The Insurgent Power of the Commons in the War Against the Imagination

 

at the Prairie Festival, hosted by The Land Institute

Salina, Kansas / September 29, 2018

 

 

 

Thank you, Fred [Iutzi] and the Land Institute for inviting me to this wonderful festival!   It’s a great honor to be speaking at an event at which so many illustrious thinkers, innovators, and activists have attended in the past. I want to thank the Land Institute for its pathbreaking research and leadership over the years – and give a special thanks to Wes Jackson for his vision, courage, and sheer persistence over so many years.

 

I’m not a farmer or seed-sharer, and I don’t have a specific role in the farm-to-table world except as a grateful eater. However, I do live in a small, somewhat rural town, Amherst, Massachusetts, a place of maple trees and CSA farms, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, and… a town common.

 

It is in that capacity that I come before you today, as a commoner. Much more about that shortly, but suffice it to say that the commons, to me, is a vehicle for social and political emancipation. My new book, written with my German colleague Silke Helfrich and due out next year, captures three touchstones of commoning in its title -- Free, Fair & Alive. It’s all about lived experience, not ideology, and more about living systems that emerge from the bottom up than about policies imposed from above.

 

I want to start with a blunt and perhaps jarring statement, that we are embroiled in a deep and serious war – a war against the imagination. This phrase comes from Beat poet Diane di Prima, who wrote:   

 

The war that matters is the war against the imagination

all other wars are subsumed in it….

 

the war is the war for the human imagination

and no one can fight it but you/ & no one can fight it for you

 

The imagination is not only holy, it is precise

it is not only fierce, it is practical

men die everyday for the lack of it,

it is vast & elegant.

 

“The ultimate famine,” di Prima warns, “is the starvation of the imagination.”

 

When an artist-friend shared these lines with me, I realized how profoundly they speak to our times. In today’s world, there seems to be very little room in respectable circles for wide-open dreaming and experimentation, or for stepping off in new directions to explore the unknown. But the realm of the unknown is precisely where we really start to see and live.  

 

In today’s world there are certain presumptions that serious people aren’t supposed to question, such as the necessity of economic growth and capital accumulation, and the importance of strong consumer demand and expansive private property rights. The more of these we have, the better, we are told.

 

These dogmas have sucked all the air out of our public life and politics.  Which is one reason that I have come to see the commons as a precious patch of ground -- an important staging area for thinking and living our way past the prevailing orthodoxies. The commons is a space from which an insurgency might be launched – indeed, it IS being launched, if you train your eyes to see it. 

 

In the next few minutes, I’d like to suggest how the commons paradigm can help us develop a new social and cultural vision, and new strategies for practical change. Paradoxically enough, redirecting our attention away from conventional politics and policy may offer the most promising possibilities for developing a transformational vision.   

 

We’re surely reaching a point of diminishing returns within the existing system. Real change and regeneration are going to require that we jump the tracks somehow. We need to start imagining different ways of being, doing, and knowing – and we need to invent new institutional structures to support such a paradigm shift.

 

Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons

Let me first clarify what I mean by the commons – a term that is greatly misunderstood and misused. For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when you mention the word “commons” is tragedy – as in the “tragedy of the commons.” 

 

That idea was put into circulation by biologist Garrett Hardin in a now-famous essay published by the journal Science in 1968. Hardin said, Imagine a pasture on which farmers can put as many sheep as they want. The result, he said, would inevitably be the over-exploitation of the pasture. No individual farmer would have a “rational” incentive to hold back, and so the sheep would over-graze and ruin the pasture, resulting in the tragedy of the commons.

 

What a tenacious little smear this has been! Over the past two generations, economists and conservative ideologues have embraced the “tragedy parable” as a powerful way to denigrate the collective management of resources, especially by government. Hardin’s just-so story has also proved useful for celebrating private property rights and, by implication, free markets and government deregulation.

 

The problem is, Hardin was spinning out a fantasy. It has no empirical basis. He was not describing any actual commons. He was describing an open-access regime – a free-for-all -- in which there is no community, no rules for managing resources, no boundaries around them, no penalties for overuse or free-riding, etc. That’s not a commons. A commons consists of a community plus a shared resource and a set of social agreements, practices, traditions, etc., for governing it.

 

The scenario Hardin was describing more accurately describes market economics in which everyone is a disconnected individual defined by their “utility-maximizing rationality” and competitiveness, which makes you a sucker to restrain yourself. You might say that Hardin was really describing the tragedy of the market – “Grab what you want and forget about the mess you leave behind.”

 

            The late Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University powerfully rebutted the whole “tragedy of the commons” fable in her landmark 1990 book, Governing the Commons. She won the Nobel Prize in Economics for this work in 2009 – the first woman to win the award. Ostrom and hundreds of scholars explained how countless communities around the world have self-organized themselves to manage natural resources without over-exploiting them – all of this outside of the market and state power.

 

Why, then, are these systems generally ignored by economists?  Because when you’re studying market transactions as the main event of life, anything that doesn’t involve cash and market exchange isn’t all that interesting.

 

And yet commons are everywhere. They are the ancient heritage of the human species. The International Land Coalition has estimated that there are over 2.5 billion people in the world whose daily lives today depend upon forests, fisheries, farmland, irrigation water, and wild game managed as commons. It’s the default mode of provisioning through nature! Yet to we moderns, commons remain mostly invisible – or misrepresented as ineffective and marginal.  Doomed to failure.

 

The huge achievement of Ostrom and her academic colleagues was to provide scholarly validation for the commons as a system of governance and provisioning. Ostrom showed that cooperation is actually economically consequential, something that her colleagues, most of them males, scoffed at.

 

A Movement of Commoners Arises

Meanwhile, outside of academia, a related story was developing on a parallel track over the past twenty years. A self-replicating movement of commoners was arising to build an empire of their own – an insurgent, diversified network based on the ideas of commoning. Yes, the commons is not so much a noun as a verb.

 

Commoning is the social process by which people come together, figure out the terms of their peer governance, learn how to devise fair systems, how to deal with rule-breakers, how build a cohesive culture, and so forth. Who are these commoners? They include:

 

  • farmers, villagers, pastoralists, and fishers who use community systems to manage crops, pastures, irrigation water, trees, wild game, fish….
  • “Localists” who want to restore the self-determination of their communities through community land trusts, CSA farms, alternative currencies and time-banking systems, among other commons.
  • There are Croatians fighting enclosures of their public spaces and coastal lands, and Greeks developing mutual aid systems to fight the neoliberal economic policies that have decimated that nation.
  • There is a rich Francophone network of commoners, and others in Spain, Italy, the UK, and India.
  • A new “municipalism” of urban commons is arising in cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam, Seoul, and Bologna to establish commons-based Wi-Fi systems, public spaces, social projects, limits on development, and more. 
  • Indigenous peoples are arguably the oldest commoners, fighting to defend their ethnobotanical knowledge and biocultural practices.  
  • A vast network of digital commoners are creating free and open source software….building open-access publishing systems….“platform cooperatives” as alternatives to Uber and Airbnb….wikis and makerspaces and Fab Labs.

 

Through some form of spontaneous convergence – or rising of a collective unconscious – these various groups are discovering the commons and using it as a lingua franca. While they all traffic in very different resources and in very different circumstances, most of them have a least one thing in common -- a victimization by global markets and capital.

 

Enclosure and the War Against Imagination

This brings us to the word “enclosure.” It is a word that helps commoners fight the war against the imagination. Enclosure names the great harms that occur when the market/state system privatizes and encloses our common wealth. Enclosure happens when something managed by a social cohort or rooted in an ecosystem is redefined as a market commodity. It is ripped from its context, converted into private property, and sold. Its price becomes its value.

 

This is an act of radical dispossession – the kind that defined the English enclosure movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which millions of commoners were evicted from their forests and pastures, and forced to migrate to cities and England’s dark satanic mills.

 

We are now in the midst of a second major enclosure movement. This time, it is using less violent but even more effective weapons of dispossession. These include intellectual property law, digital technologies, Big Data and algorithms, and, as needed, raw state coercion and market power. As in the past, the mission is to seize the common wealth for private profitmaking.

 

Enclosure happens when the Hunt brothers buy up vast tracts of groundwater in the Midwest, turning priceless repositories of life into speculative commodities to be sold to the highest bidders.

