Kate Raworth on Why Our Times Demand ‘Doughnut Economics’

Since publishing Doughnut Economics in 2017, renegade British economist Kate Raworth has become a phenomenon that mainstream economics largely declines to acknowledge but increasingly cannot ignore. Her book has been praised by the Pope, the UN General Assembly, and Extinction Rebellion, and translated into over 20 languages. Guardian columnist George Monbiot calls the book “brilliant, thrilling and revolutionary,” comparing it to John Maynard Keynes’ bravura General Theory book, which revolutionized economics in 1936. 

Raworth’s reconceptualization of the economy as a doughnut accents two features that should be at the center of any economy: the ability to meet everyone’s basic human needs (the inner ring of the doughnut) and the ability to stay within the ecological “carrying capacity” of Earth (the outer ring). 

The framework doesn’t sound so controversial. But when I spoke to Raworth for my podcast Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #15), I was astonished to learn that the economics profession, at least within the academy, has largely ignored her book despite its popularity. Scholars in development studies, political science, and architecture are keenly interested, she notes, as are countless students, activists, and city governments. The cities of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Brussels, among others, have actually embraced “the doughnut” as a way to guide their municipal policies and programs.

But mainstream economists “balk at the idea,” said Raworth. “They say that I’m stepping away from the scholarship and imposing my values as a political advocate.”

Raworth argues that “the doughnut” simply expresses two foundational commitments that most societies collectively share – that people have a human rights to have their basic needs met, and that the ecological stability of the planet must be protected. If those are seen as controversial values, says Raworth, let's debate them. In any case, she adds, “It’s not as if mainstream economists don’t have values embedded in what they teach. They’re just not explicit about it.”

Raworth’s impertinence about economics may stem from years of straddling the worlds of economic theory and its real-world implementation. She has worked with micro-entrepreneurs in Africa and done development work for the United Nations and Oxfam. Nowadays Raworth teaches at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences as Professor of Practice.

Despite the academic affiliations, she remains focused on how to bring about economic transformation. That is the avowed mission of the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL), which Raworth cofounded in 2019 with Carlota Sanz. DEAL is an attempt to reframe economic narratives, influence strategic policy, and develop innovations with practitioners.

Doughnut Economics has the winning tendency of using spritely humor and common sense while skewering the buried half-truths of standard economics and serving up more credible alternatives. For example, economics continues to cling to the idealized notion of “rational economic man,” the fiction that people make careful, rational calculations about how to advance their material self-interests and happiness (“utility”) through market transactions.

Raworth handily debunks this point in her book, and then shows great brio in producing a delightfully clever video, “Economic Man vs. Humanity: A Puppet Rap Battle,” in collaboration with puppet designer Emma Powell and musician Simon Panbrucker. It’s safe to say that the rapping students get the best of their fusty old professor, and Raworth’s playful humor triumphs over economic dogma.

One of the biggest targets of Raworth’s "doughnut," of course, is the idea that economic growth is a magic elixir that can solve most inequalities, social ills, pollution, and even climate change. The general catechism is growth = jobs = consumer demand = market innovation = progress.

This mindset conveniently ignores the copious negative externalities of the capitalist economy and its circular faith that market-based strategies can abate market-based pathologies When US climate envoy John Kerry’s recently claimed that half of all carbon reductions needed to get to net zero will come from technologies that have not yet been invented, I realized that denialism has many faces.

What sets apart Raworth’s approach is her insistence that society and ecology are foundational to any economy, and economic thought must reflect that. Her theoretical framework, therefore, is not fixated on market and state – important as they are -- but equally on households and the commons as essential institutions. Why? Because households and commons engender social trust, reciprocity, care, and creativity in ways that the market/state system simply cannot. 

You can listen to Raworth’s conversation with me on Frontiers of Commoning here.

Peter Linebaugh on What the History of Commoning Reveals

Peter Linebaugh has been an insightful and prolific historian and commoner for nearly fifty years, He is one of the most illustrious historians of the commons in the world today, best known for his social and political histories of commoners caught in struggles with state power and early capitalists.

I caught up with Peter recently for a talk about his scholarship and political thinking about the commons in history, now available on Episode #14 of my podcast Frontiers of Commoning. We explored such issues as the importance of the Charter of the Forest and Magna Carta; the criminalization of customary practices as early capitalism arose; the special relationship of women to the commons and therefore their persecution; and the role of commoning in struggles for political emancipation.

Professor Peter Linebaugh

In the 1960s, Linebaugh was a student of British labor historian E.P. Thompson, a towering figure who inspired a generation of left historians to show how history can illuminate contemporary life and politics and provide strategic guidance. 

Linebaugh, now retired from the University of Toledo after stints at many major universities, has a way of conjuring up entire ways of knowing and being that have disappeared. At the University of Warwick, in England in the 1970s, Linebaugh was part of a group of historians who called themselves the “crime collective” because they studied the “social banditry” (Eric Hobsbawm’s term) that was used to resist early capitalism in England.

