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Academic Special Session: Degrowth and the Commons

Technology, Biophysical Resources, Solidarity Economy and beyond – Part I

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This is part I of proposal for two special sessions or one session with double length under one overarching theme.

Degrowth societies need to steer economic activity in ways that enable sustainable lives without continuous economic growth. Economic activity needs to operate within biophysical limits. This could be done within commons and through the practice of commoning, as it is often proposed (e.g. Helferich). The concept of the solidary economy is related to the commons, because commons typically rest on solidarity of their members in one way or another. In the Degrowth movement commoning is currently most prominently advocated by the "digital democratisers" (Kerschner et. al. forthcoming). Popular examples are digital commons, including the open source and hacking community (Hankammer, Kostakis, March, Likavcan & Scholz-Wäckerle, Vetter forthcoming), digital makerspaces and fab labs (March, Kostakis forthcoming). Also practices like squatting, bike kitchens (Bradley forthcoming), community supported agriculture are often linked to the commons and degrowth.

The degrowth literature emphasises the social and political aspects of such notions of the commons. However, whether the economic activities underpinning such commons meet the aims of curbing economic growth down to its biophysical limits receives very little attention. Surprisingly, references to successful empirical cases are lacking, where communities are able to maintain their resource use at sustainable levels through common pool resource governance. These have been thoroughly studied and documented by Elinor Ostrom and researchers of the Bloomington School. Their findings have ample resonance today in research and practice communities, focusing for example on ecosystem conservation, mitigation of climate change or co-operative enterprises. The British green activist and scholar Derek Wall (2017) even suggests that Ostrom's findings can help transforming our contemporary societies. Moreover, Ostrom's emphasis of democratic institutions and collective constraints to manage common resources sustainably matches core concerns of degrowth scholars and activists. However, until to date Degrowth scholars focus mainly on conceptualising and theorising the digital and knowledge commons (Benkler and Bollier) rather than biophysical resource commons. Likewise, further scrutiny of the work of the Bloomington School is required, because some scholars suggest that their analytical methods give little emphasis to the social embeddedness of commons and powers of the state and discourses. In parallel, political ecology and other approaches are used to investigate solidarity economies that share attributes of Ostrom's commons. There seems to be a need to link such work on solidarity with the work on commons.

This special session will draw together empirical and theoretical work that addresses the promises and pitfalls of commoning and common property governance to support a Degrowth Society, including applications to the spheres of technology, natural resources and social communities. It also covers studies of activist's practical attempts of governing common pool resources for Degrowth, for example as solidarity economies. The aim of the session is to facilitate common perspectives on how researchers and activists can engage with the commons. It identifies and evaluates options of common property governance that contribute to Degrowth societies, both socially and biophysically.

Part I: Degrowth and the Commons: The biophysical sphere.
This first part comprises of five contributions that directly relate to the biophysical sphere. First, the new "commoning" concepts and traditional research approaches on commons of the Bloomington School are compared. Thereafter three case studies look at utilisation of biophysical resources for food that are governed as common pools and solidary economies to varying extents. Finally, lessons are taken from indigenous biophysical commons for the new social and technological commons.

The contribution entitled "Commoning vs. the "Bloomington school"? A critical review" investigates whether the recent "commoning" turn in the study and practical management of commons can benefit from the theory of the commons and institutional analysis more broadly, as it has been developed and is advanced by scholars connected to the Bloomington School and Elinor Ostrom.

The contribution entitled "Social Agricultural Cooperatives: practices for governing biophysical resource commons" contributes to the debate on the social embeddedness of the commons by exploring Social Agricultural Cooperatives in Italy, a recent and diffusing phenomenon, which uniquely combines a non-profit identity, an entrepreneurial core and democratic governance. The paper examines how they enable both democratic governance and sustainable approaches to biophysical resource commons.

The contribution entitled "Growing and Funding Degrowth" states that organizational forms which seek structural change, such as Community Supported Agriculture, must develop synergies with other initiatives and social movements to fulfil their potential. Economies of scale which support local-level, de-commodified supply chains can for example result from collaboration with those aiming towards shorter working weeks.

The contribution entitled "Community-based action for degrowth: commons and culture change" draws on research on indigenous environmental knowledge and commons. It examines links between emerging interests in the commons and growing emphasis on cultural change among non-growth society movements. The aim is to discuss implications for community-led action on environmental and social transformation and on prospects for collaboration with indigenous movements.