Take a Survey about Commons Education

The International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) is considering developing one or more training programs on the commons, in cooperation with Countryside and Community Research Institute of the University of Gloucestershire (UoG); the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales-UNAM; and the CGIAR Program on Collective Action and Property Rights Program (CAPRI). 

Before moving ahead, the organizers want to learn more about student interests and needs.  You can help them out by taking part in a short online survey in either English or Spanish.  It only takes about five minutes.  The course organizers are tentatively thinking of offering courses on the following commons-related topics:

I. Introduction to the Commons.

II. Biodiversity and forests. Covering issues such as: ecological principles, biodiversity as a “commons”, forest rights, indigenous utilization, and the capacity for multi-functional use, Valuing biodiversity and influencing policy, and Carbon sequestration and the role of forests in climate change and environmental management.

III. Water. Covering issues such as: water as a finite and shared resource, application of commons concepts to water management under different conditions (trans-boundary management; inter-basin movement; within catchment management), legal regimes, water rights, and ‘markets’ for water.

At the recent Economics and the Commons Conference, the charismatic Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambia (UK), made an offhand reference to “commoneering.”  The novel term is apparently a play on the terms “commandeer” and “pioneer.”  I must admit, the words had a nice, solid ring to it.  I think it’s the hard “eer” that sounds so good; it have a more assertive tone than the more familiar “commoning.”  Commoneering almost has a certain aura of cool to it.    

But should we embrace such a new term?  The topic provoked more controversy than I might have imagined – and perhaps deservedly so.  The arguments generally went like this:  “Commoneering” implies that there is a certain class of people who are skilled in designing a commons or in pioneering its development.  The word implies this group of expert designers work separately from ordinary commoners and have some special knowledge for setting them apart as “commoneers.” 

This, of course, is an affront to the very idea of commoning.  It implies that commoneering is something that is different from (and better than?) “ordinary” commoning.  Commoning is something that all the talents of the entire community do together, in collaboration.  Commoneering feels vaguely elitist.

This may be reading a lot into a term that was, after all, presented in a rather casual manner.  Bendell didn’t even really give a serious definition to the term.  And I usually don’t like for anyone to set themselves up as “language police.” 

But to the extent that commoneering has a substantive meaning that is different from commoning, I think it may be best to simply avoid using the term.  It invites needless controversy.  We have plenty of serious challenges to meet without wading into a swamp of linguistic debates about a term that we don't seem to need.  Why not nip this one in the bud? 

By the way, Jem Bendells’ talk on money and credit as a commons was terrific.  I highly recommend that you watch the video of his talk here.

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.

One of the more provocative talks at the Economics and the Commons Conference last week was Andreas Weber’s critique of the “bio-economics” narrative that blends social Darwinism and free market economics.  Bioeconomics is the default worldview for contemporary economic thought, public policy and politics.  The only problem is that, by the lights of the latest biological sciences, this narrative is wrong, seriously wrong. 

Worse, it is impeding the emergence of a more accurate account of natural systems and life itself.  It is thwarting our ability to develop a new, more respectful relationship with nature.  Weber proposes instead a new story of “enlivenment” that points to a different vision of the "more than human world" and to commons-based based ways of organizing our political economy.

Andreas Weber is a Berlin-based theoretical biologist, independent scholar and ecophilosopher who explores new understandings of “life as meaning,” a sub-discipline in biological sciences known as “biosemiotics.”  This is the idea that living organisms are not just automatons who respond to various external, impersonal forces, but rather are intrinsically creative, sense-making organisms whose subjectivity and “consciousness” matter.  Indeed, our subjectivity is an indispensable part of biological evolution, Weber contends.

Weber’s essay “Enlivenment:  Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics,” was just published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation.  It can be downloaded here.  (Full disclosure:  I gave Weber some editorial advice about his text.)

Weber’s complaint about conventional biology is that it refuses to study life itself.  It is too committed to Enlightenment categories of the individual, rationality and competition, and it insists upon a reductionist logic that cannot address, let alone provide answers, to what is life itself.  Weber argues that organisms are “sentient, more-than-physical creatures that have subjective experiences and produce sense.”  He notes that current biological sciences do not ask, “What do we live for?  What are our inner needs as living creatures?  What relationships do we have, or should we have, to the natural order?  How do we produce things for our immediate needs or the market?....What is life and what role do we play in it?”

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.

In a sign of how far the forces of enclosure have come, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that re-using seeds that are patented, knowingly or not, amounts to an act of piracy.  Of course, re-using seeds has been the tradition in agriculture for millennia, just as re-using songs and text is an essential element of culture. 

No matter.  The masters of "intellectual property" hold the whip hand, and they don't want us to re-use and share seeds as the natural course of things. If you think that a farmer ought to be able to use the seeds from one crop in the next season, you are entertaining  illegal ideas. (Just be happy that Google doesn't have access to your mind yet -- although Google Glass may be a leading gambit!)

The Supreme Court case involved 75-year-old farmer Hugh Bowman, who bought bean seeds from a grain elevator and planted them in his fields.  Since nearly all soybeans are now genetically engineered to be pesticide resistant, Bowman suspected, correctly, that the beans he bought might also be Roundup-resistant like the earlier generation of seeds.  It turns out they were – and so Bowman grew them several seasons, using the next generation of seeds each time.  But here’s the catch – the original generation of seeds are patented, and he didn’t pay Monsanto for the right to use the second-generation of seeds for planting.

This amounts to an act of intellectual property theft, according to the Court, because farmers should not presume to have the right to re-plant seeds from prior harvests.  Companies like Monsanto now hold property rights in seeds, and they don’t like the competition from the commons.  The commons is the radical idea that the abundance of nature (self-reproducing plants) ought to be shareable. 

Denis Postle on the psyCommons

“All professions are a conspiracy against the laity,” George Bernard Shaw famously said.  But what is the laity to do about it?  In the context of psychotherapy and related fields, Denis Postle, an independent practitioner of humanistic psychology, thinks that we need to recognize and honor the “psyCommons.”

For Postle, a Brit, the psyCommons is the realm of the informal, the customary and the local – the social spaces in our lives that are largely exempt from bureaucratic or legal control, the spaces where people can negotiate their own shared understandings of intersubjective reality.  The psyCommons is the great reservoir of human wisdom and power that we “create, renew and replenish every day as we learn from experience, make choices, befriend, support and confront each other,” he writes. 

Reading Postle, I could not help but think of renegade sociologist and social critic Ivan Illich, who referred to this zone of life as “the vernacular.”  As Illich put it in his 1981 book Shadow Work, the vernacular domain evokes a “sensibility and rootedness…in which local life has been conducted throughout most of history and even today in a significant proportion of subsistence-and communitarian-oriented communities.”  The vernacular consists of those “places and spaces where people are struggling to achieve regeneration and social restoration against the forces of economic globalization,” Illich wrote. 

Like Illich, Postle bridles at the professionalism and guild mentality that psychotherapy and other “helping professions” have come to embody.  These professions are determined to set therapists apart as a class of “experts” that control the wisdom of the psyCommons.  They regiment and bureaucratize the process of emotional healing, often setting up barriers to authentic human relationships.  They can sometimes expunge the somber realities of the human condition, including a sense of the tragic.

In effect, psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, counseling and coaching have enclosed the psyCommons, says Postle, by treating people’s problems as personal “deficits” and “mental illness.”  The prestige and livelihoods of the professions are maintained through “an imposed technocratic monoculture of regulatory control,” he charges.  Professional licensing, certification and reimbursement rules put the coercive power of the state behind certain types of approved practitioners and therapeutic techniques – while marginalizing all the others. 

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. 

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