If you’re a good ancestor of the Enlightenment, you probably believe that “nature” is something entirely separate from us. We moderns live at a sanitized distance from messy biophysical realities, after all. Lately, this casual premise of ours has been taking some serious hits, however, with the acceleration of climate change, species extinctions, collapsing coral reefs, cataclysmic weather events, and more.
In recent weeks, I've noticed a big uptick in the number of creative overtures to the realm previously known as nature (a term that implies that humanity and nature are separate). I decided to bring together some of the more imaginative gambits that I've encountered.
What underlies each example, it seems, is our aspiration to treat “nature” as a living system of diverse elements, each with its own agency and imperatives. Or as Oren Lyons, a Native American Faithkeeper of the Seneca Nation, put it years ago: “What you people call your natural resources, our people call our relatives.”
So how do we get better acquainted with our nonhuman relatives?
A New Pronoun for the Natural World
Robin Wall Kimmerer, the celebrated author of Braiding Sweetgrass, suggests we should start with the idea of using a new pronoun when referring to nature. In a recent essay in The Ecologist magazine, she urges us to avoid the use of the pronoun “it” in such circumstances:
“Objectification of the natural world reinforces the notion that our species is somehow more deserving of the gifts of the world than the other 8.7 million species with whom we share the planet. Using 'it' absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. When Sugar Maple is an 'it' we give ourselves permission to pick up the saw. 'It' means it doesn't matter….
When I met Andreas Weber ten years ago, I was amazed at his audacity in challenging the orthodoxies of Darwinism and conventional biology. Only later did I realize how much his thinking about living biological organisms has to say about the commons. Andreas is a theoretical biologist and ecophilosopher based in Berlin, Germany, who proposes that science study a mostly unexplained and radical phenomenon -- aliveness!
Andreas is my guest on the latest episode (#12) of my Frontiers of Commoning podcast this month. It’s a provocative 45-minute conversation that may have you re-considering some the nature of life, biological processes, and evolution.
Weber rejects the neoDarwinian account of life as a collection of sophisticated, evolving machines, each fiercely competing with maximum efficiency to be the fittest in the laissez-faire market known as “nature.” Instead, Weber outlines a different story of evolution, one in which living organisms are inherently creative and expressive in their struggles to thrive. This struggle is not just about competition, but about symbiotic, enduring cooperation.
This re-framing of the evolution story not only forces us to rethink how life emerges and evolves, but how our entrenched categories of thought about the political economy – nature as the template for our nasty, brutish free-market economy – is simply wrong.
As befits our time of converging existential crises, a number of new anthologies of essays are popping up to make sense of how modern industrial society got here and to propose coherent strategies for moving forward. Today I’d like to call attention to a fantastic collection of 29 original essays, The New Systems Reader: Alternatives to a Failed Economy, edited by James Gustave Speth and Kathleen Courrier and published by Routledge.
This 480-page book is a cornucopia of fresh, original thinking by leading thinkers and activists such as Gar Alperovitz, Tim Jackson, Michael Shuman, Ed Whitfield, Riane Eisler, David Korten, Richard D. Wolff, Kali Akuno, Aaron Tanaka, and J.K. Gibson-Graham.
Chapters cover a wide gamut of topics: social democracy and radical localism, the elements of a new, green economy, worker democracy, the Solidarity economy, cooperatives, participatory economics, reparative economics, and much more. (I have my own chapter on commoning as a transformative social paradigm.)
The Next System Project is an initiative of the Democracy Collaborative, which has long been showcasing the best research and strategic thinking about "visions, models and pathways that point to a 'next system' radically different in fundamental ways from the failed systems of the past and present...." So it's a pleasure to have so many diverse voices consolidated into a single volume.
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 a bit odd that land reform is barely mentioned in most progressive agendas. Maybe that's because it is seen as challenging the presumed virtues of private property and capitalist markets. Yet secure access and tenure to land is essential for achieving so many progressive goals, from building new sorts of regional food systems to providing affordable housing and enabling local self-determination and personal well-being.
