David Bollier's blog

Some of you may recall the “Think Global, Print Local” crowdfunding campaign that a consortium of Spanish and Latin American commoners organized to finance the translation of my book, Think Like a Commoner, into Spanish. I’m pleased to report that the book, Pensar desde los comunes: una breve introducción, has now been published. It is the fifth of seven planned translations of my book.

Ten days ago, Medialab-Prado, the pioneering civic and tech research lab in Madrid, hosted a public event for me and the people instrumental in funding and actually doing the Spanish translation. It was a lovely event that showed the depth of interest in the commons in Spain. Marcos García, the head of Medialab, had graciously arranged for a simultaneous translation of my talk, which focused on the origins of the book and current challenges to the commons. Then audience members asked a range of questions that took us into deeper territory.   

We discussed, for example, the role of the commons in piercing the veil of modernity -- the tissue of ideas we have adopted, presuming our own individual agency, rationality and dichotomies separating the world into mind and matter, and into human beings and nature.

We discussed, also, the importance of arts and culture in speaking to our raw humanity in pre-political, pre-cognitive terms. And we addressed some of the difficulties that language poses in speaking about the commons -- because language tends to render invisible many ideas and meanings embedded into words centuries ago.

I loved how a woman from Paraguay explained that in Guaraní, her native language, there are separate words for “we” as in a group of specific people, and “we” as in all living things, human and nonhuman.  As translated into English for me, she also explained that the word “word" and “God” in Guaraní are related; the point seems to be that that one must try to use language to “build on the house of the soul.” A beautiful idea!

On a visit to Barcelona last week, I learned a great deal about the City’s pioneering role in developing "the city as a commons."  I also learned that crystallizing a new commons paradigm – even in a city committed to cooperatives and open digital networks – comes with many gnarly complexities.

The Barcelona city government is led by former housing activist Ada Colau, who was elected mayor in May 2015.  She is a leader of the movement that became the political party Barcelona En Comú (“Barcelona in Common”). Once in office, Colau halted the expansion of new hotels, a brave effort to prevent “economic development” (i.e., tourism) from hollowing out the city’s lively, diverse neighborhoods. As a world city, Barcelona is plagued by a crush of investors and speculators buying up real estate, making the city unaffordable for ordinary people.

Barelona En Comú may have won the mayor’s office, but it controls only 11 of the 44 city council seats. As a result, any progress on the party’s ambitious agenda requires the familiar maneuvering and arm-twisting of conventional city politics. Its mission also became complicated because as a governing (minority) party, Barelona En Comú is not just a movement, it must operationally assist the varied needs of a large urban economy and provide all sorts of public services:  a huge, complicated job.

What happens when activist movements come face-to-face with such administrative realities and the messy pressures of representative politics? This is precisely why the unfolding drama of Barelona En Comú is instructive for commoners. Will activists transform conventional politics and government systems into new forms of governance -- or will they themselves be transformed and abandon many of their original goals? 

The new administration clearly aspires to shake things up in positive, transformative ways.  Besides fostering greater participation in governance, Barelona En Comú hopes to fortify and expand what it calls the “commons collaborative economy” – the cooperatives, commons and neighborhood projects that comprise a remarkable 10% of the city economy through 1,300 ventures.

At least we have some clarity.  The mystifications and rationalizations are evaporating.  If nothing else, the election of Donald Trump illuminates many of the deep structural problems that we need to face squarely.

While most post-election commentary is focused on Trump and the political realignment in Washington, I think the bigger stories are the tectonic shifts in the neoliberal political economy and representative democracy itself.  Both are imploding.  Both are losing credibility as vehicles for human governance and betterment. And yet the lineaments of a new order – a robust realm of social innovation relatively unknown to mainstream politics – remains out of focus.

The election of a narcissistic, authoritarian bigot with no experience in politics and no serious ideas about how to solve the country’s problems, reveals the dysfunctions of the US constitutional system and its two major political parties. The rollicking, vituperative campaigns made for blockbuster TV ratings, but they were a farce in terms of democratic deliberation and governance.

And how could it be otherwise?  The venerable system devised by powdered-wig elites in the late 18th century has been eclipsed by the realities of the 21st century.  Politics is now a self-referential bubble of mass-media spectacle and social media.  As a branch of the entertainment world, it is a highly confected virtual space that caters more to emotional hot buttons and prejudices than rational deliberation or meaningful human dialogue.