 

Enclosure happens when biotech and pharmaceutical companies patent genetic information about plants and seeds, and medicines and diseases. One fifth of the human genome is now owned by companies as patents. The German company BASF owns more than 6,000 patents derived from genetic sequences in 862 marine organisms.

 

Enclosure happens when industrial agriculture converts a living landscape into a vast, quasi-dead vessel of soil to grow monoculture crops. It occurs when the traditional sharing and cultivating of seeds are criminalized – which is happening today.

 

Enclosure is happening today in Africa and Asia, as sovereign investment funds and hedge funds collude with governments to buy land that have been used for generations by subsistence communities and indigenous tribes. It’s a huge land grab that is displacing millions of people and triggering new migrations to urban shantytowns and future famines: the English enclosure movement revisited.

 

Amazingly, American politics and economics don’t have a name for the idea of enclosure.  Instead it’s usually called “innovation,” “wealth creation,” and “progress.” The language of the commons helps us debunk these modern-day fairy tales.

 

The Commons and Place-Based Stewardship

What does all of this talk of the commons have to do with rural America and farming, ecosystems and human well-being?

 

I’d like to propose that the commons discourse can help us break out of the claustrophobic mindset of contemporary politics and economics, especially as they apply to rural America. The concepts and language of the commons – and scores of real-life projects – can open up new ways of thinking that go beyond the traditional “progress narratives” of growth and “development.”

 

As the era of climate change descends upon us – as we begin to recognize the fragility and costs of global supply chains for food, energy, and water; as we learn how giant corporations work with government to consolidate market power and squeeze out small players; as we discover how markets tend to flatten the distinctiveness of place and identity, and propagate inequality and division – we are learning what pre-moderns have known for millennia: Place-based stewardship and community self-reliance can offer more ecologically rooted, humane, and satisfying ways to live.

 

But how can we possibly work for such a vision? One thing is for sure, it won’t come via Washington, D.C., or new trade policies or farm bills, at least not primarily. It will first require some deeper cultural and personal shifts from us – and the development of new sorts of commons-based institutions.

 

It will require that we wean ourselves away from a mindset that is transactional – which is the essence of capitalist markets and culture, a mindset deeply embedded within each of us – and learn to embrace a mindset that at its core is relational, where we see ourselves as interconnected and interdependent, and can show our vulnerabilities as humans without being taken advantage of.

 

That’s where I see the commons helping to catalyze a transformation. The language and framing of the commons helps name this different order of life. Evolutionary sciences are showing that the hyper-individualistic story told by conventional economics is an utter fantasy. As E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson (among others) have shown, we are a species that has evolved through cooperation.

 

We are not free-floating individuals without histories or social ties, untouched by geography or community. In reality, we are all nested-I’s – individuals nested within larger biological webs and within social collectives that profoundly shape us. Land and natural systems are not mere resources as the price-system implies. They are what I call care-wealth.

 

It’s this relationality that needs to be brought to the foreground. As Thomas Berry put it memorably: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” This is the ontological shift – the OntoShift – that we need to make as a culture and find ways to enact through projects and express through language.

 

            In a sense, that’s the purpose of the commons. It’s a rediscovered term that is being used to describe some ancient realities. It expresses the spiritual connections of indigenous peoples to the land and the cosmos. The commons is about the land ethic that Aldo Leopold wrote about. It echoes what Rachel Carson said about the subtle interconnectedness of all living things, and what Wendell Berry has so beautifully written about the human satisfactions of working with a landscape.

 

            A commons is about having responsibilities and entitlements that flow from them; stepping up to long-term stewardship; making up the rules of governance from the bottom up, with an accent on fairness, participation, and inclusiveness; and the inalienability of certain things. Some things just aren’t for sale.

 

In short, it’s all about relationality!  It is here where a new vision for rural America needs to begin. 

 

            Much has been made about the linkages between rural America and Trump voters – a linkage that I think has been vastly overblown. Trump brilliantly exploits genuine needs, and preys upon fears and desperation. But if we think more deeply about what’s important to us and what makes for quality of life over the long term, the answers won’t be ideological. They must be human, and they must grow their own new legal, economic, and institutional vessels.

 

The standard wisdom is that farmers, agricultural suppliers, and rural businesses should double-down and try to compete more effectively in integrated global markets. They should get leaner and meaner and smarter, goes the pep talk. They should demand greater government subsidies and new forms of support. This is fair enough, so far as it goes.

 

But we’ve seen how this approach is fraught with problematic risks. Are we really prepared to accept permanent subordination to the corporate seed, biotech, and chemical giants? Do we really want to build a future based on volatile energy and food prices in an era of Peak Oil and climate change? Can we depend on dwindling supplies of water from elsewhere and owned by someone else, and on the shifting sands of international trade policies and tariffs? 

 

The Commons and Rural Futures

            I’d like to suggest that the a more constructive and secure long-term vision is for communities to become more locally autonomous and self-directed….. to become less dependent on the global and national markets, many of which treat rural America as sites for neocolonial extraction in any case.

 

The more promising answers lie in greater relocalization and community self-reliance….in decommodifying our daily needs as possible; in working with the land and not abusing it; in sharing infrastructure and collaborations with other commoners; and in mutualizing the benefits that are generated.

This was roughly the strategy that civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer used fifty years ago when she and others purchased 680 acres of Mississippi Delta land and named them “Freedom Farms.” The goal was to provide access to land so that African-Americans could grow their own food cooperatively. “When you’ve got 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around and tell you what to say or do,” she said. 

That is the beauty of commoning. It’s practical. You could say that it draws from the best of all political ideologies: Conservatives like the tendency of commons to promote responsibility. Liberals are pleased with the focus on equality and basic social entitlement. Libertarians like the emphasis on individual initiative. And leftists like the idea of limiting the scope of the market. It’s all about cultivating a mindset of mutual support and building durable systems of relationality.

In the few minutes that remain, I’d like to quickly review some of these cooperative, benefit-sharing, relational approaches.

It seems appropriate to start with the Land Institute’s Kernza wheat and other perennial crops. Could one imagine an agricultural innovation more in sync with natural systems? It absorbs more water than conventional wheat, prevents runoff and erosion, captures more carbon, and provides year-round habitat for wildlife – while of course providing a tasty food for we humans. Kernza has enormous potential for bringing humans into a deeper, more regenerative relationship with the land itself – which will surely enhance the stability of agricultural towns.           

I am thrilled by another commons-in-the-making, the Open Source Seed Initiative. Its basic purpose is to decommodify seeds to make them freely breedable and shareable, under terms set by commoners themselves. Currently, more than 400 varieties of seeds and fifty-one species have become what I would call “relationalized property” – legally shareable seeds that can participate in the gift-economy of nature and yet cannot be privatized.   

Of course, land is another precious resource that has already been enclosed by capital or faces constant threats of enclosure. How can land be made more affordable and accessible, especially for young farmers, and be deployed as an object of stewardship, not simply ruthless market exploitation?

We know that community land trusts are a powerful vehicle for land reform. They are a way for communities to take land off the speculative market and use them for long-term community purposes, such as workforce housing, town improvements, sustainable agriculture, and recreation.

Again: the strategy of decommodify and share. A CLT is a kind of commons because it socializes and collectivizes economic rent, and then invests it back into the community that helps create it. It’s a social organism for regenerating value, through democratic governance and open membership in its classic form.

More recently, the Schumacher Center has been developing an offshoot of community-supported agriculture – community-supported industry. The idea is to use community land trust structures in novel ways to help decommodify land and buildings in a town. They can then be used for all sorts of “import-replacement” enterprises – production, retail, food – that recirculates dollars within the region. 

In terms of re-purposing land, I recently learned about the FaithLands movement. It’s a small but growing movement of churches, monasteries, and other religious bodies offering up their land for community-minded agriculture, ecological restoration, and social justice projects. It turns out that religious organizations own a lot of tax-free land, and so they can potentially act like conservation organizations or land trusts.

A farmer working on church land said: “Our scripture starts with Genesis in the garden and ends with Revelation in a garden in the city—with Jesus in the middle inviting us to a meal. If we’re seeking to transform our food system in a way that’s going to be beneficial not only for ourselves, but for our great grandchildren, how can the church put [its] land into service?”

