Farmers in the small town of Hoxie, Kansas, have been pumping water out of the Ogallala Aquifer six times faster than rain can naturally recharge it.  This is a big deal because most of the town depends upon the flow of water to grow corn, which is the mainstay of the local economy.  But here’s the remarkable thing:  In order to preserve the water at sustainable levels, the farmers have agreed among themselves to cut back on their use of the water by 20 percent for five years. 

As Dan Charles of National Public Radio reported (October 21):

A few years ago, officials from the state of Kansas who monitor the groundwater situation came to the farmers of Hoxie and told them that the water table here was falling fast. They drew a line around an area covering 99 square miles, west of the town, and called together the farmers in that area for a series of meetings.

They told the farmers that the water was like gasoline in the tank. If every one agreed to use it more sparingly, it would last longer.

Proposals to cut back water for irrigation have not been popular in parts like these, to say the least. In the past, farmers across the American West have treated them like declarations of war. Raymond Luhman, who works for the groundwater management district that includes Hoxie, says that’s understandable: “Many of them feel like the right to use that water is ...” he says, pausing, “it's their lifeblood!”

It’s also their property. Under the law, it’s not clear that any government can take it away from them, or order them to use less of it.

But in Hoxie, the conversation took a different turn.

Contrary to the “tragedy of the commons” parable, which holds that no single farmer would have any incentive to rein in his or her water consumption, the farmers of Hoxie found a way to cooperate and overcome their over-consumption problem.  They came up with a set of rules to reduce their water usage for a five-year trial run; had the state government make it a formal requirement; and installed meters on everyone’s pumps to verify compliance. 

“Love, Me, I’m a Liberal”

Maybe it’s time for the commons and liberalism to have a frank talk.  Liberals would seem to be natural allies of the commons; they certainly often profess its values and goals, however superficially.  But the politics that liberals generally deliver -- even in their re-branded guise as “progressives” – tends to be seriously disappointing.   

Consider this little vignette recounted by the New York Times last week.  It was a story about declining sales for soda, the rising popularity of water and First Lady Michelle Obama’s role as a cheerleader for healthy choices.  This paragraph jumped out at me:

“Last month, Michelle Obama heavily endorsed water, teaming up with Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé Waters, among others, to persuade Americans to drink more of it.  Health advocates complained that Mrs. Obama had capitulated to corporate partners by not explaining the benefits of water over the sodas they sell and that her initiative promoted even greater use of plastic bottles when she could have just recommended turning on the tap.”

What could be more quintessentially liberal:  sincere, passionate commitment to a laudable social goal (drinking water instead of sugary soda) but no willingness or courage to fight for the right choice – tap water.  The reason is fairly obvious:  What would the corporate benefactors think?

The corporate backers of the First Lady's anti-obesity campaign are only too willing to bask in the socially minded glow. The brand director for Dasani, the bottled water brand sold by Coca-Cola, proudly declared, “…We are looking to lead in packaging and sustainability because those things also matter to out customers.” 

Yes, let’s sell more bottled water in “sustainable” plastic bottles.

The co-organizers of the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) held in Berlin have just released an 80-page report (pdf file) that distills the highlights of that landmark gathering in May 2013. The conference brought together researchers, practitioners and advocates from around the world to explore the relationship of conventional economics and the commons. 

Discussion focused on several key themes: 

·      The commons as a way to move beyond conventional economics;

·      Alternative economic and provisioning models;

·      The transformations needed to move to a new type of economy.

The report consists of abbreviated versions of all ten keynote talks; brief summaries of the stream discussions; short overviews of each of the side events (with contact information for the hosts); a guide to the wiki resources on commons and economics; and an account of the Francophone network of commoners.  Videos of the keynote talks have been posted here, and as noted yesterdayRemix the Commons is releasing a series of video interviews that it conducted during the conference. 

The ECC Report also includes some final reflections by the Commons Strategies Group on the event’s significance for the commons movement.  We look back at the 2010 International Commons Conference and consider some of the ways in which our efforts have matured, and at some of the challenges that we face in the years ahead.

Remix the Commons is a terrific collaborative multimedia project that works hard to document the commons movement and reach out to general public with stylish, intelligent productions. It was one of the partners at the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) in Berlin in May 2013.  While the rest of the conference was swirling along, Alain Ambrosi, Frédérc Sultan and their associates spent three days in a makeshift studio filming dozens of interviews with participants at the conference. It was a kind of parallel conference within a conference.  Now, finally, the fruits of that work are available online.  And what a rich body of material it is!