Parties can’t help but regard this bizarre, modernist fun house as the real venue for getting and retaining power; solving real problems or fostering real democratic participation is a nostalgic fantasy.  In hindsight, it now seems utterly logical that an outrageous former reality-show star could prevail in this arena – much as Ronald Reagan’s long experience in Hollywood was essential to his success in politics. Let's not pretend that this is "democracy." It's a Roman circus.

For the past several months I've been having conversations with a friend, Dave Jacke, who is a long-time designer of landscape ecosystems via his firm, Dynamics Ecological Design, of Montague, Massachusetts. In his long career in permaculture circles -- he's the author of a classic book Edible Forest Gardens -- Dave came to realize that a "landscape-only" approach to ecosystem design is inadequate. It doesn't deal with human social dynamics and their effects on ecosystems. For my part, I have come to realize that I need to know more about the deep, long-term functioning of ecosystems. I am especially interested in learning concepts and vocabularies that some in permaculture circles use.

So Dave and I decided to share our mutual interests and ignorance, and host a public workshop to investigate this critical nexus between nature and humanity (which of course are not so separate and independent, after all). Our workshop is called "Reinventing the Commons:  Social Ecosystems for Local Stewardship & Planetary Survival."  

The event will consist of a Friday evening talk by each of us on January 20, 2017, and an all-day participatory workshop the next day, January 21, at the Montague (Massachusetts) Common Hall ("Grange"). Pre-registration is required; the public lectures will be $10; the workshop & public lectures $85 to $125.  More details here or by writing Dave Jacke at davej@edibleforestgardens.com. Or register through Brown Paper Tickets (fees apply) at ReinventingCommons.brownpapertickets.com.  

Here is our overview of the workshop and the ground we wish to cover.  

For all its benefits, the dominance of capitalist economics has also generated a world of predatory, extractive markets based on short-term self-interest that is literally destroying the planet. What feasible alternatives exist? This workshop will explore the potential of the commons as a practical and fair system of local provisioning, governance, and culture for transforming society.

From early in human cultural evolution until only a few centuries ago, the vast majority of resources was held and managed in common. Certain groups of people formed agreements about how to use and manage specific shared resources, from woodlands and farm fields to pastures and water, and they managed those resources sustainably for generations. It took the privateers hundreds of years to consolidate their power, control the structures of the state, and exploit cheap energy to destroy the commons systems of Europe and the global South. The unbridled privatization and commoditization of commons that inaugurated the Industrial Revolution continues today, with catastrophic results for planetary ecosystems and social well-being.

This essay was published in Patterns of Commoning, which is now online for free at www.Patternsofcommoning.org.

By Véronique Rioufol and Sjoerd Wartena

A feeling of joy and achievement runs through the group of ten people gathered in Robert’s kitchen. After three years of planning, they have come to celebrate: Ingrid and Fabien will soon be able to settle down and develop their farming business. The farm is theirs!

In this small, pastoral village of the French Pre-Alps, establishing young farmers is an act of will. Everywhere, small mountain farms are closing down; work is hard and the business not deemed profitable enough. When aging farmers retire, they do not find a successor. The best land is sometimes sold off to one of the few more or less industrialized farms that remain. Overall, villages are progressively abandoned or become havens of secondary residences.

In Saint Dizier, a small village of thirty-five inhabitants, local people have decided differently. Municipality members, local residents and farmers have decided to preserve agriculture as a component of local economic activity and lifestyle. They also view farmers as young, permanent residents for the village. So they keep an eye on land put for sale, and have contacted farmers and landowners to learn their plans for the future. The municipal council has sought public subsidies to acquire farmland and rent it to young farmers, but with no success.

In 2006, villagers started to work with Terre de Liens, a recently established civil society organization focused on securing land access for agroecological farmers. Everywhere in France, high land prices and intense competition for farmland and buildings have become a major obstacle for young farmers. Obstacles are even higher for those doing organic agriculture, direct sales or other “alternative” forms of agriculture, which usually are not deemed profitable enough by banks or worthy of public policy support.

