The Lost Right of Gleaning

Amazingly, it is sometimes a criminal act to retrieve food that has been thrown away. Often it is simply seen as culturally inappropriate or embarrassing. But when an estimated $165 billion worth of food gets thrown away in the U.S. every year, surely it’s time to change our attitudes about food waste.

That was the point behind Rob Greenfield's cross-country bicycle trip this fall. To call attention to the amount of food that is wasted, the San Diego activist spent months on the road, surviving entirely on food that he pulled out of dumpsters behind grocery stores and pharmacies.

Typically Greenfield would arrive in town on his bicycle and start to rummage through dumpsters. He usually emerged with perfectly good food – bunches of bananas, apples, boxes of unopened crackers and cookies, packs of soda, bottles of iced tea, and a smorgasbord of other perfectly edible food. Then he would take a photo of the haul of "waste."

In a trip that took him to some 300 dumpsters, Greenfield estimates that he recovered over $10,000 worth of food and fed well over 500 people. On his website, Greenfield posted many photos of his dumpster harvests.

Greenfield said, “I’ve learned that I can roll up in nearly any city across America and collect enough food to feed hundreds of people in a matter of one night. The only thing that limited me was the size of the vehicle I had to transport it. My experience shows me that grocery store dumpsters are being filled to the brim with perfectly good food every day in nearly every city across America, all while children at school are too hungry to concentrate on their studies."  About 50 million of 317 million Americans are food insecure, he notes.

Degrowth, the Book

In industrialized societies, where so many people regard economic growth as the essence of human progress, the idea of deliberately rejecting growth is seen as insane.  Yet that is more or less what the planet’s ecosystems are saying right now about the world economy. It’s also the message of an expanding movement, Degrowth, that is particularly strong in Europe and the global South. 

A few months ago I blogged about the massive Degrowth conference in Leipzig, Germany, that attracted 3,000 people from around the world. The basic point of the discussions was how to get beyond the fetish of growth, intellectually and practically, and how to transform our idea of “the economy” so that it incorporates such important values as democracy, social well-being and ecological limits.

Several of the movement’s leading figures have now released a rich anthology of essays, Degrowth:  A Vocabulary for a New Era (Routledge). It is the first English language book to comprehensively survey the burgeoning literature on degrowth.  More about the book on its website and an amusing three-minute video.  

The editors -- Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Giorgios Kallis – are three scholars at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, and members of the group Research & Degrowth. The editors describe degrowth as “a rejection of the illusion of growth and a call to repoliticize the public debate colonized by the idiom of economism.”  The basic idea is to find new ways to achieve “the democratically-led shrinking of production and consumption with the aim of achieving social justice and ecological sustainability.” 

Here’s how the book jacket describes the volume: 

We live in an era of stagnation, rapid impoverishment, rising inequalities and socio-ecological disasters. In the dominant discourse, these are effects of economic crisis, lack of growth or underdevelopment. This book argues that growth is the cause of these problems and that it has become uneconomic, ecologically unsustainable and intrinsically unjust.

When the language in use is inadequate to articulate what begs to be articulated, then it is time for a new vocabulary. A movement of activists and intellectuals, first starting in France and then spreading to the rest of the world, has called for the decolonization of public debate from the idiom of economism and the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective. ‘Degrowth’ (‘décroissance’) has come to signify for them the desired direction of societies that will use fewer natural resources and will organize themselves to live radically differently. ‘Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a degrowth society might look like.

The Capacity to Perceive the Commons

I increasingly think that anthropologists may have some of the deepest insights into the commons because they have the courage to pierce the veil of cultural norms.  This point was brought home to me by a wonderful essay by anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann of Stanford University in the New York Times.

“Americans and Europeans stand out from the rest of the world for our sense of ourselves as individuals,” she wrote.  “We like to think of ourselves as unique, autonomous, self-motivated, self-made. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed, this is a peculiar idea.”  By contrast, she noted, Asians tend to perceive things in more holistic, contextual ways. 

