“Active Learning” more than goals… For SDG’s we need to Rethink

This is a copy of a requested comment on the UN NGO Major Group’s recommendations for the UN Post2015 Sustainable development goals, being developed by the UN Open Working Group (OWG) of member country representatives, guided by the UN’s consultants and representatives of civil society groups around the world.   It’s a really exciting thing to be part of…

Comments on draft NGO SDG framework Post 2015
on the SD Knowledge Platform site

I represented the NGO Commons Cluster at the major groups HLPF meeting, 1st OWG meeting and CIVICUS meetings at the UN in the past month.   I’m a natural systems scientist, and for decades have studied a type of physics for understanding why systems like economies are sometimes smoothly self-managing and then sometimes spin out of control.   I’m also active in CAUN.  For reference to what we are learning about how to apply commons principles to the SDG’s, see our 1) proposal for the UN to adopt the commons approach and our 2) draft “Ideal Model” for a global commons approach and for engaging civil society in solving SD problems.  These proposals were reposted to Post2015.org #1 & #2.

We have a lot of rethinking to do:
My main comment could go after pp #1:

A lot of rethinking is apparently needed, as current sustainability efforts are being ineffective, need to be brought into question and new direction found. There’s clear evidence of many kinds that after 40 years of mounting efforts there has been little appreciable effect on the course of the economy’s ever swelling strain on the earth’s resources and living systems. The one exception is unintentional, the current slowing rate of increasing impacts due to the slowing of world economic growth. That’s only from the failure of economic recoveries following the 2008 financial collapse.

So it appears, essentially, that **we don’t know what we’re doing yet**, and so need to take a more active learning approach rather than focus the effort at expanding on current methods, that now seem unproven. Promising new directions like a rejuvenated “commons approach” for facilitating multi-stakeholder collaboration on common interests, are only just being explored. But we believe some way needs to be found to use the active engagement of civil society’s resources central to the world’s SDG framework, and to bridge the silos of thinking now keeping our solutions from changing our problem.

[the following notes would help with turning “needing to rethink” into an “active learning approach” for finding new direction. It comes from email comments on the evolving “commons approach”.]


Further Notes to incorporate, on learning a new direction for SD and The Evolving CAUN “Commons Approach:

Recently Rania Masri, a UNDP Environment and Energy Policy Advisor got input from the CAUN research group on our current thinking about the commons approach.  She wrote an nice interpretation as a set of discussion points for the Arab Development Forum (ADF) on Post2015 SDG’s (ADF Discussion Points).  Her introduction raises the problem that “sustainability is not working” in the sense above.   I’ve added comments on that and some other key issues (in her PDF and copied below) to reinforce

the principles of the commons approach that would help us respond to that all important problem:
that sustainability isn’t working.

They’re roughly summarized by two main points:

  1. the commons approach is about people learning to work together to take care of their own environments.
  2. which suggests a “learning approach” rather than a “policy approach” would be more effective for our finding a new direction.



What motivates a commons approach: Many of the problems you so nicely detail in your pointed comments on MDG7 are essentially symptoms of lack of collaboration between the stakeholders with the problem.   As Elinor Ostrom demonstrated, it’s when the fishermen causing the resource depletion realize they need the scientists and the cooperation of the communities affected, that results in them all finally getting and learn to understand the data needed to solve their problem.   Good data is demand driven like anything else!   There’s a lot more involved in getting stakeholders to work together, of course, but helping them recognize that their own environment is ultimately their own problem, does help.

How a commons organizes by working: Another hurdle is finding how stakeholders need to organize for learning how to solve their own problems.   How they organize in different environments, and for different communities, at small, large and global scales, all needs to develop as they learn to work together.   One of the less well understood recent CAUN findings is that “commoning” involves two kinds of “self-governance”.  Any community reaching its own internal agreements is also embedded in an ecology of other communities… following their own.    So any organization of stakeholders needs a way of coming to rules and agreements for themselves, and also to collaborate ecologically with others following their own rules.

Our biggest hurdle at present is one you put nicely, as a great many others have also noted:

“Although we have witnessed an increase in international treaties and in the number of Ministries of Environment and other legislational bodies tasked to oversee the environment, we have not witnessed an increase in sustainability practices or an increase in real understanding of sustainability issues. Rather, we have witnessed a continuous degradation of natural resources, …”


Apparent from the start: Your observation says to me that we seem not to know quite how to do this yet.   It’s also a phenomenon I’ve actually studied for much longer than there were sustainability treaties.   In the forty years I’ve been closely watching these countervailing directions our failure to reduce the rates of accumulating impacts has been readily apparent, from the start.    There are clear reasons why some of the more popular sustainability strategies are quite ineffective.  Many strategies really just teach people how to sustain themselves, as the conditions around them get ever worse!

Some of the most concerted efforts actually backfire, to become highly counterproductive, like promoting more efficient resource use,.. that a growth driven economy will naturally use for creating faster growing resource use.   If we were all focused on “leaning what to do” we’d both complain about that, and then we’d also study how that exactly works.

