Seven Short Films on the Commons in Seven Minutes

People constantly ask me for a definition of the commons as if a short sentence or two could begin to encapsulate the vastness and variety represented by the term “commons.”  So as a quick introduction to the many dimensions of the commons -- the inner and outer worlds to which "the commons" merely points to -- let me recommend this seven-minute film, “Seven Short Films on the Commons,”  (A thanks to Silke Helfrich for bringing this to my attention!)

The film(s) were produced by Amar Kanwar and the Foundation for Ecological Security, a leading advocacy group for the commons in India. The vignettes of each film are a lovely evocation of what the commons truly means to commoners in India. This is an important task -- naming and evoking the commons -- because governments and businesses of the modern world cannot see or generally refuse to recognize the commons. They are too focused on individuals shorn of social community, private property rights, and market growth.  

Here are the seven succinct declarations made by each short film:

1. Recognize the signature of our commons!  The film flashes words on the screen referring to things we depend upon and share without realizing it:  the air, folk dances, butterflies, playgrounds, the wind, grandma’s cure, the Internet.  The list goes on.

2. Recognize the Reciprocity of Our Commons!  The film notes how different elements of nature of which we are a part are interdependent....which leads to another point:

3. Recognize that Our Commons are a Web of Life!  

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The Goa Iron Ore Permanent Fund in India: A Bold Precedent

The Alaska Permanent Fund has been an inspiration to many of us because it provides a mechanism, the “stakeholder trust,” to ensure that everyone benefits from common assets, especially natural resources such as water, minerals, forests and the atmosphere. 

In Alaska the Fund, operating as an independent, state-chartered trust, holds an equity stake in oil on state lands and therefore reaps a royalty on a portion of the oil extracted.  This is deposited in a massive trust fund, worth more than $52 billion, which kicks off revenues in the form of “dividends” for every resident of the state, including children.  The sums usually amount to $1,000 to $2,000 per year.   

Peter Barnes in his 2006 book Capitalism 3.0 suggested a number of ways in which the permanent fund idea could be applied to other common assets that are now plundered for private gain, such as forests, the atmosphere, the copyright and patent systems, and the financial regulatory apparatus.  The State of Vermont has entertained the idea of establishing permanent funds for some of its common assets, but the idea has not moved there. (See the 2008 report, "Valuing Common Assets for Public Finance in Vermont.”)

I was therefore thrilled to learn recently about a fascinating version of the permanent fund that the Supreme Court of India has mandated for the state of Goa.  In the course of public-interest litigation, it was discovered that, over the course of an eight-year period, the Goan government had allowed private mining companies to cart away 95% of the value of minerals on public lands, or about US$8.5 billion. This sum is twice the total state revenues for those eight years, or about$5,800 (Rs.3.7 lakhs) for each man, woman and child in Goa. In addition, private mining companies had caused all sorts of environmental destruction.

Rahul Basu, an Indian activist who brought the Goa Iron Ore Permanent Fund to my attention, noted that “since minerals are a part of the commons, i.e., owned by all of us, this loss is effectivelya per-head tax. Everyone loses equally, and a few get richer.  This is not trickle-down, it is gush-up. This is a highly regressive redistribution of wealth.”  Basu also noted that government privatization of common assets violates principles of equality, and thus runs contrary to Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  “We have found similar issues in iron ore, coal, oil & natural gas elsewhere in India,” writes Basu.  “As royalty rates are usually set by trying to attract investment into the sector, countries race to the bottom.”

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The Problem of Natural Evil, Charity, and Free Trade

I’ve recently been arguing for the comprehensible beauty of theological fatalism. The standard response to the problem of evil is that evil is the result of human willing: thus the Holocaust or American racism cannot be laid at the feet of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent God. But I think this seriously ignores the problem of natural evil.

In a world that is literally full of unexplained and uncontrolled phenomena, there’s something sensible in taking the attitude that God’s will requires submission and respect in the face of suffering. If the best guess you’ve got about the fundamental truths of the universe is that nature (and Nature’s God) is capricious and inexplicable, then your attitude to that caprice is going to matter a lot. Can you love your fate without understanding it? Can you avoid telling just-so stories of desert and blaming the sufferer for her suffering? Non-karmic theological fatalism has the major theme that the world is love-able despite the fact that it is full of mysterious natural atrocities.

The predominance of human-caused evils like genocide and slavery have only rivaled natural evils for a few centuries; the long human time span is overwhelmed with misfortunes that could not be understood or even effectively planned against, only endured. Today, it makes sense to try to give a different account, one that enables intervention and prevention. But that modern perspective is rooted in our relatively limited success in rendering explicable and changeable the tremendous amount of suffering that surrounds us.

