commons strategies

In a sign of the growing convergence of alternative economic movements, the Degrowth movement’s fourth international conference in Leipzig, Germany, last week attracted more than 2,700 people.  While a large portion of the conference included academics presenting formal papers, there were also large contingents of activists from commons networks, cooperatives, the Social and Solidarity Economy movement, Transition Town participants, the “sharing economy,” and peer production. 

By my rough calculation from browsing the conference program, there were more than 350 separate panels over the course of five days. Topics ranged from all sorts of economic topics (free trade, business models for degrowth, GDP and happiness) to alternative approaches to building a new world (Ivan Illich’s “convivial society,” permaculture, cooperatives, edible forest gardens). 

Degrowth?  For most Americans, the idea of a movement dedicated to non-growth, let alone one that can attract so many people, is incomprehensible.  But in many parts of Europe and the global South, people see the invention of new socio-economic forms of production and sharing as critical, especially if we are going to address climate change and social inequality. 

Some degrowth activists are a bit defensive about the term degrowth because, in English, it sounds so negative and culturally provocative.  (The French term décroissance, meaning “reduction,” is apparently far less jarring than its literal transation as “degrowth.”)  One speaker at the conference conceded this fact, slyly noting, “But unlike other movements, it will be exceedingly hard for opponents to co-opt the term ‘degrowth’”!

In a 2013 paper, “What is Degrowth:  From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement” (pdf), Frederico Demaria et al. write:  “”’Degrowth’ became an interpretive frame for a new (and old) social movement where numerous streams of critical ideas and political actions converge.  It is an attempt to re-politicise debates about desired socio-environmental futures and an example of an activist-led science now consolidating into a concept in academic literature.”  A new beachhead of this academic inquiry is a book Degrowth:  A Vocabulary for a New Era, due out in November.

I'm happy to announce that a new collection of essays that I've co-edited with John Clippinger, executive director of ID3, has been published. It's called From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond The fifteen essays in the book explore a new generation of digital technologies that are re-imagining the foundations of digital identity, governance, trust and social organization.

ID3 is a Boston-based nonprofit affiliated with the M.I.T. Media Lab, and was co-founded by Clippinger and social computing and data expert, Professor Pentland, who directs M.I.T.’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. 

The book is focused on the huge, untapped potential for self-organized, distributed governance on open platforms. There are many aspects to this challenge, but some of the more interesting prospects include evolvable digital contracts that could supplant conventional legal agreements; smartphone currencies that could help Africans meet their economic needs more effective; the growth of the commodity-backed Ven currency; and new types of “solar currencies” that borrow techniques from Bitcoin to enable more efficient, cost-effective solar generation and sharing by homeowners. 

A chapter on the 28-year history of Burning Man, the week-long encampment in the Nevada desert, traces the arc of experimentation and innovation in large communities devising new forms of self-governance.

I co-authored an essay in the book, "The Next Great Internet Disruption:  Authority and Governance," which appeared in an earlier form here.

The book is published by ID3 in association with Off the Common Books, and is available in print and ebook formats from Amazon.com and Off the Common Books. A free, downloadable pdf of the book is available at the ID3 website.  (The book is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.)

Among the contributors to From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond are Alex “Sandy” Pentland of the M.I.T. Human Dynamics Laboratory; former FCC Chairman Reed E. Hundt; long-time IBM strategist Irving Wladawksy-Berger; Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Hirshberg; monetary system expert Bernard Lietaer; journalist and author Jonathan Ledgard; and H-Farm cofounder Maurizio Rossi. 

 In addition to explorations of self-governance, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond introduces the path-breaking software platform that ID3 has developed called “Open Mustard Seed,” or OMS.  The just-released open source program enables the rise of new types of trusted, self-healing digital institutions on open networks, which in turn will make possible new sorts of privacy-friendly social ecosystems.

(I am back from some time at the beach, ready to resume my reporting about the latest commons developments, of which there are many.  More to come!)

Dutch legal scholar Femke Wijdekop of the Institute for Environmental Security has tackled an urgent question for anyone concerned with planetary environment.  She writes: 

How can we construct a right to a healthy and clean environment that is enforceable in today’s complex international legal order? What legal construct would be visionary and ambitious enough to meet the urgent need for environmental justice and protection and at the same time be enforceable in court rather than fall into the category of ‘soft law’?

