Omega Institute Hosts First Major North American Conference of Commons Activists

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. 

It was clear that the organizers of the event, particularly Omega Institute CEO Robert “Skip” Backus and OCLS director Laura Weiland, wanted to explore how the commons might serve as a template for political and social change, especially in their bioregion. In that, they succeeded wildly. I have not seen such spontaneous collaboration and energy among strangers at a conference since the International Commons Conference in Berlin in 2010. 

I think a lot had to do with the inclusive spirit and humanist framing of the event. It did not start with a specific policy orientation or political tribalism. Everyone was welcome; everyone had a seat at the table. This was subtly signaled by the prominent role of music and art at the conference, and by the roles given to people you don’t normally expect at “big think” conferences:  a group of high school students who are trying to reclaim the NYC harbor for oysters, through the “Billion Oyster Project”; a sustainable education and action group Groundwork Hudson Valley, that works with young people in underserved communities such as Yonkers; and a 14-year-old Native American climate change activist, Xiutezcatl Martinez, who performed his own Native American rap protest songs with his brother.  This was a conference for everyone, not just for experts or policy wonks. 

The brief yoga meditations at the beginning of sessions – by Leslie Booker, who teaches yoga to incarcerarted youth and front-line activists – helped remind people that we are, in fact, corporeal beings with deep consciousness, not just cognitive minds. The large murals of “group graphics” drawn in real-time by facilitator/artist David Hasbury helped people “see” each presentation in visual terms. Two large-scale art installation pieces in the auditorium – a high-voltage electrical tower and a series of railway “bomb cars” for transporting oil – served as quiet, vivid witnesses to enclosures that now threaten the Hudson River Valley. 

It is impossible for me to encapsulate the richness of the two-and-a-half days, but let me mention a few of the things that I found notable.

Bill McKibben gave a sober, understated but terrifying account of the ecological and social upheavals that will occur if we do not curb carbon emissions very soon.  As Washington dithers and denies the reality of climate change, McKibben’s slides of 350.org protesters from Afghanistan to Aspen, Colorado, and the Maldives to Ethiopia, made clear that the political mainstream is in the grip of a dangerous insanity for which the only rational response is civil disobedience.

Vandana Shiva described how Monsanto and GMOs are sabotaging the natural workings of seeds, interfering with the creative, evolutionary unfolding of life itself.  She described how nearly 300,000 Indian farmers, hopelessly in debt after switching to GMO seeds, have committed suicide since 1995. 

Winona LaDuke, who ran for vice president in 2000 as part of Ralph Nader’s presidential bid, explained how the spiritual grounding of so many Native American tribes gives them a “code of ethics when we harvest,” which lets them recognize the bounty of nature as gifts.  “Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth,” as she puts it.  All living creatures as related, she said, “whether we have wings, hoofs, fins or paws.” 

Jeremy Rifkin, author of the recent book The Zero-Marginal Cost Society, described the growing importance of “collaborative commons” as new digital technologies lower the marginal costs of things to near zero.  He contends this is will result in the “eclipse of capitalism” over the course of the next fifty years, and that the rise of the “Internet of Things” – in which computerized devices and sensor-equipped objects are networked – will radically change the contours of the economy by changing the economics of logistics, transportation and production.

Bob Berkebile, a noted designer of green buildings and community planner, described a process that he calls “urban acupuncture” – intervening at certain nodes in distressed urban neighborhoods (especially his hometown, Kansas City) so that natural community energies can flow in more constructive ways.  He talked about renovating an derelict public school building, for example, and turning an old skyscraper into a “vertical neighborhood.”  “There is no power greater than a community that discovers what it cares about,” he noted.  One of his signature innovations is the Living Building Challenge 2.0, which sets goals for green design well beyond those of even the LEED Platinum for eco-responsible buildings.  In his supposed retirement, Berkebile works to rebuild distressed urban areas

David Orr, a leading ecological scholar at Oberlin College, gave a tour de force overview of how we might realistically make the trek to a sustainable economy, and what that would entail.  He called his talk, “We’re Going to Montana,” based on the plotline of Larry McMurtry’s book Lonesome Dove about clueless cowboys making their way to the lush, green landscape of their imagination, Montana. 

Videos of all of these talks will soon be put on the Omega Institute website.  I’ll post an update with links when that happens.

If one thing was clear after these brilliant presentations, it was that the usual market-based and liberal-minded answers are no longer credible. They won’t get us to where we need to go. And yet the alternatives are not adequately in focus, either. That is the work that awaits us.

I think the commons has the potential to bring the future into sharper focus, if only because the commons discourse stands outside of market culture and can critique it intelligently and systematically, in non-ideological, humanistic terms, while mobilizing people to collaborate on a new vision.  The commons can politically validate all sorts of decentralized, non-market activities that are otherwise seen as marginal or “merely cultural.”  It can knit together disparate initiatives at the local level that may seem scattered and unrelated, and make them more “culturally legible.” The commons can also show, finally, how the pathologies of diverse market enclosures – of water, land, soil, seeds, and much else – are systemic and related.

In the aftermath of this landmark conference, it’s unclear what may happen next.  Can the ideas and activities of the participants somehow be consolidated and extended?  Can the participants, especially those of the Hudson River Valley, be brought into a sustained conversation and coordinated action? Let’s hope so.  

I came away feeling that the conference was a rich exploration of “what it means to be human” in the twilight of modernity, when the finite limits of the earth are becoming painfully evident yet we remain immured within archaic notions of governance, politics, culture and consciousness. How to break out and find the way forward? 

For me, the gathering will stand as a rare moment in an American context in which the promise of the commons came into clear, compelling relief. Hundreds of people sharing the same space experienced some intelligent, informed explorations about an alternative future that could actually work. There is hope. Fortunately, the Hudson River Valley has a rich, imaginative and forward-looking culture – and also, through the Omega Institute, an institution with a deep understanding of the commons and what could be. I'm eager to see what may emerge.
 

Update:  Here are some highlights from the conference -- notable quotes from various speakers and a resource guide