we’ve reached a place of planetary impact, which requires a new level of understanding, identity, coordination and action. Within this new understanding of a planetary commons, new models of personal behavior, social rules and governance are required. This second aspect of ourselves looks critically at the first aspect. It can see both the shadow of our technological self, but as well the way in which human culture is the ultimate technology / the ultimate infrastructure, through the shaping of mindsets, worldviews and the deep assumptions and metaphors by which we live our lives.

The first aspect is very well developed, we have created a global industrial innovation machine. To paraphrase the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, the global industrial innovation complex not only produces technological novelty but it produces risk on unimaginable scales which gets financially rewarded, as engineers, tech gurus and innovation consultants, IPOs etc. etc.

The second aspect is still underdeveloped. The field of complex adaptive systems is only about 40-50 years old. It is not a baby or even a toddler. But it is young. Modernity disowned preindustrial folk eco-science, only to bring it back in when we began to experience silent springs. It is a process of reflection through destruction. The adolescent learns to become responsible by first crashing dad’s car. And the reflective loop from the Anthropocene is even more dramatic, we learn how our planet works by first almost destroying it.

In the film the Aluna, the Kogi tribe of Colombia first decided to come out of isolation in 1990 to give a warning to the modern world. Their message is not heeded and 20 years later they decide they need to teach modernity just how the world works – their much older version of ecological science. In the film they refer to themselves as the older brother, and to modern society as the younger brother. I think that is a very good description, as first we are all brothers and sisters, but even then the younger brother has gone a bit crazy. The younger brother is very powerful but blinded by his own power, and has become dangerous to all. He thinks more of his instrumental power (aka green capitalism) is the solution to the problems of his instrumental power. Older brother and sister have some very important lessons.

So we need a conversation between these different selves, the older brother and sister and the younger brother and sister

Technology surely cannot be disowned because that would be disowning what it means to be human. We are technologial beings by virtue of our neocortext, and its expression through complex social organization. But technology needs to be at the service of deep ecological planetary awareness and impacts, understanding the shadow of our species as a technological being that disowns. So an integration between these dimensions of ourselves for our species … this is the way that I consider future strategies and possibilities.

Over the past few years I’ve been putting forward the idea of Cosmo-localization. The basic idea here is that we increasingly have the potential for localizing production by drawing on a global design commons. There are decentralized open resources for designs that can be used for a wide variety of things, medicines, furniture, assistive devices, farm tools, machinery etc. A new generation of manufacturing technologies has emerged on the back of the computer revolution. The democratization of these technologies, for example the development of raspberry pie and Arduino microcontroller systems, makes this distributed local production approach viable.

There are about 20+ or so emerging case examples. It exists in pockets and seeds, and holds potential, but that potential is not guaranteed and has many development pathways, some of which are undesirable. For example cosmo localization means the capacity for people to 3D print weapons. There is nothing desirable about this in my opinion. If we attach a libertarian philosophy to it we simply exacerbate the problems we already have. It’s instrumentalism all over again.

Ideas such as the Anthropocene and Planetization, which talk about human species planetary impacts and awareness, the crisis of the growth machine, and the need to build and protect our planetary commons, these are the essential social and conceptual contexts within which Cosmo-localization strategies need to be developed. Cosmo-localization without the social context is simply again the younger brother disowning the wisdom and guidance of the older siblings.

So what I’d like to do for the remainder of this talk is to provide some links between Cosmo localization as a technological and economic strategy, and Cosmo localization as a an expression of planetary awareness and planetary responsibility taking in an Anthropocene Transition.

Indeed this is what I initially meant by the “Cosmo” in Cosmo-localization. It was partly from the Kantian inspired discourse on cosmopolitanism, which asserts that each of us has equal moral standing, even as nations treat people differently. We share in a global community of fate, as David Held would argue, and that the zero-sum game of nation-state politics is completely inadequate for dealing with our shared planetary challenges. We are not just creatures of locality but indeed cosmic beings, the air we breathe is from the oceans and the great forests of the world, the water we drink has circulated millions of times through every ecosystem that exists. We are brother and sisters and kindred with all life.