Simply asking, “What does the land want?” and “How can we feed the hungry?” lets us consider the radical idea of food itself as a commons. Why shouldn’t food be recognized as a basic human need available to all, and not merely as a private, transnational commodity? A famous essay published in 1988 called for returning a vast portion of the Great Plains to native prairie as a “Buffalo Commons.” That never happened, of course, but it did provoke valuable debates that have sparked some actual projects that move in this direction. A dialogue about food commons could have similar effects.

If a larger Commons Sector is going to arise and flourish, however, we will need more than small-scale, one-off projects. We need larger shared infrastructure to take things to the next level. This can open up new opportunities for commoning while thwarting the possibility of business monopolies and proprietary lock-ins, as we see in seed patents, exclusive supply chains, and the like.

I am thrilled to learn of the supply infrastructure created by farmers in the area north of Boston, along the seacoast of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. The Three River Farmers Alliance has brought together a variety of local producers to aggregate and distribute their foods. The shared distribution system helps them escape a dependency on powerful middlemen and build new bonds of trust among themselves. An open source farm-management software platform lets each farm function independently while also letting each opt-in to share knowledge and cooperate with others. This works only because there are shared data protocols managed as a commons.

Or consider the Fresno Commons in Fresno, California, which is reinventing the whole farm-to-table supply chain under the control of a series of community trusts. This is helping farmers, distributors, retailers, and others to mutualize risks and benefits throughout the value-chain. The “profit” doesn’t get siphoned off to investors, but is used to improve wages and working conditions, grow food without pesticides, make food more affordable to low-income people, etc.

These stories point to the critical role that digital network technologies can play in bringing gig-economy efficiencies down to the local level. But this is not just about market efficiencies and automated administration; it’s about building tech-based affordances for new forms of cooperation in today’s world.

Another such platform is called cosmo-local production. This is an emerging production process in which knowledge and design – the light-weight stuff – are co-developed and shared with collaborators around the world via the Internet. Then the heavy, physical tasks of production are done locally, in open source ways -- which is to say, in ways that are inexpensive, modular, locally sourceable, and protected from enclosure. This is the idea behind Farm Hack, a global community of open source designers of all sorts of farm equipment.

Cosmo-local production is also being used to design electronics (Arduino), video animations (Blender Institute), cars (Wikispeed), houses (Wikihouse), and furniture (Open Desk). The same general logic of global collaboration can be seen in the System for Rice Intensification, a global collaboration in which thousands of farmers around the world share their own agronomy innovations with each other, open-source style. It has improved rice yields four- and five-times over without chemicals or GMOs.

I haven’t touched on innovations in local government. Let me just quickly mention the ingenious uses of government procurement to help strengthen the local economy such as the pioneering work led by the Democracy Collaborative in Cleveland and more recently, in Preston, England. In Italy, dozens of cities are developing “public/commons partnerships,” also known as “co-city protocols.” These are systems through which city bureaucracies collaborate with neighborhoods and citizen groups, empowering people to meet their own needs more directly and on their own terms.

Lest I leave the impression that the commons amounts to a bunch of white papers and policy ideas, let me underscore that the commons is about providing convivial spaces for us as whole human beings. A commons can only work by drawing upon our inner lives, sense of purpose, and cultural and spiritual values. It is therefore imperative that artists and cultural organizations play a conspicuous role. They can express insights and feelings that our hyper-cognitive minds cannot. They can express embodied ways of knowing.

I think you can begin to connect the many dots. No single one of them is the answer, but together, they help us to begin to think like a commoner. That’s liberating. That opens up new vistas of possibility. It helps us fight the war against the imagination and give us hope.     

In the 1980s, British Prime Minister Thatcher defended the harsh neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation, and fiscal austerity, with a line that was often shortened to its acronym, TINA: “There Is No Alternative!” she would thunder. In truth, as I hope I’ve shown, the more accurate acronym is TAPAS: “There Are Plenty of Alternatives!”

But these alternatives are only available to us if we can learn how to develop a new mindset, cultivate a new language to express our shared vision, and embark upon the hard work of building it out through commoning, project by project. That’s our challenge, which I am grateful to be able to share with this remarkable Prairie Festival! 

Thank you.

The Insurgent Power of the Commons in the War Against the Imagination

As readers may have noticed, I have not been blogging much in recent months. That's because I've been completing a new book with my colleague Silke Helfrich that has been consuming most of my time. (More about that soon.) Fortunately, only a month or so is left before we finish the manuscript! At that point I expect to resume blogging on a more regular schedule.Thanks for your patience!

In the meantime, I have been getting out and about a bit. On September 29, I delivered a keynote talk at the Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas, hosted by The Land Institute. The annual festival, now 40 years old, brings together several hundred progressives from around the country concerned about agriculture, food, land, and social change.

The Land Institute, founded by a hero of mine, Wes Jackson, is a leading independent agricultural research center. Its plant breeders and ecologists have an ambitious mission: to develop "an agriculture system that mimics natural systems in order to produce ample food and reduce or eliminate the negative impacts of industrial agriculture."

One of the most impressive achievements of the Land Institute is its development of a perennial wheat called Kernza, which could radically reduce the ecological impact of conventional agriculture. The Institute is also developing a range of other crops using the principles of "perennial polyculture," which relies on complementary, mutually supportive crops in the same field.

The event's main events were held in a large, open barn that felt unusual warm and intimate despite the chilly weather that day. A print version of my remarks are below; a video can be seen here. (My talk starts at the timemark 41:00 and goes through 1:22.)

Thank you, Fred Iutzi and the Land Institute for inviting me to this wonderful festival!   It’s a great honor to be speaking at an event at which so many illustrious thinkers, innovators, and activists have attended in the past. I want to thank the Land Institute for its pathbreaking research and leadership over the years – and give a special thanks to Wes Jackson for his vision, courage, and sheer persistence over so many years.

I’m not a farmer or seed-sharer, and I don’t have a specific role in the farm-to-table world except as a grateful eater. However, I do live in a small, somewhat rural town, Amherst, Massachusetts, a place of maple trees and CSA farms, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, and… a town common.

It is in that capacity that I come before you today, as a commoner. Much more about that shortly, but suffice it to say that the commons, to me, is a vehicle for social and political emancipation. My new book, written with my German colleague Silke Helfrich and due out next year, captures three touchstones of commoning in its title -- Free, Fair & Alive. It’s all about lived experience, not ideology, and more about living systems that emerge from the bottom up than about policies imposed from above.

I want to start with a blunt and perhaps jarring statement, that we are embroiled in a deep and serious war – a war against the imagination. This phrase comes from Beat poet Diane di Prima, who wrote:  

The war that matters is the war against the imagination

all other wars are subsumed in it….

the war is the war for the human imagination

and no one can fight it but you/ & no one can fight it for you

The imagination is not only holy, it is precise

it is not only fierce, it is practical

men die everyday for the lack of it,

it is vast & elegant.

“The ultimate famine,” di Prima warns, “is the starvation of the imagination.”

When an artist-friend shared these lines with me, I realized how profoundly they speak to our times. In today’s world, there seems to be very little room in respectable circles for wide-open dreaming and experimentation, or for stepping off in new directions to explore the unknown. But the realm of the unknown is precisely where we really start to see and live. 

In today’s world there are certain presumptions that serious people aren’t supposed to question, such as the necessity of economic growth and capital accumulation, and the importance of strong consumer demand and expansive private property rights. The more of these we have, the better, we are told.

These dogmas have sucked all the air out of our public life and politics.  Which is one reason that I have come to see the commons as a precious patch of ground -- an important staging area for thinking and living our way past the prevailing orthodoxies. The commons is a space from which an insurgency might be launched – indeed, it IS being launched, if you train your eyes to see it. 

In the next few minutes, I’d like to suggest how the commons paradigm can help us develop a new social and cultural vision, and new strategies for practical change. Paradoxically enough, redirecting our attention away from conventional politics and policy may offer the most promising possibilities for developing a transformational vision.  

We’re surely reaching a point of diminishing returns within the existing system. Real change and regeneration are going to require that we jump the tracks somehow. We need to start imagining different ways of being, doing, and knowing – and we need to invent new institutional structures to support such a paradigm shift.

Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons

Let me first clarify what I mean by the commons – a term that is greatly misunderstood and misused. For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when you mention the word “commons” is tragedy – as in the “tragedy of the commons.” 