Crimes against property had been an essential part of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, as Linebaugh discovered. And so the “crime collective” scholars began to study highway robbery, smuggling, and piracy through the lens of sociology, history, and politics.

One of Linebaugh’s first books, The London Hanged, examined the role of public executions and state terror in combating “crimes” against early capitalism. The historians associated with E.P. Thompson also focused on how craftsmen, newly excluded from owning the means of their own production, began to insist on their traditional craft practices and perquisites. But now, new capitalist practices, as enforced by state law, were producing new types of “crimes.” Linebaugh, in short, has documented many forms of resistance to the fledgling capitalist order.

In my interview, this topic prompted Linebaugh to note a Roman aphorism that law creates the crime -- but ordinary people rarely are the ones writing the law in the first place. This prompted him to recite the famous protest poem of the 17th Century: “The law locks up the man and woman / who steals the goose from off the common. / But lets the greater villain loose / who steals the common from the goose.”

Another book written by Linebaugh, with Marcus Rediker -- The Many-Headed Hydra: A Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic – examined the lives of Englishmen victimized by early capitalism. Transatlantic sailors, slaves, pirates, laborers, and indentured servants were often forced into dismal servitude and immersation, but they sometimes found novel ways to liberate themselves and assert a social solidarity.

One of Linebaugh’s most remarkable books, to my mind, is The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, published in 2006. It’s about dispossessed peasants in the 1200s who helped secure the Charter of the Forest as a landmark written guarantee of commoners’ legal rights. For most contemporaries, the Magna Carta was seen as a totem of western, bourgeois law, and its companion document, the Charter of the Forest, as an arcane historical curiosity. Linebaugh’s scholarship helped excavate the real significance of the two documents to commoners, showing how they helped provide a bulwark of protection against rapacious state power and the wealthy.  

A more recent book by Linebaugh, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, tells a sprawling story about two star-crossed lovers in the 18th Century, Ned Marcus and his Black Caribbean wife Kate, as players in the American, French, Haitian and failed Irish revolutions.

Linebaugh’s recovery of the commons of centuries past is a gift to imagining a different, better future. I still savor a bit of poetry that he retrieved from a laboring commoner, John Clare, who in the 1820s described walking across Emmonsailes Heath as a child and getting lost:

“So I eagerly wanderd on & rambled along the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers seemd to forget me & I imagind they were the inhabitants of a new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one & shining in a different quarter of the sky.” 

Indeed, we have wandered out of our knowledge and lost track of the commons. But there is another sun, shining in a different quarter of the sky. You can listen to my interview with Peter Linebaugh here.

Katherine Gibson and the Community Economies Research Network

One of the more spirited lines of research and action for building a post-capitalist future these days is coming from two related networks of international scholars -- the Community Economies Institute and an associated group, the Community Economies Research Network (CERN).   

Unlike most academic fields, Community Economies is highly transdisciplinary and socially committed. In fact, it is formally dedicated to “ethical economic practices that acknowledge and act on the interdependence of all life forms, human and nonhuman.”

It also rejects some premises of standard economics, highlighting instead the vast amounts of informal, off-the-books work that is not necessarily monetized or intended for the market. This takes many forms, as the Community Economies “iceberg” image (below) helps illustrate.  Even though parenting, community life, care work, gift economies, barter, vernacular culture, and many other form of life are productive and valuable, economists generally dismiss these as trivial or uninteresting. After all, there is no market associated with them and no money changing hands.

To get a better understanding of Community Economies and the work of both CEI and CERN, I recently interviewed Professor Katherine Gibson of the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, in Australia, for my Frontiers of Commoning podcast, Episode #13.

Gibson is famous for developing -- along with Julie Graham, the geography professor at UMass Amherst who died in 2010  – the very idea of “diverse economies.” It is meant as a counterpoint to capitalism without being derivative of the capitalist worldview and epistemology.

Under the joint byline J.K. Gibson-Graham, the two wrote such books as The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of the Political Economy (2006), A Postcapitalist Politics (2006), and Take Bake the Economy (with Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy) (2013).  

Much of the work of the 300-plus CERN researchers around the world is devoted to bringing “invisible” parts of the economy into the daylight. This consists of treatises on such topics as the Solidarity Economy, degrowth, co-operatives, community finance, local trading systems, underground markets, open source software, and commoning, among other topics.

Just recently, I caught a lecture by CERN member Caroline Shenaz Hossein on the self-organized social finance systems known as ROSCAs, or Rotating Savings and Credit Associations, which are informal cooperatives of Black diaspora women in the Caribbean, North America, and elsewhere. ROSCAs, which go by many different names in different countries, help their participants amass capital for starting a business, buying a car, or paying college tuition for their children. The “Banker Ladies,” as Shenaz Hossein calls them, amount to a hidden social system for meeting financial needs that are mostly ignored by the formal, capitalist banking system.