And there’s still quite a lot of it. I usually only discuss global poverty in the context of utilitarian arguments for rich-world charity obligations. But in fact there’s good reason to think that these rich-world obligations extend infinitely further to an imnipotent and omniscient God. If I can and should save a child in Pakistan or Nepal by forgoing a cell phone upgrade, think how much greater the obligation would be for an omnipotent God.

In 1990, the global under-five mortality rate was 12.7 million annually. Today it is 6.3 million. Because it’s hard to think in terms of such large numbers, I often describe that change this way: every day in 1990, 34,000 children under five died, mostly from easily-treated poverty-related diseases; today it’s more like 17,000. Nearly half of these deaths are directly attributable to undernutrition; other causes include malaria, diarrhea (from unsanitary water,) and asthma (from dung-based indoor cooking fires.) This is pretty obviously evil.

It is probably the case that the contemporary rich could alleviate much of this through charitable action (although this is significantly less effective than we’d like.) In any case, these child deaths could be attributable to human willing, specifically the inaction of rich countries. Yet, even to the extent that that is true today, humanity has not been rich enough to afford to address poverty-related disease for the vast majority of human history.

While it’s hard to measure historical child mortality, estimates suggest something like 300 to 500 child deaths per 1000 live births in pre-industrial societies. That means the 1/3 to 1/2 of all children born would die before their fifth birthday; this even extends to newly industrializing societies: that’s the rate that was observed in Europe through the 19th Century. For every person born under modern conditions, it’s likely that about 15 were born and died in pre-modern times. So roughly 100 billion people have been born and died before the currently living 7 billion. Probably 30 to 50 billion of them died before their fifth birthday. (It’s somewhat surprising that anyone could believe that their God would deplore abortion, given God’s role in this mass infanticide.)

What’s more, it turns out that even if our newfound global wealth enables charitable alleviation of natural evil, these efforts are themselves quite difficult and expensive, and often have very bad unintended side-effects. Often it seems we are forced to respond to this tremendous evil with very imperfect efforts: gifts tend to be less effective than economic development, and competitive global trade has done more than anything else to reduce under-five mortality.

Here’s a sentence I think most of my readers will reject, but I’m never impressed by their reasons: we’ve never found a compassionate system that is as effective as competitive markets for alleviating the specific evil of child mortality, even if it comes with a host of other evils.

In 1969, China alone had 2.3 million deaths for children under-five. In 2012, only 0.2 million children under-five died. That’s directly attributable to US trade with China. Yet we are frequently reminded of how much disruption and inequality that has caused without celebrating the benefits. These policies are described as “off-shoring” or “exporting American jobs.” It’s almost certainly driven massive domestic inequalities that are currently disrupting our democracies. Yet the role of trade in reducing child mortality strikes me as often ignored in these debates.

This is supposed to be something upon which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agree: that we should massively reduce trade with countries like China, not to mention Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet those five countries are the ones with the highest child mortality. India and Nigeria alone account for half of the 17,000 under-five deaths each year. Even newly-rich trade-enemy China is still the fifth largest source of child mortality, with twice the under-five mortality rate of most industrialized societies.

Thus, the problem of natural evil strikes me as good evidence that the omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God does not exist; such a God would never force us to choose between the evils of capitalism and the evils of watching our children die. Yet if we truly live in such a tragic world, I doubt we should countenance trade protectionism until we can identify an alternate way to address child mortality.

Gender and the Commons in India

The following is an interview with Soma Kishore Parthasarathy from the website of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) on June 6. The interviewer was Ana Abelenda, and the piece is called “Reclaiming the Commons for Gender and Economic Justice:  Struggles and Movements in India.”  It is republished here with permission.

AWID spoke to Indian independent researcher and scholar Soma Kishore Parthasarathy[1], who has been studying and negotiating the concept of the ‘commons’ from a gender perspective and how women in rural India are contesting this reality by proposing a shared management of common resources.

AWID: How would you define the “commons"?

Soma Kishore Parthasarathy (SKP): There are varied conceptualizations about the commons. Conventionally, it is understood simply, as natural resources that lie outside the private domain and are intended for use by those who depend on its use. But, it is not just natural resources, it is also knowledge resources, heritage, culture, virtual spaces, and even climate plays a role. The concept of the commons pre-dates the individual property regime and provided the basis for organization of society. Definitions given by government entities today limit its scope to land and material resources. Attempts to release commons from the shared domain into the market, pose a serious threat to the commons as we know them, and to the way of life associated with the sharing principle embedded in their access and use.

It is about the cultural practice of sharing livelihood spaces and resources as nature’s gift, for the common good, and for the sustainability of the common.  But today commons are under increasing threat as nations and market forces are colonizing the commons.

