Nurturing commons ecologies

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The basis for postgrowth organisation of economic and social life revealed by community-led initiatives (and by non-capitalist indigenous and traditional societies worldwide) is the commons. Commons are diverse institutional mechanisms whereby people self-organise to curate shared resources (material or immaterial, i.e. knowledge and information), based on agreed sets of rights and responsibilities.[1] They exist at all scales, from micro-commons comprising the shared resources of a household up to global commons such as the atmosphere, oceans, biodiversity and collective cultural heritage of humanity, and are essential ingredient of all documented cases of resilience and sustainability in human systems.[2]

Whereas growth in capitalist economies in large measure consists of commodifying resources and relationships previously held in common as goods and services traded in markets, community-led initiatives seek to grow material, social, cultural, natural and other forms of shared resource within new forms of commons.[3] This aligns them closely with indigenous and traditional peoples seeking to defend the commons on which they depend from appropriation by states and markets.[4] While not all commons necessarily embody principles of sustainability and equity, it is increasingly widely recognised that transition to a society able to support diverse human needs while maintaining and restoring ecological integrity will in large measure be a transition from markets to commons as the basis for economic and social organisation.[5]

Commons ecologies are interconnected local networks of commons that emphasise the inter-relationships necessary for positive environmental and social outcomes.[3] The commons ecologies created, defended and sustained by community-led initiatives are working practical examples with potential both to diffuse more widely and to contribute to the wider political and economic changes necessary. Policy can actively support this by both supporting new and existing commons directly, and creating conditions for supportive relationships with state and market institutions.

Attention to the commons is already evident in some fields of global policy. Recent recommendations of the T20 group, which provides policy guidance to the G20, emphasises the importance to nurturing global commons, including natural systems such as oceans, biodiversity, climate and lands and cultural commons providing access to basic facilities such as education, health and housing.[6] The Common Home of Humanity initiative, supported by the Portuguese government and hosted at the university of Porto, seeks to leverage international agreement through the UN and other mechanisms, towards managing the global environment as a commons, with the aim of keeping it within the ‘safe operating space’ represented by the planetary boundaries.[7]

Such global initiatives are welcome, but insufficient by themselves. By focusing exclusively on the global, they overlooks the scalar nesting that is a feature of all functioning common property regimes.[8] Global commons can not be organised in top-down fashion, or as an outgrowth of capitalist or market-oriented institutions. They must instead be built incrementally upon existing commons ecologies at community scale, as interacting clusters of commons ecologies from micro and local scales up to the global, and at multiple intermediate scales between these.[9]

The P2P Foundation has put forward a number of policy recommendations towards strengthening and nurturing commons. These include enhanced measures for protecting knowledge commons, including rights-based support for ancestral and traditional knowledge, wider adoption of free and open licenses for publically funded research, improved training in the use and development of free and open source resources, de facto abolition of the patent system, economic incentives such as tax benefits and microcredit schemes for commons-oriented projects and organizations, new legal support frameworks for cooperatives and other collectivist organisations and institutional support, creation of a community-managed Community Investment Fund for commons-oriented projects and organizations, amendment of public procurement, legislation to prioritise the use of free technologies, and establishment of a National Observatory for Free Technologies to assess the economic viability and fitness of free technologies to meet existing needs and to support the aforementioned policy measures.[10]


  1. Ostrom, E., 2005. Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton University Press.
  2. Berkes, F. & Folke, C. (eds.), 1998. Navigating Social and Ecological Systems. Washington DC: Island Press.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Di Angelis, M., 2017. Omnia Sunt Communia - On the commons and the transformation to postcapitalism. London: Zed Books.
  4. Henfrey, T. & J. Kenrick, 2017. Climate, commons and hope: the Transition Movement in global perspective. Pp. 161-190 in Henfrey. T., G. Maschkowski & G. Penha-Lopes (eds.) Resilience, Community Action and Societal Transformation. East Meon: Permanent.
  5. Bauwens, M., Kostakis, V., Troncoso, S. & Utratel, A. M., 2017. Commons Transition and P2P: a Primer. Transnational Institute and P2P Foundation.
  6. Messner, D. & D.J. Snower, 2017. 20 Solution Proposals for the G20. Kiel: Kiel Institute for the Global Economy and Bonn: German Development Institute.
  7. Accessed March 8th 2019.
  8. Ostrom, E., 1990. Governing the Commons. The evokution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press.
  9. Bollier, M. D. & Helfrich, S. (eds.), 2013. The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market & State. Levellers Press.
  10. Troncoso, S. & A.M. Utratel (eds.), 2015. Commons Transition: Policy Proposals for an Open Knowledge Commons Society. Amsterdam: P2P Foundation.