That idea was put into circulation by biologist Garrett Hardin in a now-famous essay published by the journal Science in 1968. Hardin said, Imagine a pasture on which farmers can put as many sheep as they want. The result, he said, would inevitably be the over-exploitation of the pasture. No individual farmer would have a “rational” incentive to hold back, and so the sheep would over-graze and ruin the pasture, resulting in the tragedy of the commons.

What a tenacious little smear this has been! Over the past two generations, economists and conservative ideologues have embraced the “tragedy parable” as a powerful way to denigrate the collective management of resources, especially by government. Hardin’s just-so story has also proved useful for celebrating private property rights and, by implication, free markets and government deregulation.

The problem is, Hardin was spinning out a fantasy. It has no empirical basis. He was not describing any actual commons. He was describing an open-access regime – a free-for-all -- in which there is no community, no rules for managing resources, no boundaries around them, no penalties for overuse or free-riding, etc. That’s not a commons. A commons consists of a community plus a shared resource and a set of social agreements, practices, traditions, etc., for governing it.

The scenario Hardin was describing more accurately describes market economics in which everyone is a disconnected individual defined by their “utility-maximizing rationality” and competitiveness, which makes you a sucker to restrain yourself. You might say that Hardin was really describing the tragedy of the market – “Grab what you want and forget about the mess you leave behind.”

The late Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University powerfully rebutted the whole “tragedy of the commons” fable in her landmark 1990 book, Governing the Commons. She won the Nobel Prize in Economics for this work in 2009 – the first woman to win the award. Ostrom and hundreds of scholars explained how countless communities around the world have self-organized themselves to manage natural resources without over-exploiting them – all of this outside of the market and state power.

Why, then, are these systems generally ignored by economists?  Because when you’re studying market transactions as the main event of life, anything that doesn’t involve cash and market exchange isn’t all that interesting.

And yet commons are everywhere. They are the ancient heritage of the human species. The International Land Coalition has estimated that there are over 2.5 billion people in the world whose daily lives today depend upon forests, fisheries, farmland, irrigation water, and wild game managed as commons. It’s the default mode of provisioning through nature! Yet to we moderns, commons remain mostly invisible – or misrepresented as ineffective and marginal.  Doomed to failure.

The huge achievement of Ostrom and her academic colleagues was to provide scholarly validation for the commons as a system of governance and provisioning. Ostrom showed that cooperation is actually economically consequential, something that her colleagues, most of them males, scoffed at.

A Movement of Commoners Arises

Meanwhile, outside of academia, a related story was developing on a parallel track over the past twenty years. A self-replicating movement of commoners was arising to build an empire of their own – an insurgent, diversified network based on the ideas of commoning. Yes, the commons is not so much a noun as a verb.

Commoning is the social process by which people come together, figure out the terms of their peer governance, learn how to devise fair systems, how to deal with rule-breakers, how build a cohesive culture, and so forth. Who are these commoners? They include:

  • farmers, villagers, pastoralists, and fishers who use community systems to manage crops, pastures, irrigation water, trees, wild game, fish….
  • “Localists” who want to restore the self-determination of their communities through community land trusts, CSA farms, alternative currencies and time-banking systems, among other commons.
  • There are Croatians fighting enclosures of their public spaces and coastal lands, and Greeks developing mutual aid systems to fight the neoliberal economic policies that have decimated that nation.
  • There is a rich Francophone network of commoners, and others in Spain, Italy, the UK, and India.
  • A new “municipalism” of urban commons is arising in cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam, Seoul, and Bologna to establish commons-based Wi-Fi systems, public spaces, social projects, limits on development, and more.
  • Indigenous peoples are arguably the oldest commoners, fighting to defend their ethnobotanical knowledge and biocultural practices. 
  • A vast network of digital commoners are creating free and open source software….building open-access publishing systems….“platform cooperatives” as alternatives to Uber and Airbnb….wikis and makerspaces and Fab Labs.

Through some form of spontaneous convergence – or rising of a collective unconscious – these various groups are discovering the commons and using it as a lingua franca. While they all traffic in very different resources and in very different circumstances, most of them have a least one thing in common -- a victimization by global markets and capital.

Enclosure and the War Against Imagination

This brings us to the word “enclosure.” It is a word that helps commoners fight the war against the imagination. Enclosure names the great harms that occur when the market/state system privatizes and encloses our common wealth. Enclosure happens when something managed by a social cohort or rooted in an ecosystem is redefined as a market commodity. It is ripped from its context, converted into private property, and sold. Its price becomes its value.

This is an act of radical dispossession – the kind that defined the English enclosure movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which millions of commoners were evicted from their forests and pastures, and forced to migrate to cities and England’s dark satanic mills.

We are now in the midst of a second major enclosure movement. This time, it is using less violent but even more effective weapons of dispossession. These include intellectual property law, digital technologies, Big Data and algorithms, and, as needed, raw state coercion and market power. As in the past, the mission is to seize the common wealth for private profitmaking.

Enclosure happens when the Hunt brothers buy up vast tracts of groundwater in the Midwest, turning priceless repositories of life into speculative commodities to be sold to the highest bidders.

Enclosure happens when biotech and pharmaceutical companies patent genetic information about plants and seeds, and medicines and diseases. One fifth of the human genome is now owned by companies as patents. The German company BASF owns more than 6,000 patents derived from genetic sequences in 862 marine organisms.

Enclosure happens when industrial agriculture converts a living landscape into a vast, quasi-dead vessel of soil to grow monoculture crops. It occurs when the traditional sharing and cultivating of seeds are criminalized – which is happening today.

Enclosure is happening today in Africa and Asia, as sovereign investment funds and hedge funds collude with governments to buy land that have been used for generations by subsistence communities and indigenous tribes. It’s a huge land grab that is displacing millions of people and triggering new migrations to urban shantytowns and future famines: the English enclosure movement revisited.

Amazingly, American politics and economics don’t have a name for the idea of enclosure.  Instead it’s usually called “innovation,” “wealth creation,” and “progress.” The language of the commons helps us debunk these modern-day fairy tales.

The Commons and Place-Based Stewardship

What does all of this talk of the commons have to do with rural America and farming, ecosystems and human well-being?

I’d like to propose that the commons discourse can help us break out of the claustrophobic mindset of contemporary politics and economics, especially as they apply to rural America. The concepts and language of the commons – and scores of real-life projects – can open up new ways of thinking that go beyond the traditional “progress narratives” of growth and “development.”

As the era of climate change descends upon us – as we begin to recognize the fragility and costs of global supply chains for food, energy, and water; as we learn how giant corporations work with government to consolidate market power and squeeze out small players; as we discover how markets tend to flatten the distinctiveness of place and identity, and propagate inequality and division – we are learning what pre-moderns have known for millennia: Place-based stewardship and community self-reliance can offer more ecologically rooted, humane, and satisfying ways to live.

But how can we possibly work for such a vision? One thing is for sure, it won’t come via Washington, D.C., or new trade policies or farm bills, at least not primarily. It will first require some deeper cultural and personal shifts from us – and the development of new sorts of commons-based institutions.

It will require that we wean ourselves away from a mindset that is transactional – which is the essence of capitalist markets and culture, a mindset deeply embedded within each of us – and learn to embrace a mindset that at its core is relational, where we see ourselves as interconnected and interdependent, and can show our vulnerabilities as humans without being taken advantage of.

That’s where I see the commons helping to catalyze a transformation. The language and framing of the commons helps name this different order of life. Evolutionary sciences are showing that the hyper-individualistic story told by conventional economics is an utter fantasy. As E.O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, and Martin Nowak (among others) have shown, we are a species that has evolved through cooperation.

We are not free-floating individuals without histories or social ties, untouched by geography or community. In reality, we are all nested-I’s – individuals nested within larger biological webs and within social collectives that profoundly shape us. Land and natural systems are not mere resources as the price-system implies. They are what I call care-wealth.

It’s this relationality that needs to be brought to the foreground. As Thomas Berry put it memorably: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” This is the ontological shift – the OntoShift – that we need to make as a culture and find ways to enact through projects and express through language.

In a sense, that’s the purpose of the commons. It’s a rediscovered term that is being used to describe some ancient realities. It expresses the spiritual connections of indigenous peoples to the land and the cosmos. The commons is about the land ethic that Aldo Leopold wrote about. It echoes what Rachel Carson said about the subtle interconnectedness of all living things, and what Wendell Berry has so beautifully written about the human satisfactions of working with a landscape.

