conferences

Italians once again took the vanguard in advancing the commons paradigm by hosting a three-day festival in Chieri, a town of 60,000 people on the outskirts of Torino, Italy.  The International Festival of the Commons featured films, musical performances, video exhibits, lectures, panel discussions, food and drink, and lots of enjoyable conversation.

I think festivals are a fantastic way to bring together both deeply committed commoners and ordinary citizens who are just looking for a fun time with a dash of politics and education. The festival attracted hundreds of townspeople who strolled through city parking lots converted into concert spaces, and listened intently to public talks and debates about the commons. 

Jurist and politician Stefano Rodota, a prominent Italian politician who has pioneered the idea of a human right to “common assets” (things needed by everybody), spoke one evening to a packed crowd about “the commons as between solidarity and fraternity.” 

A performance at the International Festival of the Commons, Chieri, Italy.On another evening, seed activist Vandana Shiva – fresh from a series of protests against GMOs at a major food expo in Milan – spoke about the commons as living systems that should not be commodified and sold. To the great satisfaction of an audience of about 600 people, she noted that Italy is one of the few places that still produces juicy, tasty tomatoes; the rest have been so modified by agribusiness to suit global commerce that they amount to biological cardboard. Shiva did a great job of showing how the commons is not an academic abstraction, but a language for explaining why so many aspects of daily life are being degraded and how enclosures dispossess us.

Last week I gave an opening lecture at Hampshire College at the launch of its new center for civic activism, the Leadership and Ethical Engagement Project. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how colleges and universities could engage more directly with changing the world -- and how the commons could help open up some new fields of thought and action.  Scholarship has an important place, of course, but I also think the Academy needs to develop a more hands-on, activist-style engagement with the problems of our time.

I enjoyed the perspectives of LIz Lerman, a choreographer, performer, writer and founder of the Dance Exchange in Washington, D.C., who shared her hopes for the new center.  We shared an interest in the limits that language can impose on how we think and what we can imagine.

Below, my talk, "To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing," a line borrowed from the British critic Raymond Williams.  My talk introduced the commons and explained why its concerns ought to be of interest to the new Hampshire College center.

Thank you for giving me the honor of reflecting on the significance of this moment and this initiative.  It is not every day that an academic institution takes such a bold, experimental leap into the unknown on behalf of social action and the common good. 

I come to you as a dedicated activist who for the past forty years wishes there had been something like this when I was an undergraduate at Amherst College in the 1970s. I have always admired the image of what the French call l’homme engagé. I guess the closest American equivalent is “public intellectual.”  But neither of those terms quite get it right – because they don’t really express the idea of fierce intellectual engagement combined with practical action motivated by a passion for the common good. That’s the archetype that we need to cultivate today.    

We stand at a precipice in history that demands that the human species achieve some fairly unprecedented evolutionary advances. I don’t want to get into a long critique of the world’s problems, but I do think it’s safe to say that humankind now faces some fundamental and unprecedented questions. These include questions about our modern forms of social organization and governance, and questions about our planet-destroying system of maximum production and consumption.

The dark menace looming over us all, of course, is climate change – an incubus that has been haunting us for more than a generation even as our so-called leaders look the other way.  That is surely because to confront the sources of climate change is tantamount to confronting the foundations of modern industrial society itself.  Climate change is simply the most urgent of a long cascade of other environmental crises now underway – the massive species extinctions, collapsing fisheries, soil desertification, dying coral reefs, depleted groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and so on.  Our species’ impact on the planet’s ecosystem is so pervasive that it now qualifies as a separate geological era, the Anthropocene.

It’s always been frustrating to me that Europeans and people in the global South appreciate the potential of the commons far more than most Americans, even among political progressives and activists. Happily, this past weekend saw a big shift.  In Rhinebeck, New York, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) – part of the noted Omega Institute retreat center – unleashed a torrent of creative energy and political action by hosting the first major conference of commons activists in North America.

There have, of course, been many smaller gatherings of US and Canadian commoners focused on specific issues such as water, local food, software code and online resources.  Commons scholars have a long history of getting together.  But this conference was different.  It brought together more than 500 participants to catalyze and instigate creative action around the commons. The paradigm clearly has some resonance for this region which is now faced with some serious market enclosures – the dangerous railway transport of oil supplies, the proposed construction of massive electrical transmission towers that will defile the beautiful landscape, and the proposed use of Cooper Lake for bottled water -- along with the usual assaults of neoliberal capitalism. 

