Equity and fairness

TLDR; a limiting social factor on the size of the economy should be justice, fairness, and equity. The staggering issues of justice and unequal distribution of wealth and goods means a good life for a few at the expense of well-being of others. There are MANY ways one could approach this topic and many do it better than I ever could. I used this theme as an opportunity to discuss the importance and power of free and open knowledge. Recently I spoke about the importance of open-source for a pro-social future.

This is a series of posts linked with my PhD project – Social Limits to Growth. These posts describe some of the theory, thinking, and correlations each of these “EE approaches to the social sphere” have with research that was conducted for my PhD. For a full overview of my PhD see my main project page.

The main motivation for these series of approaches is that while ecological economics takes biophysical limits seriously, there is often limited discussion on what the social limits to our economy are. For example, the balance between how alienated/anxious/depressed a person becomes to produce an efficient product should be limited by assurance that a person is getting gainful meaning from their work and labour. So just as nitrogen is a biophysical limit to growth, alienated and meaningless work is also a social limit to growth.

Here is a list of the works cited throughout my thesis and all these posts. References to “city 9” “pei 11” or “maker 1” are references to participants in my research.

Equity refers to the just and fair distribution of goods, services, and finances. This does not necessarily mean that the distribution is equal. A common example of an equitable distribution is giving the tallest chair to the shortest person to see over a wall, and the shortest chair to the taller person. The taller person is getting less chair to see over the wall, but the shorter individual needed more to have the same outcome as the taller individual. It is already an existing part of the ecological economic framework.

Sustainable development agendas have long recognized the need for strategically planned initiatives that ensure well-being for all within environmental limits. This theme relates to the issues I have brought up about women. If society is going to go through a transition, it is potentially important that there are prefigurative political groups which ensure equitable degrowth strategies for all genders, countries, and races.

As a small side note, there is recognition in the ecological economic community of the tension between the ‘equity’ and ‘sustainability’ pillars of ecological economics. This is an observation from attending a retreat with students in the Economics for the Anthropocene project at McGill University in January 2018. On the one hand, there were students insisting that justice and equity be seen as the primary starting point for all economic initiatives. On the other hand, there were students recognizing the entropic cost of democracy, social justice, and rights. This does not mean they are mutually exclusive, just that we need socially innovative ideas to overcome that tension.

Equity includes the serious inclusion of alternative economies and open-source access to knowledge, as seen in the maker communities and some existing areas of research in ecological economics including: imaginative finance structures (such as public money); mandatory work/life balance through income capping and; shorter work weeks to discourage competitive behaviour. In this post I focus significantly on open-source – while participants did not talk specifically about the role of open-source in their work very often (only 7.7% of non-Metcalf participants mentioned the importance of open-source in their work), I observed 88.8% of rural participants and 72.7% of urban and Makerspace participants (excluding the OOKS because I didn’t actually see their work in production) utilizing open-source software or online systems.

The Open-Source Movement “harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open-source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in”(Open-source Initiative 2014).

Related, the ‘commons’ refers to a common-pool of resources available to everyone at no cost, belonging to no single person (air, water) (Feeny et al. 1990; Hardin 1968; Laerhoven and Ostrom 2007; Ostrom et al. 1999).

An example used to demonstrate what ‘open-source’ functionally amounts to is a person’s operating system. Linux, Windows and Macintosh are the three largest operating platforms. Linux is completely open-source – users are able to access the kernel of the internal operating system to change how anything about the computer functions. Windows, while not open-source, offers some customization and access to the internal workings of the system. A key difference between Linux versus Windows and Macintosh is that Windows and Macintosh do not make public the code for the operating systems. Macintosh is more closed than Windows – it is a completely proprietary and closed-source.

Most consumer or technological items in the average Canadian home will be proprietary and closed-source – this is a common and pervasive business model for companies that allows them to profit more than once on the sale of a single consumer good (Steele and Bloom 2012). For example, when a part breaks off something, a company wants to ensure you go to them to replace it, so they make very specific pieces. This is why the iPhone charger was different than the Android charger and why Apple occasionally changes their charger – not often enough to lose customers, but often enough that it increases profit.

The argument put forth by open-source scholars is that open-source approaches to knowledge and economies are better because everyone should at least have the option to modify or interact with something that they own (Gupta 2010; Moglen 2003; Steele and Bloom 2012). Open-source initiatives increases equity in three ways, namely (i) they are associated with decentralisation, (ii) they foster community ownership and, (iii) they draw attention to the possibility of a ‘distributed’, equity-based form of political economy (Jakubowski 2016).

Decentralisation is the process of redistributing power or things from a central authority to a greater number of people. The most concrete example of this in the commons (so far) is in monetary and intellectual exchanges. Software, ideas, and development are often all free or sold by individuals rather than large companies. This relates to the issues explore above because it removes complexity that has been imposed by highly organized bureaucracy.

With decentralisation, accountability comes from everyone in the community. Every person in the system is accountable to others and every person is a source of information for all other people (Keynote: Eben Moglen 2015) which in turn creates strong community bonds. Moglen argues that if the network can stay large enough there could be potential for extension of empathy through the need for trust and connection between persons to keep the system honest.

The commons empowers knowledge transfer, founded on transparency and trust, that sustains community commitments to the network (Steele and Bloom 2012, 20). Steele argues that through sharing, more productive networks of knowledge emerge that are open to social learning. The high number of users contributing makes for quick iterative processes of ideas (Diamandis and Kotler 2012) to test innovative approaches. These systems greatly rely on a level of trust and a communal buy-in to the system.