Social psychology experiments confirm many of these findings about people’s perceptions of interdependence and individualism.  Show Americans an image of fish swimming amidst various seaweed plants, and they will more likely to focus on large fish in the foreground.  But show the same image to Asians and they are more likely to remember first the sea plants and other objects.    

Context or foreground?  People who live in market-based cultures seem to have trained themselves to focus on the salient individuals while literally failing to see or remember the background.  Why might this occur?

Participants in a workshop hosted by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) and the German Institute for Human Rights are featured in a nicely done five-minute video, “A Commons Conversation.” (Tip of the hat to Silke Helfrich.)  It’s a thoughtful introduction to subsistence and traditional commons, especially in Africa. The focus is on secure land tenure and food security.

The July 2014 workshop is in the midst of producing a “Technical Guide on Tenure Rights to Commons” (or “TG Commons,” for short) at the request of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).  The guide seeks to support the adoption of “Voluntary Guidelines for the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT).” 

According to the workshop, the TG Commons will:

provide strategies to overcome the challenges inherent in the recognition and protection of tenure rights to commons. The overall objective of the guide is to contribute to national food security, to secure access to natural resources (especially for marginalized and vulnerable groups), to support human well-being and livelihood, sustainable resource use, and ecosystem functioning. This is particularly timely, since today about three billion rural families’ livelihoods depend on common lands, forests and fisheries. 

The TG commons guidebook is focused on “providing concrete strategies to achieve the recognition and protection of tenure rights to commons."

As one of the countries hardest hit by austerity politics, Greece is also in the vanguard of experimentation to find ways beyond the crisis.  Now there is a documentary film about the growth of commons-based peer production in Greece, directed by Ilias Marmaras. "Knowledge as a common good: communities of production and sharing in Greece” is a low-budget, high-insight survey of innovative projects such as FabLab Athens, Greek hackerspaces, Frown, an organization that hosts all sorts of maker workshops and presentations, and other projects.

A beta-version website Common Knowledge, devoted to “communities of production and sharing in Greece,” explains the motivation behind the film:

“Greece is going through the sixth year of recession. Austerity policies imposed by IMF, ECB and the Greek political pro-memorandum regimes, foster an unprecedented crisis in economy, social life, politics and culture. In the previous two decades the enforcement of the neoliberal politics to the country resulted in the disintegration of the existed social networks, leaving society unprepared to face the upcoming situation.

During the last years, while large parts of the social fabric have been expelled from the state and private economy, through the social movements which emerge in the middle of the crisis, formations of physical and digital networks have appeared not only in official political and finance circles, but also as grassroots forms of coexistence, solidarity and innovation. People have come together, experimenting in unconventional ways of collaboration and bundling their activities in different physical and digital networks. They seek answers to problems caused by the crisis, but they are also concerned about issues due the new technical composition of the world. In doing so they produce and share knowledge.”

George Papanikolaou of the P2P Foundation in Greece describes how peer production is fundamentally altering labor practices and offering hope:  “For the first time, we are witnessing groups of producers having the chance to meet up outside the traditional frameworks – like that of a corporation, or state organization.  People are taking initiatives to form groups in order to produce goods that belong in the commons sphere.”

I don’t normally feature crowdfunding campaigns in my blog because there are so many worthy ones to support.  But here are two projects that I have a special affection for:  An ambitious campaign by CommonsSpark to raise money for a new mapping project called “CommonsScope,” and a set of twelve workshops to build local economies hosted by STIR magazine in the UK. 

Ellen Friedman and her colleagues have done a great job in pulling together an amazing number of maps of commons from around the world, featuring such categories as water, transportation, local commons and art commons. In an Indiegogo campaign that hopes to raise $35,000, CommonSpark plans to build a web catalog of hundreds of commons-related maps, data visualizations, open data, and tools – “a knowledge commons about the commons.”

