enclosure

Finally: Open Source Broccoli and Kale

The past thirty years have seen a massive patent grab to control agricultural seeds and the crops that are grown, not just in the US but around the world.  In the name of progress and greater yields, seed companies introduced proprietary GMO and hybrid seeds, slowly squeezing out seeds that are more common and shareable. This is exactly what Microsoft did in software, using Windows to marginalize competing software systems, and this is what bottling companies have done to water, trying to supplant tap water with heavily marketed branded water.

Some folks at the University of Wisconsin have launched a new effort to fight this trend in the seed market through what they call the Open Source Seed Initiative. The project last week released 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains, all of them licensed under the equivalent of software’s General Public License (GPL), which is what has allowed GNU/Linux to remain in the commons. 

The license, known as the Open Source Seed Pledge, lets anyone use the open source seeds for whatever purpose they want – provided that any subsequent seeds produced are also made available on the same basis.  The idea is to bypass the built-in bias of proprietary control in the patent system, and assure that the new seeds will be available for anyone to grow, breed and share in perpetuity, without the fear of someone imposing intellectual property restrictions on later uses of the seeds.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison news office quoted horticulture professor and plant breeder Irwin Goldman, one of the authors of the pledge, as saying:  “These vegetables are part of our common cultural heritage, and our goal is to make sure these seeds remain in the public domain for people to use in the future.”  Last week Goldman released two carrot varieties he developed, named Sovereign and Oranje, at a public ceremony outside of the university’s microbial sciences building.

What would the world look like if we began to re-conceptualize food as a commons?  Jose Luis Vivero Pol of the Centre for Philosophy of Law at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium has done just that in a recent essay, “Food as a Commons:  Reframing the Narrative of the Food System.”  

The piece is impressive for daring to imagine how the world’s estimated 668 million hungry people might eat, and how all of us would become healthier, if we treated more elements of the food production and distribution system as commons.  Instead of managing food as a private good that can only be produced and allocated through markets, re-conceptualizing food as a commons helps us imagine “a more sustainable, fairer and farmer-centered food system,” writes Vivero Pol. 

One reason that the commons reframing is so useful is that it helps us see the ubiquity of enclosures in the food system.  We can begin to see the galloping privatization of farmland, water, energy and seeds.  We can see the concentration of various food sectors and the higher prices and loss of consumer sovereignty that comes from oligopoly control. 

Enclosure is snatching shared resources from us and preventing us from managing them to maximize access and good nutrition.  This is often known these days as “resource grabbing,” as companies and national governments race to seize as many abundant, cheap natural resources as they can on an international scale.  This is one reason for the many pernicious enclosures of land commons in Africa and Latin America in recent years. There is a huge exodus from traditional and indigenous lands as China, Saudi Arabia, Korea, hedge funds and others buy up natural resources.  These enclosures are moving us “from diversity to uniformity, from complexity to homoegeneity, and from richness to impoverishment,” writes Vivero Pol.  

Dougald Hine on Commoning in the City

The Summer issue of STIR is rich with thoughtful, provocative articles on the commons:  pieces on urban aquaponics and student housing coops, a how-to guide for saving the seeds from your tomatoes, instructions for sharing sourdough starter for bread-making, and more.

Two of the more arresting pieces in the issue are an insightful essay by Dougald Hine on “Commoning in the City,” and an interview with the British environmental activist George Monbiot on the concentration of land in England. 

Hine is a British writer and thinker who has started the School of Everything and the Dark Mountain Project.  Hine clearly appreciates that the commons disrupts the familiar thought-frames of conventional politics.  He writes:

“Of everything I hear during these two days [at a Stockholm conference on “Commoning in the City”], the answer that most impresses me comes from Stavros Stavrides: ‘commons’ has become useful, he argues, because of a change in attitude to the state, a disillusionment with the ‘public’ and a need for another term to takes its place. The public sphere, public values, the public sector: all of these things might once have promised some counterweight to the destructive force of the market, but this no longer seems to be the case.

