The Shared Patterns of Indigenous Culture, Permaculture and Digital Commons

Rarely have I read an essay that knits together some very different commons with such wisdom and depth. Joline Blais' 2006 essay, “Indigenous Domain: Pilgrims, Permaculture and Perl,” is a wonderfully insightful analysis that reveals the underlying unity and logic of commons principles. Her piece appeared in Intelligent Agent (vol. 6, no. 2), published by the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts.

Blais' essay is valuable because it speaks to the rift that is said to separate commons based on natural resources and those of cyberspace. The segregation of those two classes of commons has always bothered me. There are of course significant differences between managing depletable natural resources and managing cheap and limitless stores of digital information. Yet it has always struck me that the two great tribes of commoners have much more in common than not, and should be in closer consultation with each other.

Blais not only confirms this, she suggests a way forward. She does this by applying her extensive knowledge of actual indigenous peoples to contemporary permaculture and digital culture. The links that she draws among them are not rhetorical or metaphorical, but explanatory. Because she understands the common paradigm is about integrating resources, social relationships and culture into a single system, she is able to identify recurrent patterns of commoning in some very different resource regimes.

For example, Blais draws clear connections between Native Americans managing their lands and the permaculture movement.  The latter, emulating indigenous peoples, is trying to re-create sustainable human/nature relationships in a modern context. She also shows how the cultural practices of indigenous peoples resemble those of digital communities. One example is the community of programmers that created and maintains Perl, a programming language, in its low-tech, high-trust systems of self-governance.

Blais is Associate Professor of New Media at the University of Maine at Orono, and and Cofounder of LongGreenHouse, a project described as a “cross-cultural partnership” that “weaves together indigenous culture, permaculture, and digital culture.” LongGreenHouse is “developing a Living/Learning model for thriving cultures in this bioregion based on the intersection of evolutionary wisdom, natural patterns, and social networking.” (A grateful salute to Michel Bauwens for bringing Blais' essay to my attention!)

Blais' essay is too rich to summarize here, but I do want to share some of her more provocative insights. One is the idea that nature's alternative to capital is “catchment.” The idea of catchment is not a very familiar concept to most people. But, as Blais explains, catchment is “nature's method of wealth accumulation and energy storage.”  She continues:

Where capital is centralized accumulation that resists redistribution, catchment is a system for accumulating a critical mass of a needed resource, like water or soil minerals, in order to trigger self-organizing system, i.e., life forms, that then spread over the landscape. Some natural examples of catchment include the sun, plant carbohydrates, bodies of water, geothemral energy, and plate tectonics.

How does catchment work? Since the “driving force behind all natural systems” is energy, catchment focuses on ways to capture naturally occurring flows of energy in such a way as to maximize the yield over time and space. As we know, entropy is the natural tendency to disorder, but it is balanced by an opposing tendency toward self-organization – or what we call life. This kind of self-organization happens “whenever energy flows are sufficient to generate storages.”

Catchment works because a positive feedback loops is created for energy, even in improbably small or forbidding places. No wonder life forms are ubiquitous on the planet! “Unlike capital, whose increase is measured only in financial terms,” writes Blais, “catchment wealth is measured in terms of real wealth. It replaces short-term, centralizA catchment area in the desert.ed profit with 'long-term asset building for the benefit of future generations'."

The relevance of catchments to permaculture is obvious: in each the goal is to build self-reinforcing natural synergies among plants in a particular ecosystem.  Thus, a "plant guild" of corns, squashes or pumpkins, and beans builds a small, synergistic system:  "The beans feed the corn with much needed nitrogen, the corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, and the squash with its lush, prickled foliage acts as a national mulch and pest inhibitor.... Each member of the guild both gives and takes something from the community, and in the end the soil itself is nourished rather than depleted, as it is in single-yield, industrial monoculture."

Catchment is a powerful concept in imagining hardy, productive alternatives to the wasteful, centralized, capital-based food system. “Building local stores of wealth that are distributed across the landscape and locked in ecosystems [makes it] hard to steal without mobilization of armies against the local community,” Blais writes.

The localism of permaculture has huge operational advantages, too.  Small groups and communities can identify negative feedback more quickly and respond appropriately – something that large market-based systems whose primary interest is return on investment cannot do.

The other theme in Blais' essay is the importance of stepping up to take responsibility and to work with nature, rather than ignoring it.  This the first step toward reinserting humans into the Web of Life. It inaugurates a new way of creating wealth without inflicting damage, and it does so by cultivating interdependence with nature and fellow commoners. Over time this revives spiritual life by giving people a real, situated identity in a specific place; people are not treated as fungible units of a “human resource” on a global grid of interchangeable production sites. 

If there is a common challenge in creating a commons in diverse contexts – indigenous culture, permaculture, cyberspace – it is about how to build enduring trust. Trust is needed as a prerequisite for mutual commitments, experimentation and innovation beyond those enabled by markets. Trust is needed whether it is an open source software commons or a water commons.

For the Perl programming community, trust is engendered by what is called the “patch pumpkin,” the authority to manage the workflow of the group, an authority that circulates from one programmer to the next.  Blais writes that the idea of the patch pumpkin is “a low-tech solution for developing trust among a group of programmers” and “a method of self-government.” It “builds meaningful relationships around non-coercive work in a context of self-government, all conspicuously absent from the nature of paid work in our culture.”

I love the idea of “catchment in webs of trust” – Blais' idea that extended networks of trust can begin to harness flows of energy within a group of people.  The community can then become a generative social infrastructure for all sorts of amazing endeavors.

Blais urges to go even a step further, however, by recognizing that we must somehow “move beyond the logic of commons/enclosed, of free/private” so that the intrinsic dynamics of nature – beyond human control – can have their play. She cites the Six Nations of the Lakota, who suggested in the late 1940s that even the very notion of human rights needs to evolve:

There is a hue and cry for human rights – human rights, they said, for all people. And the indigenous people said: What are the rights of the natural world? Where is the seat for the buffalo or the eagle? Who is representing them here in this forum? Who is speaking for the waters of the earth? Who is speaking for the trees and the forests?

One can imagine the commons being the crucible for an enlarged conception of human rights -- one that more closely integrates human needs with those of the rest of the bio-physical world. It exciting to contemplate the common ground that might emerge if indigenous culture, permaculture and digital culture opened up some new conversations among each other.