So with this in mind I want to put forward some of the basic ways in which I see Cosmo-localization as part of an Anthropocene Transition, as it is this latter social and conceptual context, the second self, that is so fundamental to the very notion of Cosmo-localization.

Michel Bauwens’ argument from years ago was that we treat physical resources as if they were infinite and then we lock up intellectual resources as if they were finite. But the reality is quite the contrary – we live in a world where physical resources are limited, but immaterial resource are digitally reproducible and therefore abundant. Therefore what should be traveling around the world are ideas and designs that form part of our shared knowledge commons, which any community around the world can use to produce the things they need. Moving electrons around the world has a smaller ecological footprint than moving coal, iron, plastic and other materials. At a local level the challenge is to develop economic systems that can draw from local supply chains.

But how are we going to get anywhere close to the material sufficiency – we are all wedded to economies of scale and the extractive neoliberal model? This is where the idea of stigmergy helps. Stigmergy is the process by which distributed actors coordinate and build collective structures overtime, without a central control system. It is how ants and bees build their colonies. It is how wikipedia was built.

Imagine a water crisis in a city, for example capetown SA. The city is facing such a severe water crisis that within a year the whole city may be out of water. A stigmergic cosmo-localization strategy would mean that globally distributed networks would be active in solving the water crisis. In one part of the world, let’s say barcelona, a fab lab prototypes a water filtration system – the system itself is based on a freely available CAD design that can be 3D printed. The Capetown teams draw upon this and begin to experiment with it with their lived challenges. To make the system work they needed to make modifications, and they document this and make the next version of the design open. Now other locales around the world take this new design and apply it to their own challenges. This is mobilizing stigmergic problem solving planet-wide.

This is not a fiction, actually their is a network based in capetown SA called STOP RESET GO who contacted me and who want to run a cosmo-localization hackathon process to do just this. Imagine doing this with any problem that people faced locally. From farmers doing regenerative agriculture. To machinists developing furniture products from locally sourced materials. To builders creating housing.

Another concrete connections between Cosmo-localism and the planetary view of responsibility taking is the relationship to the post-growth model. Céline Piques and Xavier Rizos over the past year have been working with Michel Bauwens on developing the data modeling and conceptual understanding for how we create post growth economic scenarios through a Cosmo-localism strategy. They argue that even with intensive recycling, the current growth trajectory of material use across a whole number of types of materials will lead to eventual depletion, not to mention unacceptable ecological impacts. In one of their models for a particular resource, I think iron, they write: “The exponential nature of growth makes recycling ineffective when the growth rate is above 2%. It is only when the rate of growth is lower than 1.5% that recycling makes a significant difference.”

Their modeling of growth dynamics compounded year by year led them to only one scenario that can avoid eventual depletion with large ecological impacts – degrowth. It is through degrowth together with smart circular economy strategies where, material type by material type, material depletion with large ecological impact can be avoided. Degrowth means there is a reduction in the quantity of the said material on a year by year basis – but not a reduction of value – value continues to be created and circulated.

This is where cosmo-localization may provide some solutions, because everywhere there is a need to simultaneously reduce material impacts while generating livelihoods. The post growth scenario so far has not been politically palatable because our political economy is still based on assumptions that the state must drive growth to generate full employment (Keynesianism / social democracy), or corporate expansion (neoliberalism). Going post growth looks like the abyss to policymakers and politicians – it is a formula for getting kicked out of office. But what if, through cosmo-localization, the stigmergic global design commons potentiated local innovation, problem solving and entrepreneurship, which generated livelihoods and jobs while simultaneously reducing material use and impacts?

So as part of an Anthropocene Transition, perhaps we can imagine a transnational effort to potentiate and build the global design commons – the collective intelligence and heritage of humankind that can be instantiated in any locality. Build livelihoods while reducing material impacts.