Now that the City of Detroit has declared bankruptcy, one of the most critical questions will be what assets will be put on the table to pay creditors – and what assets, if any, will remain inalienable, that is, not capable of being sold.  You see, there are moves afoot to sell off priceless paintings and artworks from the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay off the city’s debts.  The stash of assets include works by Bruegel, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and van Gogh. 

Normally the market value of large art collections is not calculated except as needed for blanket insurance policies.  But now that a pack of hungry creditors wants to be made whole, many people are starting to look yearningly at the estimated $2 billion that could come from liquidating the museum’s collection, or substantial portions of it.

The whole scenario is of a piece with other enclosures driven by finance capitalism.  The investor class has gone way beyond privatization; now it wants to use the debt crisis to gain outright ownership of public assets and start charging for the use of them.  As economist Michael Hudson has put it, cities are selling sidewalks and citizens have to start paying to walk on them. 

The fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection will say a great deal about how far we Americans are willing to go in monetizing our cultural heritage.  Museums are supposed to act as permanent trustees of a community’s priceless heritage.  Donors are willing to give works to museums only because they believe that the works will be there forever, and not sold off to satisfy some unrelated financial claim against the city.   In other words, the artworks held in trust for the public by a museum are supposed to be treated as the priceless heritage of the citizenry, beyond any market valuation. That principle may be breached very soon.

To international media that love dramatic footage, the eruption of protests about the fate of Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park – and the government’s violent repression – seems overblown.  Tear gas and gunfire over some trees and greenery? 

Of course, the occupiers of the park have much more on their minds:  the preservation of public space for democratic life.  Imagine how far the Occupy protests in the US would have gotten without a public space for their encampment.  Democracy needs places for citizens to meet and talk – a way to publicly express themselves.  This is precisely what the Turkish government would like to shut down.  Far better to turn everyone into consumers. It wants to turn Taksim Gezi Park (see photo below) into a huge shopping mall.

The Turkish government’s militant crackdown is being waged by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Guardian (UK) characterizes the AKP as “a conservative Muslim bourgeoisie” that uses “the politics of piety to gain a popular base and to strengthen the urban rightwing.”  The party has eagerly adopted a neoliberal economic stance to promote “development.”  Enclosing one of the last great commons in Istanbul makes perfect sense for its agenda.

The government probably didn’t count on the pitched protest from occupiers or the viral international protest that has ensued in only 24 hours.  On the popular website Reddit’s worldnews subreddit, posts on the Istanbul protests have been the top stories.  Tweets on the incident have also been trending worldwide, especially at #occupygezi – or, in Turkish, #direngeziparkı.

Unbeknownst to millions of people recovering from their celebrations the night before, New Year's Day is a mini-celebration nested within a more famous holiday. Who among us realized that it was.... “Public Domain Day.” This is the date on which copyrights are supposed to expire on millions of works from a previous generation. It's the date on which the proprietary controls lapse and creative works become born again as public domain artifacts that can be freely used by anyone, for any purpose.

Alas, nothing entered the public domain this year. In fact, nothing will enter the public domain until January 1, 2019, thanks to the twenty-year extension of copyright law that Congress enacted in 1998 at the behest of Disney Co. and other media giants. This may explain why Public Domain Day remains so obscure! Nonetheless, the redoubtable host of Public Domain Day – the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School – annually commemorates this date to educate the public about the theft of works that rightly belong to them.

For this year's “celebration,” we learn how the public domain has been impoverished through excessive copyright terms. Last week the Center provided a wonderful survey of the cultural heritage that remains locked up. “What Could Have Entered the Public Domain on January 1, 2012?” it asks. The answers include the films The Body Snatchers, Rebel Without a Cause, Lady and the Tramp.  Then there are all the books from that 1950s that you could copy and share for free: Vladimir Nabokov's Lollita; Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can't Read; J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the last book of his Lord of Rings trilogy; and Edward Steichen’s famous book of photographs, The Family of Man; among many others.

