It’s all about the water

Postad i: CSG, Mining den 3 November, 2015 av Johanna Dahlin

DSC_0797“I don’t like it.” Says the old man when he hears we’re interested in CSG. “Not one bit”. It’s about the water he explains. “We barely have enough to keep this place going”. After a long drive north west from Sydney, we’re in a stunningly beautiful region. But since we crossed the Hawkesbury, there has been very little water in the signposted creeks and rivers. This is not unusual,we’re told, they might be dry for months on end. This is no desert, on the contrary it’s productive farmland, but Australia is a pretty dry place. The driest continent. Water is an issue.

The last post was about mining. While mining and extraction might be of use metaphorically in this project, we are also dealing with some very concrete on the ground mining. I was about to say old-fashioned, but what distinguishes the cases investigated in this project is that they are “new-fashioned”. CSG is not about minerals, it is unconventional gas mining.

CSG is short for Coal Seam Gas. It is also called Coalbed Methane (CBM) or coal-mine methane (CMM). (Wherever you go, there’s acronyms…) This is a rather new thing, in Australia the first mines were opened in Queensland in 1996, less than 20 years ago. Since then, CSG has become a major political issue in eastern Australia as the industry has expanded.

CSG is called an unconventional gas because of the methods used extracting it. The methods include hydraulic fractioning, or fracking, which means that high pressure fluid (according to NSW government usually a mixture of water, sand and ‘minor additives’) is injected to the coal seam to open up fractures, which will release gas. The gas will be brought to the surface together with water, from which it will be separated at the surface. Fracking is a highly controversial method, not least because the risks of water contamination (among the other concerns it is also feared that it might trigger earthquakes). Horizontal drilling is also common in CSG extraction.

Historically, some coal beds have long been known to be “gassy”, and thus vented before mining. Boreholes were drilled into the seams to vent the gas. Together with the gas, water is extracted. This water is often contaminated, and therefore one of the major environmental issues with CSG.

There are no gas mines in this area. No yet. And we are here to talk to the people who intend to keep it that way.


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Postad i: Uncategorized den 28 October, 2015 av Martin Fredriksson

Welcome back to Commons and Commodities. This time I want to discuss the concept of Mining. A Crucial aspect of mining is that it involves extracting resources: it is not just about digging something out of the ground, but also involves processing it and turning it into something that is useful and valuable. This usually includes a moment of propertization: as I am extracting something that appears to be of no use and not belonging to anyone and turning it into something valuable, I usually also lay claim to it as my private property. This is a simple example of John Locke’s definition of property as the product of labour, which has become a philosophical cornerstone for the liberal understanding of property rights in general and intellectual property in particular:

every man has a ’property’ in his own ’person’. This no body has any right to but himself. The ’labour’ of his body, and the ’work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property (John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1690).

But then again – things are rarely as simple as they seem, and soon questions arise: Who does the labour? Who gets the property? Who carries the externalized costs in forms of damage to natural or cultural ecosystems? And most important for this project: where do we draw the lines of propertization?

Mark Getty, CEO of the image bureau Getty images, once stated that ‘intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century’’. Mr. Getty should know: not only is he the heir of the Getty family’s business empire, founded on oil money in the 20th century – he also runs a company that entirely depends on intellectual property. The business model of Getty Images basically consist of buying the rights to large collections of photographies from the 20th century and charging fees from anyone who wants to use them to illustrate and visualize our common history. This model is akin to oil extraction, and to mining, in the sense that it consists in locating already existing resources, packaging them and laying claims to them. If oil and iron ore are natural resources that have been formed by geological processes over thousands of years, then historical photographies can be seen as cultural resources that get their value from a shared understanding and recognition of our past. A difference however is that Mr. Getty and his merry mates didn’t take the photographies themselves, so the miner – in this case – did not do the actual labour which destabilizes Locke’s property theory.

And then there is the question of what we can actually own. We can own an image, but can we own an entire documentation of our collective history? We can own a piece of iron or a can of oil, but to what extent can we lay claims to the land from which it is extracted. When it comes to genetic resources, biotech companies are systematically patenting genes and biological substances harvested from nature and the human body. Recently, there has also been a growing debate on so called data mining: a business practice where technology and social media companies such as Google and Facebook systematically hoard huge quantities of data about how we consume, act and live online and use it or sell it as a tool for marketing. Through phenomena such as gene patents and data mining our own bodies, persons and behaviour are turned into resources that are extracted, processed and propertized as commercially valuable commodities.

Mining thus take place across a wide range of businesses and applies to a variety of different resources. Some people argue that we live in an age of extractionism: an era where the extraction of resources is increasingly important as an economic driving force and rationale. If there is any truth to this, then the distinction of what is extractable and what can be propertized is absolutely fundamental not only to how the economy functions today and in the future, but also to how we as citizens and human beings can function within this economy.


The Commons

Postad i: The Basics den 7 October, 2015 av Martin Fredriksson

A fundamental concept for this project is ’the commons’. By ‘the commons’ we mean resources that are shared and commonly used by a group of people. Historically the so called ‘enclosure of the commons’ refers to an ongoing privatisation of agricultural land in England between the 15th and 19th century, when land areas that had been collectively used were gradually turned over into the hands of private landowner (Thompson 1963). While some historians see the enclosure of the commons as depriving poor people of their means of support others see it as the introduction of more efficient means to manage farming land (Thompson 1963; Armstrong 1981). This process has become the subject of long standing debates over the best way to manage resources where collective use is contrasted against private ownership. In his famous article ”The tragedy of the commons” from 1968 Garret Hardin described how the use of commons suffer from a prisoners dilemma, where natural resources that are at anyone’s unregulated disposal will inevitably become exploited and exhausted as everyone tries to maximize their own share before the wells (literally) run dry. Hardin’s famous conclusion was that commons cannot survive in a world of escalating population growth and increased need for natural resources. In order to survive, the commons have to be enclosed and regulated either by the state or commercial interests.

Hardin’s article has often been presented as a proof that the commons is a utopian ideal. It can however be argued that Hardin’s thesis rests on a fundamental misconception of the commons: Hardin assumes that the commons is at anyone’s unlimited access which has rarely been the case: most commons are actually subjected to particular social norms that regulate how they can be used and by whom. In the 1980s, Hardin’s analysis was increasingly challenged by a new wave of research on the commons, spearheaded by Nobel laureate Ellinore Ostrom, that explored different kinds of commons as potentially fruitful form of community governance. In the 1990s the concept of the commons made its way into an emerging debate over how the expansion of intellectual property rights limited the public access to culture, knowledge and information. Scholars like James Boyle talked about the privatisation of information through intellectual property as a second enclosure movement.

We don’t mean to idealise the concept of the commons by assuming that it is always necessarily the best way to manage resources. We do however argue that the commons are generally both under-researched and under-protected as a mode of resource management. Or as the Swedish scholar Eva Hemmugs Wirtén has pointed out: “there are plenty of institutions that intervene against the theft of immaterial property, but there are no institutions that protect against propertization of immaterial commons”. While we want to discuss the commons as a potentially productive model of resource management we also acknowledge that it is not necessarily more democratic that other property regimes: as regulatory models, most commons also embody their own structures of stratification, power and exclusion. One example of this can be found in the Hungarian copyright scholar Balasz Bodó’s account of the regulatory models in closed filesharing networks. He argues that many consumers turn to various specialised file-sharing communities that exist beyond well-known mainstream platforms such as The Pirate Bay. These closed networks are often very exclusive not only in their choice of content but also in their selection of members. Such file-sharing (pirate) communities often promote ‘voluntary’ property rights regimes. Bodó demonstrates how such alternative networks can impose their own rules of exchange which can be much more efficient than any formal and universal system of property rights. Piracy can thus, in some cases, construct and impose its own property regimes and artificial systems of scarcity, that might be more efficient, but sometimes also just as restrictive, as conventional property regimes such as copyright. The strength of the commons as a model for resource management is, however, that they are often collectively formulated by those who actually use the resources which tends to make them more flexible and better adapted to the needs and circumstances posed by the resources at stake and the people who use them.




