John Thackara is one of the brilliant irregulars exploring how humankind can make the transition to a climate-friendly, relocalized, post-capitalist world. You can't pigeonhole him in any occupational category or disciplinary tradition because he is so effortlessly transversal. He blends his broadly international and nonsectarian perspective with the many particular projects that are Building the New.
This helps explain why Thackara's work is so appealing: It speaks to us as whole human beings where we live, in distinctive local circumstances. While rigorous and empirical, Thackara isn't constrained by the jargon and norms of a particular discipline or theory. Like so many designers, he lives on the messy creative edge where interesting new things are always emerging. (Check out his website at thackara.com.)
On my latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #34), John and I have a spirited conversation about the things preoccupying him these days: how to design for bioregional, post-capitalist economies; the many local projects that are quietly making a new world; and corporate subterfuges such as "net zero," carbon offsets, and the financialization of nature.
Thackara, a Brit who lives in the south of France, has taught at major universities in Japan, China, and Italy, and held prominent posts at the Netherlands Design Institute and the Royal College of Art in the UK. Now an independent writer, activist, and designer, John avoids arid abstractions; he prefers to document the practical alternatives to capitalism popping up all over.
Disaffected with his way of life in the US and concerned about the multiple ecological crises bearing down on humankind, Joe Brewer set off on a journey to learn what he might be able to do. He had considerable background in the earth sciences, studied cognitive linguistics and philosophy, and had worked with the activist group, The Rules. But restoring an entire ecosystem would be a novel challenge.
In 2019, Brewer ended up in Barichara, Colombia, with his wife and infant daughter, where he soon found himself helping to catalyze a "living laboratory of regeneration" of a degraded landscape, an arid tropical forest, in the northern Andes. Ninety percent of the forest in the region's one million acres had been cut down, causing the once-fertile food forest to dry out and become a desert.
How does one begin to restore such a profoundly degraded landscape?
As a newcomer to the region, Brewer quickly realized that there were many great local projects underway, but their practitioners barely knew of each other's existence. So he slowly waded in, forming relationships with farmers and eco-players, and bringing them into closer communication with each other. Brewer also relied on the principles of permaculture, closely observing the patterns and cycles of the ecosystem to try to identify what it needed to begin to flourish and sustain itself.
Fortunately, Brewer had learned a great deal about earth sciences through former affiliations with the International Centre for Earth Simulation, the Center for Complex Systems Research at the University of Illinois, the Cultural Evolution Society, the Rockridge Institute, and the Evolution Institute.
But for Brewer, reclaiming the ecosystem was not some abstract exercise or supervisory challenge. It was personal and gritty. In April 2020, one month after the pandemic lockdowns in Colombia, Brewer would sneak out of his house to the edge of town, and start to dig "contour swales" in the side of the mountain. These are horizontal irrigation ditches perpendicular to the flow of water that help catch rain water and encourage it to sink into the soil.
There is a tendency in national politics to praise "the local" as a zone of authenticity and popular legitimacy while quietly disempowering local action by consolidating power in the national government. It's one of those structural problems that doesn't get enough attention.
Fortunately, on Tuesday, June 21, the third annual World Localization Day will remind us of the need to elevate and strengthen localism. Through a series of in-person and virtual events in more than 20 countries, the event will celebrate the many efforts around the world to relocalize the economy and strengthen community bonds.
In previous years, World Localization Day took place on a single day, but this year the organizers of the event, Local Futures, have expanded the celebration into a full month. The schedule of events will focus on people across six continents who are organizing virtual and in-person events to bring attention to (for example) community gardens and co-ops, independent local businesses and credit unions, and local food systems and locally produced textiles.
Radio Kingston may be the closest thing to a commons that I’ve encountered in the world of radio. It’s a community-minded, noncommercial platform that lets the people of Kingston, New York, and the Hudson Valley, see and hear themselves on the air.
WKNY AM 1490 is not a raucous place of shock jocks, blaring ads, and ratings-driven Top 40 music, nor a place for dark conspiracy theories and hate-mongering. It’s a vibrant mix of music, conversations about all sorts of local concerns, and community storytelling.