AWID: Can you explain what you mean by colonization of the commons? How does it affect women in particular?

SKP:Colonizing the commons implies a predatory usurpation of the commons by parties in positions of authority and power, who impose their own set of rules and terms for the access, use, and regulation of the commons to serve their own needs, with little concern for rules and organizational principles that existed earlier and  with little respect for the needs and rights of those who have been dependent on the commons for centuries, ignoring the rights of traditional small users and gender and equity issues.

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Affective Labor as the Lifeblood of a Commons

We have so internalized the logic of neoliberal economics and modernity, even those of us who would like to think otherwise, that we don’t really appreciate how deeply our minds have been colonized.  It is easy to see homo economicus as silly.  Certainly we are not selfish, utility-maximizing rationalists, not us!  And yet, the proper role of our emotions and affect in imagining a new order remains a murky topic. 

That’s why I was excited to run across a fascinating paper by Neera M. Singh, an academic who studies forestry at the University of Toronto.  Her paper, “The Affective Labor of Growing Forests and the Becoming of Environmental Subjects” focuses on “rethinking environmentality” in the Odisha region of India.  (Unfortunately, the article, published in Geoforum (vol. 47, pp. 189-198, in 2013) is behind a paywall.) 

How do people become “environmental subjects” – that is, people who are willing to apply their subjective human talents, imagination and commitments and become stewards of some element of nature?

Singh wanted to investigate why villagers were willing to regenerate degraded state-owned forests through community-based forest conservation efforts.  She found that “affective labor” is critical in managing a forest.  The term comes from Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who use it to describe the role that reciprocity, empathy and affect play in shaping human behavior and action. Indeed, other people’s affect influences what kind of “self” we construct for ourselves. 

This whole topic is important because standard economics has its own crudely reductionist idea of who human beings are.  We are “rational, self-interested” economic actors, of course, and most public policy is based on this (erroneous, limited) notion.  Most economists frankly have no interest in exploring how people come to formulate their “self-interest.”  They simply take those interests as given. 

But what if participating in commons produced a very different sort of human perception and subjectivity, and indeed, produced human beings as self-aware subjects/agents?  What if this process could be shown to be essential in integrating human culture with a specific ecological landscape?

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Why ‘I-Paid-A-Bribe’ Worked in India but Failed in China

source: China Daily

Interesting paper by Yuen Yuen Ang, Political Scientist at the University of Michigan:

Authoritarian states restrain online activism not only through repression and censorship, but also by indirectly weakening the ability of netizens to self-govern and constructively engage the state. I demonstrate this argument by comparing I-Paid-A-Bribe (IPAB) — a crowd-sourcing platform that collects anonymous reports of petty bribery — in India and China. Whereas IPAB originated and has thrived in India, a copycat effort in China fizzled out within months. Contrary to those who attribute China’s failed outcome to repression, I find that even before authorities shut down IPAB, the sites were already plagued by internal organizational problems that were comparatively absent in India. The study tempers expectations about the revolutionary effects of new media in mobilizing contention and checking corruption in the absence of a strong civil society.

And a brief video with Yuen Yuen

Also read

I Paid a Bribe. So What? 

Open Government and Democracy


Gandhian Economics and the Commons

In a recent post on her blog, Fearless Heart (a post that also appears at Psychology Today), Miki Kashtan, cofounder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication, brought forward some fascinating connections between Gandhian economics and the commons.  She focused on two key themes – the satisfaction of human needs and the idea of trusteeship for things that exceed our needs.  Kashtan writes: 

The fundamental basis of Gandhian economics is a commitment to universal well-being. Like so many who are interested in universal well-being, Gandhi was led, inexorably, to looking at the difficult question of need satisfaction, since physical finitude makes it clearly impossible for everyone to have everything they want all the time. Like many others, he attempted to address this challenge by supporting a shift from the multiplication of wants to the fulfillment of needs. 

Kashtan notes that this is a highly complex issue, however.  What is a need?  How do we answer this question individually or collectively, and actually allocate resources to meet our needs?  It first bears noting that much of Gandhian economics is based on his particular circumstances and those of India in the early 20th century.  Still, certain fundamental principles such as simplicity, localism and decentralization should remain a beacon for us today.

When Gandhi wrote, “The spinning wheel and the spinning wheel alone will solve, if anything will solve, the problem of the deepening poverty of India,” he could have been talking about the commons.  His point was that we need to devise new collective forms of self-reliance and self-sufficiency that will let us disengage from oppressive forms of provisioning and invent more humane and satisfying alternatives. Isn’t that precisely the lesson of the free software, local food and hackerspace/maker movements (and countless other commons)?

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