Commons Sense - An Introduction to DAOs as Ecological ↔ Digital Linkages

An Introduction to DAOs as Ecological ↔ Digital Linkages

This series is an initiative by the Regen Foundation, and is written by Austin Wade Smith. In it I explore salient challenges and opportunities in regenerative economics more broadly, and on the blockchain more specifically. Our goal is to bring capacity to a diverse public to be critically informed about the intersection of climate justice, social justice, and web3. We see this work as an essential prerequisite for communities to own and govern the revolutionary infrastructures which support a systemic transition in our definitions of value away from extraction and towards regeneration.

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Seeing the Social Life of a Planet

What does it mean to be a social species in an era of mass extinction? Witnessing the vast die off of the living beings we share a planet with invites reflection on what and who gets to participate in our definition of “social life”. Amidst the unraveling of ecological webs critical to planetary stability, there is simultaneously a great multiplication of new kinds of webs, and new forms of social life native to them. These webs, formed in the logic of computer networks and digital exchange appear quick to occupy the physical and cognitive niches once held by our more-than-human kin. We live in an era of a great extinction of certain kinds of webs, and a vast proliferation of other kinds. Despite their apparent divergence, I think understanding the fundamental commonalities in pattern and origin of these different webs is essential in order to invert our current existential crisis into an opportunity for the transformation of planetary social consciousness.

This essay is about how we create and steward visions of our world as commons. It explores technology’s fundamental role to “undual” the relationships between people and the environment, and asks how we bear witness to a world populated with subjects in a manner which might rewire different social technologies to be accountable to a more diverse, populated, and plural world? How do we see ourselves as expressions of the planet, and how do we make these mediated reflections tangible, and actionable?

A central theme to unpack is what I call the challenge of legibility. It is a kind of reciprocal relationship between sight and capture that goes something like this:

Is incorporating the more than human world more actively into the social and technical frameworks which compose our societies a necessary precursor to their further extraction, or is it a means through which we make the economy, law, the internet more vital and living in their own right? How does legibility relate to the regeneration of both human and ecological systems?

Engaging this challenge begins with a kind of social dilemma… an old one at that, about how to organize ourselves in mutual wellbeing to the living world. Reaching past modernism’s purist separation of nature and society, which the previous essay Undualing, sought to dismantle, how have humans sustained a social life based on what we and other living things have in common?

Reinscribing the Social

The real tragedy of the commons is that they have come to signify some innate human behavior to mismanage and overuse shared resources. Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” speaks more accurately to spaces of unfettered access and blind consumption than what theorists and practitioners understand the commons to be today [1]. Over roughly the last fifteen years, this mischaracterization has steadily been unwound thanks to the work of Olinor Ostrom, David Bollier, and a host of other economists and social scientists interested in models of sustained collective ownership operating outside the conventions of markets or state [2] [3]. What are commons?

Broadly speaking, commons are shared spaces and/or resource-relationships prone to social dilemmas of access and replenishment. [4] They are broadly accessible, difficult to exclude, and easily exhausted. Because of this, commons don't fit well into the conventional scheme of public goods nor private property. Before markets and states were the two dominant systems through which resources were coordinated, many social configurations between humans, organisms, and minerals existed. Shared grazing lands, water ways, fisheries, irrigation networks, forests, springs were commons. What happened to them?

One answer might be that the story of the last millennium is one of hegemonic power corralling the planet's resources and vitality through apparatuses of capture, accumulation, and subsequent valorization. None of which would be possible if not legitimized by racist and patriarchal ideology. An addendum to that answer would be that such ideologies support a laziness not well suited to complex social dilemmas, which are by definition hard. Navigating a balance between consumption and regeneration towards mutual aid requires work, too much cognitive load for modern “man” perhaps, and so the blunt and brutish force of enclosure wins.

