Even though Creative Commons licenses have been around for more than a decade, I am always surprised to learn that many progressive-minded activists, artists and academics – the people who should be most enthusiastic about the licenses – know nothing about them or at least don’t use them.
A big welcome, then, to a new book Made with Creative Commons, by Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchcliff Pearson. The book – subtitled “A guide to sharing your knowledge and creativity with the world, and sustaining your operation while you do” – explains the licenses to a new generation of users. It also offers two dozen case studies about the legal sharing of textbooks, music, data, art and other works, thanks to CC licenses. There is a short video that introduces the themes of the book.
CC licenses are widely used elements of many popular platforms these days, including Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, the video sites YouTube and Vimeo, the scientific journals published by the Public Library of Science, MIT’s OpenCourseware, and Europeana, among many others.
In a world that is falling apart (no further elaboration needed), how shall we understand the dynamics of survival and collaboration? How does life persist and flourish in a world that is hellbent on commodifying and privatizing every aspect of human relations and the natural world?
For anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, the answer is to study the strange life of the humble matsutake mushroom, which tends to grow in North America but is a prized delicacy in Japan. The social and commercial systems by which the mushrooms are harvested, sorted, transported and sold – blending gift economies and global commodity-chains in the process – hold some penetrating insights into contemporary capitalism.
Tsing, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, tells this story in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015). The book bills itself as “an original examination into the relation between capitalist destruction and collaborative survival within multispecies landscapes, the prerequisite for continuing life on earth.” It’s a brilliant premise: explore the deep dynamics of capitalism by telling the unusual ecological life and commercial journey of a mundane fungus.
The book is a wickedly wonderful ethnography. The matsutake mushroom is not just a metaphor for showing how this mushroom species devises strategies of survival for itself (in this case, entering into a symbiosis with trees and other plants and microbes); the mushroom is a partner of sorts with humans who take, steal, gift and sell it in various contexts.
Why so much attention to matsutake, a wild mushroom that cannot be grown in captivity? Because Tsing sees it as a proxy for the fate of human beings in today’s near-ruined world. The hardy, resourceful mushroom tends to grow in disrupted ecosystems and ruined landscapes -- just as billions of people around the world must now scrape out an existence in the face of ubiquitous, often-predatory capitalist systems and blighted environments. As a subterranean fungus of northern landscapes, matsutake play a valuable role in helping trees grow in forbidding locations. You might say that mushrooms are experts in dealing with precarity.
A few months ago, the New Zealand Government took an amazing step – prodded by indigenous peoples – to legally recognize the rights of a river. A new law, the Te Awa Tupua Act, recognizes that the Whanganui River (known to the iwi and hapū people as Te Awa Tupua) is “an indivisible and living whole, …from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.”
The metaphysical reality that the law recognizes is one that remains quite alien to the western mind: “I am the river, and the river is me.” That's how the Iwi express their relationship to the Whanganui; the two are indivisible, an utterly organic whole. The river is not a mere “resource” to be managed.
The idea of conferring of a “legal personality” on a river and explicitly guaranteeing its “health and well-being” is a major departure for Western law, needless to say. We westerners have no legal categories for recognizing the intrinsic nature of nonhuman living systems and how we relate to them ontologically. As if to underscore this fact, the practical legal challenges of defining and enforcing the rights of the Whanganui are far from resolved, notwithstanding the creation of a new legal framework.
Still, the law is an important start. It settles the historical claims on the river made by indigenous peoples, and it makes nineteen remarkable “acknowledgements” of the Crown’s behavior over the past century. The law even recognizes the “inalienable connection” of the iwi and hapū to the river, and tenders an official apology.
When I walk my dog Jackson along a burbling brook, I always smile when I pass the Bunny House. It’s like greeting a familiar leprechaun in the forest. The “house” is a small wooden box with a shingled roof, sitting atop a four-foot pole. One side of it is open to passing hikers.
Peer in and you can see two tiny stuffed rabbit-dolls sitting on chairs in a living room enjoying a cup of tea. There is a table in the house, with a thick book on it, and a tiny mirror on the back wall bearing the inscription, “Home, the spot of earth supremely blest / A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest….”
It’s a mystery who had the whimsy to build this fairy-tale jewel in the forest. I’ve always appreciated it as a puckish gift to pleasantly startled strangers. In the years I’ve been walking there, no one has ever vandalized the Bunny Room. It has become a kind of folk-art fixture and landmark.
