Eco Lessons on Open

This post has been bubbling around my head for months now, so it’s time I exorcise it.

I think that there are a number of ways in which “the open content agenda” parallels “the green agenda”, and there are some interesting conclusions to be drawn.


All-or-nothing is a minority sport

When green was only an all-encompassing lifestyle choice, those pioneers were part of a counter-culture, objects of curiosity, they were “other” to most people. As green objectives have become more mainstream, it became less all or nothing, and less intimidating to do a few green things.

My conclusion is: the die-hard open purists are free to pursue their approaches, but I’m not one of them. It’s too big a sacrifice for me to make. I want to live a normal digital life, I want to use facebook and twitter, but i’ll do my bit with CC licences, attribution, and reusing images from flickr.

The green ecosystem has many agents playing many roles (and some of them care about money)

In some ways the content ecosystem is about providing content that is reusable, and others reusing it. Provision AND use of content is important to the ecosystem. There should be no talk of being “selfish” by not releasing content. There is space for both.

Evidence of this is the way recycling works (in the UK at least, I’m not sure how other countries handle it). Some manufacturers use recycled materials in their packaging, and they label it as such: reuse is good. Most manufacturers label how their packaging can be recycled: reusable is good. Some packaging is just one of those things. Its still better than none of those things. Some manufacturers go further, making a feature of their green credentials. Others just comply with regulation. Also, think of the role of the consumer. We read the packaging labels, and recycle accordingly. A sector of businesses specialising in aspects of the recycling collection, processing and redistribution chain sits around the consumer and their local council. The business, the councils, the consumers, and the manufacturers all have parts to play in the labelling, assembling, recycling and reuse of materials. I think the same is true of open content.

Consumption is not infinite

Not every item can be reused and recombined indefinitely. Materials can decay, get too mixed up, to keep the cycle going. But every step that prolonged the life and therefore the potential reusability is good.

At some point, openly licensed content will be used in a closed environment, whether in a face to face setting  or an authenticated online place. That is not a failure of the open ecosystem, it is a fact of life. the fact the content has been re-used is still a good thing. Our licencing approaches need to somehow accomodate that, to allow wide ranges of end use, without giving up on the pass-it-on share-alike ethos.

Organic, fairtrade, foodmiles

It seems to me that there are also some interesting parallels with in our attitudes towards the food chain. This is a very rough definition but here goes:

organic: made without GM, without pesticides, nothing artificial added. its about the process of production.

fairtrade: producers are given a decent price for their produce. its about the economics.

food miles: the carbon footprint of storing and transporting the food is reduced. its about managing the negative impact.

These do not necessarily go together. Fairtrade Nicaraguan bananas are pretty heavy on foodmiles. And fairtrade producers might use pesticides to help them farm in sufficient volume to merit big contracts.

Fairtrade and organic, in particular, are also terms for marketing the products values to consumers in the supermarket.


Of course, there is not just supermarkets. I remember when you had to go to a wholefood shop to buy things like hummous or sunflower seeds. Remember those pioneers I mentioned in the opening? They shopped at places that smelt like pachouili and also ran yoga classes.

But over time, the products that were specialist became mainstream and familiar. The counterculture of alternative whole food shops still exists, but to buy some of those items that were weird and wonderful twenty years ago is now a lot easier. Fairtrade coffee is everywhere now, I think that is a very good thing, I’m grateful to the pioneers. But I’m also glad I don’t have to trip over dreamcatchers and bongos to buy it. (Just me? Maybe just me).

Freegans and foragers

This is where I might really annoy some people. But this is my personal blog and I can say what I want, right? 😉 I think one of the lessons of the above is that supply chains need business models, and that good habits need to fit into existing behaviours. I am all for progress, but when open content is presented as an all or nothing choice, I switch right off, and I suspect others do to. Freegans are people who believe they shouldn’t have to pay for food if they can find it for free, and that includes in supermarket bins etc, which is fine by me. Foragers believe we should understand better our local natural environment and where food can be found. Again fine. And I look forward to the elderberry and rosehip jam. But I don’t have time myself. When I hear open content advocates sound like freegans and foragers I cringe a little, and distance myself. Its not the style of open advocacy that I think will win over many people.

Makers and menders

The makers culture and how that relates to ecosystem thinking and reuse is intriguing. I love the knitters in my twitter stream! And the 3D printing! I’m not very handy myself, or maybe I haven’t found the right sort of making for me. But I do see there that taking the means of production into our hands, and not feeling so alienated from the manufactured objects around us, is a healthy aim. Mending, whether clothes or machines, is also that kind of green approach that is about sustainability of skills as well as resources. There are clearly parallels in the digital space, and openly licenced content is very much part of that reclaimation of production. So, yes, I haven’t got my head round it yet but I do see there is something important happening there.

Conclusions on eco open

…. I’m still not entirely sure …. interested to know what other people think!



3 thoughts on “Eco Lessons on Open

  1. Good post Amber. I think the comparison with freegans and foragers to purist open advocates is apt; it touches on that thing you and I have spoken of often: the vast and deep unacknowledged privilege that often goes along with zealotry in these areas, giving the whole thing a religious conversion feel and the sheen of posh folks telling paupers how to live. Let them eat vegan gluten-free wholegrain organic CC-0 cake. I’ll leave it there for now.. too tired to draw it out much further. But well done! Interested to see if this draws out any discussion.

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