A primary goal of the Community Economies literature is to “decenter” capitalism as the reference point for thinking about alternative economic projects. Why must everything be seen through the normative lens of capitalism? So, among CEI and CERN researchers, the overriding goal is to shine a light on the actual diversity of community-based projects unfolding everywhere  --  inconspicuously, locally – and to understand them on their own terms.

Venturing into these unconventional forms helps us transform how we might think in fresh ways about the whole cultural construct known as “the economy.” After all, “the economy” is about much more than the stock market, GDP, the Federal Reserve, and the mainstream (capitalist) policy.

Professor Katherine Gibson

“The attention given to a monolithic capitalism belies the diversity of economic activities,” explains Gibson. “There is something going on with the representation of economies that allows for certain activities to be highlighted and thus valued, and others to be made less visible.”

As one reviewer of A Postcapitalist Politics put it, Gibson-Graham “rejects the idea that capitalist economies are tightly organized systems” and instead presents the economy as consisting of “many different undertakings, only some of which cluster around market transactions.”

It also follows that the potential for change starts with us, as embodied selves, not with distant political or economic institutions. Consider Gibson-Graham’s line in The End of Capitalism:

But what sense is there in denying the ample evidence that people have the capacity to experience extraordinary joy and pleasure in working with each other simply because they are working together: the giddy sensation that one is smaller than what one thought (a part of a whole) and larger than what one is (stripped of individual fetters), that one has become folded, along with others, into a new creature altogether.

I’ve also loved the memorable line by Gibson-Graham: “If to change ourselves is to change our worlds, and the relation is reciprocal, then the project of history making is never a distant one but always right here, on the borders of our sensing, thinking, feeling, moving bodies.”

That’s the kind of sentiment that arises from feminist economics, with its attention to our living bodies and relationships. It’s the kind of idea that comes from scholars who want to study the real world, and avoid arid economic abstractions that are losing their explanatory power with each passing week as capitalist crises proliferate.

My Frontiers of Commoning podcast interview with Katherine Gibson can be accessed here.

Novel Overtures to the More-than-Human World

If you’re a good ancestor of the Enlightenment, you probably believe that “nature” is something entirely separate from us. We moderns live at a sanitized distance from messy biophysical realities, after all. Lately, this casual premise of ours has been taking some serious hits, however, with the acceleration of climate change, species extinctions, collapsing coral reefs, cataclysmic weather events, and more.  

In recent weeks, I've noticed a big uptick in the number of creative overtures to the realm previously known as nature (a term that implies that humanity and nature are separate). I decided to bring together some of the more imaginative gambits that I've encountered.

What underlies each example, it seems, is our aspiration to treat “nature” as a living system of diverse elements, each with its own agency and imperatives. Or as Oren Lyons, a Native American Faithkeeper of the Seneca Nation, put it years ago: “What you people call your natural resources, our people call our relatives.” 

So how do we get better acquainted with our nonhuman relatives?

A New Pronoun for the Natural World

Robin Wall Kimmerer, the celebrated author of Braiding Sweetgrass, suggests we should start with the idea of using a new pronoun when referring to nature. In a recent essay in The Ecologist magazine, she urges us to avoid the use of the pronoun “it” in such circumstances:  

“Objectification of the natural world reinforces the notion that our species is somehow more deserving of the gifts of the world than the other 8.7 million species with whom we share the planet. Using 'it' absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. When Sugar Maple is an 'it' we give ourselves permission to pick up the saw. 'It' means it doesn't matter….

"Singing whales, talking trees, dancing bees, birds who make art, fish who navigate, plants who learn and remember. We are surrounded by intelligences other than our own, by feathered people and people with leaves. But we’ve forgotten. There are many forces arrayed to help us forget – even the language we speak….

"In indigenous ways of knowing, other species are recognized not only as persons, but also as teachers who can inspire how we might live. We can learn a new solar economy from plants, medicines from mycelia, and architecture from the ants. By learning from other species, we might even learn humility.

Kimmerer informs us that the proper Anishinaabe word for beings of the living earth is Bemaadiziiaaki. Since that's a mouthful for we English speakers, she suggests shortening it to “ki” or “kin.” “Might the path to sustainability be marked by grammar?” asks Kimmerer.

Eco-co-operativess called Zoöp

In the same vein as a new pronoun for nature, a Dutch webpage called Zoöp is calling for a new type legal entity that recognizes collaboration between human organizations and multispecies ecological communities. The term “Zoöp” is short for “zoöperation,” which itself is a combination of the word “co-op” (short for “co-operation") and “zoë” (Greek for "life").

The zoöp concept is based on the idea that the profit-maximizing greed of capitalism is overriding most human and nonhuman lives, so a different organizational form is needed. The stated goal of Zoöp is to “strengthen the position of nonhumans within human societies,” to “contribute to ecological regeneration in a way that resists extractivist dynamics,” and to apply the Zoöp model “to a wide variety of organizations.” A Dutch law firm is “critically assessing the zoöp legal structure and developing the charters and documents required to establish actual zoöps,” the group’s website notes. I'm curious about how the self-imposed criteria are to be enforced.