To do such a thing will not be easy, as our current economies are designed to co-op such efforts, and our variegated capitalist oligarchs by definition engage in what is called “wealth defense”, which means using a variety of means of rigging policies to favour incumbency.

So to finish here is some vision and proposals for how such a process might unfold.

Scenario 1 – Economic Transition

Imagine it is 2035 and the world economy has been transformed. The world went through traumatic shock after the second Global Financial Crisis of 2020, erasing trillions from people’s bank accounts and devastating economies. For decades wages have stagnated under neoliberal policies. After the first GFC this accelerated, but after the second it became a crisis with massive levels of unemployment. Rising from the ashes of this were new cooperative systems of economic organization. As the cooperative and platform cooperative movements matured, they became more profitable for member-workers, and a strong competitor to the corporate-capitalist incumbents. With the crisis, people flock to the cooperative form. Alternative currencies had developed, increasingly high tech, leveraging block chain and other technologies. The global knowledge and design commons had matured even more. Through open cooperativism strategies a resurgent transnational sector called ‘The Global Coop’ emerges. It helps to transnationalize value exchange. Coop currencies trade across the globe, creating a planetary sub-economy that flourishes amid the economic mess left over by neo-liberalisms GFC wreck. Institutions that support Commons Based Reciprocity Licenses (CopyFair) provide ways to maintain the strength of design and knowledge commons that underpin The Global Coop. The Global Coop, by virtue of capturing and circulating value, is able to increasingly build and maintain the open global design commons that increasingly potentiates distributed localized production. 

Scenario 2 – Politics Transition 

Imagine it is 2045, and world political systems have undergone fundamental transformations. From 2020 automation and robotics decimated whole industries and sectors, leaving large swaths of the population unemployed. Political oligarchy continued to drive policies that failed to redistribute wealth and create the social commons. The political movements that began in the 21st century, the World Social Forum, Occupy, the Arab Spring, Podemos, the Sunflower Movement, evolved into powerful forces for change – wisdom polities. A new generation of citizens forge a new political culture, visionary and forward thinking, highly connected, relational, experimental and active. Using new P2P practices and technologies, and founded on a new political culture of patient engagment, citizen movements are able to create new political contracts. The foundational outline for the political contracts include: a new system of taxation that draws from a commons analysis, the development of a partner state model where the state supports citizen initiated commoning, cooperative enterprises and development strategies, which includes cosmo-localization projects, and different types of progressive support systems that provide basic levels of security for all.  

Scenario 3 – Culture Transition  

Imagine it is 2055, and a new type of culture flourishes which values local knowledge, ecologies, resources and where most of what we produce is designed for non-obsolesce, reuse or upcycling. From 2020 major resource shocks began, with the price of oil affecting transport, and other minerals. The resource crisis deepened year by year as the world population soared and demands for resources steadily rose. As the population rose so did human impacts on ecosystems, in a steady march of degradation. Facing ecological crisis, even the most trenchant conservatives began to question their assumptions underlying societal models. The maker movement and sustainable design movement had begun to forge a new culture of ecological care in the application of technology. Products are only be made if they could be reused, or if they could be upcycled. This new culture drives policies for “true costing”. High resource costs are dealt with through circular and cosmo-localized systems of production, supported by the open design commons. The new human story is about restoration and restorative practices, how we build the health of our societies and the Earth through a deep understanding of our ecological world and self. 

In conclusion there is a way through this mess! But it is neither by disowning technology, nor by believing that technology is the answer. It is by bringing together the younger brother and younger sister into a larger conversation with their older siblings, to reflect and consider and renew what it means to be human.

References

Thompson, W.I. (1985). Pacific Shift. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.


Originally published in Linked.in

Lead image by Berlyn Brixner / Los Alamos National Laboratory – http://www.lanl.gov/orgs/pa/photos/images/PA-98-0520.jpeg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4179325

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