Wijdekop answers these questions in an essay, “A Human Right to Commons- and Rights-based Ecological Governance:  the key to a healthy and clean environment?” The legal analysis was published by the Earth Law Alliance, a group of lawyers organized by British lawyer Lisa Mead who advocate an eco-centric approach to law. 

Wijdekop’s piece draws upon some of the ideas in my book with Burns Weston, Green Governance in arguing for “procedural environmental rights to establish, maintain, participate in, be informed about and seek redress for ecological commons.”  She has presented these ideas to international lawyers and constitutional scholars in The Hague, and is now reaching out to environmentally minded lawyers.

Save the Teatro Valle Commons in Rome!

The three-year occupation of Teatro Valle in Rome is now legendary:  a spontaneous response to the failures of conventional government in supporting a venerated public theater, and the conversion of the theater into a commons by countless ordinary citizens.  Now the mayor of Rome is threatening to end the occupation, evict the commoners and privatize the management of the facility.

It’s time for the international community of commoners to take a public stand against this very real threat. The mayor has summoned Italian law scholar Ugo Mattei to meet with him on Monday to negotiate a resolution. In advance of that meeting, Mattei and Salvatore Settis, President of the Advisory Board of the Louvre Museum in Paris, have prepared an international petition calling on the mayor to back away from his proposal and to allow this historic experiment in commoning to continue.

Below is a copy of the petition.  You can express your support by sending you name and affiliation to Ugo Mattei at matteiu /at/ uchastings.edu.

A number of human rights scholars around the world are keenly interested in Teatro Valle.  Noted human rights scholar Anna Grear alerted the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and Environment that "the attempted denial of popular 'ownership' of 'place' is fundamental to the cultural and material enclosures enacted by privatising and controlling agendas.”  She added that “closing down an important, even iconic, example of a fundamentally vernacular, community-based engagement with place (a vibrant, evocative commons) is entirely consistent with the deeper logic visible in moves such as the attempt to control the world seed supplies and breeds, to extend the corporatisation of the social spheres, to privatise urban space in ways that shut ordinary human beings out of them in central and important respects.”

For more on the backstory of Teatro Valle, here is a previous blog post on the occupation from February 2013.  Below is the petition now circulating.  Sign it!

The commons “Italian Style” must continue their experimentation! An International call to protect the Teatro Valle Foundation from Eviction.

Since June 14 2011, a community of artists and militants has transformed the Teatro Valle, the oldest and most prestigious in Rome, then at high risk of privatization, into the “Teatro Valle Occupato,” one of the most advanced experiments of merger between political struggle and performing arts in the current world. A trust-like legal entity, the “Fondazione Teatro Valle Bene Comune,” was created in the interest of future generations, with a membership of almost 6,000 people by a genuinely new process of cooperation between some well-known jurists and the Assembly of the occupants. While a notary has recognized the Foundation, the Prefect of Rome has denied its moral personality on the assumption that possession was not a sufficient title on the Valle premises.

Stacco Troncoso and his colleagues at Guerrilla Translation, in Madrid, have completed an English translation of an important statement from Spain, “The Charter for Democracy,” which should be of great interest to small-d democrats throughout the world. He explains that “the group behind the piece, “Movimiento por la Democracia” (Movement for Democracy) is undoubtedly one of the most important evolutions of Spain’s 15-M movement.  It clearly targets the political arena without desiring to become a political party itself. Their ‘Charter for Democracy’ is an inspiring, thorough text on what politics should be. It proposes a politics for the people: squarely grounded in environmental realities and social justice, based on the Commons, defended from corporate interests and neoliberal dictates.” 

The Movement for Democracy introduces itself this way:

"We emerged during the destruction of an economic and political model that, by its decadence, makes us poorer, excludes us, and exiles us from our own cities and towns...we are here to take democracy into our own hands, to defend against the constant threat of its systematic robbery...we are the Movement for Democracy and we came into being to say, “Yes we can!” a thousand times and more. And as we hold this to be true, that we actually can, we will challenge whoever tells us it’s impossible."