“Where We Go From Here” focused directly on the great promise of the commons in re-imagining how we pursue social, political, economic and ecological transformations.  The keynote speakers were fantastic: the tireless environmentalist and eco-feminist activist Vandana Shiva; climate change activist Bill McKibben, still on a high from the successful climate march in NYC; author and futurist Jeremy Rifkin who foresees the rise of the “collaborative commons”; the deeply knowledgeable and witty ecological scholar David Orr of Oberlin College; the flinty, resourceful environmentalist and Native American activist Winona LaDuke, founder of Honor the Earth; the sustainable design architect Bob Berkebile; green jobs advocate and CNN commentator Van Jones; among many others.  I opened the day with an overview of the commons.

The deeply engaged conference participants consisted of environmental, food and social justice activists, the directors of many community projects, academics and students, indigenous peoples activists, a state legislator, permaculturists, Fablab hacktivists, Occupy veterans, and others too diverse to mention.  Most seem to have come from the Hudson River Valley, but quite a few came from the greater New York City region, New England and beyond. 

Pixelache Helsinki 2014

It’s probably too late for most of us to attend, but this Friday through Sunday, June 6-8, Pixelache Helsinki 2014 will host an international two-day trans-disciplinary event on “The Commons.”   

Apart from keynote lectures planned in advance, the agenda of activities of activities at Camp Pixelache – especially the participatory workshops – will be an "unconference" -- i.e., determined by the attendees themselves at the beginning of the event. Attendance is free of charge.

The event will be held on Vartiosaari, a nature island surrounded by eastern suburbs of Helsinki.  The organizers note that the island “is currently under-threat of full-scale residential development by Helsinki City Planning Department, and there is a grassroots campaign to protect its particular qualities, in which artists & cultural practitioners are involved. We are hoping that the occasion of Camp Pixelache can also provide a discussion forum around Helsinki-Commons issues.”

First of all, I love the logo for Camp Pixcelache (see below).  Striking!

For a country suffering from economic devastation and political upheaval, Greece is not accustomed to bursts of optimism.  But last weekend provided a showcase of hopeful, practical solutiions at the second annual CommonsFest, held in Heraklion on the island of Crete.  The festival brought together a dazzling array of commons and peer production communities:  hackers, open knowledge advocates, practitioners of open design, hardware and manufacturing, open health innovators, sustainable farming experts, among many others. 

Vasilis Kostakis, a political economist and founder of the P2P Lab in Greece, noted that the “key contribution of CommonsFest has been to bring together so many components of the commons movement and raise awareness amongst them.  People had the chance to meet, talk and learn from each other with the aim of creating the seed of a larger movement.” Kostakis said that the crowdfunded festival “illustrates that the philosophy that has emerged from free software and open content communities actually extends to many aspects of our daily lives.”

The event drew hundreds of people to twenty-four talks, nine workshops and an exhibition of many commons-based technologies and projects.  Kostakis said that CommonsFest participants are preparing a forthcoming “declaration for the protection and the strengthening of the Commons” that will soon be published in Greek and then translated into other languages.  [I will add the declaration to this blog post as an update when it is available. –DB] 

CommonsFest also featured an open art space with more than 30 video works licensed under Creative Commons licenses and the screening of a new documentary, “Knowledge as a Common:  Communities of Production and Sharing in Greece,”organized by the Cinema Group from the University of Crete.  The film’s director, Ilias Marmaras, spoke afterwards.  Both events were intended to “highlight the collaboration that we can build working together as peers” and show that “the freedoms provided by the Creative Commons licenses help us share easily and create cultural value.”

Commons projects and activism seem to be really hopping in Greece:  just last week a collaborative ebook, Πέρααπότοκράτοςκαιτηναγορά: Ηομότιμηπροοπτική, was published in Greece as a free, downloadable pdf file.  The ebook presents a vision for a commons-oriented economy and society.  Print copies will be available at the end of May, at a price defined by the reader.

