international

A fascinating report produced by the Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai-based think tank, shows that cooperation across political boundaries in the management of water correlates quite highly with peace – and that the lack of cooperation correlates highly with the risk of war. 

The report states its conclusions quite bluntly:  “Any two countries engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war for any reason whatsoever.”  The report offer intriguing evidence that commoning around water ought to be seen as a significant factor in national security and peace – and as a way of avoiding war and other armed conflict. 

Trans-boundary water cooperation, as defined by the report, does not simply consist of two countries signing a treaty or exchanging data about water.  It means serious political, administrative, policy and scientific cooperation. (Thanks, James Quilligan, for alerting me to this report.)

To give the level of cooperation some precision, the report’s authors came up with a “Water Cooperation Quotient” for 146 countries, based on ten parameters.  These include the existence of formal agreements between countries for cooperation; the existence of a permanent commission to deal with water matters; joint technical projects; ministerial meetings that make water a priority; coordination of water quality and pollution control; consultation on the construction of dams or reservoirs; among other factors. 

One of the most striking findings of the report:  “Out of 148 countries sharing water resources, 37 do not engage in active water cooperation.  Any two or more of these 37 countries face a risk of war in the future.”  The regions of the world that face a higher risk of war – i.e., countries with low or nonexistent levels of trans-boundary water cooperation – are in East Africa, Middle East, and Asia. 

This means that roughly one fourth of the nations of the world “exposes its population to insecurity in its relations with its neighbors.”  It also means that water bodies that are not subject to cooperative management are suffering from serious ecological decline – reductions in the surface area of lakes, deeper levels of rivers, pollution, and so forth.

The report notes the particular cooperative actions that countries have taken to manage their respective water supplies.  Singapore, with no natural water resources of its own, reduced its pressures on Malaysia by sourcing water from rainfall, recycling, desalination and imports.  South Africa obtains access to water in a river that it shares with Lesotho, and in exchange is helping the less-developed Lesotho build dams that provide hydropower and economic development.

Cartographers of the Commons

How far we’ve come in ten years!  In 2004 a number of us at the Tomales Bay Institute – the predecessor to On the Commons – tried to get a number of small communities to conduct what we called “local commons surveys.”  The idea was to encourage people to make their own inventory of the many overlooked commons that touch their everyday lives, and especially those that are threatened by enclosure.  By making commons more visible, we reasoned, people might begin to organize to defend them.  It was a great idea, but only one or two communities actually got it together to survey their local commons.  A valiant experiment with modest results. 

Now we are the midst of a veritable explosion of commons mapping projects.  In October alone, there have been two loud thunderclaps of activity along these lines -- the MapJams organized by  Shareable.net and Ville en biens communs in France. 

The MapJam took place this month in over fifty cities in the US, Europe, Australia and Arab nations.  The process consisted of people meeting up to share what they know about sharing projects in their communities.  They ten categorized the results, co-created a map and spread the word.  It’s all part of the new Sharing Cities Project launched by Shareable.

Many of the new cartographers of the commons are overlaying specific sharing projects and commons on top of Google Maps.  Here, for example, is a map from Share Denver. And here is the map from Sharing City Berlin.  

As if by cosmic coincidence, hundreds of self-organized commoners in dozens of communities in France and Francophone nations recently participated in a similar exercise. Hosted by Villes en biens communs, many communities produced maps while others hosted workshops, experiments or convivial meet-ups.  All of them focused on the commons.

In a talk at the American University of Beirut graduation, Noam Chomsky singled out protesters, including those in Taksim Square, as “at the forefront of a worldwide struggle to defend the global commons from the ravages of the wrecking ball of commercialization, environmental degradation and autocratic rule that is destroying Earth.”  (Text of talk is here.)  

The first part of Chomsky’s talk focused on the artificial political boundaries that define countries, most of them the result of military violence and coercion.  “The legitimacy of borders – for that matter of states – is at best conditional and temporary,” he said. “Almost all borders have been imposed and maintained by violence, and are quite arbitrary….Surveying the terrible conflicts in the world, almost all are the residue of imperial crimes and the borders they drew in their own interests.”  He proceeded to explore the meaning of this fact in the Middle East, where imperial powers have drawn so many of the national borders with little regard for the ethnic or ecological consequences.