Some open-source groups argue for basic income (Schneider 2003), communal ownership of knowledge and goods (Moglen 2003), and communal governance (Gupta 2010) all through technological collectives (Steele and Bloom 2012). All of these are communal systems, requiring community trust and collaboration.

The commons also provide opportunities for new informal economic transfers built on cryptocurrencies, crowd-sourcing and transition from mega rich oligopolies to a larger number of smaller gains for a greater number of people (i.e. Etsy). In doing so, the commons help to directly disrupt capitalist business models and provide opportunities for individuals to participate in a new economy. Interfaces (software) and objects (hardware) become modular (as seen in Open-source Ecology) so that anyone can access, change, modify, and use anything (as seen in Wikis).

Moglen argues that right now, something new is happening online that offers a new political potential for a post-collapse world (2015).

He argues that the “great riddle of romantic socialism” is being reborn through groups embracing open-source.

Moglen goes on to say that it is the open-source community that will provide a new political-economy upon which prefigurative groups, such as Occupy, can use as their next step toward an equitable social reorganization, all through online networks.

This vision of an open-source, distributed economy has two major pitfalls. First, the system that open-source activists seek to create inherently relies on technology and expert knowledge. But the assumption that online Wikis, a global network of high grade servers and personal communication devices will continue to exist in the context of any significant process of degrowth seems highly optimistic at best and takes little accountof any long-view of the future. Although there is some potential for low-energy local networks (Gupta, 2010) to run off renewable, physically linked, and local energy systems, it is not clear that such localism can be reconciled with the continuing production of hardware.

The second critique is that the commons also relies on a certain level of ‘expert’ knowledge to handle inner workings of computer systems. Most people are familiar with how to use a computer, but not how to operate a computer using the internal ‘terminals’ or command prompts. A great deal more research is required to fully expose the opportunities between the commons and future socio-ecological discourse.

These two critiques point to the most obvious disruption that Maker Culture has to modern society is that of global trade and capital growth. The current mainstream economic system is predicated on growth and global connections. Low-energy craftsmanship and artisanal goods are likely insufficient for satisfying the needs (scale and efficiency) of large-scale trade. Ruskin (1854) argued that efficient economic progression and production can only be obtained at the cost of removing creative ownership, autonomy and expression within the process of production (alienating the individual) a process that continues today (Carrier 1992; Grey 1975; Kon 1967; Pappenheim 1959).

There is a tension between the trajectory of science and innovation and economies of scale needed to sustain modern technology such as antibiotics and the internet and the ideal political economy of localism; a tension between disembedded global market economies and embedded livelihood economies. The idea is to reduce the size of the former with as few disastrous outcomes as possible and increase the size, scope, and diversity of the latter. The unknown question is what kind of balance is possible between these two.

More research is needed on the specific ways that making, the informal economy of gifting, and the associated sharing economy (Botsman and Rogers 2010; Hamari, Sjöklint, and Ukkonen 2016) impact the formal economy. However, given the common theme of ‘specialness’ of goods and the potential ability for making to overwrite addiction to consumption, it could have a large, potentially disastrous, impact.

Some versions of Maker Culture are predicated firmly on capital growth. Making can both function as a part of an informal economy and be co-opted by capitalism i.e. Maker Culture is compatible with both growth and degrowth economics. It depends on who, and in what context, is participating in making. In the case of the isolated and community-oriented maker groups in my study, it was effective at supporting an informal and new ‘commons’ economy, similar to that described earlier by Rifkin. Those conducting their craft in maker spaces and utilizing Etsy as a primary means for selling their goods are directly relying on outcomes of capitalist economics and infrastructure, or at least the internet. Maker spaces are supported by the state or income generated in jobs outside of the space and furnished by machinery bought via the mainstream economy.

The fact that many of the raw materials are also sourced from mainstream hardware stores, perhaps also represents a problem for Makers – at least those concerned with self-sufficiency. Very few Makers were using raw materials that they had sourced themselves, except for those in PEI. In a playful thought experiment involving a scenario of complete system collapse, Lewis Dartnell suggests that this could be circumvented through scavenging of existing goods (2014). Given the collapse of larger systems that Makers depend on, the Makerspace could still be utilized for something like Open-source Ecology (open-access plans for industrial farm equipment that can be built for a fraction of the cost of commercial production), as it would be outfitted with the necessary tools and some materials. There is some general knowledge on machine repair and a significant interest in repurposing old/broken goods and recycling.

A forward thinking move for those maker spaces concerned with a more overtly prefigurative politics of degrowth, would be to create a relationship with other specialized industries (farms, textiles) to facilitate networks of trade. Except, most Makerspaces, including the ones in my study, are not ‘political’ nor visionary or countercultural. This would be more characteristic of the Makers from PEI, further pointing to the importance of a broader redefinition of economy and social life as necessary for change. Those relying on Etsy and ordering their pieces online would surely be unsustainable in a degrowth economy.

Despite these drawbacks, Rifkin argues that “the capitalist era is passing…a new economic paradigm – the Collaborative Commons – is rising” (2014, p. 1). He goes on to argue that we are already in the midst of a hybrid economy comprised of capitalism and the commons and doubts that capitalism will be the dominant economic paradigm by the second half of the twenty-first century.  Ecological economists should be tapping into this as a pathway towards more equitable and embedded ‘livelihood’ societies.

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