The Charter for Democracy is “a thoroughly detailed plan for the transformation of public policy and democratic representation, open for public challenge and participation,” said Troncoso, whose network of translators acted as “compilers and editors of a volunteer group-produced work” in making the English translation.  A hearty thanks to translators Jaron Rowan, Jaime Palomera, Lucía Lara, Lotta, Diego and Stacco Troncoso, with editing by Jane Loes Lipton. I love that the Charter is illustrated with some beautiful original illustrations by Clismón, one of which I include here.

Here are the opening paragraphs of this inspiring document:

This Charter was born of a deep malaise: lack of prospects, mass unemployment, cuts in social rights and benefits, evictions, political and financial corruption, dismantling of public services. It was drafted in reaction to the social majority’s growing lack of confidence in the promises of a political system devoid of legitimacy and the ability to listen.

The two-party system, widespread corruption, the financial dictatorship imposed by austerity policies and the destruction of public goods have dealt the final blow to a democracy long suffering from its own limits. These limits were already present in the 1978 Constitution. They can be summarized as a political framework that neither protects society from the concentration of power in the hands of the financial groups, nor from the consolidation of a non-representative political class. This political framework has established a system which is hardly open to citizen participation, and unable to construct a new system of collective rights for our protection and common development. This is evident in the fact that, despite some very significant public demonstrations, the demands of the vast majority of the population have repeatedly been ignored.

The Guardian today ran a profile of Robert David Steele, a former CIA spy who discovered the commons more than two decades ago and never looked back. Steele, a former U.S. Marine and CIA case officer who spent 18 years in US intelligence, is now, improbably, a vigorous advocate of “open source everything” – the title of his latest book. He brings the zeal of a convert to the mission of promoting the commons and open-source alternatives of every stripe.

As The Guardian’s Nafeez Ahmed writes, Steele discovered the virtues of open source software in the early 1990s and quickly began proselytizing the “Open Source Intelligence” paradigm to US military and intelligence sources and to US allies in dozens of countries. Steele saw (and sees) open source knowledge as the key to discovering the truth, assuring social legitimacy and moving ahead intelligently: 

“Sharing, not secrecy, is the means by which we realise such a lofty destiny as well as create infinite wealth. The wealth of networks, the wealth of knowledge, revolutionary wealth -- all can create a nonzero win-win Earth that works for one hundred percent of humanity. This is the ‘utopia’ that Buckminster Fuller foresaw, now within our reach.”

Suffice it to say, the CIA and its intelligence peers were not persuaded by such views, notwithstanding its embrace in 2005 of its collaborative intelligence version of Wikipedia, Intellipedia.  Open source everything is another matter, apparently, because of the democratic accountability it would require.

I don’t know Steele, but I’ve seen his videos and dipped into his writings, and he seems to bring a deep intelligence and big-picture perspective to analyzing our global and civilizational problems.  His self-stated goal is to hasten “the transition from top-down secret command and control to a world of bottom-up, consensual, collective decision-making as a means to solve the major crises facing our world today.”  That’s a description from his book, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth and Trust.

Steele is a prolific reviewer of books for Amazon, which may explain why he pestered me several times, as a stranger out of the blue, to re-post on Amazon my positive blog post about historian Peter Linebaugh’s book on the commons and enclosures, Stop, Thief!  I did. That’s the kind of energy and zeal that Steele brings to his mission of promoting commons-based solutions in all their variety.

In the words of The Guardian’s Ahmed, Steele provides “an interdisciplinary ‘whole systems’ approach [that] dramatically connects up the increasing corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability of the intelligence system and its political and financial masters with escalating inequalities and environmental crises.” 

Ahmed called Steele’s book “a pragmatic roadmap to a new civilisational paradigm that simultaneously offers a trenchant, unrelenting critique of the prevailing global order. His interdisciplinary 'whole systems' approach dramatically connects up the increasing corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability of the intelligence system and its political and financial masters with escalating inequalities and environmental crises.” 

This is the last in a series of six essays by Professor Burns Weston and me, derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commonspublished by Cambridge University Press. The essays originally appeared on CSRWire. I am re-posting them here to introduce the paperback edition, which was recently released.

