The City as Commons: The Conference

To judge from the fascinating crowd of 200-plus commoners who converged on Bologna, Italy, last week, it is safe to declare that a major new front in commons advocacy has come into focus – the city.  The event was the conference, “The City as a Commons:  Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Goods and City Governance,” hosted by LabGov (LABoratory for the GOVernance of the Commons), the International Association for the Study of the Commons, the Fordham Law School’s Urban Law Center and the Roman law school LUISS.

While there have been a number of noteworthy urban commons initiatives over the years, this event had a creative energy, diversity of ideas and people, and a sense of enthusiasm and purpose. 

The City of Bologna was a perfect host for this event; it has long been a pioneer in this area, most notably through its Regulation on Collaboration for the Urban Commons, which invites neighborhoods and citizens to propose their own projects for city spaces (gardens, parks, kindergartens, graffiti cleanup).

What made this conference so lively was the sheer variety of commons-innovators from around the world.  There was an urban permaculture farmer…..a researcher who has studied the conversion of old airports into metropolitan commons….an expert on “tiny home eco-villages” as a model for urban development…..Creative Commons leaders from the collaborative city of Seoul, Korea….an expert describing “nomadic commons” that use social media to help Syrian migrants find refuge with host families in Italy. 

We heard from a city official in Barcelona about Barcelona en Comú, a citizen platform that is attempting to remake the ways that city government works, with an accent on social justice and citizen participation. As part of this new vision of the city, the Barcelona government has banned Airbnb after it drove up rents and hollowed out robust neighborhoods into dead zones for overnight tourists.

Last week I gave an opening lecture at Hampshire College at the launch of its new center for civic activism, the Leadership and Ethical Engagement Project. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how colleges and universities could engage more directly with changing the world -- and how the commons could help open up some new fields of thought and action.  Scholarship has an important place, of course, but I also think the Academy needs to develop a more hands-on, activist-style engagement with the problems of our time.

I enjoyed the perspectives of LIz Lerman, a choreographer, performer, writer and founder of the Dance Exchange in Washington, D.C., who shared her hopes for the new center.  We shared an interest in the limits that language can impose on how we think and what we can imagine.

Below, my talk, "To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing," a line borrowed from the British critic Raymond Williams.  My talk introduced the commons and explained why its concerns ought to be of interest to the new Hampshire College center.

Thank you for giving me the honor of reflecting on the significance of this moment and this initiative.  It is not every day that an academic institution takes such a bold, experimental leap into the unknown on behalf of social action and the common good. 

I come to you as a dedicated activist who for the past forty years wishes there had been something like this when I was an undergraduate at Amherst College in the 1970s. I have always admired the image of what the French call l’homme engagé. I guess the closest American equivalent is “public intellectual.”  But neither of those terms quite get it right – because they don’t really express the idea of fierce intellectual engagement combined with practical action motivated by a passion for the common good. That’s the archetype that we need to cultivate today.    

We stand at a precipice in history that demands that the human species achieve some fairly unprecedented evolutionary advances. I don’t want to get into a long critique of the world’s problems, but I do think it’s safe to say that humankind now faces some fundamental and unprecedented questions. These include questions about our modern forms of social organization and governance, and questions about our planet-destroying system of maximum production and consumption.

The dark menace looming over us all, of course, is climate change – an incubus that has been haunting us for more than a generation even as our so-called leaders look the other way.  That is surely because to confront the sources of climate change is tantamount to confronting the foundations of modern industrial society itself.  Climate change is simply the most urgent of a long cascade of other environmental crises now underway – the massive species extinctions, collapsing fisheries, soil desertification, dying coral reefs, depleted groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and so on.  Our species’ impact on the planet’s ecosystem is so pervasive that it now qualifies as a separate geological era, the Anthropocene.

In a sign of the growing convergence of alternative economic movements, the Degrowth movement’s fourth international conference in Leipzig, Germany, last week attracted more than 2,700 people.  While a large portion of the conference included academics presenting formal papers, there were also large contingents of activists from commons networks, cooperatives, the Social and Solidarity Economy movement, Transition Town participants, the “sharing economy,” and peer production. 