 A commons is about having responsibilities and entitlements that flow from them; stepping up to long-term stewardship; making up the rules of governance from the bottom up, with an accent on fairness, participation, and inclusiveness; and the inalienability of certain things. Some things just aren’t for sale.

In short, it’s all about relationality!  It is here where a new vision for rural America needs to begin. 

Much has been made about the linkages between rural America and Trump voters – a linkage that I think has been vastly overblown. Trump brilliantly exploits genuine needs, and preys upon fears and desperation. But if we think more deeply about what’s important to us and what makes for quality of life over the long term, the answers won’t be ideological. They must be human, and they must grow their own new legal, economic, and institutional vessels.

The standard wisdom is that farmers, agricultural suppliers, and rural businesses should double-down and try to compete more effectively in integrated global markets. They should get leaner and meaner and smarter, goes the pep talk. They should demand greater government subsidies and new forms of support. This is fair enough, so far as it goes.

But we’ve seen how this approach is fraught with problematic risks. Are we really prepared to accept permanent subordination to the corporate seed, biotech, and chemical giants? Do we really want to build a future based on volatile energy and food prices in an era of Peak Oil and climate change? Can we depend on dwindling supplies of water from elsewhere and owned by someone else, and on the shifting sands of international trade policies and tariffs? 

The Commons and Rural Futures

I’d like to suggest that the a more constructive and secure long-term vision is for communities to become more locally autonomous and self-directed….. to become less dependent on the global and national markets, many of which treat rural America as sites for neocolonial extraction in any case.

The more promising answers lie in greater relocalization and community self-reliance….in decommodifying our daily needs as possible; in working with the land and not abusing it; in sharing infrastructure and collaborations with other commoners; and in mutualizing the benefits that are generated.

This was roughly the strategy that civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer used fifty years ago when she and others purchased 680 acres of Mississippi Delta land and named them “Freedom Farms.” The goal was to provide access to land so that African-Americans could grow their own food cooperatively. “When you’ve got 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around and tell you what to say or do,” she said. 

That is the beauty of commoning. It’s practical. You could say that it draws from the best of all political ideologies: Conservatives like the tendency of commons to promote responsibility. Liberals are pleased with the focus on equality and basic social entitlement. Libertarians like the emphasis on individual initiative. And leftists like the idea of limiting the scope of the market. It’s all about cultivating a mindset of mutual support and building durable systems of relationality.

In the few minutes that remain, I’d like to quickly review some of these cooperative, benefit-sharing, relational approaches.

It seems appropriate to start with the Land Institute’s Kernza wheat and other perennial crops. Could one imagine an agricultural innovation more in sync with natural systems? It absorbs more water than conventional wheat, prevents runoff and erosion, captures more carbon, and provides year-round habitat for wildlife – while of course providing a tasty food for we humans. Kernza has enormous potential for bringing humans into a deeper, more regenerative relationship with the land itself – which will surely enhance the stability of agricultural towns.           

I am thrilled by another commons-in-the-making, the Open Source Seed Initiative. Its basic purpose is to decommodify seeds to make them freely breedable and shareable, under terms set by commoners themselves. Currently, more than 400 varieties of seeds and fifty-one species have become what I would call “relationalized property” – legally shareable seeds that can participate in the gift-economy of nature and yet cannot be privatized.   

Of course, land is another precious resource that has already been enclosed by capital or faces constant threats of enclosure. How can land be made more affordable and accessible, especially for young farmers, and be deployed as an object of stewardship, not simply ruthless market exploitation?

We know that community land trusts are a powerful vehicle for land reform. They are a way for communities to take land off the speculative market and use them for long-term community purposes, such as workforce housing, town improvements, sustainable agriculture, and recreation.

Again: the strategy of decommodify and share. A CLT is a kind of commons because it socializes and collectivizes economic rent, and then invests it back into the community that helps create it. It’s a social organism for regenerating value, through democratic governance and open membership in its classic form.

More recently, the Schumacher Center has been developing an offshoot of community-supported agriculture – community-supported industry. The idea is to use community land trust structures in novel ways to help decommodify land and buildings in a town. They can then be used for all sorts of “import-replacement” enterprises – production, retail, food – that recirculates dollars within the region. 

In terms of re-purposing land, I recently learned about the FaithLands movement. It’s a small but growing movement of churches, monasteries, and other religious bodies offering up their land for community-minded agriculture, ecological restoration, and social justice projects. It turns out that religious organizations own a lot of tax-free land, and so they can potentially act like conservation organizations or land trusts.

A farmer working on church land said: “Our scripture starts with Genesis in the garden and ends with Revelation in a garden in the city—with Jesus in the middle inviting us to a meal. If we’re seeking to transform our food system in a way that’s going to be beneficial not only for ourselves, but for our great grandchildren, how can the church put [its] land into service?”

Simply asking, “What does the land want?” and “How can we feed the hungry?” lets us consider the radical idea of food itself as a commons. Why shouldn’t food be recognized as a basic human need available to all, and not merely as a private, transnational commodity? A famous essay published in 1988 called for returning a vast portion of the Great Plains to native prairie as a “Buffalo Commons.” That never happened, of course, but it did provoke valuable debates that have sparked some actual projects that move in this direction. A dialogue about food commons could have similar effects.

If a larger Commons Sector is going to arise and flourish, however, we will need more than small-scale, one-off projects. We need larger shared infrastructure to take things to the next level. This can open up new opportunities for commoning while thwarting the possibility of business monopolies and proprietary lock-ins, as we see in seed patents, exclusive supply chains, and the like.

I am thrilled to learn of the supply infrastructure created by farmers in the area north of Boston, along the seacoast of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. The Three River Farmers Alliance has brought together a variety of local producers to aggregate and distribute their foods. The shared distribution system helps them escape a dependency on powerful middlemen and build new bonds of trust among themselves. An open source farm-management software platform lets each farm function independently while also letting each opt-in to share knowledge and cooperate with others. This works only because there are shared data protocols managed as a commons.

Or consider the Fresno Commons in Fresno, California, which is reinventing the whole farm-to-table supply chain under the control of a series of community trusts. This is helping farmers, distributors, retailers, and others to mutualize risks and benefits throughout the value-chain. The “profit” doesn’t get siphoned off to investors, but is used to improve wages and working conditions, grow food without pesticides, make food more affordable to low-income people, etc.

These stories point to the critical role that digital network technologies can play in bringing gig-economy efficiencies down to the local level. But this is not just about market efficiencies and automated administration; it’s about building tech-based affordances for new forms of cooperation in today’s world.

Another such platform is called cosmo-local production. This is an emerging production process in which knowledge and design – the light-weight stuff – are co-developed and shared with collaborators around the world via the Internet. Then the heavy, physical tasks of production are done locally, in open source ways -- which is to say, in ways that are inexpensive, modular, locally sourceable, and protected from enclosure. This is the idea behind Farm Hack, a global community of open source designers of all sorts of farm equipment.

Cosmo-local production is also being used to design electronics (Arduino), video animations (Blender Institute), cars (Wikispeed), houses (Wikihouse), and furniture (Open Desk). The same general logic of global collaboration can be seen in the System for Rice Intensification, a global collaboration in which thousands of farmers around the world share their own agronomy innovations with each other, open-source style. It has improved rice yields four- and five-times over without chemicals or GMOs.

I haven’t touched on innovations in local government. Let me just quickly mention the ingenious uses of government procurement to help strengthen the local economy such as the pioneering work led by the Democracy Collaborative in Cleveland and more recently, in Preston, England. In Italy, dozens of cities are developing “public/commons partnerships,” also known as “co-city protocols.” These are systems through which city bureaucracies collaborate with neighborhoods and citizen groups, empowering people to meet their own needs more directly and on their own terms.

Lest I leave the impression that the commons amounts to a bunch of white papers and policy ideas, let me underscore that the commons is about providing convivial spaces for us as whole human beings. A commons can only work by drawing upon our inner lives, sense of purpose, and cultural and spiritual values. It is therefore imperative that artists and cultural organizations play a conspicuous role. They can express insights and feelings that our hyper-cognitive minds cannot. They can express embodied ways of knowing.

I think you can begin to connect the many dots. No single one of them is the answer, but together, they help us to begin to think like a commoner. That’s liberating. That opens up new vistas of possibility. It helps us fight the war against the imagination and give us hope.     