In our preceding essays in this series, we introduced the idea of Green Governance, a new approach to environmental protection based on a broad synthesis of economics and human rights and, critically, the commons. We also described the burgeoning global commons movement, which is demonstrating a wide range of innovative, effective models of Green Governance.

In our final post, we'd like to focus on how a vision of Green Governance could be embodied into law. If a new paradigm shift to Green Governance is going to become a reality, state law and policy must formally recognize the countless commons that now exist and the new ones that must be created.

Recognizing the Commons as a Legal Entity

Yet here’s the rub: Because the “law of the commons” is a qualitatively different type Green Governanceof law – one that recognizes social and ecological relationships and the value of nature beyond the marketplace – it is difficult to rely upon the conventional forms of state, national and international law. After all, conventional law generally privileges individual over group rights, as well as commercial activities and economic growth above all else.

Establishing formal recognition for commons- and rights-based law is therefore a complicated proposition. We must consider, for example, how self-organized communities of commoners can be validated as authoritative forms of resource managers. How can they maintain themselves, and what sort of juridical relationship can they have with conventional law? One must ask, too, which existing bodies of law can be modified and enlarged to facilitate the workings of actual commons.

 Threee Domains of Commons Law

Clearly there must be a suitable architecture of law and public policy to support and guide the growth of commons and a new Commons Sector. In our book Green Governance, we propose innovations in law and policy in three distinct domains:

  • General internal governance principles and policies that can guide the development and management of commons;
  • Macro-principles and policies that facilitate the formation and maintenance of “peer governance;”
  • Catalytic legal strategies to validate, protect, and support ecological commons.

This is the fifth of a series of six essays by Professor Burns Weston and me, derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published by Cambridge University Press. The essays originally appeared on CSRWire. I am re-posting them here to introduce the paperback edition, which was recently released.

Our last essay outlined the great appeal of the commons as a way to deal with so many of our many ecological crises. The commons, readers may recall, is a social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.

This is the third of a series of six essays by Professor Burns Weston and me, derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published by Cambridge University Press.  The essays originally appeared on CSRWire.  I am re-posting them here to introduce the paperback edition, which was recently released.

 

In the previous two essays in this series, we outlined our approach to Green Governance as a new model or paradigm for how we can relate to the natural environment. We also stressed how “Vernacular Law” – a kind of socially based “micro-law” that evolves through commons activity (“commoning”) – can establish legitimacy and trust in official state law, and thereby unleash new sorts of grassroots innovation in environmental stewardship.

In this essay, we explore another major dimension of the large shift we are proposing: how human rights can help propel a shift to Green Governance and thereafter help administer such governance once achieved.

Nothing is more basic to life than having sustainable access to food, clean air and water, and other resources that ecosystems provide. Surely a clean and healthy environment upon which life itself depends should be recognized as a fundamental human right.

This is the second of a series of six essays by Professor Burns Weston and me, derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published by Cambridge University Press in January 2013.  The essays originally appeared on CSRWire.

 

Is it possible to solve our many environmental problems through ingenious interventions by government and markets alone? Not likely. Apart from calls for eco-minded behavior (recycle your cans, insulate your house), ordinary citizens have been more or less exiled from environmental policymaking.

The big oil, coal and nuclear power companies have easy access to the President and Congress and expert lawyers and scientists have privileged seats at the table. But opponents of, say, the Keystone Pipeline are mostly ignored unless they get arrested for protesting outside of the White House.

A New Kind of Law to Underpin the Commons

That’s why we believe it’s important to talk about a “new” category of law that has little recognition among legislators and regulators, judges and lobbyists. We call it “Vernacular Law.” “Vernacular” is a term that the dissident sociologist Ivan Illich used to describe the informal, everyday spaces in people’s lives where they negotiate their own rules and devise their own norms and practices.

In our last essay, we introduced the idea of commons- and rights-based governance for natural ecosystems. We turn now to Vernacular Law because green-pin-cushionits matrix of socially negotiated values, principles and rules are what make a commons work.

Vernacular Law originates in the informal, unofficial zones of society – the cafes and barber shops, Main Street and schools, our parks and social networking websites. What emerges in these zones is a shared wisdom and a source of moral legitimacy and authority. Colonial powers frequently used their formal law to forcibly repress the use of local languages so that their controlling mother tongue could prevail.

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