Near the end of his talk, Chomsky pointed out how these powers are destroying the commons of the world:  

“Who owns the global atmosphere that is being polluted by heat-trapping gasses that have now ‘passed a long-feared milestone….reaching a concentration not seen on earth for millions of years,’ with awesome potential consequences, so we learned a month ago?  Or to adopt the phrase used by indigenous people throughout much of the world, who will defend the earth?  Who will uphold the rights of nature?  Who will adopt the role of stewards of the commons, our collective possession?  That the earth now desperately needs defense from impending environmental catastrophe is surely obvious to any rational and literate person.

Who would have thought that New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman would give a glowing endorsement of the commons?  Writing about the severe political and economic gridlock plaguing Egypt, Friedman lavishes great praise on the country’s “impressive but small group of environmental activists, many of whom were also involved in the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.” 

This leads Friedman to ponder the virtues of the commons as a solution to some of Egypt’s most intractable problems.  He writes:

…the truth is that any faction here – the youth, the army, the Muslim Brotherhood – that thinks it can rule Egypt alone and make the others disappear is fooling itself.  (Ditto in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.)  Because Egypt is in such a deep hole, and the reforms needed so painful, they can be accomplished only if everyone shares in the responsibility and ownership of the transition through a national unity coalition.  In that sense Egyptians today desperately need a ‘peace process’ – not with Israel, but with one another.

Everyone has to take responsibility for the commons, rather than just grabbing their own.  That is the real cultural revolution that has to happen for Egypt to revive.  And that’s where the environmentalists here have such an advantage over the politicians, because all they think about is the commons – resources that have to be shared.  Egypt’s commons – its bridges, roads, parks, coral reefs – are crumbling. 

That was quite a week in Berlin!  The Economics and the Commons Conference was an intense convergence of more than 200 commoners from thirty-plus countries.  It featured six amazing keynote talks, breakout sessions for five streams of discussion, extensive networking and bridge-building among commons activists, and action-planning in nine self-organized side events. 

If the landmark 2010 International Commons Conference let commoners meet for the first time and see that there was in fact a larger global community, the 2013 Economics and the Commons Conference showed how advanced the dialogue and projects have become, and revealed the many new frontiers of intellectual and political exploration.

To give you a sense of the wide range of people participating, there were activists fighting enclosures in Asia and Latin America; a Brazilian seed activist; an Amsterdam digital money designer; an Icelandic activist attempting to crowdsource democracy; a German sociologist who studies sustainable lifestyles and urban gardening, a leading champion of cooperatives from the UK; several French digital rights activists; a forest commons researcher from India; an American collaborative consumption advocate; a fab lab coordinator from Montreal; a Finnish artist-organizer involved with peer-to-peer developments; a commons education organizer from Barcelona; an EU official concerned with participatory leadership and collective intelligence; an Indonesian activist focused on alternative governance of natural resources and energy; among many, many others. 

It is impossible to encapsulate the highlights of the conference right now, but a full conference report will be released in about two months.  In the meantime, here are a few outcomes of the conference that I find significant:

Next week, the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin, Germany – subtitled “From Seed Form to Core Paradigm” – will bring together some 200 commoners from more than 30 countries.  The primary goal:  to explore new ideas, practices and alliances for developing the commons as an alternative worldview and provisioning system.

There will be five separate “streams” of inquiry at the conference, each of them seeking to redefine policy and activism through the prism of the commons.  These streams are Land and Nature; Work and Caring in a World of Commons; Treating Knowledge, Culture and Science as Commons; Money, Markets, Value and the Commons; and New Infrastructures for Commoning by Design.  

Working with my colleagues on the Commons Strategies Group, Silke Helfrich and Michel Bauwens, the conference is being co-organized by CSG, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, The Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation and Remix the Commons. The event will be held from May 22 to 24 at the Böll Foundation headquarters in Berlin.

The good news is that there has been an overwhelming advance interest in the conference.  The sad news is that physical capacity of the venue limits participation to 200 people.  However, the opening sessions on May 22 will be open to the public, and many events from the conference will be streamed.  Details will provided later at the conference communications platform / blog, which is already buzzing with postings and debate.  There is also a lot of background material on the commons at the conference wiki.