The project explains that “its key methods were developed in a public research trajectory of Het Nieuwe Instituut that took place during the Terraforming Earth Labs (2018),  the Neuhaus academy for more-than-human knowledge (2019), and the Venice Exploratorium (2020).”

The Idt Suffix as an Alternative to Inc. or Ltd.

In yet another innovation along these lines, the Community Economics Research Network – an international group of activist-minded academics with new visions for economic life – has proposed a new suffix to identify an organization as committed to interdependence. Businesses often have “Inc.,” “Ltd.” or “LLC” at the end of their names.

A CERN project called “The Interdependence” proposes that organizations add an "idt" to the end of their name if they “cultivate economic principles and practices that recognize our universal responsibility of mutual care, and strive to bring that understanding into the practice of everyday life.” The acronym idt would signal that the organization intends “to explore, experiment, share and learn together how to create ethical relations of interdependence.”

Already there are a number of enterprises that use the idt tag: Company Drinks idt., a UK community space and social enterprise; Brave New Alps idt., a participatory research project in the Italian Alps; Cube Cola idt., an open source soft drink in Bristol, England; and Trajna idt., a design collective that explores sustainable production in Slovenia that “works towards supporting multispecies livelihoods.” More about idt. in an Idt Charta statement.

Assigning Legal Personhood to Nature

Years ago the impulse to affirm our kinship with nature has manifested in the “rights of nature” movement. The tactic here is to assign legal personhood to mountains, rivers, and forests, and other elements of the Earth so that they can be properly “represented” in courts and legislatures. The states of Ecuador, New Zealand, Colombia, and India have already enacted laws giving specific legal rights to nature.

But now this bold move in jurisprudence have found a footing in North American law. In February 2019, the citizens of Toledo, Ohio, approved Lake Erie Bill of Rights Charter Amendment, which authorizes people to sue polluters on behalf of Lake Erie.

Self-Owning Trees

While nature’s rights as a legal doctrine is fairly new, the idea that nature is alive and sovereign has a long history, even in pockets of western culture. In Athens, Georgia, local lore celebrated the “Tree That Owns Itself for more than a century.

There is a huge white oak tree at the corner of South Finley and Dearing Streets in Athens that is said to have legal ownership of itself. A gentleman who lived across the street from the tree, William H. Jackson, bequeathed the eight-foot-wide tree to itself, circa 1832, with this legal statement: “For and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides.”

The Tree That Owns Itself, Athens, Georgia

As recounted by Wikipedia, “The original tree, thought to have started life between the mid-16th and late 18th century, fell in 1942, but a new tree was grown from one of its accords and planted in the same location. The current tree is sometimes referred to as the ‘Son of the Tree That Owns Itself.’” The tree is recognized by National Register of Historic Places 1975, but almost certainly not by any court of law. (More about the tree here.)

Did law scholar Christopher Stone have this tree in mind when he wrote his famous 1972 law review called “Should Trees Have Standing?” His point – written in the fevered early days of the modern environmental movement – was to suggest that courts should recognize the rights of nonhuman beings in western courtrooms.

The Embassy of the North Sea

Another creative idea is to give distinct elements of nature political representation. Some folks in The Hague, The Netherlands, founded “The Embassy of the North Sea” in 2018 as a way for the sea to own itself. As the “About” section on its website explains:

“Diversity is in the interest of all life. Therefore, direct political representation of the sea and the life within it is necessary. The Embassy of the North Sea was founded on the principle that the North Sea owns itself. Here, the voices of plants, animals, microbes, and people in and around the North Sea are listened to and involved….

The Embassy researches how non-humans, from phytoplankton to ship wrecks and cod fish – can become full-fledged members of society. We have plotted a route through to 2030, firstly learning to listen to the sea before we learn to speak with it. Finally, we will negotiate on behalf of the North Sea and all the life that it encapsulates.”

The Self-Owning Forest (via Digital Technology)

Even techno-solutionists seem to be jumping on the idea of sovereign nature, albeit through the narrow lens of their own high-tech vision. A Silicon Valley-inspired project called terra0 is proposing that blockchain software, artificial intelligence, and remote sensors be used to enable a forest to self-govern itself. In the capitalist/libertarian mindset, this means that the forest should have the capacity to manage itself as a business. Using a high-tech system (devised by humans presumably), the forest could selectively choose which of its trees are suitable to cut for timber, and then self-authorize the sale of those trees, based on algorithms that some programmer would write.