Stealing from the Future

Borrowing from the future without understanding the actual risks, and then spending the money carelessly?  Sounds like Wall Street all over again. But this time, it's a little-known tax mechanism known as tax-increment financing, or TIF.

TIF is an ingenious local economic development tool that lets city governments borrow against future tax revenues for a given area of town in order to invest in new projects today. While TIFs can work as intended and spur development, they are also highly vulnerable to abuse because their details and implementation are shrouded in complexity: a convenient temptation for expedient politicians.

TIF lets politicians borrow money from the city's future tax base, and then spend it on development projects with minimal public or legislative oversight. The scheme is sustained by the the supposition that the TIF bond money, if well-spent today, will pay for itself with future tax revenues generated by new development.

Scenes from Croatian Enclosures

One of the treats at the Vis Green Academy in Croatia last week was seeing an exhibit of photographs by Marina Kelava, of Bjelovar, Croatia, who works as a journalist and photojournalist for Croatian Internet magazine H-Alter.org, which focuses mainly on environmental issues.  The exhibit included a number of photos documenting various enclosures of the commons in Croatia as well as photos taken while covering large international events, from the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and the World Social Forum to the beginning of Radovan Karadzic’s trial at the International Criminal Tribunal. 

Kelava graduated from the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Zagreb, with a degree in journalism.  A larger collection of her photos can be seen on Facebook at Marina Kelava Photography

I met Marina when she interviewed me for H-Alter.org.  Then I saw her photos on the wall and was impressed by their power in depicting the personal, social and emotional dimensions of commoning, the social practices of defending and celebrating a community's shared wealth.  The photos are simultaneously political and human, which is not always an easy thing to combine in rich, subtle ways.  Kelava's photos do.

View from the untouched hill of Srdj above Dubrovnik, Croatia, where a huge golf project is planned and the civil initiative "Srdj is Ours" is fighting against it.

Adam Greenfield, the founder of Urbanscale, a consulting firm concerned with “design for networked cities and citizens,” gave a fascinating talk at a symposium called Hyper-Public,  convened by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. 

The conference was about “designing private and public space in the connected world,” and therefore focused a lot on how urban spaces and the Web ought to be designed so as to protect people’s privacy rights while enhancing public social life.  Greenfield is the author of Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, and former head of design direction for service and user-interface design at Nokia.

Unbeknownst to most of us, the steady advance of digital technologies is starting to make buildings, billboards, traffic barriers and other urban infrastructure “declarative” objects -- if not interactive, networked objects.  For example, the Tower of London now has its own Twitter account so that it can now tell potential visitors, “I am opening at [name a time]...” and “I am closing after...” (The Twitter account @towerbridge, an unofficial one started by a fan, was displaced when the museum itself asserted a trademark claim on the name.) 

The Environment as Our Common Heritage

The post below is excerpted from James K. Boyce's acceptance speech, "The Environment as Our Common Heritage," for the Fair Sharing of the Common Heritage Award, presented by Project Censored and the Media Freedom Foundation in Berkeley, California.  It originally appeared on the TripleCrisis.com website, on February 10, 2011.  Jim teaches ecological economics, among other things, at UMass Amherst, and has been a long-time defender of the commons.

What does it mean to say that the environment is our “common heritage”? On one level this is a simple statement of fact: when we are born, we come into a world that is not of our own making. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the natural resources on which our livelihoods depend, and the accumulated knowledge and information that underpin our ability to use these resources wisely – all these come to us as gifts of creation passed on to us by preceding generations and enriched by their innovations and creativity.

Yet once we take seriously – as I do – the proposition that this common heritage belongs in common and equal measure to us all, we move beyond a positive statement of facts to a normative declaration of ethics. We move beyond an understanding of what is to an assertion of what ought to be.

To say that the environment belongs in common and equal measure to us all does not mean that we have inherited a free gift with no strings attached. For our common heritage carries with it a common responsibility: the responsibility to share the environment fairly amongst all who are alive today, and the responsibility to care for it wisely to ensure that our children, our grandchildren, and the generations who follow will share fairly in our common heritage, too.

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