By my rough calculation from browsing the conference program, there were more than 350 separate panels over the course of five days. Topics ranged from all sorts of economic topics (free trade, business models for degrowth, GDP and happiness) to alternative approaches to building a new world (Ivan Illich’s “convivial society,” permaculture, cooperatives, edible forest gardens). 

Degrowth?  For most Americans, the idea of a movement dedicated to non-growth, let alone one that can attract so many people, is incomprehensible.  But in many parts of Europe and the global South, people see the invention of new socio-economic forms of production and sharing as critical, especially if we are going to address climate change and social inequality. 

Some degrowth activists are a bit defensive about the term degrowth because, in English, it sounds so negative and culturally provocative.  (The French term décroissance, meaning “reduction,” is apparently far less jarring than its literal transation as “degrowth.”)  One speaker at the conference conceded this fact, slyly noting, “But unlike other movements, it will be exceedingly hard for opponents to co-opt the term ‘degrowth’”!

In a 2013 paper, “What is Degrowth:  From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement” (pdf), Frederico Demaria et al. write:  “”’Degrowth’ became an interpretive frame for a new (and old) social movement where numerous streams of critical ideas and political actions converge.  It is an attempt to re-politicise debates about desired socio-environmental futures and an example of an activist-led science now consolidating into a concept in academic literature.”  A new beachhead of this academic inquiry is a book Degrowth:  A Vocabulary for a New Era, due out in November.

Book publishers love that libraries can act as free marketing venues, introducing readers to new authors and keeping them focused on books.  But publishers don’t like it when libraries act as commons – that is, when they promote easy access and sharing of knowledge.  A successful commons may modestly limit a publisher’s absolute copyright control – and even minor incursions on this authority must be stoutly resisted, publishers believe.     

One of the more egregious such battles now underway is a lawsuit filed by Harvard Business School Publishing, John Wiley and the University of Chicago Press against the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence.  ISCE  is a small, nonprofit membership group that “facilitates the conversation between academics and business people regarding social complexity theory, particularly the implications for the management of organizations.” 

The focus of the publishers’ lawsuit is ISCE’s virtual library of 1,200 books.  May ISCE self-digitize and lend its virtual books to its members on a one-usage-at-a-time basis, for private, educational, non-commercial purposes? 

The publishers say no, and are seeking to establish their legal authority to shut down such unauthorized “reproduction, display and distribution” of the books.  But ISCE counter-claims that the fair use and first-sale doctrines of copyright law give it the legal right to lend its virtual books.  (Fair use is the legal doctrine of copyright law that allows excerpts to be shared noncommercially.  The first-sale doctrine prohibits the seller from controlling what a consumer does with a book or DVD after it is purchased, such as renting it, lending it or giving it away.)  ISCE claims, in addition, that libraries are entitled to special-use privileges under copyright law, which apply in this instance.

The Journal of Latin American Geography has dedicated an entire issue (vol. 12, no. 1) to surveying the state of commons on that continent. The special issue (in English) consists of nine essays, the first of which provides a helpful overview of the state of Latin American commons and commons research. (A listing of abstracts here.)  This academic treatment gives some welcome visibility and depth to the study of the commons in that vast region of the world, much of which is besieged by aggressive neoliberal policies that seek to extract vast natural resources in the name of "development." 

The Journal focuses on a range of commons-related themes in various countries, including the effect of rural out-migration from Mexico on commons there; new efforts in Costa Rica to treat biodiversity as a commons; the struggle of indigenous peoples in Brazil to secure tenure rights to their communal resources; and use of commons by marginalized people in Argentina to manage wild guanacos, a large, llama-like ungulate valued for their meat, skins and fibers.

The overview essay on current trends in Latin American commons research, by James Robson and Gabriela Lichtenstein, shines a light on the development agenda of oil and mining industries while noting the many legal and political changes that have reinstated communal property regimes.  Many countries, such as Brazil, Honduras, Venezuela and Nicaragua, have formally recognized the communal rights of indigenous communities to their traditional territories.  Overall, there is a “upturn in communal land tenure over time,” write Robson and Lichtenstein. 

