Two global movements—open and climate—both reckoning with privilege and power in their own organizing, should seize the moment to work more intersectionally and learn from each other. The open movement with its values, community and action has the potential to greatly contribute to climate research and activism, and climate scientists and organizers should join the fight for the (digital) commons. We need open climate action, and we need it now!
Beginning in the fall 2020, we the authors, piloted a series of “Open Climate” community calls to explore how to apply openness to climate action. What resulted was a conversation among a mix of disciplines and practices (sciences, humanities, community organizing, alternatives to intellectual property), backgrounds in the open movement (Free and Open Source software, data, hardware and knowledge) and global experiences that we hope will be productive for larger climate action.
This article is our first meandering attempt at recounting what we have learned thus far about the gaps in our movements and how they came to be and where open movements are doing hopeful work for the planet.
Tragedy of the Anti-Commons
Climate movement activists and advocates are re-examining their power relations and grappling with historical exclusions of people because of race, gender, class, or geographic origin. This call for change is also happening in the open movement, which advocates for liberating access to the historical body of intellectual resources such as art, literature, research and other expressions that we call the knowledge commons. In short, we believe that knowledge must be shared in order for humanity to survive and thrive—and that it is essential to help fight climate change.
Though we use the singular language of “climate movement”, the authors wish to note the importance of multiple organizing efforts in this space and that to be part of climate action people do not have to join the singular environmental movement of old. Part of the strength of climate action is, and will be, rooted in people organizing in their own spaces, with their own frameworks, and the cross-sharing and learning that will arise. The best action starts with local communities, with diverse experiences, advocating for the right actions.
A scan of the open movement—which comprises networks, projects, and organizations that advocate for the creation, curation, and sharing of the knowledge commons through the use of open licenses—shows very limited collaboration between both communities. These movements share similar values and their activists envision similar horizons of human and planetary well-being, yet actions are being organized and conducted separately. We must now reflect: how will future generations of open activists use the digital commons to grapple with climate change, one of the greatest challenges of humanity?
The past two decades of the open movement focused on open licenses and digital resources. We have amassed great amounts of knowledge and shared freely through community-led initiatives that range from Wikipedia to Mozilla, from Linux to Arduino. The “Internet freedom” movement was mainly composed of people who are well-educated, white, male, middle-class, and born in the Global North. They questioned a regulatory framework suddenly “outdated” by the developments in digital technology.
The environmental movement, on the other hand, identified the depletion of planetary resources as a threat to our livelihood, the tragedy of the anti-commons. With this concern came an interrogation of technological progress as a flagship for the betterment of humanity. We have come to understand that the main tragedy is not the self-interested depletion of common resources, but a lack of shared understanding of our planetary health that involves the commons across the informational, ecological, political, and educational spheres.
Some of the early values that gave rise to the open movement also have been left aside in the process of dissemination and popularization. Open-licensed projects have been embedded in questionable endeavors, such as the use of free software to operate U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities in the United States. This is one of many examples of how open licenses can become unethical concepts which serve to oppress individuals and communities.
Despite the desires of the open movement, the transformation of some of the benefits of the “sharing movement” that were part of the open Internet —from carpooling to couch surfing to the importance of privacy and anonymity for financial transactions— ended up serving as a blueprint for some of the worst practices for basic job security or environmental protection, ranging from Airbnb to Bitcoin to Uber. The intellectual freedom that was fueled by open forums and websites and blog conversations ended up in walled gardens, carefully controlled by corporate mammoths monetizing people’s time, skills, and attention. The sharing community rapidly turned into the sharing economy.
Questioning “intellectual property” wasn’t about criticizing the core tenets of capitalism for many activists in the Euro-American section of the open movement. Most of the authors in the mainstream literature on the digital commons focused on solving market failures around information sharing rather than about criticizing the voracity in which corporate capitalism appropriated the public domain. However, as Julie Cohen described in her most recent book Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism, there’s a legal similarity established between the private property of land and the appropriation of public domain commons through copyright and intellectual property law.