Friedman also notes that CommonSpark is creating a catalog of commons with thousands of profiles that will communicate the story of each commons (who is the community, what is the resource, what are the commoning practices, where is it located, etc) along with best practices and data visualizations to identify patterns of commoning.

The CommonSpark Collective doesn’t want just want to raise money to build this useful web tool; it wants to attract a larger community to help build and steward the new world atlas of commons. You can help the effort by helping build the inventory of commons, joining the community and contributing to the Indiegogo campaign.  If this is any inducment, I've agreed to be a "reward" for any donor that gives $2,500 or more.

The Art of Commoning

This past weekend I learned a lot about the art of commoning through a process known as The Art of Hosting.  It’s a methodology for eliciting the collective wisdom and self-organizing capacity of a group – which is obviously important for a successful commons. 

We all know that the commons is about the stewardship of resources, but we may not realize that it is also about hosting people.  Not “managing” them or “organizing” them, but unleashing their capacity to self-organize themselves in creative, constructive, humane ways. 

This requires a sensitive touch, an artistic flair and a deep attentiveness to the humanity of other human beings. This is the art of hosting:  an engagement with people as living, feeling, meaning-making creatures who care about fairness, imagination and fun.

Serious observers of the commons often approach it “from the outside,” as if it were an elaborate machine of cogs and pulleys.  But if you approach the commons from within its inner dimensions – how people relate to each other – you are forced to pay more attention to qualitative dimensions and capacities of human beings, including aesthetics, ethics and feelings. Personality and authenticity matter.

The art of commoning, then, is about the graceful, light-touch structuring of people’s distinctive energies, passions and imaginations as they interact in groups.  By modeling certain attitudes toward each other and the world, and by constructing a shared social norm, people learn to give the best of themselves while taking care of each other and their shared social and physical spaces. 

The three-day Art of Commoning event in Montreal  – most of it in French – was hosted by a team of facilitators called Percolab. (Thank you, Elizabeth Hunt and Samatha Slade for your running translations!)  Fittingly, the gathering was held at Espace pour la vie, Space for Living, which is a group of four natural sciences resource institutes in Montreal.  Some collective notes from the gathering (in French and English) can be found here.  

Let it be said that this was not an event of droning keynotes and dreary powerpoints.  It was a lively, highly participatory set of deftly structured encounters among seventy people who care deeply about the commons. 

At one point, people were split up into small groups and one person told a memorable story of commoning – while others were assigned to identify notable aspects of the story – paradoxes, intuitive moments, “tipping points,” and the importance of economic, political and legal structures.  These interpretations really helped bring out revealing themes and meanings in each story.

It’s always been frustrating to me that Europeans and people in the global South appreciate the potential of the commons far more than most Americans, even among political progressives and activists. Happily, this past weekend saw a big shift.  In Rhinebeck, New York, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) – part of the noted Omega Institute retreat center – unleashed a torrent of creative energy and political action by hosting the first major conference of commons activists in North America.

There have, of course, been many smaller gatherings of US and Canadian commoners focused on specific issues such as water, local food, software code and online resources.  Commons scholars have a long history of getting together.  But this conference was different.  It brought together more than 500 participants to catalyze and instigate creative action around the commons. The paradigm clearly has some resonance for this region which is now faced with some serious market enclosures – the dangerous railway transport of oil supplies, the proposed construction of massive electrical transmission towers that will defile the beautiful landscape, and the proposed use of Cooper Lake for bottled water -- along with the usual assaults of neoliberal capitalism. 

“Where We Go From Here” focused directly on the great promise of the commons in re-imagining how we pursue social, political, economic and ecological transformations.  The keynote speakers were fantastic: the tireless environmentalist and eco-feminist activist Vandana Shiva; climate change activist Bill McKibben, still on a high from the successful climate march in NYC; author and futurist Jeremy Rifkin who foresees the rise of the “collaborative commons”; the deeply knowledgeable and witty ecological scholar David Orr of Oberlin College; the flinty, resourceful environmentalist and Native American activist Winona LaDuke, founder of Honor the Earth; the sustainable design architect Bob Berkebile; green jobs advocate and CNN commentator Van Jones; among many others.  I opened the day with an overview of the commons.

