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<nettime> Roberto Verzola: Abundance and the Generative Logic of the Commons

Keynote for the International Conference on the Commons, Berlin, Germany, 
Oct. 31 ??? Nov. 2, 2010.

I will present my talk in the form of ten assertions about abundance and 
its relation to the commons. Some of the ten are quite obvious and 
uncontroversial. Others may provoke intense debate. Hopefully, they can 
help clarify the issues covered by this conference.

1: The Internet is creating an abundance of information and knowledge

This is hardly news by now. New technologies have made possible a global 
digital infrastructure, which, in turn, has given rise to a new information 
economy. This economy has one obvious feature: the abundance of free or 
low-cost information and knowledge. With few exceptions, I usually find a 
needed piece of information, skill or knowhow ??? if it is public knowledge ??? 
on Wikipedia, YouTube, a blog, a Web site, or a mailing list somewhere.

Disturbing issues remain, such as inappropriate content, unaffordability, 
exclusion, embedded value systems, toxic production and e-wastes. But if we 
are looking for abundance, the Internet definitely has it. To turn this 
wealth of information into wisdom though, users have to pick true from 
false, grain from chaff.

2: The abundance concept is even more neglected than the commons

The commons concept was denigrated for decades by mainstream social 
scientists who thought that all commons inevitably collapsed. They made the 
???tragedy of the commons??? a sound-bite. However, the need to manage 
threatened global commons like the atmosphere, the oceans and biodiversity 
and the rise of Internet-based commons forced a second look at the rich 
literature on this topic. The 2009 Economics Nobel Prize award to Elinor 
Ostrom for her work on the commons put the concept back on the mainstream.

Abundance is even more neglected. The most fundamental assumption in 
economics is scarcity. This, in effect, assumes away abundance. Thus, most 
mainstream economists are not prepared to deal with abundance. They have 
few concepts that explain it. They have no equations that describe it. 
Confronted with it, they fall back on inadequate theories based on 

The growth of the information economy, however, has made it imperative to 
deal with the phenomenon of abundance. Unlike the long history of commons 
research, studies of abundance are few; thus, we are just starting to build 
theories about it.

3: The wellspring of information abundance is the human urge to communicate

How did information goods become so abundant? For one, ideas grow ??? not 
diminish ??? with sharing. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: ???Its peculiar character 
??? is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the 
whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself 
without lessening mine???.??? Also, digital technology has further lowered the 
cost of exact copies over any number of generations, leading to a marginal 
cost of almost zero. ???Too cheap to matter,??? as Wired editor-in-chief Chris 
Anderson puts it. Furthermore, it does seem that ???information wants to be 
free???. Something is driving it to multiply. This driving force, I suggest, 
is the human urge to acquire and exchange knowledge. We did so when it cost 
much. We will certainly do so even more, now that sharing costs practically 

On the Internet, we can fully express the primal human urge to communicate. 
This is why we have information abundance.

4: A second wellspring of abundance is the urge in every living organism to 

Nature???s abundance is hard to miss: bacteria can double their numbers every 
half hour; some plants release a million pollen in a single day; a fish can 
release one to ten million eggs in one breeding season; one rice grain can 
produce a thousand grains within a planting season. (Even pets with five to 
seven litters a year are more than most of us can handle!) In seas, lakes, 
swamps, grasslands, forests, and other ecosystems ??? abundant life blooms. 
Where they do not anymore do so, something must have upset the natural 
abundance. Even such damaged ecosystems, if left alone, soon teem with life 

While abundance in nature can last indefinitely, it does not grow without 
limit. As species multiply, they soon settle into balance with other 
species and the natural environment. The food chain of plants, herbivores, 
carnivores and other predators, and decomposers such as arthropods, fungi 
and bacteria becomes webs of material and energy cycles and exchanges, 
highly-productive ecosystems that provide us perpetual streams of natural 
income ??? new soil, clean air, food, materials for clothes and houses, 
medicine, fuel, industrial inputs, a thousand other goods and services and 
psychic rewards too.

The generative logic we see in many commons, I suggest, comes from these 
inner logic of sharing in humans and reproduction in living organisms.

5: 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 and must be managed 
differently from renewable solar energy.

As oil production peaks, for instance, cheap abundant oil will soon 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 already leading the 

Solar energy makes possible other abundant energy sources such as water, 
wind and wood. In 2009, renewables supplied 25% of total world energy 
capacity, thanks in part to China???s surging interest in biogas, wind power 
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 

6: Abundance creates commons

I have now identified several archetypes of abundance. All these archetypes 
have created commons. (???Question: before refrigerators, what did people do 
when they had too much food? Answer: they threw a party!??? ) Human societies 
learned early on to deal with abundance ??? including temporary ones ??? from 
forests, rivers, and other hunting and gathering areas by managing them as 
commons. Taken for granted for a long time, the oceans, the atmosphere, and 
other global commons are just getting due attention. Likewise, the creative 
commons of information, knowledge and culture are now getting renewed 
attention with the rise of the Internet which, by the way, has become a 
great showcase of both the concepts of commons and abundance (and their 
problems, too).

Markets and governments are also public spaces. Therefore, rather than 
dismiss them outright as completely anathema to the commons, should we not 
try to reorient them, to be managed as commons? (After all, public markets 
and village meetings still show features characteristic of commons. 
Perhaps, we should see the failures of markets and governments ??? the 
financial bubbles in the West or the communist collapse in the East, for 
instance ??? as the real tragedies of the commons, from which valuable 
lessons can be drawn.)

