Is Open Source the Solution to Global Warming?

Two years ago, I stumbled onto an idea that just may be the solution to climate change or, more accurately, the paradigm through which innovative solutions will be widely implemented around the world that reduce our collective impact on the environment. No, it is not a “tech fix” in the form of new gadgets that people use. Nor is it a piece of legislation that places a price signal on carbon emissions (although that remains essential as part of the restructuring of our economic systems as we transition to sustainable models).

Simply put, it is a way of sharing good ideas so they spread far and wide.

That’s right, the solution to a massively complex global ecological crisis may be to spread the sharing meme. We are already seeing how it has influenced people’s daily routines, business practices, and the explosion of social technologies (Internet anyone?) that enable us to express our sharing nature in all aspects of life. In this article, I will share my own journey of discovery that lead to this hypothesis — and conclude with an exciting opportunity to test it in the real world in an effort to reach a global tipping point on climate action.

Is sharing the secret to success? Photo credit: Used under Creative Commons license.

The Story of Discovery

To understand what I am proposing as The Open Source Solution, it will help to know the back story. It all began a decade ago when I entered a graduate program in atmospheric sciences to study the formation of complex patterns and, in particular, the physical dynamics of clouds. Because my focus was on pattern formation, I dug deeply into the theoretical properties of all complex systems. The patterns of economic and political systems were just as intriguing to me as those in physics and chemistry.

I soon realized that the most important patterns were in the realm of human actions. I discovered deep drivers of large-scale human behavior in the institutional structures, cultural narratives, and social norms of global civilization as the most critically important patterns to be changed. And so I left the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and began six years of independent study in the cognitive and behavioral sciences to build a foundational understanding for this new arena of complexity.

It was during this exploratory period that I stumbled upon the prospects for a systemic solution. There I was, sitting in my living room in December of 2007, reading a book by Stephen Weber called The Success of Open Source. On the first page, he distinguished between two conceptual frames for ownership that he called The Right to Exclude and The Right to Distribute. A bolt shot through me and I realized that this was the missing piece I had been looking for. Everything came together in an instant and I knew that I had made a major discovery.

At the time, I was working as a research fellow at a think tank called the Rockridge Institute in Berkeley, California. My job was to apply insights from cognitive linguistics to political discourse, helping progressives identify useful semantic frames and alter our nation’s political discourse. So I brought to my readings on open source software a depth of knowledge about the nature of human cognition. It was immediately clear to me that the mental models for wealth, value creation, and ownership lay at the heart of problems behind global warming.

Let me explain. In legal theory, property is thought of as a bundle of rights held by the owner. Building on the thinking of Enlightenment philosophers (and particularly the writings of John Locke), this mental model for ownership places emphasis on the right to exclude others from accessing the benefits of owned property. So if I own a piece of land, I can exclude you by posting a No Trespassing sign or putting up a fence. This is the central idea behind proprietary software, where the owner charges a licensing fee to get access to the benefits of the software. It is also the mode of thought that has driven privatization as the dominant paradigm for economic development over the last 300 years.

This property right has been used in a very clever way by proponents of open source software to create an extremely valuable information commons. They realized that if anyone can be excluded by the property owner, then those who refuse to share can be excluded, as well. So they subverted the meaning to become a right to distribute that places ownership in the community of users who have come together to create the software. This is the primary legal mechanism behind the Creative Commons licensing model.

It was this strategic act of legal jujutsu that caused my epiphany. I knew immediately that the only way to build a capitalist system that retains innovative routes for entrepreneurship while also protecting all our vital commons was through this shared ownership paradigm.

Laying Out The Proposed Solution

I began with the assertion that the primary cause of ecological damage is in the governing dynamics of capitalism. As the following diagram shows, breakthrough ideas are unable to spread effectively in the closed ownership paradigm because the only metric for declaring an idea to be “good” is its inherent profitability. Private investors only support those ideas that generate a direct monetary return (and put their money into ideas that give maximal return, regardless of societal impact). As a result, the adoption space is narrowly defined and the innovation gets boxed in.


By contrast, in a shared ownership paradigm, the worth of a breakthrough idea is measured by many different metrics to determine its social value. Those ideas that preserve or increase our common wealth create positive social impacts. And because the ownership is built on a right to distribute, the demonstrated value of the idea increases as the breakthrough idea spreads and gets implemented in many places.

Since that fateful moment in late 2007, I have been actively testing this solution in the real world to see if it works. I have now launched three social enterprises based on this shared ownership paradigm — Cognitive Policy Works, Seattle Innovators, and DarwinSF (with my co-founder, Lazlo Karafiath). I have researched the deep trends in our global economy to reveal the emerging Open Collaboration Paradigm for economic production. And I have facilitated five successful crowdfunding campaigns to identify the modes of leadership, governance, group facilitation, project management, and engagement that unleash the power of crowds to cultivate collective impacts using the concept of shared ownership.

The next step is to implement this solution in our corporations, government agencies, and education institutions. This has already begun, albeit in a manner that does not articulate just how deeply open innovation principles disrupt the status quo. We are now in the midst of seeing the rise of collaborative consumption, what Clay Shirky calls “the power of organizing without organizations” in Here Comes Everybody, and the more general phenomenon of crowdsourcing.

Testing the Solution — Spreading Good Memes

This is the task before us now. My partners at DarwinSF and I have just completed the first ever meme analysis of global warming — concluding that global warming won’t go viral on its own. It needs help from symbiotic memes that are not primarily about global warming, but that marry to it in mutually beneficial ways. A strong candidate to explore further is the sharing meme, for all the reasons mentioned here.

We will soon begin a second round of research that focuses on the symbiotic memes already spreading successfully in mainstream culture. This is how we will discover the tipping points lurking below the surface of consciousness that can be activated to spread a vision for the better world we all need. In doing so, we can tackle the interwoven threats of global warming, financial instability, and political corruption — all the while spreading memes about sharing, collaboration, compassion, and sustainability.

Is the sharing meme a vital piece of the solution? My reasoning so far leads me to believe it is. But the scientist in me says to let the data decide. And so I am offering up an experimental design for everyone to consider. Let’s conduct a thorough meme analysis of the sharing meme and reveal the cultural structures that enable open societies to operate. In so doing, we can begin to measure the power of the sharing meme — both its inherent strengths and weaknesses, and the extent of the social networks it currently operates in. Once armed with this empirical data, we can begin to test out my hypothesis and introduce new memes into the cultural ecosystem and see if they take off.

Would you like to see such a study conducted? We’ll never know if I am right until we try.