The deeply engaged conference participants consisted of environmental, food and social justice activists, the directors of many community projects, academics and students, indigenous peoples activists, a state legislator, permaculturists, Fablab hacktivists, Occupy veterans, and others too diverse to mention.  Most seem to have come from the Hudson River Valley, but quite a few came from the greater New York City region, New England and beyond. 

The economist Paul Samuelson once wrote, “I don't care who writes a nation's laws—or crafts its advanced treaties—if I can write its economics textbooks.” 

What a pleasure to learn that an insurgent team of economists, The Core Project, is about to rewrite the nation’s laws.  The new introductory economics textbook is called The Economy.  It is surely the most daring, cosmopolitan and empirically driven textbook since Samuelson’s tome was unleashed on undergraduates in 1948.  It is also packed with innovations worthy of our digital age. The Core Project’s sardonic tagline says it well:  “Teaching economics as if the last three decades had happened.” 

This is not your grandfather’s econ textbook.  Nor is it an exercise in ideological spin or neoliberal bashing. In both style and substance, Core-Econ (the name for the Core Project's website) shakes off the dreary norms of conventional economics and embraces the critical intelligence of the real world. 

Savor the delicious paradox that The Economy is published as an interactive ebook available for free downloads (pdfs) and printing. It is published under a Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial, NoDerivatives license, demonstrating that a free lunch is entirely feasible (at least for non-rival goods like books).

So far, ten of the twenty-one planned teaching modules have been published online; the remaining ten modules are expected to be completed by the end of 2014. At the moment, the online version is available as a “beta” release, which means that anyone can submit feedback and suggestions to improve the text before its release.

How will agriculture have to change if we are going to successfully navigate past Peak Oil and address climate change?  A new film documentary, Voices of Transition, provides plenty of answers from Transition-oriented farmers in France, Great Britain and Cuba.    

Produced and directed by French/German filmmaker Nils Aguilar, the 65-minute film is “a completely independent, participative film project” that both critiques the problems of globalized industrial agriculture and showcases localized, eco-friendly alternatives. The film features actual farmers showing us their farms and describing the human-scale, eco-friendly, community-based alternatives that they are developing. 

You can watch a trailer of the movie in English, German and French here and read a synopsis here. Go to the film’s website to check out the public screenings and DVD versions that you can buy.  Here is a link to the campaign around the international launch of the film.

Farmer Jean-Pierre Berlan explains the problem with contemporary agriculture:  “Our society is organized in such a way that everything is turned into a commodity. How can such a society develop farming methods that are free of cost? Agronomy should be looking for better methods, but our current farming policy is opposed to that.”   

Once processing and transport are taken into account, industrial agriculture is responsible for around 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, the film explains. To produce on single calorie of food, ten to twenty times that amount of energy are needed.  Almost all government subsidies and R&D budgets are focused on this unsustainable agricultural model – and worse, most of these subsides go to the biggest, most polluting farms.

The results: Heavy chemical use literally kills valuable organisms in the soil, causing a cascade of ecological disruptions. The use of monoculture crops over vast areas of land means that wildlife and biodiversity are declining. And the centralized distribution of food makes the entire system highly vulnerable to the costs of oil and potential disruptions of supply. If trucks were to stop arriving at supermarkets, they would empty within three days.

A French farmer is reintroducing soil-enriching plants in fields, and even trees in fields, because a tree's leaves and roots enrich the soil with organic matter and aerate the soil, allowing living organisms to breathe.”  This kind of “ecological agronomy” helps maintain soil fertility and prevent soil depletion.