I have come to realize that the Bunny Room is no aberration in and around my town of Amherst, Massachusetts. There are other monuments of homespun generosity and expressive beauty that some anonymous souls simply decided would enliven the community. I call them micro-commons because they slyly build a shared community of appreciation that is rooted in a particular, meaningful spot.
Another micro-commons that I love is an impressive pile of stones on a hiking trail in nearby Pelham. The four-foot work sits like a prehistoric alter in the dark, quiet woods known as Buffam Brook Community Forest. There is a verdant forest canopy some 30 or 40 feet overhead and the happy sounds of a cascading stream off to one side. The stone pile – a four-foot high cylinder that tapers to smaller circumferences at the top and bottom – is made from hundreds of stones, each carefully fit together.
I realized how much the landmark meant to me when, after several days of fierce storms, I was walking by and noticed that a tree branch had fallen on the structure, destroying much of it. Tragic! I was so dismayed. The mess made me realize how much I had come to love this living piece of folk art and the thoughtfulness behind it. The next spring, lo and behold, the same anonymous stone-worker had quietly re-built the pile of stones. It lives!
I call these anonymous gifts to the world micro-commons because countless people have come to depend on them as welcoming landmarks and symbols of this place. They subtly convey a sense of care and appreciation for our favorite spots, and their own spirit. The anonymity of their creation makes them radiate a special feeling, as if to say, “Here is my expression of gratitude for this wonderful place.”
The micro-commons remind me of the cover image on the original edition of Lewis Hyde’s classic book The Gift, which featured a painting, “Basket of Apples,” by unknown members of the 19th Century Shaker Community in Hancock, Massachusetts. “The Shakers believed that they received their arts as gifts from the spiritual world,” writes Hyde. “Persons who strove to become receptive of songs, dances, paintings, and so forth were said to be ‘laboring for a gift,’ and that the works that they created circulated as gifts within the community.”
It was a treat to be interviewed by Laura Flanders, a smart, solution-minded progressive who recently explored “new economy models” on her eponymous TV show. She asked me some great questions, and put together a tight 18-minute video segment that aired on May 23. Thanks, Laura.
Over the past several months, I’ve done a number of other interviews and talks that have been posted online at various points. One of the more dramatic segments is an extremely well-produced 28-minute video about the “city as a commons,” which I gave at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona last November. It was a massive stage!
My talk is both an introduction to the common and a quick overview of efforts to bring collaborative projects and policies to urban regions – an antidote to the investor-driven “development” that is plaguing so many cities.
Critiquing problems is far easier than imagining credible alternative futures. That seems to be the biggest problem in our political culture today: a colossal failure of imagination. I was therefore pleased when a new friend introduced me to the writings of David Fleming, an iconoclastic British thinker about economics, the environment, and culture who had roots in the British Green Party and Transition Town movement, among other circles.
Fleming worked for thirty years to produce a massive book Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It, which was finished just before his death in 2010 and published by Chelsea Green in 2016. Many core themes of that book were skillfully distilled (by his colleague Shaun Chamberlin) into a shorter, more readable paperback, Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy.
Fleming, one of the earliest to warn about Peak Oil, argues about the decline of the market economy with the rigor of an economist, ecologist and physicist. But what really sets him apart is his understanding that those things are intimately related to social organization and human culture. He realizes that the needs and wants engendered by capitalism will inevitably change as a society kept afloat by cheap fossil fuels falls apart.
What will society look like in the aftermath of this world? Fleming believes that we will rediscover and invent a life of place and play – a world in which the traditions of carnival, gift culture and a sense of place re-emerge. The post-market culture will also be a place where small-scale, local activities make sense again. Once large infrastructures become too costly to maintain, we will likely build systems that restore elegance and beauty to a place of honor, and that honors local judgment and direct participation in one’s life.
As Europeans struggle to deal with their multiple economic and political crises – and now, the unreliable support of the United States – it may be time to consider some serious ideas that go beyond the standard left/right framework and open up some new conversations. That is the goal of a recent report, “Supporting the Commons: Opportunities in the EU Policy Landscape,” released by the Berlin-based organization Commons Network. The report calls on EU politicians and policymakers to embrace the commons as a fresh approach to Europe’s deep structural problems and social alienation. (Executive Summary here.)
The prevailing EU neoliberal economic and social policies have a familiar, retrograde focus: Increase market growth at all costs, deregulate and privatize while reducing government spending, social protections and services. This approach is failing miserably and highly unpopular, especially in France, Italy, Spain and Greece. But politicians cannot seem to escape this box, and even where leftist reformers win state power, as with Syriza in Greece, international capital (in the guise of neoliberal politicians) overwhelm them. Even state sovereignty is not enough!