Welcome to Commons and Commodities

Postad i: The Basics den 28 September, 2015 av Martin Fredriksson

Here you can follow the research project Commons and Commodities: Knowledge, Natural resources and the Construction of Property as it progresses over the following four years. When the project is finished, by the end of 2018, we hope to have contributed to the knowledge of how commonly used resources, such as information, culture, biological substances and land, are propertized and commodified. By propertized we refer to a process where resources that have previously been common and free for all to use are redefined into private property that can be claimed and controlled by designated owners. Commodification refers to how this property is turned into commodities that can be bought and sold. These two processes are sometimes, but not always, coexistent. The process of propertization is often followed by commodification, but it can also exist without a commercial interest, for instance as a means to safeguard and maintain resources against exploitation under the protection that property rights offer.

Conflicting definitions over resources as either common or private are acted out in many different contexts. The debates over digital piracy is one such area where copyright holders se file sharing as an act of theft of their immaterial property while ideologically driven file sharers often motivate it as an act of communication where culture and information are seen as common resources, freely shared between peers. Conflicts over mining projects on indigenous land is another example where mining companies see it as their right to extract, propertize and commodify natural resources that might be located in areas that have traditionally been used more or less collectively by indigenous people, for grazing land, foraging or for cultural or ritual purposes.

These are complex issues, that are often reduced to simplified oppositions. We want to avoid simplifications, which is why we will take four years to ponder the relation between commons and commodities. In these four year we plan to conduct three separate but intertwined studies. The first concerns the enclosure of the Information Commons through the expansion of intellectual property rights. It looks at EU’s and Australia’s signing and cancelled ratification of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in 2012. The second concerns Biopiracy: how companies patent traditional knowledge, for instance concerning the medical use of herbs and plants, which has previously been commonly used among indigenous groups. This is exemplified through EU’s and Australia’s signing of the The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization. The third concerns Environmental Commons: how natural resources, generally perceived as common land, are appropriated by corporations. It focuses on local cases where mining projects on indigenous land in Scandinavia and Australia have provoked resistance from local people.

The project will be conducted by me and my colleague Johanna Dahlin and runs between 2015 and 2018. It is finances by an International Career Grant/Marie Curie Fellowship from the Swedish National Research Council and based at the department for Culture Studies at Linköping University, Sweden, but will partly be conducted in Australia and the Netherlands. As I’m writing this I’m sitting on a plane to Sydney, looking forward to connecting with the Institute for Culture and Society at University Of Western Sydney which will be one of the host departments, alongside the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam.

Much more can said about Commons and Commodities, and I can promise that much more will be said on this blog in the following four years. So if you think that this might be just a little bit interesting, but can’t really make out where it’s heading – please bear with us and bookmark this website. In the coming months we will get back to you with frequent updates where we hope to begin to unravel what we mean when we talk about issues such as commons, property, mining and biopiracy. In due time we will also publish tentative results from the fieldworks we are beginning to undertake in late 2015. This blog will thus gradually evolve into an archive presenting a growing body of new empirical and theoretical knowledge on the relations between Commons and Commodities and the construction of property.

Martin Fredriksson


Commons and Commodities

Commons and Commodities
Commons and Commodities är ett forskningsprojekt som undersöker hur gemensamma resurser, allmänningar, avgränsas och inhägnas – och det motstånd sådana processer möter. Vi studerar hur olika typer av allmänningar – både materiella och immateriella – på olika sätt privatiseras och inhägnas och hur detta påverkar de som brukar dem. Vi som skriver här heter Johanna Dahlin och Martin Fredriksson.

Common and Commodities is a research project which asks if, and how, the commons are rearticulated and enclosed as property. It aims to provide new knowledge about how different kinds of common resources are enclosed and commodified as private property, and how this affects those who use and manage those commons. Johanna Dahlin and Martin Fredriksson are writing.

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