7: Under conditions of abundance, reliability becomes more important than 

Efficiency ??? maximizing gain and minimizing waste ??? is very important when 
resources are scarce. It has been the focus of mainstream economics.

But when resources are abundant, efficiency recedes in importance. Some 
biological processes are ???wasteful???, like releasing millions of sperm 
although only one will actually fertilize an egg. As hardware became 
cheaper, electronic designers have likewise learned to put integrated 
circuits, processing power, storage, and bandwidth to uses considered 
wasteful years ago.

It often makes sense to give up some efficiency to ensure the continuity of 
abundance. Among engineers, we call a process that seldom fails ???reliable???. 
This term has familiar equivalents. A process that lasts indefinitely is 
called ???sustainable???. Since future generations can enjoy the same abundance 
that we are enjoying, sustainability also means ???intergenerational equity???. 
A process that benefits only one sector of society is not reliable because 
it fails for the other sectors. If all sectors benefit, then we have 
???social justice??? or ???equity???. For high reliability, we need to minimize any 
risk that can cause a failure of abundance; this sounds like ???risk-
aversion???, or the ???precautionary principle???.

In short, reliability means ensuring that the fruits of abundance are 
enjoyed without fail by all social sectors, our generation, as well as 
future generations. We optimize it by putting risk-reduction ahead of gain 
accumulation. If abundance is a goose that lays golden eggs, we???d rather 
ensure that the goose stays fit and alive, than force it to lay two eggs 
instead of one each day.

8: We can learn to make one abundance lead to another and create cascades 
of abundance

People with access to land often stay poor simply because they have 
forgotten how to tap and build on the abundance that nature lays at their 
feet. Beyond tapping existing abundance and making it last indefinitely, we 
can learn to recognize the conditions that generate each archetype, so that 
we can subsequently create cascades of new abundance. To cite examples: the 
System of Rice Intensification (SRI) improves yields dramatically; 
permaculture creates through conscious design a self-regenerating ???forest??? 
of food and cash crops; remineralization rejuvenates our soils; biodynamic 
farming taps distant forces to raise the quantity and quality of farm 

On the Internet, the original protocols have spawned cascades of abundance. 
First came mailing lists, download sites and home pages; then the search 
engines; other innovations followed, such as blogs, wikis, video sharing 
sites, and social networking portals, with no end in sight.

Creating cascades of abundance is hardest in the industrial sector because 
its substantial material and energy needs (and wastes) tend to disrupt 
ecological systems. If industrial processes could be turned into closed 
material loops fuelled by renewables, this may yet provide the key to 
cascading industrial abundance.

As we get better at cascading abundance, new commons will emerge that can 
provide our communities with even more continuous streams of goods, 
services, psychic rewards and other benefits.

9: Abundance spawns two contrary mindsets: monopolizing it for private 
profit-making, versus holding it in common for the good of the whole 
community and future generations

These two will compete for our minds. Which mindset will ultimately win is 
by no means clear.

An example in agriculture is the contest between farmers who share 
commonly-held seed varieties among themselves, versus multinationals who 
extract monopoly rents from their proprietary seeds through plant variety 
protection, patents, F1 hybrids, and the ???Terminator??? technology.

In the industries of the West, very little is commonly-held now; the 
corporate mindset holds sway. Curiously, however, the world???s main source 
of industrial abundance today is China. which boasts of a huge but less 
dominant State sector, in precarious balance with a growing corporate 
sector, under the Communist party???s schizophrenic ideology of ???market 

In the information economy, user movements for copyright and patent 
exemptions, open access, free software and other forms of non-exclusivity 
have made big inroads in building commons of information techniques, tools 
and content for sharing. However, corporations and governments are trying 
to stem the tide of sharing by tightening IPR enforcement and through 
agreements like the GATT/WTO and the up-and-coming ACTA.

10: Corporations are undermining abundance held in common

Unfortunately, we created corporations and gave them life before Asimov 
drew up his Three Laws of Robotics. The First Law was: ???A robot may not 
injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to 
harm.??? The Second: ???A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings 
except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.??? We would be 
much better off today if all corporations ??? which, like robots, are man-
made automata ??? were constrained by these laws.

Our legal systems instead put into these business automata a single urge ??? 
to seek profits. This one-track mind has made them take over commonly-held 
sources of abundance ??? from seeds, to land, to knowledge ??? and turn these 
into monopolies because it is profitable to do so. What they could not take 
over, they have undermined or sabotaged, to create artificial scarcity. 
Corporations have destroyed the fertility of our soils, substituting 
commercial synthetics in their place; they have stopped the natural flow of 
mothers??? milk in favor of commercial formula; they have bought out 
independent seed companies, to force-feed us with genetically-modified 
toxic foods, all in pursuit of profit. They have become, in Wolfgang 
Hoeschele???s words, ???scarcity-generating institutions???.

We conceded to corporations legal personhood, turning them into a de facto 
man-made species of business automata. They have become super-aggressive 
players in our political, economic, and social worlds. Beating us in our 
own game, they have taken over governments, economies, and media. Having 
become masters in domesticating Homo sapiens, they now house, feed, train 
and employ tamed humans to serve as their workhorses, pack mules, milking 
cows, watchdogs, stool pigeons and smart asses.

Thus, I will argue, corporations are now the dominant species on Earth. 
They routinely ignore human orders, injure human beings and foul up 
ecosystems in violation of laws for automata; these man-made mammoths now 
occupy the top of the food chain and have become the greatest threat to our 
well-being and the survival of many species on this planet."

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