International Commons Conference - Opening Speech by David Bollier

 David Bollier, Commons Strategy Group. Foto: CC-BY Joi.

November 1, 2010
Welcome, commoners!  And thank you for traveling from India and Canada, from Croatia and Thailand, from Argentina and the United States, from South Africa and Brazil, from dozens of other countries. 

In future years, we may look back on this conference as an historic moment when a diverse global corps of commoners began to reinvent a very old – but very new – worldview, the commons.  We may come to see this as a moment in which many isolated projects and conversations about the commons began to coalesce and develop a new momentum, a richer, more complex set of meanings.  A moment in which we began to open some new vistas of possibility.

This, at least, is my aspiration for this conference.  I hope you share it.

We come together not as citizens of one or another country, but as commoners with the intuition and hope that there are in fact many trans-national global commons that we must protect, in addition to our local and regional commons.  

Barbara already mentioned some of them, the atmosphere and global finance chief among them.  But whatever the scale of the commons each calls us to assume a larger role, a more personal and committed role, than either the state or the market ask us to play.  

We know that our strength comes from being socially embedded and committed, not mere consumers or rootless cosmopolitans.  We celebrate our differences – yet struggle to develop a new kind of global solidarity based on commons-based models of managing our resources:  our land, our water, our civil infrastructure, our money, our energy resources, our creativity and knowledge, our social lives.  In each place and in each historical situation, the commons may manifest itself in different ways – but always in a common spirit.   

Much of what brings us together is our shared resistance to a destructive system of market fundamentalism that insists upon the supremacy of private property and the price system over basic sustainability, equality, fairness and humane values.  The shiny, seductive fantasies of the 20th century – unlimited growth, perfect control through technology, faith in “bigger, better, faster” as a mode of transcendence – these pillars of market utopianism must be squarely confronted if we are to solve our very deep-rooted, urgent problems.

    Now, of course, we are not the first to raise a ruckus about the corporate state and free-market ideology.  But I like to think that the commons offers more than a profound and far-ranging critique.  It proposes an attractive set of practical, pro-active solutions, many of which are already functional.   

We don’t claim a unified-field theory of political change.  We are at once more modest, experimental and results-oriented.  But this is precisely why we are likely to have greater long-term strength.  We are diverse, flexible and evolving.  We are not looking for Big Daddy leaders to save us.  We are stepping up to solve problems ourselves, without waiting for government or blue-ribbon commissions or corporate resources.

Let me say a few words about how this conference came about and how we have organized it.  A number of us have been thinking about the commons for years, and after running into each other at conferences and reading each other’s blogs and essays, we decided that we needed to explore whether we and dozens of other commoners that we met in our travels, could take the commons concept to the next level.

Silke Helfrich, as director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation for Latin America from 2003 to 2008, helped get the ball rolling when she and her team organized the first commons conference in Mexico City in December 2006.  It was a major event that resulted in a anthology of essays about the commoners and many new friendships and collaborations. 

    Let me also note our great debt to the many International Association for the Study of Common Property (later “Commons”) conferences over the years.  They have provided an invaluable academic literature – but let me also note, that we are trying to develop a moral and political narrative that is quite distinct from the IASC approach. 

I was one of those new friends and collaborators, working at the time with On the Commons.  I am now with the Commons Strategy Group, and am participating as a partner in a number of projects, and just launched a new blog,  When I ran into Silke at a conference in Austria in 2008, we decided that we simply had to organize a small retreat of commoners at Crottorf, Germany.  Thank you, Hermann Hatzfeldt for making that possible!

That inspiring event led four of us – Silke, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation, me, and later, Beatriz Busaniche, a free software/free culture advocate in Latin America – to form the Commons Strategy Group.  We decided that the commons as an emerging international movement needed some strategic focus, some cross-fertilization of ideas, some organizing and new conversations.  

The Commons Strategy Group was fortunate to find a committed partner in the Boell Foundation, which boldly stepped forward with the idea and resources to organize this conference.  I would like to thank Barbara Unmüßig. for her leadership and the HBF staff for its important work on the commons over the past several years.  I would also like to thank the Steering Committee, Support Team and other volunteers who helped make this conference possible.

We have planned these two and a half days as a working conference of committed commons practitioners, not as an open public event.  Frankly, we didn’t have the resources or venue for hosting a large, public conference for hundreds of people.  (And let me add, we did no advertising or publicity for this conference – and were astonished at the hundreds of people around the world who asked if they could come!  A big surprise!)

But we weren’t prepared to take on a 500-person or 1000-person conference.  Our own knowledge of who is doing significant work on the commons is limited, as is our budget.  So we decided to achieve what we could – to take an important first step – because the moment is simply too ripe to do nothing!

So please excuse some of the limitations of this conference, of which we are only too aware.  And thank for you for the personal sacrifices that many of you have made, such as the doubling up in hotel rooms, the foregoing of honoraria, and tolerating certain geographic and gender imbalances in our roster of participants.  (Just one example, we are so disappointed, when we learnt last weekend, that Letitia Merino from Mexico -- of the International Association for the Study of Commons -- and Esther Mwangi from Kenya,  had to cancel at the last minute because of an accident and a visa problem.) 

We take some consolation from the fact that our last major conference was in Latin America and our next one – who knows? – may be in a place like Asia, India or Africa.   The point is -- it’s amazing that so many of us are actually here, together, to carry on some very significant discussions.  Thank you all for the many accommodations that you have had to make to be here.

As a working conference, we hope that you will interact freely with speakers, propose your own “birds of a feather” workshops if you’d like, and propose practical follow-up actions that we might take after the conference.  If you have other ideas to suggest, please find someone from the Boell Foundation, the Commons Strategy Group or the Support Team and tell them your ideas.  We need everyone’s ideas AND ENGAGEMENT  in moving forward – if only because we are trying to tackle some very difficult and very important questions about the commons, as the conference program makes clear.

Let’s remember that it will take a lot of time and patience to get to know each other.  We come from so many different communities of practice and so many different cultures and native languages that misunderstandings and disagreements will be inevitable.  So it’s important that everyone listen to the intended spirit behind the words and not the words alone.

Let’s also remember that the commons is not about unanimous agreement in any case.  It’s about “living the questions.”  That’s the only way that we will resolve them.   Every commons is unique because every commons has its own history, rules and circumstances – so let’s learn from that.  Personally, I see the diversity of the commons as a strength, not as something to overcome.  But our challenge, nonetheless, will be to find a lingua franca, a shared set of understandings, to help us move forward together.

Enough preliminaries.  Let’s get underway.  Here’s to an exciting, spirited, constructive two days of commoning!  Thanks for coming.



The commons is about reclaiming, sharing and self-governing resources that belong to everyone. As a form of governance it is defending traditional or building new systems for managing our resources, based on the principles of equity and sustainability. The commons is a practical means for re-inventing society in ways that markets and governments are unable or unwilling to entertain. » Dossier