The appropriation mechanism of environmental and informational commons has followed the same arch; both have suffered from the tragedy of the anti-commons. As political ecologists have insisted, the fact that the market refuses to pay a fair price for creating wealth off the environment is by no means an oversight. It is not a bug, but a feature: the ability to appropriate resources without paying for them is crucial for building surplus value. In the end, the story of the commons has not been one about movements working together towards the same goal, but rather about movements witnessing the same tragedy happening in different spaces. Their analysis and responses, however, were very different.
While the climate movement is moving towards new formations that reflect the diversity of our planetary community, it has been more difficult for the open movement to organize and forge a similar path. This is true even when the problems, as COVID-19 showed, are still disappointingly unsolved. Lack of, or substandard access to educational materials, scientific papers, or more important, to life-saving medicines and vaccines, are still as urgent as they were two decades ago.
There was and still is something radical about the idea of the commons worth exploring. It frees us, the communities, both from the market-driven economy and command-and-control solutions. It proposes an alternative way of considering the question of resource stewardship and sharing. But the commons also requires, firstly, to emphasize the urgency of planetary health from multiple communitarian standpoints, and secondly our willingness to listen, to share, to reach consensus, to trust, and to agree to work together for the commons.
Origins of the Open and Environmental Movements: Clouded in Inequities
Connections between the environmental and open movements are not new. For example, several movements fought against the inclusion of intellectual property rights in the bundle of agreements that created the World Trade Organization during the early 90s. Campesinos/as, farmworkers, and indigenous movements from the Global South, joined by the movements defending access to medicines, were critical to this inclusion.
They were against intellectual property not only because they disliked the idea, but, more fundamentally, because it was risking their livelihoods. It was in this context that many of us encountered the open movement as a powerful counter-response to the process of economization of life and knowledge. More recently, a new wave of digital commons activists is calling for a more intersectional approach in our movement. They see, for example, a need to reconnect the struggles of indigenous people to protect their seeds with the Internet freedom defenders fighting back against copyright and patent regulations. These needs are urgent and tangible: the livelihoods of communities that work the land are a stake in these situations. We understand the need to broaden our agendas to encompass much more than IP reform and reconnect our concern for the commons with calls for environmental justice, bringing the needs of communities to the table as basis for negotiation, instead of abstract reasonings behind the definition of intangible property.
We must ask: Is “freedom” the true core value in free and open source communities? Or, do we need to transform and rebuild openness in a way that makes sense for community initiatives that are dedicated to effecting social change? Community projects seek justice across a whole spectrum of critical issues, including climate change, food security, housing rights, and migration, but also in reimagining open community practices around issues like indigenous cultures to reclaim an open Internet for all (see for example Whose Knowledge?, the Feminist Principles of the Internet and Traditional Knowledge Labels).
We think this intersectional and international approach to openness will add value to the climate movement. The environmental movement has also seen a dramatic shift, in part by de-centering “environmentalism” and “conservation” which have historically been championed by wealthy individuals with particular Euro-American views of nature, so as to cede power in policy-making conversations to frontline communities. Recognizing the expertise, leadership and action of indigenous communities, workers movements, and underrepresented groups in environmental protection has led youth climate movements, like Fridays for Future, to champion intersectionality. This shift in power within the movements has resulted in important wins for community health today and for accountability to future generations.
Intersectionality exists not only because it’s the right thing to do (it is!), or because it resonates with the current direction of activism (it does!), but also because of some very practical considerations about the futures of both movements. Communities of color and youth are the lifeblood of the climate movement, and therefore, the open movement only has room to grow outside of the privileged institutions that originally guaranteed its success, such as well-funded tech ecosystems, government offices, philanthropic funding, and elite institutions in the Global North. If we are going to be relevant and effective, we have to start with asking questions of, listening to, and actively supporting the organized efforts of those most vulnerable to our rapidly changing environment.