Can the boundary-bursting categories of the commons penetrate the mighty citadel of Harvard Law School and its entrenched ways of thinking about property, markets and law?  I set out to find out last Saturday at the “This Land Is Your Land:  Remaking Property After Neoliberalism” conference.  The one-day event was convened by Unbound, the Harvard Law journal of the legal left, and the Institute for Global Law and Policy.  I had been invited to participate on a panel, “From Homo Economicus to Commoner” and to explore with about 100 students and a few professors how “the left” might approach property rights in some new ways.

The liberal/leftist luminary Duncan Kennedy, a founder of the critical legal studies movement and an advisor to Unbound, opened the day with a talk about “property as fetish and tool.”  He explained how both the right and the left have their own versions of property fetishism.  The right has adopted highly naturalistic arguments that regard property as an entirely natural, ahistorical reality.  An example is the right’s imposition of intellectual property rights on countries of the global South. 

The left, meanwhile, generally regards property law as a “bundle of rights” that is principled and conceptually coherent when it is in fact, he pointed out, simply an incoherent accretion of laws that reflect countless political struggles of the past.  The problem with the left, Kennedy suggested, is that it does not have an alternative conception of property law except as a useful tool of left political projects, such as better housing and social conditions.  Kennedy implied that it was futile for the left to try to get “outside” of property discourse.

Fortunately, Michael Hardt of Duke University – author of Empire and Commonwealth, among other books –objected.  He argued that we need to develop a conception of property that lets us think outside of standard property discourse and property relationships.  But is this possible and desireable?  Conference participants disagreed, and came back to the topic many times throughout the day.

Upcoming Conferences on the Commons

There are a number of upcoming conferences focusing on various sorts of commons.  For those of you with a passionate interest in any of the following, check out these four gatherings in coming months:

A Virtual Town Hall for the Great Lakes Commons, March 18

What would happen if the Great Lakes in North America were managed on principles and practices that empower communities to become stewards of the water?  What if decisionmaking was local and collective? To discuss these themes, several organizations are convening the first webinar in a series, “Protect the Great Lakes Forever Virtual Town Halls.”  This first one will take place on March 18 from noon to 1 pm ET. For more information, visit here.  Or check out the Facebook invite

The event is convened by Alexa Bradley (Program Director for On the Commons), Sue Chiblow (Environmental Consultant for the Mississauga First Nation) and Jim Olson (Founder and Chair of FLOW for Water). Emma Lui (Water Campaigner for the Council of Canadians) will be moderator.  The organizers want to use the commons to “prioritize the basic needs of communities, the rights of indigenous peoples and the sustainability of the land,” noting that “the lens of the commons can act as a political framework for many Great Lakes issues including extreme energy projects, bottled water extraction, invasive species and pollution.”

Knowledge Commons Conference in September

Make plans now to attend the International Association for the Study of Commons’ second Thematic Conference on Knowledge Commons, to be held at NYU’s Engelberg Center on Innovation, Law and Policy, from September 5 to 7, 2014. 

The interdisciplinary conference seeks “to better understand how knowledge commons work, where they come from, what contributes to their durability and effectiveness, and what undermines them.”  This year, the focus will be on “Governing Pooled Knowledge Resources, with special attention to the fields of medicine and the environment.” 

Keynote talks will be given by Yochai Benkler (Harvard Law School), Eric von Hippel (MIT Sloan School of Management), and Michael McGinnis (Political Science, Indiana University, Bloomington).  Co-chairs of the conference are Katherine Strandburg, NYU School of Law, and Charlie Schweik of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. More information at the conference website.  

CommonsFest in Greece To Explore Peer to Peer Civilization

CommonsFest is an initiative to "promote freedom of knowledge (or free knowledge) and peer-to-peer collaboration for the creation and management of the commons." The focus of CommonsFest will be on “the emergence of the peer to peer civilization and political economy.” Festival organizers explain that peer production "has spread through free software communities and extends to many aspects of our daily lives, such as the arts, governance, construction of machinery, tools and other goods. Through an exhibition, talks, screenings and workshops, the aim of the festival is to promote the achievements of this philosophy to the public and become a motive for further adoption."

Goodbye, Pete Seeger!

In a time when pop stars are most known for their silly haircuts, salacious outfits and fleeting half-lives, it is almost impossible to comprehend Pete Seeger, the legendary folk icon who died yesterday at age 94.  Seeger was a giant of a human being, a man who insisted upon living humbly but with conviction and courage. 

His commitment to the public good was aching to behold.  When Congress asked him to name names in the 1950s, he refused and was blacklisted.  Undeterred, he toured colleges and coffee houses around the country to make a living.  When his beleaguered former singing partners the Weavers endorsed Lucky Strike cigarettes, presumably to pick up a few bucks, he refused.  When he returned to network television in the late 1960s to sing on the “Smothers’ Brothers” variety show, he choose to sing a provocative song, “The Big Muddy,” lambasting the Vietnam War and LBJ – hardly the kind of song to revive his career.

And yet, Seeger was no dour nay-sayer or small-minded zealot.  He was joyful, generous and optimistic.  He lived his confidence in the power of song to bring people together, beyond politics.  Through his person and the songs he wrote, Seeger’s music came to define the American experience during the civil rights era, the Vietnam War, the environmental movement, and beyond.  It’s hard to imagine the past fifty years without If  I Had a Hammer; Where Have All the Flowers Gone?; Turn, Turn, Turn; The Lion Sleeps Tonight; We Shall Overcome; and many other Seeger songs. 

His determination to nurture wholesome action in the face of abusive power was also a wonder.  From fighting fascism and the Klan to empowering ordinary people to become active citizens, Seeger did not let up.  One of his great inspirations was the Hudson River Clearwater Sloop, which exposed thousands of people to the joys of that river – and the pollution that was endangering it.  He showed up at protests and strikes and at community centers and schools.  How many performers and activists keep at it for more than 70 years without stopping?

The co-organizers of the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) held in Berlin have just released an 80-page report (pdf file) that distills the highlights of that landmark gathering in May 2013. The conference brought together researchers, practitioners and advocates from around the world to explore the relationship of conventional economics and the commons. 

Discussion focused on several key themes: 

·      The commons as a way to move beyond conventional economics;

·      Alternative economic and provisioning models;

·      The transformations needed to move to a new type of economy.

The report consists of abbreviated versions of all ten keynote talks; brief summaries of the stream discussions; short overviews of each of the side events (with contact information for the hosts); a guide to the wiki resources on commons and economics; and an account of the Francophone network of commoners.  Videos of the keynote talks have been posted here, and as noted yesterdayRemix the Commons is releasing a series of video interviews that it conducted during the conference. 

The ECC Report also includes some final reflections by the Commons Strategies Group on the event’s significance for the commons movement.  We look back at the 2010 International Commons Conference and consider some of the ways in which our efforts have matured, and at some of the challenges that we face in the years ahead.

Remix the Commons is a terrific collaborative multimedia project that works hard to document the commons movement and reach out to general public with stylish, intelligent productions. It was one of the partners at the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) in Berlin in May 2013.  While the rest of the conference was swirling along, Alain Ambrosi, Frédérc Sultan and their associates spent three days in a makeshift studio filming dozens of interviews with participants at the conference. It was a kind of parallel conference within a conference.  Now, finally, the fruits of that work are available online.  And what a rich body of material it is!

Remix has released fifty new short interviews as part of its ongoing series, “Define the Commons.”  Like the previous videos in the series, this batch consists of one- to two-minute interviews with commoners from around the world.  Each gives his or her own personal definition of what the commons is.  I loved hearing the different voices and ideas.  The opening blend of multilingual voices all speaking at once but resolving into a resonant bell is a beautiful metaphor.

The Remix videos series also include some longer roundtable interviews in which commoners focus on a shared theme.  One such roundtable was an interview with the Commons Strategies Group, which consists of my colleagues Michel Bauwens, Silke Helfrich and me.  Our interview, conducted the day after the conference concluded, focused on several questions:  how the 2013 commons conference differed from the previous one in November 2010; what single insight or theme stood out for each of us; our reactions to the strong interest at ECC in using the commons as part of power and political struggles; our predictions for the future of the international commons movement; and our advice for existing and future commoners.  Here is the link to our 26-minute video interview.  

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