environment

For the past several months I've been having conversations with a friend, Dave Jacke, who is a long-time designer of landscape ecosystems via his firm, Dynamics Ecological Design, of Montague, Massachusetts. In his long career in permaculture circles -- he's the author of a classic book Edible Forest Gardens -- Dave came to realize that a "landscape-only" approach to ecosystem design is inadequate. It doesn't deal with human social dynamics and their effects on ecosystems. For my part, I have come to realize that I need to know more about the deep, long-term functioning of ecosystems. I am especially interested in learning concepts and vocabularies that some in permaculture circles use.

So Dave and I decided to share our mutual interests and ignorance, and host a public workshop to investigate this critical nexus between nature and humanity (which of course are not so separate and independent, after all). Our workshop is called "Reinventing the Commons:  Social Ecosystems for Local Stewardship & Planetary Survival."  

The event will consist of a Friday evening talk by each of us on January 20, 2017, and an all-day participatory workshop the next day, January 21, at the Montague (Massachusetts) Common Hall ("Grange"). Pre-registration is required; the public lectures will be $10; the workshop & public lectures $85 to $125.  More details here or by writing Dave Jacke at davej@edibleforestgardens.com. Or register through Brown Paper Tickets (fees apply) at ReinventingCommons.brownpapertickets.com.  

Here is our overview of the workshop and the ground we wish to cover.  

For all its benefits, the dominance of capitalist economics has also generated a world of predatory, extractive markets based on short-term self-interest that is literally destroying the planet. What feasible alternatives exist? This workshop will explore the potential of the commons as a practical and fair system of local provisioning, governance, and culture for transforming society.

From early in human cultural evolution until only a few centuries ago, the vast majority of resources was held and managed in common. Certain groups of people formed agreements about how to use and manage specific shared resources, from woodlands and farm fields to pastures and water, and they managed those resources sustainably for generations. It took the privateers hundreds of years to consolidate their power, control the structures of the state, and exploit cheap energy to destroy the commons systems of Europe and the global South. The unbridled privatization and commoditization of commons that inaugurated the Industrial Revolution continues today, with catastrophic results for planetary ecosystems and social well-being.

New Forms of Network-based Governance

The text below is a second installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networking," published by Friends of the Earth UK.  The third and final part of the essay will appear next.

Digital Commons as a New Species of Production and Governance

 To return to our original question:  How can we develop new ways to preserve and extend the democratic capacities of ordinary people and rein in unaccountable market/state power?  There is enormous practical potential in developing a Commons Sector as a quasi-independent source of production and governance.  Simply by withdrawing from the dominant market system and establishing stable, productive alternatives – in the style of Linux, local food systems and the blogosphere – the regnant system can be jolted.

While many digital commons may initially seem marginal, they can often “out-cooperate” conventional capital and markets with their innovative approaches, trustworthiness and moral authority.  The output of digital commons is mostly for use value, not exchange value.  It is considered inalienable and inappropriable, and must be shared and copied in common, not reflexively privatized and sold.  By enacting a very different, post-capitalist logic and ethos, many “digital republics” are decisively breaking with the logic of the dominant market system; they are not simply replicating it in new forms (as, for example, the “sharing economy” often is).

Let us conspicuously note that not all open source systems are transformative.  We see how existing capitalist enterprises have successfully embraced and partially coopted the transformative potential of open source software.  That said, there are new governance innovations that hold lessons for moving beyond strict market and state control.  For example, the foundations associated with various open source software development communities,[17] and the wide variety of “Government 2.0” models that are using networked participation to improve government decision-making and services (e.g., the Intellipedia wiki used by US intelligence agencies; Peer to Patent crowdsourcing of “prior art” for patent applications).

Any serious transformational change must therefore empower ordinary people and help build new sorts of collaborative structures. Ultimately, this means we must recognize the practical limits of external coercion and try to develop new systems that can enable greater democratic participation, personal agency, and open spaces for local self-determination and bottom-up innovation.[18] The examples described below are embryonic precursors of a different, better future.

On June 21, I gave a presentation to a number of staffers and others at the Agence Française de Développement in Paris outlining my vision of the commons as an alternative vision of "development."  The talk was entitled "Beyond Development:  The Commons as a New/Old Paradigm of Human Flourishing."  Here are my prepared remarks:

I am grateful to be back in your lovely city, and I am grateful for your invitation to speak today about the commons as a new vision of “development.”  As the planet reels from the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change, we are seeing the distinct limits of the prevailing paradigms of economic thought, governance, law and politics.  While collapse and catastrophe have their own lurid attraction to many, the human species – and our governments – have a duty to seriously entertain the questions:  What new structures and logics will serve us better?  How can we better meet basic human needs – not just materially, but socially and spiritually?  And can we move beyond rhetoric and general abstractions to practical, concrete actions?