Collaboration for the Planetary Commons
There are many opportunities for collaboration between the open and environmental movements. The open movement must develop a clear and deep relationship of collaboration with the climate movement, most importantly because the latter is the locus of political renewal and connection of an intersectional approach to action and change.
Additionally, public and philanthropic funding in the coming decades will focus on climate action and create a similar opportunity for the kinds of open mandates that funded open-policy precedents in publishing, science, government data, and software.
Lastly, the climate crisis is becoming more and more “real” for everyone. We are at the point where our existing open communities are looking for meaningful ways to participate in climate action, and the global community needs all movements involved. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”
Many of the major institutions advancing climate action do not explicitly focus on openness. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for instance, uses explicitly strict copyright terms despite many of the papers and data they cite being the result of open scholarly publishing mandates. The Fridays for Future movement and other advocacy groups like 350.org use Big Tech services for their organizing while not investing enough in free/open alternatives nor explicitly giving permission to other activists to use their materials. Even the emerging space advocating for the circular economy and the “right to repair” hasn’t made a big enough leap to open hardware yet.
It is ironic, and unfortunate, that the climate movement has not explicitly championed open practices for addressing the climate crisis; especially when so many climate justice issues would be much easier addressed with better open data and knowledge. For example:
- Open Science frequently provides evidence for public understanding of environmental justice issues, thanks in large part to the Open Access movement. Open Government Data and Software drive many of the climate models and data science initiatives. The climate movement would benefit greatly by increasing the accessibility to these “open” resources. For example, effective local activism in marginalized communities or indigenous communities requires more secure, accessible, reusable, and cross-referenceable data that they can use to advocate for their own priorities.
- As we were reminded during the recent patent restrictions debate at the WTO about COVID-19 vaccines, intellectual property has serious limitations in terms of accessibility and adaptability to a fast-changing, increasingly unequal world. Many climate activists think of the COVID-19 pandemic as a dress rehearsal for at least the next three decades of society adapting to climate change’s impacts, such as sea-level rise and extreme weather events. The countries most benefiting from intellectual property monopolies are not the ones that will need the most rapid deployment of new technologies to adapt to climate change or the impending biodiversity crisis.
- The communities in critical need of knowledge about the climate crisis require information in languages that the commercial Internet will never prioritize, but that are currently supported by Free and Open Source platforms like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap. We can collaborate with the 230 million Bangla speakers most of whom live in one of the most at-risk spaces in the world for sea-level rise; or the aging 30% of the population of the Philippines working in agricultural areas sensitive to sea-level rise, extreme weather and cyclones, and speak only Bikol, Tagalog, Cebuano or 100+ other languages.
We posit that Open Climate is a concept that encompasses these current needs and activities. The open movement should support the work of environmental advocates and collaborate with those affected by climate change through the creation, sharing, and use of the knowledge commons. The practical implications of effective open-climate action should be directly linked to the goals of climate justice and the necessary “all hands on deck” approach to climate action.
Where From Here?
Open climate must empower communities to choose appropriate mitigation and adaptation practices for their needs in every corner of the world. But how can we make that happen?
We want to bring a shift to the historical paradigms that have allowed for the disconnect to endure. Though we critique the structures of the open movement in hegemonic Euro-American centers, we can also think of the positive contributions the open movement has brought forth; we can point to places where the open movement has allowed for advancing collaborative projects for social and environmental justice as a direction to follow.
The open distribution of knowledge, data, and tools can start to address internal power imbalances in our communities. When we center climate action around those who carry the burden of environmental injustice on both a big (increasingly strengthened hurricanes) and small (daily street flooding during “normal” storm events) scale, we are able to see new applications for open technologies and methodologies. We begin to understand pressing ecosystem-wide changes that will occur not just to the environment, but to our societies at various levels.
