Contribution to GTI Roundtable "The Commons and Transformation"

Wolfgang Sachs

I immensely enjoyed this wide-ranging yet timely essay. David Bollier has masterfully woven together the social, environmental, and juridical aspects of the commons. But I would highlight one issue, namely the connection between commons and economic degrowth.

How is an economy able to function without growth? The question looms large over debates about tomorrow’s economy with a drastically smaller ecological footprint in the global middle and upper classes. Broadly speaking, there are two possible scenarios. The reactionary scenario is that the loss of growth leads to rising inequalities, social exclusion, and impoverishment. The progressive scenario, however, involves investing in a new model of wealth that ensures that everyone has enough, based on a fair distribution of income, employment, and resources.

The rise of the commons from below is an encouraging sign, since it widens the view on wealth and welfare. Degrowth would not be possible if the creation of wealth relied only on money. One of the hidden dimensions of wealth is the commons. Since most economists focus on the accumulation of individual goods, they fail to see the variants of common-wealth. In particular, imagining a form of wealth with less money has become possible.

For instance, car sharing is more cost-efficient than owing a car, urban gardening is cheaper than buying at supermarkets, and urban parks for recreation are less costly than acquiring a holiday ticket. The reverse is true as well: the commons allow for achievements that otherwise not could have been paid for. Just as Wikipedia would be unaffordable if all the authors and editors had to be paid a fee, so, too, would a group of senior citizens living in a co-housing project lighten public health budgets. In part, the commons is replacing money. People do things in the commons out of a community spirit, mutual interest, or solidarity. If a basic income or a citizen stipend was introduced, shared wealth could flourish. The reinvention of the commons is therefore vital to the creation of an economic order for the twenty-first century freed from the dictate of growth.

Wolfgang Sachs
Wolfgang Sachs is a Research Director at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy in Germany. He has been chair of the board of Greenpeace Germany, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a member of the Club of Rome.

Cite as Wolfgang Sachs, contribution to GTI Roundtable "The Commons and Transformation," Great Transition Initiative (April 2014),

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