The physical expression of enclosure are the many fences which criss-cross the Earth’s surface. The so-called enclosure movement’s capture of what was once held in common into new private assets has been a nearly omnipresent driving force of the last millenium [5]. It is theft on a planetary scale, and a great retraction from the patterns of alignment, solidarity, and interdependence which have made humans a social species for quite some time. This is because the commons are not simply shared wealth in resource form, nor are they the empty spaces where politics converge. They are the diverse set of mutually enabling practices and rituals situated in relation to a territory. They are a verb. Thus, one of the casualties of enclosure is not only access to the common pool resources, but the erasure of those practices which coordinate planetary stewardship through alignment and common purpose. The enclosure of the land is simultaneously an eradication of social practices through which we maintain interdependence to the living world and one another. We’ve enclosed our definition of the social to only include human beings. [6]

Intangible Commons of the Mind

After centuries of fences and capture, most of the emerging commons in the late 20th century were less wet and leafy than their predecessors. These commons are more often composed of floating points, pixels, citations, and file formats. Knowledge commons are those information and knowledge resources which are collectively created, owned, and governed by dedicated communities. [7] The internet has made it a lot easier for such communities to find one another and organize. Examples might include commons of intellectual property, disciplinary knowledge, open source software, and data. Although these commons proliferated in the early era of the world wide web and personal computing, their existence well predates the advent of digital computers.

The cyberspace of the early web promised a new kind of territory which had yet to be enclosed. It was open to free exchange of ideas, and far more resistant to barbed wire. [8] Fastforwarding ahead, the internet of today, dominated by FAANG walled gardens and surveillance capitalism, more closely resembles an analogous enclosure of digital commons than it does the utopian ideals of the early web; achieving in a matter of years, what the fencing of the terrestrial commons took centuries to execute.

The pressure towards capture.
The pressure towards capture.

Hybrid Commons

An important opportunity born through using the commonsing framework is that it allows us to trace behaviors across ecological, social, and technological systems. The binaries of tangible / intangible, physical / virtual, organism / machine give way to higher order patterns framed around extraction or care. The tendency to steward and regenerate vs capture and weaponize manifests across both medium and timescale. The framework of the commons foregrounds the ways in the technical and social life of the biosphere are inseparable. Through this lens, both a patch of forest, and its data have a kind of social life and respond to different kinds of social dilemmas. What does the governance model of open source software like Debian Linux have to say about access management for Nepali agricultural irrigation networks? [9] How are data and knowledge commons bioregionally anchored, and conversely, how do different practices of planetary stewardship formalize different systems of information and knowledge?

Every commons is an integration of knowledge with the bio-physical processes which comprise the living world. Always an overlay, they provide a fruitful means to discuss the interdependence of species, information and governance, because knowledge and our practices of regenerative stewardship are themselves living systems, contiguous with the biological world. From this perspective, what we describe as commons may be another way of saying that a community is at its essence, web-based. Although the term is most readily applied to internet native groups, I’d argue that communities which practice social life in an expanded sense through networks of mutualism, symbiosis and reciprocity are the original web-based communities. MMO guilds, open source developer communities, and these new thorny things called DAOs, are more recent actors in a lineage of web-based communities whose identity is actively formed relationally through networks.

To undual is to reconcile the fact that the social sphere has always been web-based, and thus not exclusively a human affair. In what follows, I’d like to explore how DAOs, a very recent form of web-based community, can be understood as a continuation of the legacy of the commons, and how the hybrid commons of ecological and information systems they support, may be an essential substrate through which informed climate policy, law, economy, and information technology might emerge.

DAOs and Commons
DAOs and Commons

DAOs and Commons

In complement to the work of Elinor Ostrom, the theorist David Bollier argues that commons are composed of three essential attributes. He describes how shared resources are stewarded through shared governance processes guided by a shared set of intentions or purpose. [10] The definition is strikingly simple, yet effective for describing how groups manage common resources, and the dilemmas they engender, across different kinds of webs. I think we should consider DAOs, whose shared purpose stems from a belief of planetary regeneration, as a necessary continuation of commons. In defining regenerative DAOs [11] through commoning, I seek to extend past competing factions of acronyms, which may not withstand the test of time, towards the unifying practices of regeneration and the technologies which support them.

Understanding DAOs as a continuation rather than a disruption of existing kinship and governance models foregrounds the essential role applied symbiosis and interdependence has played in defining our social, and technical systems over the long arc of our evolution. Additionally it places the emphasis on the interaction between community purpose and the technical systems through which they coordinate, rather than a more familiar form of techno-determinism which tends to overemphasize technology’s role in defining culture.

Some of the DLT’s (distributed ledger technologies) like blockchains, which act as the underlying substrate of web3 native communities like DAOs, can be understood as commons. The practices of purpose driven governance and stewardship are the defining element, not the resources themselves. The arrangements of people, minerals, and technologies which coordinate through DLTs need not be defined by the technology, rather the technologies are scaffolded by our shared purpose and ethics. Perhaps one of the greatest contributions that the blockchain and DAO technology can make to the wellbeing of the planet is to enable the effective scaling and distribution of the commons as an alternate option to market-based or government-based solutions at a scale heretofore never achievable. How might hybrid commons like regenerative DAOs be effective in counteracting the trend towards enclosure and extraction?