For the all-hands-on-deck approach to climate action, the artificial concealment and monopoly of knowledge creates harmful divisions between experts and non-experts. This approach is short-sighted and an impediment to long-lasting, collaborative, and sustainable relations across the many domains of knowledge needed for action. Openness can be part of the response to transforming this structural upholding of power through centering how we think about information sharing and dissemination through a lens of epistemic justice. The debate on “epistemic justice” has been centered around key contributions of indigenous and Global South scholars and activists such as: Vandana Shiva, Marisol de la Cadena, Boaventura de Souza Santos, Kim TallBear, Arturo Escobar, and many, many others.
If we are to bring our movements closer together, what ought we do in our everyday practices? We need to talk, listen, share, and connect around the theme of the commons: that which is destroyed by the corporate anti-commons (the primary object of climate action) and that of the digital monopolies (the primary object of dispute in the context of the open movements).
This year, we are organizing a series of community calls to hear from open movement advocates, but also from climate action researchers and activists to identify and explore interfaces across domains of experience and expertise. From our open calls thus far, we identified a few insights that may help the work ahead of us:
- Open climate collaborations need an end-user-oriented approach to reaching other publics which are not the ones we find in the open movement. The open movement tends to favor the makers, software developers, and content producers. However, these projects don’t have a good understanding of the diversity of our movement and how this approach can engage multiple constituencies in climate action.
- A guest at our April 2021 conversation, Ana Grijalva from UNDP Accelerator Lab Ecuador, said something that struck us as central to an effective open-climate solution: all of the outputs of open climate need to be relevant to the “smallest possible policymaker” and participant, not just big institutions. The smallest policymaker may mean a farmer who doesn’t speak a dominant language but controls acres of forest needed for maintaining our global carbon balance; a local but supportive politician who has never seen the messy side of data wrangling; or a youth activist who won’t become an intellectual property wonk. We don’t want to repeat the mistake of the earlier environmental movement (and international development) of doing policy and half-conceived “solutions” without those most at-risk for being affected by climate change, rather than with them.
- Building for these audiences, especially “small policymakers” with an eye for climate justice, means that we need to design the whole open stack from hardware to software and content (data and knowledge) for accessibility, understanding, consent, and active participation. Information security and privacy have been an important value in the Free and Open Source movement, but we often miss key aspects of accessibility for a broad public process of designing and implementing tools. We may have to engage and think critically alongside the communities that have been affected the most by climate to advance an agenda for “openness” that makes sense to people outside the open movement.
Starting Open Climate from a place of local, small policymakers and people-centered approaches will require us to embrace a justice-centered approach to climate action. For this reason, our team will continue to bring together climate activists, experts and work with members of the open movement to explore ways to collaborate together on issues that address the needs around us.
Learning in the Open
This article is an invitation to think about the key values of the open movement (mutuality, autonomy, altruism, collaboration) supporting climate action. Here are a few suggestions on how to continue:
- Reach out to climate activists, and listen to what they are concerned about—they often are speaking with the values of “open,” especially the intersectional and inclusive open that we describe at the beginning of this essay. Effective outreach starts with learning the language of your future collaborators.
- Follow Appropedia, and the authors of this post on Twitter, and start writing about your observations using #OpenClimate in your social media.
- Help us find projects, thinkers, and communities that are already approaching climate from an open perspective and help us document it on Appropedia or in our Open Climate Medium publication.
- Join us for one of the upcoming community calls where we are exploring the potential for open climate action.
- Host a conversation about openness for climate action in your local community or at upcoming international conferences—climate action, and the open movement, work best when local communities explore these issues and then share their experiences with other communities around the world.
About the authors
Shannon Dosemagen, Evelin Heidel, Luis Felipe R. Murillo, Emilio Velis, Alex Stinson, and Michelle Thorne are organizers of the Open Climate community calls and involved in various open and environmental projects.