The idea is that the forest’s selective monetization of itself would allow it to "self-own" itself as a “digital autonomous organization” (or DAO). This is an idealized but elusive organizational form that many self-styled tech visionaries are striving to create. The “forest as a DAO” would ostensibly give it sovereignty over its future and even (if terra0 gets its way) generate a universal basic income for everyone. Terra0 describes itself as

a group of developers, theorists, and researchers exploring the creation of hybrid ecosystems in the technosphere. Driven by a keen interest in remote sensing, machine learning, and distributed ledger technology, we develop tools for the management of natural ecosystems and resources via the creation of meshes of interacting decentralized autonomous organisations. We believe that these key technologies give us the opportunity to rethink existing and ineffective governance and regulatory structures and that they will play a crucial role in creating a sustainable, resilient, and biodiverse future.” 

In more technical terms, terra0 describes the forest-as-DAO idea as “a scalable framework built on the Ethereum network that provides automated resilience systems for ecosystems.” For more, see also this TEDx Amstelveen video by Hilde Latourvideo by Hilde Latour (at 8 minute timemark).

Personally, I find the vision set forth by terra0 rather monstrous: a world “where we are free of our labors and joined back to nature, returned to our mammal brothers and sisters, and all watched over by machines of loving grace.”

How do machines confer loving grace on us? And who oversees the designers as they presume to re-program forests as business-like DAOs? There are surely many kinks to work out in humanity's laudable efforts to sync with the more-than-human world.

Andreas Weber on Aliveness and Interdependence

When I met Andreas Weber ten years ago, I was amazed at his audacity in challenging the orthodoxies of Darwinism and conventional biology. Only later did I realize how much his thinking about living biological organisms has to say about the commons. Andreas is a theoretical biologist and ecophilosopher based in Berlin, Germany, who proposes that science study a mostly unexplained and radical phenomenon -- aliveness! 

Andreas is my guest on the latest episode (#12) of my Frontiers of Commoning podcast this month. It’s a provocative 45-minute conversation that may have you re-considering some the nature of life, biological processes, and evolution.

Weber rejects the neoDarwinian account of life as a collection of sophisticated, evolving machines, each fiercely competing with maximum efficiency to be the fittest in the laissez-faire market known as “nature.” Instead, Weber outlines a different story of evolution, one in which living organisms are inherently creative and expressive in their struggles to thrive. This struggle is not just about competition, but about symbiotic, enduring cooperation. 

This re-framing of the evolution story not only forces us to rethink how life emerges and evolves, but how our entrenched categories of thought about the political economy – nature as the template for our nasty, brutish free-market economy – is simply wrong.

For Weber, life and evolution cannot really be discussed without talking about the “subjectivity” and creative agency of all living organisms. That’s because life is not a collection of fighting machines; it’s a dynamic web of living organisms engaged in a creative drama of interdependency. The heart of the evolutionary drama, Weber insists, is the quest of all living systems to express what they feel and experience, and in so doing, adapt to the world and change it.

If I may crudely summarize Andreas’ thinking in a sentence or two:  relationality, aliveness, subjectivity, and wholeness are central to the functioning of healthy living systems. But western, modern Enlightenment thinking (including conventional science) and capitalism don't get it. They are determined to disassemble wholes into their component parts, regard causation in fairly simple, mechanical terms, and to objectify life and assign it essential traits.

Andreas argues that this mindset is far too parochial. It helps explain why modern societies have failed to deal effectively with the pandemic, climate change, and other ecological crises. In a recent lengthy essay, Sharing Life: The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity, https://in.boell.org/en/2020/09/10/sharing-life-ecopolitics-reciprocity Weber – taking a cue from indigenous cultures – explains how a “new animism” could help reorient our perspectives in constructive ways. We might begin to see that we need to enter into the relationality of the world as active participants, and not presume, as scientists do, that we can truly be neutral, “objective” observers.

Weber’s essay proposes animism as a strategy to readjust humanities’ relationship to earth – the shared life of human and nonhuman beings. He argues that “the insistence of western culture to rely only on a material science and to declare aliveness an illusion is a colonization of the living cosmos, which severs humans from their aliveness and destroys the lives of other beings – humans and non-humans alike.” Animistic cultures, then, can help guide us through a process of “western self-decolonization” and a realization of a new conceptualization of the Anthropocene, in which human and non-human agency working together contribute to “a fecund earth.”

Over the years, I’ve occasionally blogged about Weber’s books, such as Enlivenment: Toward a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics and Biology of Wonder: Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science.

Check out this background to Weber's fresh approach to the study of life, or jump right into our provocative podcast conversation here.

‘The New Systems Reader’: Strategies for System-Change

As befits our time of converging existential crises, a number of new anthologies of essays are popping up to make sense of how modern industrial society got here and to propose coherent strategies for moving forward. Today I’d like to call attention to a fantastic collection of 29 original essays, The New Systems Reader: Alternatives to a Failed Economy, edited by James Gustave Speth and Kathleen Courrier and published by Routledge. 