So how might the commons help instigate a new political discussion? The Commons Network report makes clear that the challenge is not about policy tweaks. A new worldview is needed. A holistic systems perspective is needed.
The report opens with a fitting quotation by Donella Meadows, the great environmental scientist:
“Pretending that something doesn’t exist if it’s hard to quantify leads to faulty models. ... Human beings have been endowed with the ability to count but also with the ability to assess quality. … No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point towards their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.”
Who is going to stand up for all the uncountable forces that make our lives liveable? How can The System begin to take account of those things that can’t be tabulated on budget spreadsheets or aggregated into Gross Domestic Product?
Imagine that you’re a farmer who bought a John Deere tractor for $25,000 – or perhaps a big, heavy-duty model for $125,000 or more. Then something goes wrong with the computer software inside the tractor (its “firmware”). Thanks to a new licensing scheme, only John Deere can legally fix the tractor – for exorbitant repair prices. Or maybe you want to modify the tractor so it can do different things in different ways. So sorry: the license prohibits you from bypassing the encryption, taking it to an independent repair shop, or fixing it yourself.
This very type of problem inspired hacker Richard Stallman to invent free software in the late 1970s. When an experimental laser printer donated to MIT by the Xerox Corporation kept jamming, Stallman tried to develop a software fix so he could help everyone who used the printer. He quickly discovered that the source code for the machine was proprietary -- a stupid, self-serving limitation that prevented him from helping his colleagues.
This sort of copyright control has frequently crippled machinery over the decades. The basic point is to protect a company's market power and proprietary control -- a form of power usually protected by law. Under US law, for example, bypassing “digital rights management,” or DRM, systems on DVDs, CDs or websites is against the law.
In the case of land vehicles such as tractors, a legal exception was carved out under US copyright law in 2015. But John Deere was able to evade that provision by requiring farmers to sign a new licensing agreement when they buy a tractor. The license prohibits “nearly all repair and modification to farming equipment, and prevent[s] farmers from suing for ‘crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software,’” Koelber writes.
Just released: a terrific 25-minute video overview of the commons as seen by frontline activists from around the world, “The Commons in Political Spaces: For a Post-capitalist Transition,” along with more than a dozen separate interviews with activists on the frontlines of commons work around the globe. The videos were shot at the World Social Forum in Montreal last August, capturing the flavor of discussion and organizing there.
A big thanks to Remix the Commons and Commons Spaces – two groups in Montreal, and to Alain Ambrosi, Frédéric Sultan and Stépanie Lessard-Bérubé -- for pulling together this wonderful snapshot of the commons world. The overview video is no introduction to the commons, but a wonderfully insightful set of advanced commentaries about the political and strategic promise of the commons paradigm today.
The overview video (“Les communs dans l’espace politique,” with English subtitles as needed) is striking in its focus on frontier developments: the emerging political alliances of commoners with conventional movements, ideas about how commons should interact with state power, and ways in which commons thinking is entering policy debate and the general culture.
The video features commentary by people like Frédéric Sultan, Gaelle Krikorian, Alain Ambrosi, Ianik Marcil, Matthew Rhéaume, Silke Helfrich, Chantal Delmas, Pablo Solon, Christian Iaione, and Jason Nardi, among others.
The individual interviews with each of these people are quite absorbing. (See the full listing of videos here.) Six of these interviews are in English, nine are in French, and three are in Spanish. They range in length from ten minutes to twenty-seven minutes.
To give you a sense of the interviews, here is a sampling:
Most readers of this blog don’t need an introduction the commons, but there are always newcomers for whom a short overview would be useful. The Transnational Institute and the P2P Foundation have done just that with an attractive new publication “Commons Transition and P2P: A Primer.”
The beautifully designed fifty-page booklet does not dumb down the topic; it simply makes some of the complexities associated with commons and peer production more accessible to the general reader in a single document. The primer explains the basics of commons and peer-to-peer production (P2P), how they interrelate, their movements and trends, and "how a Commons transition is poised to reinvigorate work, politics, production, and care, both interpersonal and environmental.”
A short video about the primer can be watched here. It explains that "the commons are a self-organized system by which local communities manage shared resources with minimal or no reliance on the market or the state. P2P means collaboration, ‘peer-to-peer’, ‘people-to-people’ or ‘person-to-person.’ P2P is a type of non-hierarchical and non-coercive social relations that enables a transition to a fairer economy for people and nature.”
Besides introducing the commons & P2P, the booklet suggests five practical guidelines, with examples, for achieving a transition to a commons/P2P-based society: