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.