Harvard Joins the Open Access Revolt

The publishers of research journals don’t get much attention because their products are not very exciting.  Mentions of Science or Nature do not exactly quicken the pulse.  But that doesn’t mean that the publishers of academic journals aren’t as predatory and profiteering as any Fortune 500 bank or oil company. 

It now appears that the major universities that generate so much of the world’s research (only to buy it back from publishers at huge mark-ups) could be getting ready to fight back.  Harvard University is publicly urging its faculty members to avoid publishing in journals that require paid access, and to publish instead in open access journals.  Open access literature can be defined as works that are digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.

As the Guardian (UK) reports, the Harvard Faculty Advisory Council has sent a memo to 2,100 professors and researchers informing them that “major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. Doing so would seriously erode collection efforts in many other areas, already compromised.”

It’s no secret that digital technologies and networks are becoming tremendously disruptive to academia by introducing new ways of doing research, publishing, teaching and collaborating with peers.  But few universities have shown much gusto for tackling this very difficult topic, let alone trying to devise some working solutions.  So USC deserves some credit for a serious and sophisticated one-day symposium on the topic in January 2011. 

Hosted by the USC Office of Research and the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, the event convened a highly interdisciplinary set of participants – from engineering, social sciences, medical fields and the humanities.  The ideas was to explore some of the innovative ways that academic research is now occurring and what university administrations should do in response.  Among the questions posed at the symposium: 

  • How do you get credit toward tenure or promotion if your work as an academic is part of a vast online collaboration? 
  • How should peer review be done now that online platforms make it easy to invite talented outsiders from other disciplines, and even non-academics, to review work?   
  • With everyone staring into the computer screens, how should research institutions design real-world spaces so that people can actually have serendipitous in-person encounters and collaborations?

I served as rapporteur for that event, and now the final report has been published.  You can download a pdf copy of Creativity & Collaboration:  Technology and the Future of Research in the Academy here. 

I delivered the following remarks -- "The Marginalization of the Commons and What To Do About It" -- at the 13th Biennial conferece of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, in Hyderabad, India, on January 12, 2011.

The commons is of keen interest to me because of its great potential to transform how we talk about economics, politics, governance and culture.  Or more to the point, it can be an active, creative force for positive change in people’s lives.    

The focus of the conference today is the structural forces that are marginalizing the commons and disempowering commoners.  Why is it that the commons is so often excluded from official policy discussions about how to manage resources and improve people’s lives?  Why are the State and the Market seen as the only two serious realms of action – while the commons is often patronized or dismissed as inconsequential, if it is considered at all?  


Academia as a Commons:

The Promise of Digital Technologies at Amherst College and the Five Colleges

The following remarks were made by David Bollier, Croxton Lecturer at the Robert Frost Library, Amherst College, on April 26, 2010.

I am particularly pleased to be delivering these remarks in Frost Library, ground zero for my intellectual wanderlust as an Amherst student, class of 1978.  Libraries are also a deep part of my family tradition.  My father was for many years a librarian at Yale Divinity School Library, and so it pleases me to be able to do my part to support my local library. 

Allow me to make a quick introduction of myself so you can get a sense of my mission in life.  I am not an academic, although I am currently pretending to be one as the Croxton Lecturer here at Amherst College.  I’m teaching Sociology 42, a seminar called “The Rise of the Commons,” which draws upon my extensive writing and thinking about the commons.            

Buying Respectability

Imagine that you're a company that is increasingly besieged by complaints that your heavily advertised junk foods and sugary drinks are contributing to obesity, diabetes and other health problems. The First Lady has even gotten into the act, making "eating healthy" a personal priority. Naturally, the company wants to neutralize public criticisms about its unhealthy products and refurbish its corporate image.

What better way than to buy a slice of respectability and high-minded objectivity from an Ivy League school -- say, Yale University?

That’s exactly what PepsiCo did recently when it announced that it would fund a graduate fellowship in nutritional science at the Yale School of Medicine. The masters or PhD student will explore "obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome." The depressing part is, Yale was only too eager to play along and sell its name for peanuts. It will receive $250,000 over the course of five years. For this, the dean of Yale School of Medicine, Robert Alpern, praised "PepsiCo's commitment to improving health through proper nutrition" and called PepsiCo's partnership with Yale "a visionary investment in the future of science."

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