After studying the commons for nearly twenty years as an independent scholar and activist, I have come to the conclusion that the commons hold great promise in answering these questions.  But it is not a ready-made “solution” so much as a general paradigm and organizing perspective – embodied, fortunately, in thousands of instructive examples.  The commons is a lens that helps us understand what it means to be a human being in meaningful relation to other people and to the Earth.  This then becomes the standard by which we try to design our social institutions.

Talking about the commons forces us to grapple with the checkered history of “development” policy and what it reveals about global capitalism and poorer, marginalized countries.  We have long known that development objectives tend to reflect the political priorities of rich, industrialized western nations, particularly their interests in economic growth and private capital accumulation. 

While much of the momentum to fight climate change is focused on political channels, there are parallel efforts using law to force government to take specific, enforceable actions to reduce carbon emissions. It’s a difficult battle, but in recent weeks two notable initiatives have gained further momentum – a court ruling relying on the public trust doctrine and a new human rights declaration that has broad international support.

The court ruling is related to a series of lawsuits brought by young people invoking the public trust doctrine to force governments to protect the atmosphere. Orchestrated by the advocacy organization Our Children’s Trust, the Atmospheric Trust Litigation suits have been filed in all state courts and in federal courts.

On November 19, one of those lawsuits succeeded. A superior court judge in Seattle issued a ruling that strongly recognizes the public trust doctrine as a applying to the atmosphere.  The case sought to uphold science-based plans for carbon emissions reductions developed by Washington State’s Department of Ecology, as a way to protect the atmosphere for eight young people (the plaintiffs) and future generations. 

The ruling is especially significant because it echoes a recent ruling by a New Mexico court that also strongly upholds the constitutional principle that the public trust doctrine applies to the atmosphere.

COP21 negotiators, are you listening?

Until the very end, my dear friend and colleague Burns Weston was passionate, hard-driving and committed to changing the world.  That’s why I was stunned to learn that Burns passed away yesterday, a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday.  When he failed to make a scheduled telephone call, friends checked his condo and found him dead.  Burns was a well-known international law and international human rights scholar at the University of Iowa College of Law.  He was also founder of its noted Center for Human Rights.

I met Burns about seven years ago when he was a professor for one semester a year at Vermont Law School.  He was writing a major legal treatise about climate change, and one element of the essay dealt with the commons.  A mutual friend, the polymath Roger G. Kennedy, introduced us, and the gravitational pull of Burns’ essay quickly drew me in. It was an irresistible disruption in my life that got me thinking a lot about environmental law and the commons.

Soon we were working together on a variety of projects:  a major scholarly book, chapters in anthologies, law review articles, grant proposals. In the course of it all, Burns exposed me to a great deal of human rights and international law, and he helped clarify their potential and limits for re-imagining international governance, environmental law and the actualization of human rights. For my part, I introduced Burns to the loose but growing network of international commoners and commons literature. He quickly realized that the commons is not just complementary to human rights; the two are long-lost partners with affirmative synergies. 

Our conversations became more serious and, with a bit of serendipitous funding, we embarked upon a grueling book project, Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press.  It was a bold attempt to reimagine environmental law and policy through the lens of human rights and the commons.  We wanted to envision new ways to actualize human rights principles and commons practices at global and regional levels.  We wanted to think beyond the framework of the nation-state and international treaty organizations.  We wanted to think beyond the standard forms and institutions of law itself.

Burns attacked these questions with the enthusiasm of a first-year law student and the sagacity of a gray eminence.  He really wanted to come up with creative legal solutions, and he wasn’t afraid if they might require social and political struggle. Now that’s not a quality you find in your average law professor, let alone one in his seventies. Burns had a bold and questing temperament, and did not let himself be confined by the disciplinary blinders of law. That’s why, following the publication of Green Governance, Burns wanted to continue our explorations.  So we founded the Commons Law Project to see if we could propose an architecture of law and public policy to address climate change and other urgent ecological problems.

There is one notable aspect to the Volkswagen emission-cheating scandal that few commentators have mentioned:  It would not have happened if the software for the pollution-control equipment had been open source. 

Volkswagen knew it could defraud consumers and deceive regulators precisely because its software was closed, proprietary and legally protected from outside scrutiny. Hardly anyone could readily check to see if the software was performing as claimed.    

Sure, dogged investigators could laboriously compare actual car emissions to emissions in artificial regulatory tests. That’s essentially what broke open the Volkswagen scandal. But that is an expensive and problematic way to identify cheaters. 

The larger question is why should a piece of software that has enormous public health and environmental implications be utterly impenetrable in the first place?  A locked box invites lawless, unaccountable and sloppy corporate behavior. It assures that hardly anyone can see what’s going on. Volkswagen exploited the cover of darkness for all that it could.