Six months after the print edition was published by our good friends at Levellers Press, I’m happy to report that the anthology of essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State, is now available online at http://www.wealthofthecommons.org

A hearty thanks once again to the commons activists, academics and project leaders from more than 25 countries who contributed the 73 essays in the book.  You can review the list of contributors and their essays here.  

The volume describes the enormous potential of the commons in conceptualizing and building a better future.  My colleague Silke Helfrich edited the German edition with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which was published in Germany in April 2012.  Silke and I then edited a separate English edition published by Levellers last November. 

The five sections of the book give a good idea of its themes:  “The Commons as a New Paradigm”; “Capitalism, Enclosure and Resistance”; “Commoning – A Social Innovation for Our Times”; “Knowledge Commons for Social Change”; and “Envisioning a Commons-Based Policy and Production Framework.” 

The book chronicles many ongoing struggles against the private commoditization of shared resources – while documenting the immense generative power of the commons.  It explains how millions of commoners are defending their forests and fisheries, reinventing local food systems, organizing productive online communities, reclaiming public spaces, improving environmental stewardship and re-imagining the very meaning of “progress” and governance.   

We’re hoping that the online access to the book will help increase its visibility and readership – along with sales of the printed version.  I invite you to spread the word about book in your spheres of influence. 

In a crazy twist of Italian politics – in a nation known for its zany political life – the Roman lawyer, scholar and commoner Stefano Rodotà unexpectedly became the presidential candidate of the Five Star Movement in Italy, the rising political force there.  The amazing thing is, he nearly won!         

Rodotà is a kindly, clever, fiercely intelligent and straight-shooting left-wing legal scholar and politician.  Now nearly 80 years old, Rodotà is a something of a grey eminence in Italian politics.  He has served four times in the Italian Parliament and once in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.  He helped write the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.  He has taught at universities in Europe, Latin America, the US and India.

The recent success of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in the February 2013 elections abruptly opened up this opportunity for Rodotà and the commons.  M5S was launched in 2009 by a comedian and activist, Beppe Grillo, to focus on five key issues – public water, sustainable transportation, development, connectivity and environmentalism.  The movement is less of a real party than a cultural vehicle for voters to express resentment, frustration and hostility toward the political class in Italy.  M5S is generally populist and libertarian in orientation, sometimes with a right-wing flavor (anti-immigrant policies). But Grillo is a showy amateur as a politician and not exactly a small-d democrat (he gives no press interviews and doesn’t welcome debate within M5S).

Still, the movement's issues and profile are compelling enough that M5S won more than 25 percent of the vote in the February 2013 elections – second only to the Democratic Party, which won only a fraction more votes.  Forming a government in a country with dozens of political parties can be a difficult proposition, however, especially when personalities, political history, ideology and various odd circumstances are thrown in.    

Last October, a group of seventeen commons activists from throughout Asia – India, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, New Zealand and other countries – met in Bangkok to have a wide-ranging discussion about the future of the commons, especially in fighting neoliberal economics and policy.  The primary goal was to discuss economics and the commons from an on-the-ground perspective, and to help identify promising avenues for future research, writing and political action.

This was the second of three “Deep Dive” workshops that the Commons Strategies Group co-hosted with the Heinrich Böll Foundation in the fall of 2012.  (The others were in Mexico City and Pointoise, France, near Paris.  Here is the report from the European Deep Dive, and here is my previous blog post on it.)  A big thanks to Jost Pachaly and his staff at the Böll Foundation in Bangkok for hosting this event!

Because there were so many interesting insights that flowed from those discussions, I have decided to excerpt below some of the more interesting portions of the report that I prepared following the workshop.  If you wish to read the full report – a 15-page pdf document – you can download it here

Nature as a system of abundance.  Roberto Verzola, an economist and agricultural activist in the Philippines, opened with a presentation about the inherent abundance of nature – an abundance that market capitalism systematically attempts to negate and control.  He compares natural abundance to the “miracle of the loaves” parable in the New Testament of the Bible, in which living things seem to miraculously multiply.  Verzola calls this ecological sector of production the “living sector,” which must be seen as qualitatively different from the industrial sector, which by contrast “creates things from dead matter.” 

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