Severine is a young organic farmer, activist and organizer based in Maine who has had a remarkably productive career as an advocate for young farmers and land reform. She helped start Agrarian Trust, an organization dedicated to supporting land access for the next generation of farmers. In recent years, Agrarian Trust has started ten Agrarian Commons in the US, in an attempt to make community-supported, collectively stewarded farmland available to younger farmers. As the project notes: “With 400 million acres of land in the U.S. expected to change hands over the next two decades, the time for transformation in land ownership is now.”
Agrarian Trust is just one of many new ventures that Severine has helped set in motion. She also played a key role in starting Greenhorns, a grassroots cultural organization that produces a literary journal, radio show, blog, and other media for young farmers. She helped launch Farm Hack, a project that designs and builds farm equipment using open source principles.
More recently, Fleming pulled together Seaweed Commons, a network of people concerned about seaweed aquaculture and intertidal commoning. The project is focused on improving “the ecological literacy of stakeholders in the marine economy.” The challenge includes preventing toxic algae blooms, capturing the runoff of nutrients from salmon pens around the world, and ensuring ethical, environmentally responsible cultivation of seaweed for biofuels and aquaculture.
I don't normally post long essays, but I want to share this terrific piece by Maywa Montenegro de Wit on the struggle to create a socio-legal class of seeds can be shared.This mode of seed usage prevailed throughout most of history, of course, but as major ag-biotech corporations have aggressively pushed proprietary and genetically modified seed, seed-sharing and breeding among farmers has become marginalized and sometimes illegal. This has made farmers more dependent on expensive seeds and industrial farming techniques with harmful ecological impacts. It has also discouraged traditional agricultural practices that work with nature in which seed is shared and improved upon through commoning.
Montenegro isan assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Her work draws on political ecology, science and technology studies, and rural sociology to address issues of seed diversity and access to it.
C.R. Lawn knows what primitive accumulation feels like. As founder of the Fedco Seeds cooperative, he saw fungicide treatments become ubiquitous in the 1980s, and decided to stop sell- ing seeds laced with the hazardous chemicals. In the 1990s, as GMOs came online, he placed a moratorium on the technology out of concern for unknown risks. Nine years later, when Monsanto bought out Seminis — Fedco’s largest supplier of vegetable seeds — Fedco began boycotting the company because, as Lawn explains, “we could not in good conscience sell their varieties.” The chemicals, the GMOs, and the patents, Lawn says, are part of a broader phenomenon: “We have privatized our common wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the common good.”
C.R. Lawn and his Fedco growers and packers are not alone in these deliberate rejections of seed enclosures. They are part of a movement gaining traction in many parts of the world, Global North and South, that refuses to adopt the dominant wisdom: that agrobiodiversity is best managed as private property; that breeding innovation will not occur in the absence of patents, variety protections, and other intellectual property (IP) rights; and that “improved seeds” result from individual ingenuity, rather than from collective knowledge, gleaned in and through experience with the land. From India to Peru, France to the Philippines, social movements are now advancing a bold discourse of seed freedom, seeking to reclaim what has been appropriated, privatized, and separated from the everyday and practical experience of farmers and farmer-breeders.
This chapter traces a novel expression of seed freedom that emerges from something old: the concept of a “commons.” Conventionally defined as social or natural resources not owned by anyone, but over which a community has shared and equal rights, the commons go back many centuries in agrarian history, their enclosures marking a crucial juncture in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. I add to the burgeoning new commons literature by looking at commons as a biocultural form, speciﬁcally in relation to seeds. Scholarly emphasis to date has been primarily on rules and institutions of resource management, following the principles of a well-governed commons. My argument is that seeds turn our attention to the politics and practices of access to means of reproduction. We consider how community rules, values, and practices of making new seed varieties — or plant breeding — are at once driven and shaped by a larger political economic order. We explore how seed diversity is gained and/or lost through histories of legal, scientiﬁc, and biological enclosure.