The limited mix of formats in contemporary radio could easily lead you to conclude that there aren’t any serious, intelligent, caring, progressive, or creative people in your community. In October 2017, Jimmy Buff set out to change that for Kingston when he took over an aging commercial oldies station and set about working with the community to build a new type of radio-based commons. You can hear a longer version of this story on Episode #11 of Frontiers of Commoning, available here.
Buff is an experienced on-air personality who, in the course of 30 years, had performed on-air at a major New York City rock station and a legendary Woodstock station. As the new director of WKNY, he welcomed the challenge to see how far community radio could go. Thanks to a single donor, the NoVo Foundation, WKNY has had the rare freedom to experiment and feature voices and formats not generally heard on local radio, without incessant fundraising or worries about weekly ratings.
The station’s programming has blocs of airtime for rock, pop, and classical, as one might expect, but also slots for polka, German sounds, and offbeat types of music. There are shows dedicated to the concerns of LGBTQ people, seniors, people of color, women, the local arts scene, mindfulness practice, Italian culture, the environment, and regional business.
It’s worth remembering how acts of commoning can have lasting consequences, including legacies that we may not even remember. Bernard Marszalek, who has lived in Berkeley, California, since the 1980s, brought to my attention the near-forgotten history of Ohlone Park in his city. The park is a fairly large patch of greenery that a forgotten corps of enterprising commoners in effect gifted to later generations.
The time was 1969, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authority had demolished 200 Berkeley homes in order to dig a trench for an underground portion of their rail system. As Marzalek tells it, “BART then filled in tons of dirt on top of the tube it built and in this way ‘reclaimed’ the land that it bulldozed. It strip-mined Berkeley to submerge the trains and above left four blocks along Hearst Avenue a barren, ugly field of dust in summer and mud in winter. An eyesore. BART officials said that they didn’t have funds (or mental bandwidth?) to develop it, that is, monetize it.”
A year later, writes Marzalek in his history of Ohlone Park, another unsightly mud pit emerged when the University of California razed a square block of homes with plans for building student housing. But it ran out of money, leaving another eyesore. “The south campus community believed that the university wanted to remove a dissident community of artists, lefties, and hippies that had lodged in the affordable housing on that site,” he wrote.
If there is any doubt that ordinary, non-credentialed people are prepared to step up to the daunting challenges of climate change and Peak Oil, I’m pleased to report that the good people of Kingston, New York, gave a resoundingly positive answer this past weekend.
More than 230 people (1% of the city’s population!) showed up at a bold convening called “Surviving the Future: Connection and Community in Unstable Times.” The event invited the public to explore some of the big questions facing humanity right now, with a local twist: “What do we need to navigate these tumultuous times an create the systems and ways of being together that best serve us?” “What’s already going on in and around Kingston?” “What more do we think is possible?”
This event was the brainchild of six community groups seeking to pull together activist-minded doers. It was an experiment in trying to catalyze a new level of emergence in the Hudson Valley and discover if artists, tenants, racial justice advocates, sustainable farmers, alt-transportation experts, relocalization enthusiasts, and many others, could come together and start to develop a shared vision for change.
The event began with three talks on Friday evening to frame the challenges. People heard an inspiring talk from Kali Akuno of the famed Cooperation Jackson project that is using cooperatives to empower the people of Jackson, Mississippi, to take charge of their lives. Ariel Brooks of the New Economics Coalition explained what is meant by a “Just Transition” ("transition is inevitable; justice is not"). And I introduced the commons as a valuable tool in this quest and noted the “pluriverse of noncapitalist alternatives” already emerging. (Micah Blumenthal and Evelyn Wright were excellent facilitators throughout!)
I am always amazed at how commoning reaches into the most unlikely realms of life. The latest example that I’ve discovered is jazz performance! For the moment, leave aside the idea of jazz as an artform that is fundamentally about commoning – improvised collaboration, individual artistry that flowers within an ensemble, being attuned to the present moment.