The new focus: So, to me the focus of attention needs to shift more toward “learning what to do” and somewhat away from “policies that sound purposeful” but which no one seems sure of how to achieve.   That shift from “trying our best while failing badly” to “learning what would actually work” is also something noticeably lacking in the general discussion.    The real achievement so far, is the tremendous ground swell of desire to make a difference, among people who don’t quite know how yet.    I think all it needs is somewhat better information on what would actually work.


Further notes on a learning approach, – asking “how to do it” does more than asking “how you want it”.


P2 – Economy “leg” Sustainability – We can define the economic leg of the commons approach as a need to “Ensure that the benefits deriving from the ownership, use, and management of public goods and commons resources are equitably shared among all peoples (and that the economy is built within the limitations of the ecosystem).  That leaves the question of how to do it, whether to improve the economy’s self-management, or impose governmental regulations is left open.


So, while certainly there’s a “need for a more effective system of global governance in order to protect and manage our global commons and commons resources”. There still remains to consider whether it would be by imposing economic controls or improving the economy’s  self-governance.

The difficulty for government controls is that the economy doesn’t work by controls, but by local creativity the government is largely unaware of.  So called “public goods” have no independent value at all, actually, without the insight and organization of the people who use resources in a way that creates their value.  That is also a collective product and itself a commons asset, yes, but also one that “government” (or anyone else) would naturally not know how to easily identify, measure or control…

The markets that spring up around the resources that creative stakeholders collectively develop are the actual steering mechanisms of the natural economy, making the economy’s collective choices. They use the information on value they have available, that government would largely NOT have nor understand how to use.

So, it’s generally impractical for government to attempt to replace these natural processes of economic self-regulation with politically chosen ordinances and judgments out of relative ignorance of how things work.  It can become necessary if self-regulation of the markets fails completely, but the only solution government really has is to find some way return control of market functions to competently self-regulating markets.

P2 – Indicator (A) Scale – Yes, “Current dominant forms of economic activity degrade ecosystems “, and principle among them is “compound investment”, an optional practice that multiplies the scale of any currently productive and sustainable use of resources, tending to ever increase its scale till it becomes destructive and unsustainable.

cont. on P3 – Getting the scale right is indeed critical. However, …!!!… the aspects of scale which matter may not be easily perceived or measured.  So a learning approach for “paying attention to our whole relationship with the earth” is of critical importance.  Again the question of “how to do it” comes up.

One needs to not assume things like that a commons approach would always succeed, as if it solves the problem that “When people and communities manage and produce the goods and services they and their progeny need to survive and thrive, they tend to care for the natural and social resources on which they depend.”

It’s equally true that “For this reason, a commons approach tends to result in careful stewardship of natural and social resources.”  HOWEVER the world economy is actually itself a glowing example of a “tragedy of the commons” caused by the “commoners” not having the information needed to successfully self-regulate their demands on each other and the earth, the people generally are still unaware of.

The question of “how to do it” again comes up when looking at what kinds of information the markets need to make decisions for the good of the whole.  Those are “how to” questions largely, not “why to” questions, a mistake commonly made in social thinking.   So we need a combination of them, the values of social thinking with the values of economic thinking, and the information that will work for both can’t be assumed to be what anyone first assumes.

Each water supply region may well be able to “see the end coming” and apply aggregate use restrictions in time, letting the economy respond as it may.  Such regulation is frequently mismanaged, swayed by growth promotion and other misunderstandings of the task, but water management is a potentially manageable problem for government-like external controls.  Many other things, like energy use, are not, as that is a global systemic resources subject to the global workings of markets.

P3 – Free Markets aren’t the problem – It’s true that “We know from vast experiences that the market is designed to produce profit and not to encourage sustainable environmental practices”.  But that is still “current experience” for markets now acting as if buyers and sellers both don’t know what was good for them.   The reason for relying on market based decisions is that markets DO respond to any value that market participants (us) are aware of (that “experts” often wouldn’t)!!    Again, the question is “how it works” to understand why markets sometimes excel and sometimes fail drastically at self-management of commons resources

P3 – Informed Governance – It’s true that sustainability is “people centric” in terms of the social thinking going into most policy ideas, and also “earth centric” the same way, informed by social values and politics largely.   Something about what we’re doing isn’t working.  Maybe it’s the kind of sustainability thinking that leaves out the insights of other stakeholders, like the business and scientific views, that ALSO are not connected to each other but now exist in their own silos.   Understanding it takes everyone’s understanding how to make things work, asking “how to do it” will help raise the missing inputs from silent stakeholders, to make a more “whole system centric” view.

P3 – Dividing Property value in two – It’s interesting to think of separating the market value of land from the value of improvements to the land, and the market value of labor from other kinds capital.  Making such value judgments is not “measurement” though.

So saying Housing is unaffordable for many because houses, productive capital, and labour are being taxed too heavily and the commons rent of surface land too lightly.is fine to start. But seems to also be a statement of political values, for measures that are not well defined, omitting a number of factors.  From a learning approach to the issue one would need to consider that as “an idea” and look for both workable parts and better alternatives using a “how to do it” thought process.

The core problem of why our self-managing economy has such a persistent tendency to excess in all things, remains unstudied by nearly everyone.  It’s treated as being too big a question to deal with, though it’s the one question we need to answer to get anything at all to work.



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