Witness Commons

It’s hard to see over the fences of enclosure, because they not only deny access, but also curtail vision. Fences are structures which keep things from sight. If one of the central questions around legibility is about what is and isn't visible to the systems that we build, then it stands to reason that perhaps one of the most powerful counterforces to private systems of concealment, are public systems of shared vision.

When value created through the land and sea is captured via private ownership, we can call those places productive or profitable. When the value created through the land, sea, and air is held in common, those places are historically considered empty and underutilized. Making “empty” land profitable has legitimized wholesale theft across classes and species via enclosure and imperialism through the concept of “improvement”. A political economy defined by enclosure and extraction is incentivized to stay blind to the many social lives which occupy the territories of capture, otherwise it must be accountable to systemic dispossession not simply on a moral level, but on an economic level. The economic legitimacy of extraction is predicated on turning an empty world into one which is profitable. Being empty is not a passive thing, rather a great deal of energy and violence goes into emptying a place. The transition from commons to enclosure entails making a world a Terra Nullius, a “no man's land”. [12] The lifeworlds, the social fabrics, the webs of community made invisible, illegible through the economics of capture. To call out theft not only on a moral but economic level, we have to nurture the networked sense organ which sees planetary state and thus makes its value legible without collapsing it into yet another regime of enclosure. This is a fundamental challenge of legibility.

Engaging this challenge begins with bearing witness to the living world we are within. To resist enclosure we must see and attest to a world replete with stories, niches, identities and rituals as anything but empty, or null. To bear witness, is to fundamentally combat the core hypothesis of enclosure which presumes we make productive and profitable what was previously nothing at all, and in so doing counteract willful structural ignorance. How do we vision together, and ultimately how might these visions of a storied world be collectively held and maintained in a manner which enforces action and accountability on behalf of the many social webs which constitute our planet ?

Seeing State

The notion of bringing vision and sensitivity where previously there was none is not a metaphor. It is both an exercise in qualitative impression as well as quantitative measure. It is both a science of the abstract and a science of the concrete. Through myriad observations, impressions, pixels, signals, experiences and readings we create durable representations of our place in the world and our relations within. This requires presence and perspectives from up close, as well as at a distance. Embodied perception at an intimate scale as well as earth observation data at a remote scale work in mutually reinforcing loops to weave a dynamic understanding of place and relationships. These shared visions are knowledge commons, inseparable from the corners of the living world from which they emerge, and as commons they must be stewarded and protected like their living referents because they form the basis of where we see ourselves in the world, and from where our values stem.

Ecological state is woven through diverse systems of knowledge across the critical zone of the biosphere. Abstract and quantitative measures inform situated and qualitative forms of knowledge to attest to the wellbeing of place.
Ecological state is woven through diverse systems of knowledge across the critical zone of the biosphere. Abstract and quantitative measures inform situated and qualitative forms of knowledge to attest to the wellbeing of place.

Defining the “state” of a place is a way of formulating the present as an accumulation of events from the past. [13] Like the process of bearing witness, ecological state is a testament to the wellbeing of a place, a people, a social fabric. It is a reflection of its extinctions and resurgences, its exposure and patterns of regeneration in a form coherent to prompt action and response. Despite the profound complexity at the heart of ecology and all living systems more broadly, the wellbeing of the planet is not unfathomable. To define and hold the state of the living world, is to make a kind of attestation. Doing so builds an important point of contact within the challenge of legibility. Ecological state is a form of knowing the wellbeing of the living world which is legible and thus actionable within anthropogenic systems like law, economy, policy, information technology, etc. It is an interface through which different worlds can touch, and upon which action can be orchestrated. Rather than a convergent process, the expression of ecological state can be an exploratory process. Let there be a renaissance of interfaces through which the living world exerts pressure on anthropogenic systems.

