Memorable quotes from the Berlin Commons Conference

During the first two days of November, the International Commons Conference organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Commons Strategies Group took place in Berlin. Throughout the conference, I wrote down various remarks by participants which I considered insightful, interesting, or amusing. The following quotes are meant to convey the spirit of what the quoted person said, but not necessarily the precise wording (since I often wasn’t fast enough to exactly get the latter).


David Bollier:

  • The commons philosophy is that we don’t wait for governments or leaders or big business to solve our problems; we solve them ourselves, together.


Ruth Meinzen-Dick (president of the International Association for the Study of the Commons):

  • The real tragedy of the commons is that they are so misunderstood, so undervalued.
  • Holding property in common is a social glue that encourages cooperation in other areas as well.
  • If I make things available to you; you, or others, will generally make things available to me.

Michel Bauwens:

  • It’s no longer about incentives, but about removing impediments.
  • Democracy is only necessary when there is scarcity.
  • Traditional commons could not compete with big capital. These times are over—now, thanks to global cooperation, we can compete.
  • In the business world (where I worked for a long time), we spent a long time at creating innovation; we spent a long time at preventing our innovations from being shared; and we spent a long time at ensuring that our products will break down after ten years so they have to be replaced.
  • The emergence of new modes of production always starts with an exodus. The serfs in the 16th century started running away from the country and moving into the cities…. How can we escape, how can we move into new, non-monetary modes of production and sharing?
  • The GPL is not just a contract, it’s a social charter that embeds the values of a community.

Pat Mooney:

  • If it weren’t for capitalism, the commons would work just fine. Capitalism is the problem, hence we have to fight it.

Speed presentations

Massimo Banzi [IT], presenting the Arduino:

  • Microsoft and Apple internally use the completely open Arduino platform for prototypes of their closed, proprietary products.

Public event: The commons as the template of our future

Richard Pithouse:

  • The assumed separation between digital commons and indigenous commons worries me.
  • The demand to people not to industrialize or to slow down industrialization tends to ignore the immediate, urgent crisis that is the daily life of many people.

Barbara Unmüßig [DE]:

  • How can we achieve social justice without capitalist growth?
    (Wie können wir die Gerechtigkeitsfrage vom kapitalistischen Wachstumsmodell entkoppeln?)

Rainer Kuhnen [DE]:

  • We must become specific and we must dare to challenge the rights of property. Otherwise we risk that the commons become everybody’s darling, but loose, in that process, all their meaning. A purely abstract, everybody’s darling concept won’t do good to anybody.
    (Wir müssen konkret werden und uns auch trauen, Eigentumsrechte anzugreifen. Sonst laufen wir Gefahr, dass die Commons Everybody’s Darling werden, aber dabei all ihren Inhalt verliert. Ein bloßes abstraktes Everybody’s Darling hilft uns nicht weiter.)

Silke Helfrich [DE]:

  • We must stop to perpetuate that paradigm that we have to produce for the market, for selling. The question is rather: what do we actually need, and how can we produce it in such a way that everyone can participate?
    (Wir müssen aufhören, immer wieder in dieses Paradigma zu rutschen, dass man für den Markt und für den Verkauf produzieren muss. Wir müssen uns vielmehr fragen: was brauchen wir eigentlich fürs Leben, und wie können wir es auf eine solche Weise produzieren, dass alle daran teilhaben können?)

The generative logic of the commons

Roberto Verzola:

  • Before refrigerators, what did people do if they had too much food? They threw a party.
  • We would be better off if all corporations were bound by Asimov’s laws of robotics: 1. A corporation (robot) may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A corporation (robot) must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Stefan Meretz:

  • Production does not only produce things, but—at the same time—it produces knowledge and social relations.
  • If we mix the generative logic of the commons too closely with the exploitative logic of the market, there is a danger that the market logic will exploit and dominate the logic of the commons.

Workshop: Limits and boundaries vs. openness and DIY approach

Glyn Moody:

  • You actually want to have ten million biohackers that know how these things work and will notice if anyone uses them for bad. Opening things up is the best way of dealing with abuse.
  • Commoning is a highly ethical thing. It’s not just about how to manage resources, it’s about how one relates to others and to nature.
  • We now have an important tool for building communities and connecting people which we didn’t have a few decades ago, and that’s the Internet.

Pat Mooney:

  • You don’t need a good technology to make a lot of money. Even with pretty bad technology you can still attract investors and get enough patents to lock the market and drive everyone else away.
  • I’m not much concerned about bioterrorism. There are already so many ways of killing people that a few more won’t make a big difference. I’m much more concerned about commercial control and enclosure.
  • I’m actually an optimist, believe it or not.

Silke Helfrich [DE]:

  • In the system we currently live in, there is no way to get out of that vicious circle [of competition and enclosure].

Wouter Tebbens:

  • It’s important not only to be anti-something, but also to build the alternative.

Andreas Weber [DE]:

  • If you ask for thirty years a question and don’t get an answer, then the question is wrong.

Workshop: The rights of Mother Earth vs. the commons? (and other topics)

Nicola Bullard:

  • Maybe the scary stuff first. Pat, would you like to start?

Final plenary session

Massimo De Angelis:

  • I would like to establishing the commons as a source of power. Power to get back control over our lives, to establish a livelihood for everybody, to change the world.

Friederike Habermann:

  • I’m very much in favor of a hybrid economy, hence I cannot accept an economical system that tends to exploit and extinguish all the others [capitalism].

Don’t remember who said that:

  • People need to release themselves from dependency on corporate salaries. In order to to that, we need to find new ways of organizing.

From the beautiful little commons video (is it already available somewhere?):

  • The advantage of one person is the advantage of the others. That’s the idea behind the commons.

More information

Additional information on the conference is available in the P2P Foundation Wiki, including some documentation of the workshops and of the World Cafe talks held there (for me, the World Cafe [PDF] was actually the best part of the conference, along with the wonderful “join-in concert” organized by Johannes Heimrath [DE]).

On the Commons has published a report by Jay Walljasper: Potato Commons & the Power of Standing Up.

Some additional information is available in German language:

Has anyone encountered additional articles on the conference, in German or in English?

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