This 480-page book is a cornucopia of fresh, original thinking by leading thinkers and activists such as Gar Alperovitz, Tim Jackson, Michael Shuman, Ed Whitfield, Riane Eisler, David Korten, Richard D. Wolff, Kali Akuno, Aaron Tanaka, and J.K. Gibson-Graham. 

Chapters cover a wide gamut of topics: social democracy and radical localism, the elements of a new, green economy, worker democracy, the Solidarity economy, cooperatives, participatory economics, reparative economics, and much more. (I have my own chapter on commoning as a transformative social paradigm.)

The Next System Project is an initiative of the Democracy Collaborative, which has long been showcasing the best research and strategic thinking about "visions, models and pathways that point to a 'next system' radically different in fundamental ways from the failed systems of the past and present...." So it's a pleasure to have so many diverse voices consolidated into a single volume.

“The starting point for this book,” writes the editors Speth and Courrier, “is the inability of traditional politics and policies to address fundamental challenges.” That’s why reading this book is so bracing – it squarely addresses the deep structural, political, economic, and cultural issues that must change. 

In sifting through the diverse perspectives of contributors, the editors identify a number of shared premises, which I paraphrase here:

  • a shift of ownership and control to workers and the public
  • the imperative to protect the planet and its climate
  • democratically determined priorities in investment
  • the abandonment of growth and GDP as the focus of national well-being
  • equal justice and reparative justice to address systemic racism, and
  • greater popular sovereignty and economic democracy

For those who may wish to study these essays with a reading group or class, there is a useful 24-page study guide that accompanies The New Systems Reader. It’s by Thad Williamson, for the Democracy Collaborative, and a free PDF of the guide can be downloaded here.

In a previous post, I noted my own offering in the small but growing oeuvre of system-change anthologies and treatises. Check out The Great Awakening: New Modes of Life Amidst Capitalist Ruins, co-edited with Anna Grear, available under a Creative Commons license and available in print or free downloads.

In my next blog, another excellent anthology dealing with system-change strategies.

Jimmy Buff and the Radio Kingston Commons

Radio Kingston may be the closest thing to a commons that I’ve encountered in the world of radio. It’s a community-minded, noncommercial platform that lets the people of Kingston, New York, and the Hudson Valley, see and hear themselves on the air.

WKNY AM 1490 is not a raucous place of shock jocks, blaring ads, and ratings-driven Top 40 music, nor a place for dark conspiracy theories and hate-mongering. It’s a vibrant mix of music, conversations about all sorts of local concerns, and community storytelling.

The limited mix of formats in contemporary radio could easily lead you to conclude that there aren’t any serious, intelligent, caring, progressive, or creative people in your community. In October 2017, Jimmy Buff set out to change that for Kingston when he took over an aging commercial oldies station and set about working with the community to build a new type of radio-based commons. You can hear a longer version of this story on Episode #11 of Frontiers of Commoning, available here.

Jimmy Buff, Executive Director of Radio Kingston

Buff is an experienced on-air personality who, in the course of 30 years, had performed on-air at a major New York City rock station and a legendary Woodstock station. As the new director of WKNY, he welcomed the challenge to see how far community radio could go. Thanks to a single donor, the NoVo Foundation, WKNY has had the rare freedom to experiment and feature voices and formats not generally heard on local radio, without incessant fundraising or worries about weekly ratings.

The station’s programming has blocs of airtime for rock, pop, and classical, as one might expect, but also slots for polka, German sounds, and offbeat types of music. There are shows dedicated to the concerns of LGBTQ people, seniors, people of color, women, the local arts scene, mindfulness practice, Italian culture, the environment, and regional business.

Most of WKNY’s shows are hosted by ordinary people, not radio professionals. And yet many of the show hosts are natural talents born to live in front of mics, Buff reports.

During the pandemic, Radio Kingston has given regular updates on the local Covid situation. It has also hosted virtual concerts by local musicians and a “show and tell” event for over 50 “marginalized creatives.” The station’s website hosts a number of podcasts dealing with the concerns of young farmers, politics, cosmic topics, and personality-driven topics.

In short: the good citizens of Kingston and environs have their own radio venue to reach and interact with each other, creating a new sort of community and cultural space that is often missing. The station has shown, also, that community radio doesn’t have to be stodgy and amateurish, and certainly not soulless and frenetic like commercial radio. It can be exciting, authentic, unexpected, and diverse.

It’s ironic that a small local AM station is pioneering this kind of programming. Under the legal charter for US broadcasters – the Communications Act of 1934 – commercial radio stations are supposed to act as trustees for the public interest. Historically, in return for getting free use of the public’s airwaves – a business infrastructure worth billions of dollars – radio stations agreed to meet certain standards of public service. Most were never terribly excited about airing educational programming, public affairs shows, the Fairness Doctrine (giving people the right to rebut controversial statements), and free airtime for political candidates – but it was part of their legal mandate.