Following recent contributions to commons scholarship, I emphasize commons as a living, dynamic ﬁeld of practice — not simply a resource divided amongst people, but a social transformation developed in and through the practices of commoning. Moving from noun to verb, this formulation also puts greater emphasis on the people and communities intrinsic to the commons — not just on the seed, but on farmers, seed savers, and plant breeders.
For Dave Jacke, a designer of ecological landscapes since the late 1970s, human culture and our “inner landscapes” are the floating variables for our future on Earth. “Western culture, psychosocially, is extremely underdeveloped,” Jacke says in the just-released Episode #9 of my podcast, Frontiers of Commoning. “We humans believe we are separate [from natural systems]. That is kind of like the developmental stage of a two-year-old.”
The question facing the human species is whether we can sufficiently adapt our cultures to make them compatible with living ecosystems. This was a primary topic in my discussions with Jacke. “Very few people alive today have any idea of what a healthy ecosystem looks like,” said Jacke, “because all of us have grown up in damaged ecosystems. We do not understand the abundance that is possible.”
But paradoxically, our “under-development” is a reason for hope: “If the human species were as developed as we could be, genetically, as we face all the perils we face, we’d be screwed. But the fact that we have so much room to grow, psychosocially, is our greatest reason for hope,” Jacke claims.
Jacke has been a serious student of ecology and design since the late 1970s when he embarked on a career designing and installing landscapes for homes, farms, and communities in the many parts of the United States, as well as overseas. He is a passionate teacher and consultant about designing human cultures using ecological principles -- sometimes known as "applied ecology," or what some folks call permaculture. He pursued this work through his firm Dynamics Ecological Design based in Montague, Massachusetts. [Email: davej/at/edibleforestgardens.com]
Update, December 14: The campaign to protect Montenegro's Sinjajevina pastoral commons and the communities that steward them has succeeded for now! More at this excellent overview piece by Pablo Dominguez at FreedomNews.org.
For years, the US Navy deliberately used the lush Caribbean island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, for target practice. It shot all sorts of projectiles onto the island until 2003, when huge public protests and civil disobedience made the wanton destruction too hot for the Navy. It withdrew from Vieques, by then a severely contaminated tropical wasteland that is being "cleaned up" (if possible) and turned into a wildlife refuge.
Now we are at the dawn of a similar situation in the highland pastures of the Balkans known as Sinjajevina.The region’s large mountain grasslands – home to eight native tribes with 22,000 people and a rich biodiversity – has been used for centuries as pastoral commons, “katuns.” The area’s biodiversity is recognized by two nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites. Until recently, Sinjajevina had been a place of stable lives lived in happy coexistence with the land.
Obviously, such things cannot be allowed.The government of Montenegro, supported by key NATO allies, has established a military training ground on the pastoral commons. NATO saw no need to hold any public hearings or consultations with the people who live there. With the government’s assent, it just barged right in, sidelining government plans for a regional park to protect the local ecosystem and communities.
The following essay is my contribution to the recently published anthology, 'The Great Awakening: New Modes of Life amidst Capitalist Ruins' (Punctum Books), published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. I co-edited this volume with my colleague Professor Anna Grear of Cardiff University. More about the book at the Punctum Books website.
The chapter asks some basic questions about the future of commons within a system of state power and law: Can commoning be affirmatively protected via conventional state law while respecting the integrity of commoning as a post-capitalist social form? Can Vernacular Law and modern law be artfully blended, if only as a makeshift venture?
The essay is about 7,000 words, so it's not a quick read, but it outlines some salient legal challenges that we face in moving commons forward. It feels like a nice companion piece to my recent podcast interview with Janelle Orsi of Sustainable Economies Law Center.
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In recent years, the power and diversity of commoning in contemporary life has increased dramatically. Commoning is both an ancient and rediscovered social form that can be seen in the stewardship of forests, fisheries, and farmland, especially in subsistence and indigenous contexts. It lies at the heart of community land trusts, local currencies, mutual aid networks, and cohousing. It is embodied in community-supported agriculture, agroecology, and permaculture, and in digital spaces that produce open source software, hardware, and design. Commoning is at work in open access scholarly journals, crowdfunding tools, and platform cooperatives, and in academia, arts and culture, and many other realms.