When the state no longer enforces its own legal standards on human rights or ecological protection, often in deference to corporate partners, the logical response is to establish a commons-based alternative – a people’s tribunal. That’s what is now planned in the case of fracking and its implications for human rights.

The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) has scheduled a session in March 2017 to “consider whether sufficient evidence exists to indict certain named States on charges of failing adequately to respect the human rights of citizens as a result of permitting, and failing to adopt a precautionary approach to, hydraulic fracturing and other techniques of unconventional oil and gas extraction within their jurisdictions.”  The Tribunal is an internationally recognized public opinion tribunal functioning independently of state authorities and operating out of Rome. The Tribunal will hold a week of hearings in both the US and UK.

Governments take great pains to prevent their most sacrosanct policies from being questioned in courts of law.  Consider how the US Government short-circuited any significant court rulings about the NSA’s extensive secret surveillance of citizens, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  It took Edward Snowden's revelations to force judicial review. 

We’ve been here before, of course. The lawless Vietnam War was a prime example. As a corrective to the state crimes committed in that instance, philosopher Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre organized the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal in 1967 to hear evidence about violations of the citizen’s basic human rights. In that tradition, today’s PPT will assess the human rights implications of fracking.

So what might a commons-based economy actually look like in its broadest dimensions, and how might we achieve it?  My colleague Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation offers a remarkably thoughtful and detailed explanation in a just-released YouTube talk, produced by FutureSharp. It’s not really a video – just Michel’s voiceover and a simple schematic chart – but the 20-minute talk does a great job of sketching the big-picture strategies that must be pursued if we are going to invent a new type of post-capitalist economy.

Michel focuses on the importance of three specific realms that are crucial to this new vision – ecological sustainability, open knowledge and social solidarity. Each is critical as a field of action for overturning the existing logic of market capitalism. 

Fortunately, there are many promising developments in each of these realms. Many parts of the environmental movement seek to go beyond the standard “market-oriented solutions.” There is a growing body of open source-inspired projects for software code, information, design and physical production, which is now spawning new types of global sharing of information with distributed local production. And there are many advocates and initiatives for social justice and fairness in the economy, such as cooperatives and the solidarity economy movement.

The problem, says Bauwens, is that these movements do not generally connect with each other or coordinate internationally. He therefore sees the need for “meta-economic networks” to bridge these fields of action. So, for example, we need “open cooperativism” enterprises to bridge open knowledge systems and cooperatives, so that open network (or licensed) systems are not simply dominated by large corporations in the way that Google, Uber and Airbnb have done. We also need to develop an “open source circular economy” to bridge the worlds of eco-sustainability and open knowledge.  We will never address major environmental problems if the technological and product solutions are based on proprietary knowledge; open circulation of knowledge can change that.

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. 

On the Dangers of Monetizing Nature

I remember in the late 1970s how the corporate world essentially invented the use of cost-benefit analysis in health, safety and environmental regulation. It was a brazen attempt to redefine the terms for understanding social ethics and policy in terms favorable to capital and markets.  Instead of seeing the prevention of death, disease and ecological harm as a matter of social justice, period, American industry succeeded in recasting these issues as economic matters.  And of course, such arcane issues must be overseen by a credentialed priesthod of economists, not ordinary mortals whose concerns were snubbed as selfish NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard).

And so it came to be that, with the full sanction of law, a dollar sum could be assigned to our health, or to the cost of getting cancer, or to a statistical baby born with birth defects. Regulation was transformed into a pseudo-market transaction.  That mindset has become so pervasive three decades later that people can barely remember when ethical priorities actually trumped big money. 

It is therefore a joy to see Barbara Unmüssig’s essay, “Monetizing Nature:  Taking Precaution on a Slippery Slope,” which recently appeared on the Great Transition Initiative website.  Unmüssig is President of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Germany and a stalwart supporter of the commons, especially in her backing of the 2010 and 2013 conferences in Berlin.

Striking a note that is note heard much these days, Unmüssig points out the serious dangers of seeing the natural world through the scrim of money.  Here is the abstract for her piece:

In the wake of declining political will for environmental protection, many in the environmental community are advocating for the monetization of nature. Some argue that monetization, by revealing the economic contribution of nature and its services, can heighten public awareness and bolster conservation efforts. Others go beyond such broad conceptual calculations and seek to establish tradable prices for ecosystem services, claiming that markets can achieve what politics has not.

However, such an approach collapses nature’s complex functions into a set of commodities stripped from their social, cultural, and ecological context and can pose a threat to the poor and indigenous communities who depend on the land for their livelihood. Although the path from valuation to commodification is not inevitable, it is indeed a slippery slope. Avoiding this pitfall requires a reaffirmation of the precautionary principle and a commitment to democratic decision-making and social justice as the foundations of a sound environmental policy for the twenty-first century.

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