Remix has released fifty new short interviews as part of its ongoing series, “Define the Commons.”  Like the previous videos in the series, this batch consists of one- to two-minute interviews with commoners from around the world.  Each gives his or her own personal definition of what the commons is.  I loved hearing the different voices and ideas.  The opening blend of multilingual voices all speaking at once but resolving into a resonant bell is a beautiful metaphor.

The Remix videos series also include some longer roundtable interviews in which commoners focus on a shared theme.  One such roundtable was an interview with the Commons Strategies Group, which consists of my colleagues Michel Bauwens, Silke Helfrich and me.  Our interview, conducted the day after the conference concluded, focused on several questions:  how the 2013 commons conference differed from the previous one in November 2010; what single insight or theme stood out for each of us; our reactions to the strong interest at ECC in using the commons as part of power and political struggles; our predictions for the future of the international commons movement; and our advice for existing and future commoners.  Here is the link to our 26-minute video interview.  

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.

American culture has been dominated for so long by Hollywood, Broadway and the nonprofit industrial complex that it is hard to imagine theatrical performance without the stars, the spectacle, the corporate investments and marketing hype.  What would it be like if theater were taken off its big-money pedestal and allowed to speak to serious social concerns, politics, ethnicity and the human condition as it is actually experienced? 

Welcome to HowlRound, a growing hub of the nonprofit theater world hat boldly bills itself as a “Center for the Theater Commons.”  HowlRound, hosted at Emerson College in Boston, is dedicated to the idea of “recouping the idea of nonprofit theater as an instrument of civilization."   

For those who participate in HowlRound, the commons is not just a fashionable buzzword; it is a fundamental organizing principle and ethic.  As its website explains, “HowlRound is modeling a commons….. A theater commons, if it is to be manifested, will need to be cocreated by others committed to its existence.”

In a world of shrinking foundation grants, government austerity and hyper-competition for entertainment dollars, can nonprofit theater reinvent itself as a commons?  I spoke with Polly Carl, director and editor of HowlRound, to learn more.  On the project's website, Carl describes herself as “a scholar and dreamer. A bicycle enthusiast, and tattoo 

aficionado, her most recent ink job features her pup Joey riding a blue Schwinn, tennis ball in mouth. She makes her ravioli from scratch.”

That's more or less what HowlRound is trying to do for nonprofit theater:  to make it from scratch. Carl is convinced that commoning is the most effective way to revive the creativity and relevance of theater for ordinary people.  “Sometimes you just have to let go of things that you think are really valuable [like conventional structures for nonprofit theater], and experiment,” she said. 

HowlRound was born two years ago when Carl, David Dower, Vijay Mathew and Jamie Gahlon decided that all artists should have more say in how the American theater is run. Carl explained that “market-driven institutions have left the artist behind financially, and artists can no longer control their destiny.”  

So why not try to amass a community of people dedicated to “the core principle that theater is for everyone”?  

A few weeks ago I had an extensive dialogue with Bill Baue, a “corporate sustainability architect” who works with corporations and others to design “systemic transformation and company-level solutions.”  He had wanted the commons community to engage with the idea of “context-based sustainability,” a system used by some companies to “measure, manage and report sustainability performance.” The whole idea is that there are stocks of financial, natural, and human (or social) capital that can be prudently managed to respect the “carrying capacity” of the capital. 

Given my grounding in the commons world, I was profoundly skeptical – but open to a frank exploration of the ideas.  Below is a record of an exchange that I had with Baue. My disagreements centered on whether corporations can or should be the primary arbiters of sustainability (that much-abused term), and whether treating nature and social relationships as “capital” is even appropriate. I instead advocated for commons-based approaches that first, would not regard commons as mere resources, but as socio-ecological systems, ans second, that would empower commoners, especially in contrast to market-based systems.

Baue recently posted our dialogue on the website, SustainableBrands.com, as a two-part series. I have copied it all below. To read our entire exchange on the SustainableBrands.com website – along with some comments that have cropped up – here are the links to Part I  and Part II.  

Sustainable Brands bills itself as “a learning, collaboration and commerce community of over 348,000 sustainable business leaders from around the globe.  Our mission is to empower more brands to prosper by leading the way to a better world.  We produce content, events, and other learning solutions designed to inspire, engage and equip our community to profitably innovate for sustainability.” 