But even these modest requirements were swept away with broadcast industry deregulation in 1996, in the Clinton presidency. This epochal shift threw open the door to the national consolidation of hundreds of local radio into ratings-obsessed mega-networks like iHeartMedia. This is why radio has gone so bland and corporate these days. There is a premium on standardized formats, national advertising, and a slick commercial tone – and very little interest in distinctive local voices, local news, local talent, experimental programming, and other things that don’t maximize profits.  

After only three years in its new guise, Kingston Radio is still a work-in-progress. But with the recent addition of a new antenna and legal authority to air its programming on the FM radio dial, WKNY is exploring some new frontiers in stewarding a local radio station as a commons.   

You can listen to my podcast interview with Jimmy Buff here.

Saving Farmland, Supporting Young Farmers

It’s a bit odd that land reform is barely mentioned in most progressive agendas. Maybe that's because it is seen as challenging the presumed virtues of private property and capitalist markets. Yet secure access and tenure to land is essential for achieving so many progressive goals, from building new sorts of regional food systems to providing affordable housing and enabling local self-determination and personal well-being.  

Severine von Tscharner Fleming put it well in the latest episode (#10) of my podcast Frontiers of Commoning: “At the root of peace is sufficiency and wholeness, and that means people having their needs met, people being fed. And that sufficiency and wholeness can be achieved only through a certain level of sovereignty over land and self-determination that is rooted in land.”

Severine is a young organic farmer, activist and organizer based in Maine who has had a remarkably productive career as an advocate for young farmers and land reform. She helped start Agrarian Trust, an organization dedicated to supporting land access for the next generation of farmers. In recent years, Agrarian Trust has started ten Agrarian Commons in the US, in an attempt to make community-supported, collectively stewarded farmland available to younger farmers. As the project notes: “With 400 million acres of land in the U.S. expected to change hands over the next two decades, the time for transformation in land ownership is now.”

Agrarian Trust is just one of many new ventures that Severine has helped set in motion. She also played a key role in starting Greenhorns, a grassroots cultural organization that produces a literary journal, radio show, blog, and other media for young farmers.  She helped launch Farm Hack, a project that designs and builds farm equipment using open source principles.

More recently, Fleming pulled together Seaweed Commons, a network of people concerned about seaweed aquaculture and intertidal commoning. The project is focused on improving “the ecological literacy of stakeholders in the marine economy.” The challenge includes preventing toxic algae blooms, capturing the runoff of nutrients from salmon pens around the world, and ensuring ethical, environmentally responsible cultivation of seaweed for biofuels and aquaculture.

As you might imagine, Severine is a ball of creative energy and passionate commitment, precisely the traits needed to engage in and promote commoning. I find her work so inspiring because she has learned to fly by leaping off cliffs and flapping her wings. You develop different sorts of muscles that way! 

Ian McSweeney, the organizational director of Agrarian Trust, also joined me in the podcast interview. Ian works from his farm and forest in New Hampshire, and thinks a lot about how to protect land from development, how to transfer it to new generations of farmers and ranchers, and how to assure that they have secure land tenure.

Ian talked in greater depth and detail about Agrarian Trust’s efforts to acquire land and steward it as commons. Ian comes to this challenge after years of work with the gritty complications of land tenure and conservation, and in trying to build new types of local food systems that are regenerative, diversified, and community-minded.

A big part of this challenge is finding ways to take land off the market and decommodify it.  McSweeney explained: “We decommodify land by moving it out of private ownership into community-centered, nonprofit ownership. And then we restrict that land from being sold on the open market ever again. We also restrict the land from taking on debt beyond a 20% cap of the property’s value.  We don’t want to put that land at risk.” 

Fleming added that the pandemic is “intensifying the market pressures on land, especially in towns around cities. This has been a year when farmlands and farm properties have been sold within hours of being listed at prices far above what would normally be justified by farmland.” 

“As farms are being gobbled up and sliced-and-diced into lifestyle properties and private sanctuaries, it becomes clear that the valley floor has only so much ag land. So if we want the farm, we need to save the farm. We have the re-negotiate the terms under which our land is being managed and do it in a way that is more holistic and meets the needs of present and future generations.”

Listen to the rest of the interview, including discussion of Greenhorns, Farm Hack network, and Seaweed Commons, here.

Dave Jacke on Ecological Design and Abundance

For Dave Jacke, a designer of ecological landscapes since the late 1970s, human culture and our “inner landscapes” are the floating variables for our future on Earth. “Western culture, psychosocially, is extremely underdeveloped,” Jacke says in the just-released Episode #9 of my podcast, Frontiers of Commoning. “We humans believe we are separate [from natural systems]. That is kind of like the developmental stage of a two-year-old.” 

The question facing the human species is whether we can sufficiently adapt our cultures to make them compatible with living ecosystems. This was a primary topic in my discussions with Jacke.  “Very few people alive today have any idea of what a healthy ecosystem looks like,” said Jacke, “because all of us have grown up in damaged ecosystems. We do not understand the abundance that is possible.” 

But paradoxically, our “under-development” is a reason for hope: “If the human species were as developed as we could be, genetically, as we face all the perils we face, we’d be screwed. But the fact that we have so much room to grow, psychosocially, is our greatest reason for hope,” Jacke claims.

Jacke has been a serious student of ecology and design since the late 1970s when he embarked on a career designing and installing landscapes for homes, farms, and communities in the many parts of the United States, as well as overseas. He is a passionate teacher and consultant about designing human cultures using ecological principles -- sometimes known as "applied ecology," or what some folks call permaculture. He pursued this work through his firm Dynamics Ecological Design based in Montague, Massachusetts. [Email: davej/at/edibleforestgardens.com]

In the permaculture world, Jacke is perhaps best-known as the lead author of the two-volume book Edible Forest Gardens (2005), written with Eric Toensmeier. The 1,068-page book lays out the vision of the forest garden and explains the basic ecological principles that make it work (Volume 1) before offering more concrete guidance on how to design, establish, and maintain your own forest garden (Volume 2).

An edible forest garden is a “perennial polyculture,” which means that many different plant species grow together and naturally regrow every year without replanting. As Jacke and his coauthor explain, “A forest garden is an edible ecosystem, a consciously designed community of mutually beneficial plants and animals intended for human food production.”

What’s refreshing about Jacke’s approach to regenerative economics and landscapes is its integrated grasp of ecosystems, human technologies, culture, and our inner lives. Jacke points out that as soon as humans make their tools, they begin to treat any natural objects through the lens of that technology. This immediately focuses and limits our perceptions of the natural world – a tendency that becomes more entrenched as economic and social institutions arise to develop the technologies. 

Jacke warns that healthy cultures acknowledge that a boundary is crossed when we convert the multi-dimensionality of nature into tools for human use. A tree that lives a complicated, embedded life of interdependence within an ecosystem is seen as something quite different when it is reduced to timber. It becomes a dead “resource” that reflects human uses alone. 

The movement for “appropriate technology” that flourished in the 1970s sought to emphasize this point – that the tools we create and use influence how we end up seeing the world. Too often, our tools have objectified the living world into “the environment” -- an inventory of inert resources with little connection to life. It’s important to acknowledge to ourselves that the very idea of “value-neutral tools” is a self-deception. Our tools invariably reduce our appreciation for the complexity of “nature.” Which is why we must constantly remember that our tools and “nature" co-evolve together.  

Informed by decades of practice in ecological design, Dave Jacke is a deep thinker about the subtle interactions of ecosystems and humanity, and the role of the commons can play in mediating this (perceived) divide. Here is the link to the full podcast interview.


Stop the Enclosure of Montenegro’s Pastoral Commons

Update, December 14: The campaign to protect Montenegro's Sinjajevina pastoral commons and the communities that steward them has succeeded for now! More at this excellent overview piece by Pablo Dominguez at FreedomNews.org.

For years, the US Navy deliberately used the lush Caribbean island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, for target practice. It shot all sorts of projectiles onto the island until 2003, when huge public protests and civil disobedience made the wanton destruction too hot for the Navy. It withdrew from Vieques, by then a severely contaminated tropical wasteland that is being "cleaned up" (if possible) and turned into a wildlife refuge.

Now we are at the dawn of a similar situation in the highland pastures of the Balkans known as Sinjajevina.The region’s large mountain grasslands – home to eight native tribes with 22,000 people and a rich biodiversity – has been used for centuries as pastoral commons, “katuns.” The area’s biodiversity is recognized by two nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites. Until recently, Sinjajevina had been a place of stable lives lived in happy coexistence with the land.  

Obviously, such things cannot be allowed.The government of Montenegro, supported by key NATO allies, has established a military training ground on the pastoral commons. NATO saw no need to hold any public hearings or consultations with the people who live there. With the government’s assent, it just barged right in, sidelining government plans for a regional park to protect the local ecosystem and communities.

It is astonishing that these developments have received virtually no European or American press coverage. This is surely because Montenegro is a small nation and a supplicant to Europeans. It wants to join the European Union. Its government is surely disinclined to object to the military intrusion on its lands while trying to join the EU. Farmers from Sinjajevina and local activists are demanding that the Montenegrin parliament urge the EU Commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, to suspend EU membership talks until it stops militarizing Sinjajevina.

A resistance movement has sprung up to fight NATO’s intrusion, however. A basic challenge is making this issue known to the wider world, especially Europe. First: if you’d like to learn more, here is a blog for the resisting commoners.And here is the hashtag they are using – #MissionPossible.

I encourage you to sign the petition that will be sent to the European Union and the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi.The petition demands EU solidarity with the local communities of Sinjajevina and their ecosystems; removal of the military training ground as a precondition for Montenegro’s EU membership; and creation of a community protected area in Sinjajevina. 

Here is the petition in English; in French; and in Spanish.