Ideas & impulses

Centuries-old irrigation system under cooperative administration in Naters, Switzerland. (Source: Commons Institute)

Impulse paper Bettina Mueller Sidibé, May 2017

Climate change and social-ecological conversion – what ideas and movements are there?


the topic is broad and there are many initiatives, ideas and theories on how to meet climate change. I will limited myself to three alternative core ideas and movements:

  1. Climate justice movement and post growth approach
  2. Commons economies
  3. Care ethics


  1. Climate justice movement and post growth approach

The core of the fight against climate change is an exit from the fossil energy industry. Fortunately there are many initiatives here (BUND, Campact, citizens’ initiatives), which perform, for example, actions under the slogan “coal phase-out is manual work”. The alliance “End the Mines” or the Europ. network “Break free from fossil fuels” build a bridge between the activist spectrum and established organizations. Also the party of the Greens demand the phase-out of the fossil energy industry as the next important step. And the major insurance company AXA has just decided to no longer insure companies and projects which primarily produce coal, a giant step. So everything is hunky-dory?

The Berlin scientist Prof. Claudia Kemfert has published a book with the title “The Fossil Empire Strikes Back”. In it she warns of the counter-acting forces opposing the energy transition which are forming (1). We notice this right now with Trump and also political parties here (among others the FDP) . The reaction against this is all the more important.

Part of the climate movement goes beyond the pure exit theme and formulates long-term perspectives. In particular the post-growth or degrowth movements develop new ideas for an alternative, sustainable economic system. The post-growth approach emphasizes that the demand for climate justice does not exclude the social question – on the contrary. It is a matter of making a good life possible for all humans. Climate camps are the core of the movement. Since 2011 activists meet each year for a climate camp. There sustainable coexistence, alternative educational opportunities, and direct action connect with each other.

The content of “system structural” solutions can be summarized as follows (2):

(i) from quantitative to qualitative growth (e.g. higher-quality, longer-lived, more pollution free products)

(ii) from quantitative to selective growth (some areas grow, others stagnate or shrink): e.g. education and nursing, renewable energies grow

(iii) sustainability as new model for economic policy

In the scientific community growth-critical concepts among other things are brought to discussion by economists such as Niko Paech (post-growth economies), Gerhard Scherhorn, Sabine Hofmeister, Uwe Schneidewind and the Swiss, Hans Christoph Binswanger . They orient themselves on the strategy of sufficiency and the partial dismantling of industrial, especially globally collaborative value creation processes in favour of strengthening local and regional self-sufficiency patterns. The vision is: from the consumer to the prosumer, e.g. someone who works 20 hrs. per week dependently, and uses the free time for the cultivation of vegetables and fruit, for the repair of articles and for the nurturing of social relations.

Degrowth (3) stands for the principle that the parts of the economy which are necessary for a good life should grow. Renewable energies, ecological agriculture, solidary and cooperative enterprises, local public transport, education, health and old-age benefits are areas which are aligned with the public interest and should be more strongly weighted. This growth can be accelerated by different political measures such as subsidies, taxes and public infrastructures. But there are also areas which should become redundant from the degrowth perspective, as for example atomic and coal-fired power stations, the armaments industry, industrial agriculture, planned obsolesce (the intentional decrease of the life span of products). Other industries are to be strongly limited, for example motorized individual traffic, air traffic, international transportation of goods or advertisement.

Concrete demands include the redistribution of assets, work and time, i.e. (5)

– the introduction of a wealth tax and, on a long-term basis, the demand for upper limits to fortunes

– shorter hours: more time for political learning, care work and political commitment; abolishment of precarious jobs and low wage work

– social-ecological tax reform: lowering of the levies and taxes on work, and increase of the taxes on capital and environmental consumption. Abolishment of environmentally harmful subsidies and investments into social-ecological conversion; e.g. encouragement of small rural agriculture

  1. Commons economies or commons movement

The commons movement goes back to the US-economist Elinor Ostrom and begins with the concept of property. There are goods and production which are beyond that of private or public goods (6). These are common goods or common pool resources.

She received the Nobel Prize for economic science in 2009 for her investigations into common pool resources . She showed that traditional common pool resources – pasture or forest land, offshore fish stocks, irrigation systems, pathways, buildings and so on – were collectively used over centuries by communities and cared for sustainably. And this in organized systems, in which violations of the rules were punished, but there was no national supervisory authority. Ostrom’s studies also circled around the question, what are the necessary preconditions for the functioning of self-organized systems of common property: For example the rules must be developed together and be subject to change. There must be a certain monitoring; and the possibility of punishments, which should not be too restrictive and so on (7).

She developed the thesis that polycentrically organized states or communities manage economic activity better and more efficiently than centralized units (8). To that extent it is not surprising that it is regarded very strongly at the local level as a solution for the today’s environmental problems. Elinor Ostrom had – before she died in 2012 – said at the Rio +20 summit (9): Since the world is globally interlaced, it is important to develop a robust system which can adapt quickly. A multiplicity of overlapping political measures on different levels, beginning with cities, regions, countries and international institutions makes sense rather than a single global agreement, as an example. A network of active participants is important. And for Elinor Ostrom these are the cities. Cities are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and are the first victims of climate change. For example in 2012 there would still have been no national mandate in the USA for the reduction of CO2 output, had not 30 US states already had their own climate action plan and 900 US cities had signed the US climate protection agreement. She believed that a global system of interlaced sustainable cities will develop (interconnected sustainable cities).

As much as Elinor is the point of reference for today’s commons movement, she nevertheless had to do with the commons movement of today only at a far removal. She saw commons as equal in value to private and public goods and not as an alternative to capitalism.

At present commons – this term is in the meantime also used in German – can be understood as a concept which is based on equal rights and self-organization, and which contradicts capitalistic commodity logic (10). So commoning means a different kind of living and acting together. Essential principles of self-organization beyond the compass of market and state are:

– contributing instead of exchanging

– possession instead of property

– share what you can – use what you need

The vision of the commoners is a world which is not hierarchical, but organized like a network by means of functionally differentiated interconnecting points, and in which the individual needs of all persons can be satisfied through the commons. In addition, this world would be characterized by self determined and responsible conditions of activity which would bring joy and meaning without the excessive use of resources or the destruction of ecological systems. The commons movement trusts in human potentials and translates the idea of sustainability into the language of human needs: There is a need to preserve the planet which can be satisfied only if we organize the satisfaction of our individual and collective needs in conformity with the limits of the earth. Commoning is a concrete way to deal with humans and non-human nature, which does not build on an abstract compulsion for growth, but recognizes that we humans are a (re)productive part of the earth.

This approach has much in common with the degrowth movement. In particular the focus on “Buen vivir” is common to both. The primary difference lies in my opinion in the fact that rather more concrete projects and life-styles are lived and less political work is in the center, or as Leslie Gauditz and Johannes Euler of the Commons Institute express it: “Exemplary behaviour in everyday life is more important to many activists than demonstrating in the street.” That means that for the participants in the commons movement there is a concern to create through present actions areas in decision-making processes and interhuman relations in which aspects of utopian goals can be lived: “In my own life I practice what I want to see on the whole. The important thing is that the social practices of commoning, whose logic subverts that of capitalism should have society-changing effects as such.”

How does that appear concretely? Well-known examples are the projects of urban gardening, or also the digital projects of the hacker and open hardware scene (Linux). E.g. the Open Source Ecology Project made it its duty to build fifty industrial machines which a small village needs, so that the inhabitants can lead good lives that are sustainable as well as relatively self-sufficient.

  1. Care ethics and care revolution


The emphasis on interhuman relations in the degrowth and also in the commoning movements is the crux of the matter in the concept of care ethics. Care ethics directs the view toward the social processes (6). Originally originating from the feminist context, it concerns a moral philosophy of caring which stresses the meaning of interdependences in contrast to the idea of the autonomous subject held by the liberal enlightenment. While traditional ethical approaches proceed from the individual and concern themselves with the question whether the actions of the single person are virtuous, what consequences they have or what motives move the actor, care ethics puts social relations in the center. What matters is how the network of social connections can be maintained.

Or as Raul Zelig (6) points out: “Liberalism measures the success of the society on the basis of the increase of value, socialism measures it on the growth of goods production. On the basis of care ethics, however, an economy would be judged above all by whether it strengthens social connections, guarantees the care for the weak ones and protects nature.”     

Thereby care ethics connects with the post-growth movement (11). Also for the representatives of care ethics the ecological limits to growth are not to be denied in view of climate change. The core commonality is the concept of “buen vivir”, the good life, which originally came from Latin America. Traditional indigenous societies of the Andean area use the term to describe a harmonious existence in accord with community and nature. Whereas our prosperity is defined through consumption, the term buen vivir reminds us of the fact that a fulfilled life for the human species is characterized above all by reliable and inspiring social relations, by physical well-being and being embedded in a diverse nature.

If this thought is taken seriously we would have to come to a quite new understanding of what the needs actually are which need to be satisfied. Because our production of desires today is completely colonized by a profit-oriented advertising and culture industry (6).

In 2014 some 500 humans from different areas of reproduction met at an Action Conference Care Revolution (12), which published a resolution which contains the core goals: Upvalue care work, gain time, create good dwelling spaces for all, education as a human right.

Among the concrete demands:

– Sufficient income (unconditional basic income)

– Shorter work hours

– Development of the social infrastructure

A developed and free-of-charge useful education and health system, affordable dwelling spaces, free local public transport and the support of self-help networks and commons projects.

All this can be achieved through a redistribution of social wealth.

– Genuine participation in social decisions: a comprehensive democratic self-government



  1. Frankfurter Rundschau v. 29. /30.April 2017 interview with Claudia Kemfert „A war is being fought over energy“
  5. Frankfurter Rundschau v. 23.Mai 2017 „Gastwirtschaft“ Beitrag von Nina Treu
  6. www. Raul Zelik: Economic world system post-capitalistic perspectives
  7. Ostrom’ s Law: Property rights in the commons
  8. Michael McGinnis: Polycentricity and Local Public Economies
  9. Project Syndicate Jun 12, 2012 Elinor Ostrom: Green from the Grassroots
  10. – article by Leslie Gauditz and Johannes Euler
  11. Matthias Neumann: Care Revolution, décroissance et société solidaire in Moins!Journal romand d’écologie politique