Gandhian Economics and the Commons

In a recent post on her blog, Fearless Heart (a post that also appears at Psychology Today), Miki Kashtan, cofounder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication, brought forward some fascinating connections between Gandhian economics and the commons.  She focused on two key themes – the satisfaction of human needs and the idea of trusteeship for things that exceed our needs.  Kashtan writes: 

The fundamental basis of Gandhian economics is a commitment to universal well-being. Like so many who are interested in universal well-being, Gandhi was led, inexorably, to looking at the difficult question of need satisfaction, since physical finitude makes it clearly impossible for everyone to have everything they want all the time. Like many others, he attempted to address this challenge by supporting a shift from the multiplication of wants to the fulfillment of needs. 

Kashtan notes that this is a highly complex issue, however.  What is a need?  How do we answer this question individually or collectively, and actually allocate resources to meet our needs?  It first bears noting that much of Gandhian economics is based on his particular circumstances and those of India in the early 20th century.  Still, certain fundamental principles such as simplicity, localism and decentralization should remain a beacon for us today.

When Gandhi wrote, “The spinning wheel and the spinning wheel alone will solve, if anything will solve, the problem of the deepening poverty of India,” he could have been talking about the commons.  His point was that we need to devise new collective forms of self-reliance and self-sufficiency that will let us disengage from oppressive forms of provisioning and invent more humane and satisfying alternatives. Isn’t that precisely the lesson of the free software, local food and hackerspace/maker movements (and countless other commons)?

Ever since the World Wide Web went wide in 1994, film studios, music labels and publishers have tried to neuter this unparalleled communications commons.  Much of the Web’s power stems from its open technical protocols known as hypertext markup language, or HTML, which are used to build webpages.  HTML has always put users, not "content-makers," in control of content, and as a result, people could (for example) copy and save the “source code” for a webpage.  Bottom-up innovation could emerge and prevail.    

The truly dismaying news is that the official steward of technical standards for the Web – the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C – plans to adopt a new set of standards, HTML5, that will let content owners add digital rights management, or DRM, to their web content.  As Cory Doctorow writes on BoingBoing, “the decision to go forward with the project of standardizing DRM for the Web came from Tim Berners-Lee himself [who invented the Web in the early 1990s], who seems to have bought into the lie that Hollywood will abandon the Web and move somewhere else (AOL?) if they don’t get to redesign the open Internet to suit their latest profit-maximization scheme.”

What makes the new HTML5 standards so alarming is that it kicks open the door for still other new forms of proprietary control over Web-based video, images, fonts and more.  Danny O'Brien, International Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has a good account of the struggles to prevent this outcome at the W3C, which could lead to the piecemeal privatization of the Web infrastructure.  

How to Build a “Shareable City”

Shareable and the Sustainable Economies Law Center have released a fantastic new report surveying the ways in which cities can adopt policies to promote “sharing” in a range of areas -- food, housing, transportation and jobs.  The landmark report, “Policies for Shareable Cities:  A Sharing Economy Policy Primer for Urban Leaders,” pulls together “scores of innovative, high impact policies that US city governments have put in place to help citizens share resources, co-produce, and create their own jobs.” 

What exactly is a “sharing city”?  It’s one that encourages carsharing and bikesharing programs through specific policies, such as designating “pick-up spots” for ridesharing and altering local taxes to make carsharing more attractive.  A sharing city is one that encourages urban agriculture on vacant lots and allows homegrown vegetables to be sold in the neighborhood.  A shareable city supports innovations like shared workspaces, shared commercial kitchens, community-financed start-ups, community-owned commercial centers, and spaces for “pop-up” businesses.  It also encourages home-based micro-enterprises by lowering permitting barriers.

What’s impressive about this 40-page report is that it provides a practical action plan that any city could pick up and implement immediately.  Yes, there are larger federal and state policies that could help make cities more shareable and liveable, but it is a misconception that only such big, bold policy reforms will work.  Municipalities can take a wide number of modest steps right now that, by supporting the "micro-dynamics" of social life, can have enormous macro-impacts on the affordability, social fabric and quality of life of a city.  As a report focused on American cities, it’s unclear to me how far the policy recommendations may apply to non-American cities....but I suspect that many of the ideas could work abroad.  

The report’s introduction explains the rationale behind the shareable city:

The sharing economy challenges core assumptions made in the 20th century planning and regulatory frameworks – namely, that residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural activities should be physically separated from one another, and that each single family household operates as an independent economic unit.  The sharing economy brings people and their work back together through sharing, gifting, bartering, and peer-to-peer buying and selling.  City governments can increasingly step into the role of facilitators of the sharing economy by designing infrastructure, services, incentives and regulations that factor in the social exchanges of this game-changing movement. 

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