In the 1980s, British Prime Minister Thatcher defended the harsh neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation, and fiscal austerity, with a line that was often shortened to its acronym, TINA: “There Is No Alternative!” she would thunder. In truth, as I hope I’ve shown, the more accurate acronym is TAPAS: “There Are Plenty of Alternatives!”

But these alternatives are only available to us if we can learn how to develop a new mindset, cultivate a new language to express our shared vision, and embark upon the hard work of building it out through commoning, project by project. That’s our challenge, which I am grateful to be able to share with this remarkable Prairie Festival! 

Thank you.

Re-imagining Fashion as an Ecosystem of Commons

It turns out that the fashion world has quite a large cohort of designers, fashion houses, scholars, and activists who want to revamp the global fashion marketplace. To my surprise, there is quite a movement underway to invent new ways to design, produce and distribute clothing. Disgusted by a global system that depends on underpaid, abused labor, prodigious amounts of waste, and odious marketing strategies, many fashion activists are eager to develop practical alternatives.

Recently I was invited to speak at a major fashion colloquium dedicated to this topic. The event, which drew about 500 people to Arnhem, Netherlands, was sponsored by the ArtEZ University of the Arts and an annual exhibition called State of Fashion. The conference described its mission this way: “Fashion is in dire need of more value-based critical thinking as well as design-driven research to thoroughly explore, disrupt, redefine and transform the system.” It aimed to “collectively investigate how to move towards a fashion reality that addresses ethics, inclusivity and responsible consumerism in a more engaged way.”

Marlene Haase, Universität der Künste, Berlin: "Misfit" project dealing with donated clothing in Berlin.

[I remain a bit confused about the conference title, “Searching for the New Luxury,” because the event had few aspirations to make social minded innovations scarce and exclusive. I suppose the idea of “luxury” is too baked-in to the aspirational DNA of fashionistas to surrender easily.] 

I was impressed by the range and caliber of approaches to revamping the fashion industry. One of the most formidable efforts is being waged by a group called Fashion Revolution, a global advocacy group that was started after the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,200 people. Fashion Revolution has tried to make the fashion supply chain more transparent in order to prevent future abuses, as in this film “The True Cost,” about the actual (high) costs of garments. 

Fashion Revolution has also criticized the whole “fast fashion” segment of the industry, which has contributed to the doubling of garment production worldwide between 2000 and 2014. Fast fashion has produced prodigious amounts of waste. Some 40% of purchased clothes are rarely or never worn – the average garment is worn only 3.3 times over its lifetime – and about one-third of retail clothing is never sold, and is therefore burned or destroyed. The industry produces some 400 billion square meters of fabric waste each year.

“Sustainable fashion” was a term used by many speakers to point to clothing that is designed to cherished and last. Kristine Harper spoke about the “aesthetic sustainability” of clothing, probing the emotional attachments that we have with garments and how we might improve “sustainable design and durable aesthetics.” Orsola de Castro, a “recovering designer,” talked about how “loved clothes last.”

Another pioneer of sustainable fashion is Oskar Metsavaht, founder of the Brazilian Instituto-E and creative director of Osklen. He showed a short film describing his company’s aggressive efforts to find and develop new sorts of recyclable, sustainable materials for garments. Osklen has also created new sorts of supply chains and “conscious consumption.”

These sorts of ideas are seeping into fashion education these days thanks to people like Professor Pascale Gatzen, who developed an alternative fashion curriculum at the Parsons School of Design in New York City before moving on to teach at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem, Netherlands. Gatzen explained her philosophy toward fashion: “Choices are made because they yield the biggest profit margins, not because they are more beautiful or because they make us happier. How you dress is about how you position yourself in the world. How do we take fashion back into our own hands and make it a catalyst for social change?”

Gatzen is keen in restoring craft to garment making. “There is a clear distinction between designing and making clothes,” she said. “I encourage my students to design through making, because it is important to teach a process in which they negotiate the dynamic relationship between materials, ideas and the sensibility that emerges from their bodies and hands.” To extend this idea, Gatzen founded a weaving cooperative in the Hudson Valley called the Friends of Light to produce handwoven jackets.The wool is grown from sheep on a nearby farm, so all materials are local and the production process is careful and holistic – so much so that it takes as much as 160 hours to make each jacket. 

The conundrum: the more labor-intensive and authentic a garment is, the more expensive it is likely to be. This plays into the whole high-fashion ethic and business model. Eco-responsible fashion should not be a “luxury.” Still, even if it costs more, it is worth attempting innovative production methods and recovering a sense of craft within garment design and production. It is also worth weaning people away from their addiction to low-price, low-quality “fast fashion.”  

The real challenge for socially minded fashion, as I see it, is to develop a parallel economy that can somehow separate and insulate itself from the hyper-capital-driven marketplace that now prevails. That will be the only way to develop an alternative operating logic and ethic that can avoid the relentless co-optation of global fashion corporations and their relentless iconography of luxury. Unless such as scheme can be developed – at whatever rudimentary scale at first – social innovations will get locked into small niches as artisanal clothing or confined to the luxury market -- and genuine social innovation will be commandeered for superficial marketing.   

Can alternative fashion players develop their own vision, production methods, distribution apparatus, finance, and marketing, at a sufficient size? I’d love to see some serious, focused attention paid to this structural, systemic challenge. Piecemeal innovations can go only so far.

In my talk, I tried to imagine “fashion as an ecosystem of commons.” I introduced the basic idea of the commons and suggested a number of general strategies by which fashion could reconceive itself as a federation of commons. Alt-fashionistas might start by developing new ways to “beat the bounds” to protect their shared wealth and commoning – their collaborations, supply chains, and cultural vision. They should rely on practical experimentation, not ideology, and develop their own finance systems and distribution and marketing infrastructure. They should try to shed old vocabularies and learn the language of the commons. Here is a video of the keynote speakers at the conference. My remarks go from the timecode 20:43 to 41:14

World Commons Week, October 4-12

Finally, a designated global event to celebrate the commons and explore it in serious ways!

The International Association for the Study of the Commons – the academic body founded by the late Professor Elinor Ostrom and other scholars – is helping organize World Commons Week from October 4 to 12. At many locations around the world, commoners will host public talks and discuss various aspects of the commons, especially from a scholarly perspective.

Three main activities are planned: a policy seminar and conference in Washington, D.C., several dozen local events in different places worldwide, and a marathon of webinar talks for 24 straight hours by commons scholars. (I’ll be doing one of the talks!)

The policy seminar will take place on October 4 at the International Food Policy Research Institute, in Washington, D.C., organized by Dr. Ruth Meinzen-Dick of the Institute. The next day, October 5, you may want to attend the conference “Celebrating Commons Scholarship” at Georgetown University on October 5, co-organized by Professors Sheila Foster and Brigham Daniels.

The local events range from teach-ins and workshops to mini-conferences and talks delivered by local scholars or commons practitioners. In Mexico, there will be a conference on watershed sustainability. In Germany, a talk on “Pseudo-Commons in Post-Socialist Countries.” In Africa, an examination of transboundary wildlife protection, “Commons Without Borders.”

If you’d like to host your own event and have it noted on the World Commons Week website, contact Professor Charles Schweik of the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy at cschweik /at/pubpol.umass.edu.

Some Recent Interviews about the Commons

As you may have noticed, my blogging has suffered in recent weeks because of work on a new book with Silke Helfrich. Fortunately, we should be done soon. In the meantime, I have also given a few interviews that may be of interest. 

The British web magazine Beshara just published an interview of me, “The Revival of the Commons,” by Editor Jane Clark. It’s a beautifully presented webpage. Here’s one excerpt:

Jane:  …When there is this deep encounter with other beings, it triggers a natural desire to reciprocate, to share and communicate. So perhaps the commons brings out that aspect of our humanity which naturally desires to work toward the flourishing of our fellow creatures?

David: Yes, and I think this is why there is a kind of invisible tropism towards the commons. People sense precisely this potential of the commons and, without fully understanding or even if they have certain resistances or skepticism, they are nevertheless drawn to it. Through the many talks I have given and the conversations I have had over the years, I have come to see that the commons appeals to something very deep in people. It is about making human connections, about speaking to larger circumstances in life – and to deep time, both historical and present day. And it does so without all the encrustations of theological dogma.

These days there are very few discourses available to us where we can explore these matters outside of a theological one. Some kind of broad, cross-cultural exploration of our common humanity is long overdue. So I think that this aspect of the commons will grow as more and more people become involved with it.

 

Here’s another general introduction to the commons: an interview that I did with Adam Simpson of the Next System Project. The podcast -- Episode 17, “Social Transformation Through The Commons” -- is a 35-minute conversation that covers the basics about the commons. Adam was quite skilled in asking the right questions and eliciting things that might not have otherwise occurred to me!

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of visiting Kingston Radio, WKNY, in Kingston, New York, where Jimmy Buff is showing what a community radio station ought to sound like! Amazing diversity of music, news, cultural perspectives, and community-building. Jimmy interviewed me about the commons, and Peter Buffett, Co-President of the NoVo Foundation, about the state of the world.

Finally, I’m pleased to have played a role in a newly released theatrical film called 24 Davids, a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Celine Baril.

The film is an idiosyncratic, oddly compelling film about a lot of cosmic issues and societal challenges as seen through the eyes of 24 people named David on three continents. Including me, filmed circa 2014. I look a bit younger.

Baril used portions of my interview as the voiceover for the film’s trailer, which should give you a sense of the film’s ambitions and tone. Also, here's a short clip from my interview.

I loved encountering the other Davids. Each of us offered our own grand speculations about the future of global civilization. Baril slyly provides a subtle emotional undertone to the film, linking a lot of different people and gritty everyday realities together. Unfortunately, I can’t find a listing of where the film is showing, but it appears that that AMC, a US theater chain, has scheduled some showings. Perhaps the film will make it to Netflix sometime.

*             *              *

Let me end by re-posting a lovely poem that Beshara magazine included at the end of my interview. David Attwooll’s “The Binding of the Moor,” is about an attempt in the nineteenth century to enclose the ancient wetland Otmoor in Oxfordshire, which led to the Otmoor Riots of 1829-1830.

We took a fine oat-sheaf, tight bound at the waist And set it on fire; and while it was burning Our Lady of Otmoor rode all round the moor-edge Until the great sheaf was just ash on the ground.

Her shining cloak circled the land that was Common And granted forever to us local people For kypeing of fish, for eel scuttles of osier And fowling and keeping allotments of geese.

Many hundred’s year later, the gentry’s men came And bound her with fences, and drained her with ditches. They built mighty banks and stopped up the Ray. They enclosed all our birthright and forced us all out.

So men blackened their faces and wore women’s cloaks And ventured at night with hatchets and billhooks And tore down the bindings. On the sixth of September All in broad daylight, a thousand folk walked

Seven miles round the moorland, past all seven towns Pulling down fences in spite of the Riot Act. Sixty-six of us they arrested that day And carted us off to the City for trial.

When we reached Oxford it was St Giles Fair Where the holiday mob freed all of us prisoners. We won the day, but the moor stayed a patchwork: A hundred years passed ’til the bindings were loosed.

When the waters came home and the chessboard dissolved They planned the M40 to drive through her middle: Over three thousand people bought one-foot square parcels Of Alice’s Meadow to stop them at last.

The only road now is a path full of puddles, The Roman road’s agger is a scatter of stones. The moor’s safe – for now – and free to the people And the bright cloak of water is home to the birds.

Now Underway, a Neocolonial Land Grab on Barbuda

Since 1834, when slavery was abolished on the Caribbean island of Barbuda, land there has been owned as a commons. The entire population collectively owns and controls the land, not private owners and developers. That may be about to change – with all the catastrophic results usually associated with enclosure.

After Hurricane Irma devastated 90% of the island’s buildings last year, it forced virtually all 1,800 residents to relocate to nearby Antigua or cities like New York and Toronto.  International investors, working with Prime Minister Gastone Brown, a former banker, decided it was a ripe time to invoke the Shock Doctrine. This is the idea popularized by journalist Naomi Klein to describe how the market/state collusion to exploit national crises to ram through predatory neoliberal policies, which would otherwise be fiercely resisted by the citizenry. 

In a great piece of reportage in The Intercept (January 23, 2018), Naomi Klein and Alleen Brown describe how the island government is taking advantage of the diaspora of Bardua residents. With no one around, it is an opportune moment to try to privatize the land and eliminate the communal ownership that has existed in Barbuda for nearly 200 years. A senator on the island described the communal ownership as something that was “born in the bowels of slavery and continued to grow in the post-emancipation world.”

The ostensible goal of the privatization policy is to provide a humanitarian response to the hurricane by facilitating outside investment and development. But the real goal is to open the door to investors and developers, who have long resented the democratic limits on development on Barbuda. They are eager to buy up pristine Caribbean land at bargain-basement prices and spur standard-issue Caribbean luxury resorts and ancillary businesses. The most notable such investor is actor Robert De Niro, who plans to build a luxury complex called Paradise Found Nobu.

According to Klein and Brown, “a sweeping 13-page 'amendment' to the hard-won Barbuda Land Act was officially introduced in Antigua and Barbuda’s House of Representatives” on December 12, 2017.  “It includes changes that entirely reverse the meaning of the law. In the amendment, a clause declaring Barbuda ‘owned in common by the people of Barbuda’ was deleted and replaced. ‘The fundamental purpose of the Act is to grant to Barbudans the right to purchase the [land],’ the amended act reads.”

An outrageous act of enclosure, cast in the name of humanitarianism. Not surprisingly, international media coverage of these developments has been virtually absent. One exception:  a twelve-minute video documentary by The New York Times.

The transition to a scheme of private ownership of land – and the rampant “development” that would ensue – would radically change the culture of the island and strip Barbudans of their control over their land and rights of self-determination. It would also force many residents to leave the island permanently because they could no longer afford to live there, except as employees at the new luxury hotels and resorts.

In light of the diaspora of residents, it is hard for the to fight back. If anyone knows of people or groups actively involved in efforts to save the communal ownership of Barbudan land, please let me know and I'll share the information here.

Update: There is a Facebook group dedicated to the Barbuda land grab and recovery delays at www.facebook.com/barbudasilentnomore.

To my readers:  My apologies for the absence of blog posts in recent weeks.  I am in the middle of writing a book that I hope to complete soon. Thanks for your patience!

The Commons Transition Primer Demystifies and Delights

You are not likely to encounter a more welcoming set of texts and infographics to introduce the commons and peer production than the Commons Transition Primer website.

The new site features four types of materials suited different levels of interest: short Q&A-style articles with illustrations; longer, in-depth articles for the more serious reader; a library of downloaded PDF versions of research publications by the P2P Foundation; and a collection of videos, audio interviews and links to other content. 

The website does a great service in introducing topics that are sometimes elusive or abstract, giving them a solid explanation and lots of working examples. Go check it out!

Start with a series of Short Articles that addresses such questions as "What is a commons transition?" and "What is distributed manufacturing?" Then browse the Longer Articles section and read “10 ways to accelerate the Peer to Peer and Commons Economy,” a visionary piece on the movement to design global and manufacture locally. 

 

The Library contains a number of major reports on how to embark upon a commons transition. The organizational study of Catalan Integral Cooperative as a post-capitalist model is fascinating. Check out the new conceptualizations of value in a commons economy, and the two-part report on the impact of peer production on energy use, thermodynamics, and the natural world. 

There is also a wonderful overview of some leading commons, especially tech-oriented ones, in a collection of fifteen case studies. These explore such projects as Wikihouse, Farm Hack, L’Atelier Paysan, Mutual Aid Networks, Spain’s Municipalist Coalitions, and the Ghent’s urban commons (in Belgium).

Elena Martinez Vicente has produced a number of fantastic infographics that really help demystify some abstract ideas (the new ecosystem of value creation, patterns of open coops, cosmo-local production). Mercè Moreno Tarrés did the dazzling original art for the site, which helps make the material so engaging.  

The Commons Transition Primer was produced by the Peer to Peer Foundation and P2P Labs with support from the Heinrich Boell Foundation. Kudos to Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel for conceptualizing the project and preparing much of the material, and to Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis for their contributions to the text.

George Monbiot on the Commons

George Monbiot, a columnist for the British newspaper and website The Guardian, may be the most prominent champion of the commons that I’ve discovered in mainstream journalism today.  He has long been a compelling, out-of-the-box thinker on all sorts of economic and environmental issues.  Now he is introducing the commons to his large readership and explaining its importance and its historic neglect by economists and politicians.  Bravo!

George Monbiot of The Guardian

Monbiot speaks about the need for a new “restoration story” that he calls the “politics of belonging” – a theme explored in his recent book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. He explicitly focuses on the commons in his column of September 27:

"Are you a statist or a free marketeer? Do you believe that intervention should be minimised or that state ownership and regulation should be expanded? This is our central political debate. But it is based on a mistaken premise.

"Both sides seem to agree that state and market are the only sectors worth discussing: politics should move one way or the other along this linear scale. In fact, there are four major economic sectors: the market, the state, the household and the commons. The neglect of the last two by both neoliberals and social democrats has created many of the monstrosities of our times.

"Both market and state receive a massive subsidy from the household: the unpaid labour of parents and other carers, still provided mostly by women. If children were not looked after – fed, taught basic skills at home and taken to school – there would be no economy. And if people who are ill, elderly or have disabilities were not helped and supported by others, the public care bill would break the state.

"There’s another great subsidy, which all of us have granted. I’m talking about the vast wealth the economic elite has accumulated at our expense, through its seizure of the fourth sector of the economy: the commons."

Monbiot proceeds to discuss the work of the late Elinor Ostrom and recount the violent history of enclosure in the guise of “free market” progress.  Unlike most other mainstream commentators who are all too eager to suck up to the powerful (Thomas Friedman, call your office), Monbiot is daring enough to go beyond the tired orthodoxies of our time and educate his readers:

Enclosure creates inequality. It produces a rentier economy: those who capture essential resources force everyone else to pay for access. It shatters communities and alienates people from their labour and their surroundings. The ecosystems commoners sustained are liquidated for cash. Inequality, rent, atomisation, alienation, environmental destruction: the loss of the commons has caused or exacerbated many of the afflictions of our age.

In another column (February 8), Monbiot discusses “how people can truly take back control: from the bottom up.”  He doesn’t play into the “populist-baiting” that is standard in corporate journalism, but intelligently explains how participatory democracy at the community level actually works. He even names such examples as time banking, free universities, transition towns, food assemblies (direct buying from local producers), local currencies – and examples that I’ve never heard about, such as “Men’s Sheds (in which older men swap skills and escape from loneliness), turning streets into temporary playgrounds (like the Playing Out project), secular services (such as Sunday Assembly), lantern festivals, fun palaces and technology hubs.”

Monbiot clearly understands that the commons is not a cynical ploy for shedding state responsibilities, but an empowering vehicle that is often more humane and efficient than state bureaucracies:  "A commons, unlike state spending, obliges people to work together, to sustain their resources and decide how the income should be used. It gives community life a clear focus. It depends on democracy in its truest form. It destroys inequality. It provides an incentive to protect the living world. It creates, in sum, a politics of belonging.”

For a powerful video interview with Monbiot on the challenge of replacing neoliberalism, reinvigorating democracy, dealing with climate catastrophe, and the commons, visit Open Democracy here. 

Great Lakes Commons Issues “Currency of Care”

The Great Lakes Commons project has embarked upon an ingenious campaign to reimagine money, value and water protection by issuing its own time-limited “Currency of Care.” The bills are not likely to be used for commercial transactions.  In a way, that is the point – to spark a new conversation about money, value, community and the Great Lakes. 

The Great Lakes Commons is inviting people to give a Currency of Care note as a thank-you to people who have done something to protect the Great Lakes in big or small ways.  Or you can give notes to people as a request that they do something to protect the lakes in the future.  Paul Baines, an organizer of the project, notes:

“Each note represents the act of giving gratitude or requesting action. Each note carries the most precious value: acts of thanks and care for the Great Lakes. Rather than based on dollars, the value of these notes is our collective agreement and intention to reward people for their water protection through past actions (saying ‘thanks’) or future actions (saying ‘please’).  Because our current money systems only acknowledge economic utility and gain, our Great Lakes Commons currency needs a wildly different theory of value -- such as past/future actions for water care.”

More than 5,000 individually numbered bills have been distributed, all of them due to expire at end of year.  Why the expiration date?  Because “this currency is for sharing not saving,” the currency webpage explains.  “The value of this currency comes through its use -- its current.  The rules of today’s dollar system rationalize hoarding and controlling money to make more money.  The needs of healthy people and living water are denied not because there isn’t enough money in the world, but because it makes ‘sense’ to accumulate/hoard more and to spend it otherwise.”

The issuers of the Currency of Care make the point that “money is not just a medium of exchange, but a disciplinary force on what we value, the story of a meaningful life, and our position within this story.”  The point of the currency project is to promote a new vision of money and value:

“We need a new story for money and a new currency can help us tell it.  Right now our money commodifies time, ideas, muscle, relationships, and all of creation in order to create more money.  But what if the value of money was based on caring for water?....

“There is no money to be made protecting water as the source of life.  Financing Great Lakes care today comes through either altruistic charity or legislated compensation.  Water restoration costs are a fractional expense for a pollution-based economic system.  Advocating for a friendlier version of the current system denies its core impulses and interests.  Let’s be honest -- degrading the living earth makes obscene amounts of money and defines our current story about ‘progress.’”

Inaugurating an actual, tradeable currency that asserts its own type of value and creates new circuits of value is, of course, a very complicated enterprise.  Just ask the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, which has successfully developed the BerkShares currency in western Massachusetts.

The Currency of Care should not be mistaken for such a project.  It is more of a performance art project and public-education campaign that asks us to think about reconnecting money’s value with our values.  It asks us base the value of currency on things that really matter, such as the integrity of the Great Lakes as an ecosystem. 

To promote new stories of value, the project invites people who receive or give the notes to share their stories on the Great Lakes Commons online map. People are asked to share:  “What was it like getting and sharing the notes? What kinds of conversations did it spark?  What types of past/future actions did people reward?  Where did their note go or where did it come from?”

One supporter of the Great Lakes Charter Declaration, Steve Edgier, gave his notes to activists who are protecting the Great Lakes from stormwater runoff and monitoring for sewage discharges.  Another person gave a Currency of Care to the Marquette Poets Circle for their work in “tending poetry and community along the wild shore of Lake Superior.” 

Since its inception several years ago, Great Lakes Commons has done great work in helping people to express and imagine relationships of care to those much-abused bodies of water. Here's hoping that the Currency of Care widens the circle of engagement.

 

“Sharing Cities” Book Shows Variety of Urban Commoning

So what might the commons actually achieve for you if you live in a city?  How might you experience the joys of commoning? Check out Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons, a fantastic new book that describes more than 100 case studies and model policies for urban commoning. Researched and published by Shareable, the book is an impressive survey of citizen-led innovations now underway in more than 80 cities in 35 countries. 

We all know about conventional approaches to “development” championed by investors and real estate developers, usually with the support of a city’s political elites. Much less is known about the commons-based agenda for improving cities.  Sharing Cities is an inspirational reference guide for creating such an agenda. It details a great variety of policies and projects that are empowering ordinary citizens to improve their own neighborhoods, reduce household costs, and make their cities fairer, cleaner and more liveable. 

I was thrilled to learn about Kitchen Share, a kitchen tool-lending library for home cooks in Portland, Oregon; the consortium Local Energy Scotland that is orchestrating shared local ownership of renewal energy projects; and the “community science” project run by Riverkeeper that carefully collects data about the water quality of the Hudson River.

For urban residents who have to contend with unresponsive, high-priced broadband service, how exciting to learn about Freifunk, a noncommercial grassroots project in Münster, Germany, that has built a free Internet infrastructure for everyone.  Like Guifi.net in Barcelona, the project converted routers into WiFi access points, creating a “mesh network” of over 2,000 nodes that has brought the Internet to places with no connectivity.  Freifunk is now the largest mesh network in Germany. 

Or what about the Nippon Active Life Club in a number of locations in Japan? This project is a timebanking system that helps people cooperate to provide eldercare. If you help an elderly person with yardwork, cleaning or general companionship, you earn time credits that you can either redeem for services or gift to older family members living in other cities. In 2016, the network of timebanks had nearly 18,000 members in 120 locations around Japan. 

The book documents many other great projects and policies, all of them divided into thematic categories such as housing, energy, mobility, food, waste, land, etc. The book itself is the product of commoning among 18 Shareable staff and fellows as well as book production experts.

You can request a free download of Shareable Cities as a pdf file (the book is licensed under a Creative Commons license, Attribution-ShareAlike. But the printed version is so handsome and well-designed that you may well want to acquire the hard copy and make a donation to Shareable for all the great work it does.