Five years ago, I agreed to speak on camera with Canadian filmmaker Céline Baril when I was in Montreal. It wasn’t entirely clear to me what the film was about except, loosely stated, the state of the world. I of course gave my overview of the commons. The film was released in 2017 in Canada, but it didn’t seem to be generally available otherwise, even on DVD. To my great pleasure, I recently discovered that Baril’s film, 24 Davids, has been picked up by Amazon Prime Video streaming.
I recommend the film, and not just because of my cameo role. It’s a compelling meditation on life with a deep emotional undertow -- a provocation to reflect on the hopes, anxieties, and realities of the world today as seen through the eyes of twenty-four people named David (or “Davide” or other variants) on three continents. I’m pleased to be among these other Davids, even if our shared first name is the mono-gender contrivance by which we’re connected. (Ah, but what was Baril’s methodology in choosing us?)
The trailer gives a nice sense of the tone and scope of the film.
In 1979, I remember reading Lewis Hyde’s stunningly wise essay about the social dynamics of gifts in CoEvolution Quarterly -- the offshoot of the Whole Earth Catalog. I was twenty-three, and immediately chased down the book from which the essay was drawn, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. The book has gone on to become a classic, especially revered within artistic and cultural circles, enough to warrant a 25th anniversary edition (with the disappointingly flat new subtitle Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World – and in the current edition, How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World).
Hyde’s book explores the strange dynamics of creativity as a mysterious, beautiful gift. While markets try to turn creative works into (private, bounded, inert) property and make money from them, they cannot really understand or explain the origins of creativity; that is an irreducibly human, poetic, and mythological enigma. Yet the culture of giving gifts is profoundly important because it brings people together in enlivening ways and enlarges the human spirit across time and space.
In Hyde’s reckoning, “the gift must always move” – it must constantly circulate if its value is to be sustained. So it is only appropriate that his book has now, finally, inspired a film to showcase the spirit of the gift. The wonderful new documentary film Giftis itself the result of many gifts -- “invisible means of support” from strangers and friends -- given to Canadian director Robin McKenna as she struggled to bring the ethos of the gift to the big screen.
McKenna toiled for years finding and shooting a diverse variety of gift cultures and raising the money to complete the film. And while the theme is inspirational, it is hardly commercially attractive. The film bravely challenges the juggernaut of market culture, showing us that the most valuable things in life are gifts that cannot be monetized; indeed, introducing money into a situation often destroys value and creative vitality.
In the 1990s, many communities in central Oregon were torn asunder by the “War of the Woods.” Environmentalists had brought lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service for violating its own governing statutes. For decades, timber companies had been allowed to clear-cut public forests, re-seed with tree monocultures, and build ecologically harmful roads on mountain landscapes.
Environmentalists won their lawsuit in 1991 when a federal judge issued an injunction that in effect shut down timber operations in the Pacific Northwest of the US. While the endangered northern spotted owl was the focus of much of the debate, the health of the entire ecosystem was at risk, including the Pacific salmon, which swim upstream to spawn.
There is often no substitute for litigation and government mandates, and the 1991 litigation was clearly needed. But what is really interesting is the aftermath: Rather than just designating the forest as a wilderness preserve off-limits to everyone, the Forest Service instigated a remarkable experiment in collaborative governance.
Instead of relying on the standard regime of bureaucratic process driven by congressional politics, industry lobbying and divisive public posturing, the various stakeholders in the region formed a “watershed council” to manage the Siuslaw National Forest. Twenty years later, this process of open commoning has produced a significant restoration of the forest ecosystems, implicitly indicting the previous forest management regime driven by politics and the formal legal system.
This story is told in a wonderful thirty-minute film documentary, “Seeing the Forest,” produced by writer and filmmaker Alan Honick, with support from Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Honick writes how the public lands in Oregon contained most of the remaining old growth forests outside of protected parks:
These were complex and ancient ecosystems, particularly on the west side of the Cascades, where the moisture from Pacific storms gave rise to rich and diverse temperate rainforests. Hundreds of species of animals and plants depended on this habitat to survive.
For 40 years, these forests were logged with the same industrial methods practiced on private land. Vast swaths were clearcut, then densely replanted with monocultures of the fastest growing trees. When they reached sufficient size, they were scheduled to be clearcut and replanted again, in an ongoing cycle considered sustainable by those who employed it.
The aftermath of the 1991 litigation could have been simmering hostility and litigation, which would likely flare up again. It was based on the old, familiar narrative of “jobs vs. the environment,” a debate that government was supposed to mediate and resolve.
In Oregon, however, it was decided to develop a “Northwest Forest Plan” that inaugurated a new space and shared narrative. The Siuslaw Watershed Council invited anyone with an interest in the forest to attend its open, roundtable meetings, to discuss how to manage the forest and resolve or mitigate the competing interests of timber companies, environmentalists, recreational fishers, local communities, hikers, and others. Outcomes were based on consensus agreement.
After seeing a famous painting by Francois Milet, Les Graneuses ("The Gleaners"), of a group of women stooped over picking up leftover stalks of wheat, French documentary film maker Agnes Varda began to wonder about modern-day gleaners — the people who scavenge their food from the scraps that our modern industrial society discards as waste. She wondered about trash in our modern times: “Who finds a use for it? How? Can one live on the leftovers of others?"
I’m all for the American people getting a fair return on any public assets that private businesses use to turn a profit. But what’s the deal with the new Interior Department regulations that require wildlife photographers and documentary filmmakers to pay a “location fee” in order to shoot inside national parks?
A webinar hosted by STIR magazine that explores how commons projects around the world are pioneering new social and economic logics. On Zoom, from 3-5:30 pm GMT (UK) / 10 am-12:30 pm ET (US).
An introduction to the commons as a new/old form of social provisioning and governance
A review of commons-based institutional innovations now underway
Discussion of political, economic, and legal barriers impeding key commons sectors
A focus on peer-organised initiatives for relocalised agriculture, platform co-operatives, cosmo-local production, urban commons, community wealth building, and sustainable care work, among other approaches. Participants will leave with a keener sense of specific models for actualising social and economic change; a vocabulary and concepts that open up new vistas of possibility; and a mental map of the leading people, projects, websites, and movements developing new institutional forms. More information at Stir to Action.