DAOs could be powerful assemblages of social, ecological, and technical relationships which own and steward the state of a given territory, ecosystem, and bioregion. This is because the protocols, (or perhaps we might call them rituals?), through which communities gather and cohere ecological state requires coordination and governance across diverse domains. This premise is not unfamiliar. Certifications like Organic and Fair trade face similar challenges when they make attestations about the conditions in which a good is grown or produced. The terms are capitalized as proper nouns, because there is a process, through which a claim is made. The methods through which data and experience are structured as information, formalized into situated knowledge, and ultimately made actionable as ecological state should be owned and governed by the inhabitants of a particular territory. Whoever owns or governs these standards controls the point of contact between ecological wellbeing and the different infrastructural and technical regimes which coordinate our lives. This interface becomes a coordination point for all kinds of interactions.

The rituals by which DAOs define and update ecological state are a response to the dilemmas of access and use. These patterns are not unfamiliar to commons rooted in plants, water, and minerals, because ecological states must be owned and governed like the living systems in which they are situated, and to which they refer. Ostrom explicitly states that both informatic and biophysical commons are shared resources prone to social dilemmas. [14] In the case of ecological state protocols, communities govern the means by which they form a coherent understanding of place through diverse and imperfect means. This process of overcoming complex inputs and incentives to create reliable consensus is a variant on a problem sometimes referred to as an oracle problem. DAOs can be a critical means through which communities own and govern oracles of ecological state, in order to orchestrate action, value, policy at a bioregional / territorial level. Making the complex and entangled state of a bioregion legible to political, economic, and informatic systems, without reducing them solely to the logic of any one of those systems, is essential in combating terra nullius. While rituals and protocols to cohere and maintain state may feel like a foreign concept to broader legacies of mutualism and environmental intimacy, the convergence of informatic, social, and ecological processes is in fact the point.

Ecological state protocols are an enacted cultural record of how we exist, flourish, or perish together in a storied world. They are economic, legal, and machine - readable visions of what it means to be a social species in an era of mass extinction. In what follows I’d like to explore how a simple schema of composable and polycentric DAO interactions might help define ecological state for a given territory and in the process create an essential set of interactions to ground value and relationship in an entangled and storied world.

Guilds and Bioregions

Guild DAOs and Bioregional DAOs
Guild DAOs and Bioregional DAOs

The figure above plots two categories of DAOs into a shared space. The horizontal axis is concerned with the physical aspects of commons. Is the space actors occupy overlapping or distant? The vertical axis is concerned with expertise and affinity. Are these systems of knowledge and skill shared or separate? The interaction of these axes creates a space which can be helpful in describing the disposition of different regenerative DAOS with greater nuance. Every initiative is an intermixing of both, but to what degree?

Bioregional DAOs

Bioregional DAOs are commons composed of diverse skills bound through a shared bioregion or territory. They are pegged to a bioregion. Examples of Bioregional DAOs might include:

  • First Nations Territories

  • Biome Guardian Communities

  • Land Trusts

  • Native Plant Societies

  • Urban Parks Programs

  • Watershed Conservation Areas

  • Regional and National Environmental Protection Organizations

Guild DAOs

Guild DAOs are commons composed of shared knowledge / expertise which traverse different geographies. They are pegged to shared models of expertise and knowing. Examples of Guild DAOs might include:

  • Scientific Peer Review Communities

  • Earth Observation Organizations

  • Union / Trade Associations

  • Birders / Environmental Enthusiasts

  • DIY environmental sensor forums

  • Open Source Software Communities

  • Fundraising / Grant Writing specialist

  • Issue / Theme Specific Advocacy Groups

  • Climate Justice Storytelling and Media Cooperatives

Bioregional DAOs are communities which form around a region with diverse forms of knowledge. It can be helpful to compare bioregional DAOs to what the political scientist Peter Levine calls, Found Communitarian Commons, because the community which forms is bound by the territory they are from / occupy. [15]  This is to be contrasted with Guild DAOs which can be defined as Made Associational Commons because they act as associations bound by mutual affinity to a craft which the group has created or made. The poles are polemical. Virtually no entity is not already a blend, rather the dynamism occurs in their interplay.

The diagonal axis which forms between Bioregional DAOs and Guild DAOs is one of mutual strengthening where domain specific knowledge and context specific knowledge / resources continuously informs and evolves the process by which we see the world, and tell the stories of its diverse inhabitants. The composable nature of location-based and affinity-based groups highlights the versatility in collaboration made possible between many small groups working together as opposed to larger, more hierarchical entities. Impact can scale, without requiring social webs of trust to grow beyond what’s intuitive and appropriate.