Let’s just consider concert production as a commons.
In western Massachuetts, where I live, Pioneer Valley Jazz Sharesrepresents a creative mashup of the CSA farm model (community-supported agriculture) with concert production. Instead of paying upfront for a season’s supply of vegetables, people pay for a September-June season of ten jazz concerts. It’s like a subscription model but it’s more of a community investment in supporting a jazz ecosystem. Talented musicians get to perform, fans get to experience some cutting-edge jazz, the prices are entirely reasonable for everyone, and a community spirit flourishes.
As the group explains:
Our members purchase jazz shares to provide the capital needed to produce concerts with minimal institutional support. A grassroots, all-volunteer organization, we are a community of music lovers in Western Massachusetts dedicated to the continued vitality of jazz music. By pooling resources, energy and know-how, members create an infrastructure that is able to bring world-class improvisers to our region.
Cofounders Glenn Siegel and Priscilla Page decided to launch Jazz Shares after realizing that there were many more jazz musicians in the region than there were commercial venues to support them. As a longtime concert producer at the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Siegel lamented, “Each season I would receive many more worthy gig requests than I could honor. With a limit on how many University concerts I could produce each year (six), and without the personal resources to just write checks, I got tired of saying ‘Sorry, no’ to some of my musical heroes. I knew there must be another way to bring these great musicians to town.”
As an economist might put it, there was a market failure (demand did not induce an adequate supply). So commoning came to the rescue!
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s shocking election victory,a shattered Democratic Party and dazed progressives agree on at least one thing: Democrats must replace Republicans in Congress as quickly as possible. As usual, however, the quest to recapture power is focused on tactical concerns and political optics, and not on the need for the deeper conversation that the 2016 election should have provoked us to have: How can we overcome the structural pathologies of our rigged economy and toxic political culture, and galvanize new movements capable of building functional alternatives?
Since at least the 1980s, Democrats have accepted, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the free-market “progress” narrative—the idea that constant economic growth with minimal government involvement is the only reliable way to advance freedom and improve well-being. Dependent on contributions from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Big Pharma, the Democratic Party remains incapable of recognizing our current political economy as fundamentally extractive and predatory. The party’s commitment to serious change is halfhearted, at best.
While the mainstream resistance to Trump is angry, spirited, and widespread, its implicit agenda, at least on economic matters, is more to restore a bygone liberal normalcy than to forge a new vision for the future. The impressive grassroots resistance to Trump may prove to be an ambiguous gift. While inspiring fierce mobilizations, the politicization of ordinary people, and unity among an otherwise fractious left, it has thus far failed to produce a much-needed paradigm shift in progressive thought.
This search for a new paradigm is crucial as the world grapples with some profound existential questions: Is continued economic growth compatible with efforts to address the urgent dangers of climate change? If not, what does this mean for restructuring capitalism and reorienting our lives? How can we reap the benefits of digital technologies and artificial intelligence without exacerbating unemployment, inequality, and social marginalization? And how shall we deal with the threats posed by global capital and right-wing nationalism to liberal democracy itself?
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.”
While most of the essays deal with British co-ops and commons, the lessons and strategies mentioned have a relevance to many other places. Consider land ownership, a topic that is rarely a part of progressive political agendas. Steve Bendle, director of a group called Community Land and Finance, offers a clear-eyed assessment of how government is obsessed with enhancing the value of land for landowners and developers – while largely ignoring how land could be used to serve citizens, taxpayers and the wider community.
Unneeded land and government buildings, for example, are generally put up for sale on the market rather than used to serve the needs of a community for housing, work spaces or civic infrastructure. The assumption is that privatized, market-driven uses of the assets will yield the greatest “value” (narrowly defined as return on investment to private investors).
When government (i.e., taxpayers) finances new roads, subways or rail systems, the market value at key locations and buildings invariably rises. But government rarely does much to capture this value for the public.
Bendle concludes: “So developers and landowners make profits, while the public sector struggles to secure a contribution to infrastructure costs or to deliver affordable homes despite successive attempts to change the planning system.”