Because commons are strongly inclined to respect ecological limits and devise fair-minded, flexible governance through inclusive participation, they hold great promise in dealing with many societal problems. However, commoning as a legal activity faces an uncertain future. Its practices and values are philosophically alien to many aspects of the liberal market and state and their mutual focus on individualism, calculative rationality, material gain, and market growth. Commoning therefore has trouble gaining legal recognition and support. Indeed, the state is predisposed to ignore the commons, criminalize its activities, or exploit its resources in alliance with the business class.
The commons may be a pariah within the world of conventional politics because it challenges the foundational terms of ideological debate, which presumes that the market and state are ideological adversaries – the “private sector” battling the “public sector.” This is a specious binary because market and state are in fact deeply interdependent and both subscribe to the grand narrative of “social progress through economic growth.” The state looks to the market for economic growth, tax revenues, and social mobility for its citizens, while market players look to the state for a stable legal order, subsidies, state support and privileges, and the mitigation of market abuses (pollution, social disruption, inequality). State and market are so utterly symbiotic it is entirely warranted to speak about the market/state system.
From within this dominant worldview, it is almost a foregone conclusion that collective management of wealth would be seen as a “tragedy of the commons” – the over-exploitation and ruin of a resource. To the guardians of the market/state, after all, individual agency and rights are supreme. Collective action is not perceived as feasible or attractive. By definition, human beings are defined as atomistic individuals, not as co-participants in shared histories, cultures, interests, and values. When people are conceived of as “rational individuals” with boundless “incentives” to take as much as they can, it should not be surprising that heedless consumption and the reckless “externalization of costs” follows.
Now, however, this convenient fiction is starting to fall apart. Critics are increasingly calling out the claim that a commons is simply a selfish free-for-all when, in fact, this scenario more accurately describes what we might call the tragedy of the market. The commons is in fact a durable social form that orchestrates shared intentionality to steward wealth responsibly and inclusively over the long term. In a commons, people willingly negotiate rules of peer governance, resolve group conflicts, and enforce rules. They develop ways to pool and share (or divide up or mutualize) their collective wealth, without resort to a state Leviathan to maintain law, order, and personal safety.
In our legal system -- designed to protect private property, individual rights, and market exchange – it can actually be very difficult to share things legally. Attorney Janelle Orsi found this out the hard way as she worked with co-housing groups, worker cooperatives, and community gardens. “Our clients kept running up against legal barriers that make no sense: employment laws for co-ops in which people are both employer and employee. Landlord-tenant law for cohousing projects in which people are both landlords and tenants.”
Such frustrations led Orsi to co-found (with Jenny Kassan) the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in Oakland, California, in late 2009. It has since become a singlular team of venturesome lawyers attempting creative hacks on antiquated laws and regulations.Their clients are not corporations or other deep-pocket moguls, but grassroots groups, cooperatives, and social justice organizations, especially in the Bay Area.
The story of the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s amazing work is the subject of my latest Frontiers of Commoning podcast, Episode #8. Janelle explains some of the innovative legal strategies that the Law Center uses to try to help cooperatives, commons, low-income communities, and Native Americans, among others. (Full disclosure: I am on SELC’s advisory board.)
“The law treats people as atomized, bounded individuals in conflict with each other, in an attempt to keep people separate,” said Orsi. Much of the work at the Law Center is therefore about coming up with ingenious hacks on the law so that people can solve their problems together. The organization describes its theory of change this way:
“Neither our communities nor our ecosystems are well served by an economic system that incentivizes perpetual growth, wealth concentration, and the exploitation of land and people. Communities everywhere are responding to these converging economic and ecological crises with a grassroots transformation of our economy that is rapidly re-localizing production, reducing resource consumption, and rebuilding the relationships that make our communities thrive."