Composable DAOS of location-based and affinity-based groups weave situated and abstracted systems of knowledge in order to dynamically express the state of a bioregion.
Composable DAOS of location-based and affinity-based groups weave situated and abstracted systems of knowledge in order to dynamically express the state of a bioregion.

We could imagine, for example, bioregional DAOs committed to guarding the headwaters of a bioregion partnering with earth observation DAOs, digital storytelling DAOs, and regenerative scientists DAOs to form a coherent vision of the state of a watershed. Has the line of deforestation encroached further? Where is toxicity from illegal mining moving downstream? Have keystone species increased? Where has native fish aquaculture proliferated?

Without clear attestations to the pulse of a bioregion, there cannot be informed action to combat its extraction. This pulse must be owned and governed by the territory itself.


Baring witness to the diverse beings and relations which populate a world assumed to be Terra Nullius is an act of resistance. It is an invitation to become reacquainted with what it means to be a social species. Emerging technologies may allow new modes of sensitivity from up close and far away. They may offer new ways to come to consensus and hold shared understanding. However the practice of understanding who we are by attending to the pulse of the world we are within is nothing new. Building technologies to better understand just how deeply entangled we are with everything else is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is a means of creating a coherent shared sense of self. Us! We have been doing this for a long time. Viewed in this light, the growth of regenerative DAOs is yet the latest installment of one of our oldest technologies… storytelling. The processes and patterns through which we bear witness to the state of the planet is storytelling for earthly survival.

Commons Sense emerges from a desire to tell better stories, and honor our traditions of storytelling as a practice of collective memory. This process should be understood as a continuation of a long narrative tradition. One which weaves traditional ecological knowledge, spectral eyes from space, LORA signals, time lapse photography and intergenerational experience into thick weaves which bear witness, and attest to the state of the planet.

Perhaps something which has changed in this narrative tradition is the audience. In building relations between narrative traditions and the broader notion of ecological state, we manifest expressions of place which are legible not only to people, but the legal, informatic, and economic systems we have conjured. We are telling stories of the pulse of the planet to the infrastructures we’ve made with the intention of rewiring them in a new image of what it means to be a social species. This version of social life does not only address humans, but also the whole web of more-than-human relations from which we are inseparable.

Regenerative DAOs / Commons must be direct input into social technologies which coordinate value, credit, and debt in relation to the wellbeing of the planet.
Regenerative DAOs / Commons must be direct input into social technologies which coordinate value, credit, and debt in relation to the wellbeing of the planet.

In order to undual we must dismantle terra nullius (land of nothing) as a moral and economic ideology, and nurture terra ominus, (land of all things). To do so is to unlearn an immanent trope that there is a living world beyond us, and a dead one which we have created. The latter feeding off the former through various systems of enclosure and capture. In outlining the potential for regenerative DAOs to proliferate commons of forests, signals, aquifers and imagery, I’ve tried to outline a scheme through which we relearn to see ourselves and the systems we build as within the world, as expressions of it. In short… to make them vital. Any rights, value, or policy-based framework towards regeneration must be built on dynamic visions of the health of different bioregions, and our place within them. How do we nurture commons which sense the social life of our planet?

[1] - The Tragedy of the Commons - Garret Hardin

[2] - The Growth of the Commons Paradigm - David Bollier

[3] - Decentralized Commons Governance

[4] - Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions - Elinor Ostrom

[5] - The Theft of the Commons - Eula Biss, The New Yorker

[6] - For a more in depth exploration of the definition and boundaries of the “social” through “Actor Network Theory” refer to “Reassembling the Social” - Bruno Latour

[7] - Knowledge Commons

[8] - From Counterculture to Cyberculture - Fred Turner

[9] - Maintaining the Digital Commons: A Comparison of Debian Linux and Irrigation Canals in Nepal - Atul Pokharel

[10] - Think like a commoner: A short introduction to the life of the commons. - David Bollier

[11] - I use DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) as a broad term to describe digitally native communities which organize and govern shared resources through decentralized ledgers like Blockchains. As such it is general term which aligns with other meaningful projects likes DISCOs.

[12] - Terra Nullius in this sense is closely related to the Doctrine of Discovery.

[13] - In information technology and computer science, a system is described as stateful if it is designed to remember preceding events or user interactions; the remembered information is called the state of the system. Wiki

[14] - Understanding Knowledge as a Commons - Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom

[15] - A Commons Taxonomy - Peter Levine

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