This piece by Michael Peter Edson, is part of our celebration of the online release of Patterns of Commoning, an anthology of essays about notable commons from around the world. Edson's essay was originally published in the book, edited by me and Silke Helfrich and now freely accessible at patternsofcommoning.org. All chapters are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

 

Edson is a strategist and thought leader at the forefront of digital transformation in the cultural sector. Formerly with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Edson is now Associate Director/Head of Digital at United Nations Live Museum for Humanity, Copenhagen, Denmark.  The opinions in this essay are his own.

By Michael Peter Edson

 

It was usually a note in the newspaper, a few pages back. Or, if the blaze was big enough and a camera crew arrived quickly, a feature on the evening news. It seems like house fires were more common when I was young, and the story was often the same: “As they escaped their burning home,” the newscaster would say, “they paused to save a single prized possession…” And it was always something sentimental – not jewelry or cash but a family photograph, a child’s drawing, a letter, a lock of hair. Ephemera by any measure, and yet as dear as life itself. Museums are simple places. Libraries and archives too. Collect, preserve, elucidate. Repeat forever. We don’t think about them until the smoke rises, but by then it’s usually too late.

When Hitler ordered the destruction of Warsaw in 1944, the army tried to set the national library – the Biblioteka Narodawa – on fire, but the flames smoldered.[1] It turns out that the collected memory of a civilization is surprisingly dense and hard to burn, so a special engineering team was brought in to cut chimneys in the roof and holes in the walls so the fire could get more air. Problem solved. Museums, libraries and archives are simple places, but once the flames take hold they burn like hell.

The following is an interview that Silke Helfrich gave to Michel Bauwens about the assembling and editing of the anthology Patterns of Commoning, which has recently been posted online at Patternsofcommoning.org. In coming weeks, I will be posting selected chapters from the book here.

Bauwens: Silke, could you first give some background about yourself and your collaboration with David Bollier in editing your books about the commons?

Helfrich: I feel cosmopolitan, but my roots are in the hilly countryside of East Germany, near the German border — the “system border” between capitalism and socialism until 1989. I currently live in Jena, Germany, and will soon move to the South where I will try to remodel a house that is exactly 500 years older than I am. This is an experience that makes me feel humbled because it brings me face-to-face with the realities of making something “sustainable.”

Since 2007 I have work closely with David Bollier, an American activist. We often describe what we do (along with you, Michel Bauwens, the third member of the Commons Strategies Group) as “seeding new conversations.” Just like farmers, we cannot really know how big and copious the harvest will be, or when exactly it will come. But we keep seeding to help making the commons visible at different levels:

1. As collective resources, both material and immaterial, which need protection and require a lot of knowledge and know-how;
2. As social processes that foster and deepen thriving relationships; and
3. As a new mode of production that I call the Commons-Creating Peer Economy, or Commons-Oriented Economy.

I’d even say that there is a fourth level: the Commons as a worldview, as the expression of an ongoing paradigm shift now underway.

B: Is Patterns of Commoning an effort to sow seeds that will make the commons visible?

H: Absolutely! It is the second of three books that explore different aspects of the commons. The first began in 2010, when together with David and almost 80 contributors from all over the world, and thanks to the tremendous support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we started to work on an anthology called The Wealth of the Commons. That book was originally planed to sketch out the philosophical and policy foundations for a commons-friendly politics. But we quickly realized that we first had to introduce the commons and explain why we believe that commons having very different practices and resources – so-called traditional commons of land and water, for example, and digital commons on the other hand – are in fact related. They may look very different based on the resources managed, but in essence they have a lot in common – a social commitment to manage the resources responsibly, fairly and in inclusive ways.

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The Wealth of the Commons became longer and longer, and so we ended up doing what commoners often do when there is an unsolvable conflict: we forked the project. David and I started thinking about a volume 2, which in 2015 became Patterns of Commoning, an anthology of profiles of successful commons and an exploration of the inner dimensions of commoning. Mid-way through this book, after maybe a dozen of concept versions of it, we realized that all good things come in threes, so we committed to a third volume, this one on the macro-political, economic and cultural dimensions of a commons-based society.

I’m pleased to report that Patterns of Commoning is now available online.  The book – a collection of more than 50 original essays about lively, productive commons – is the most accessible and far-ranging survey of contemporary commons in print.

The anthology features profiles of such innovative commons as Farm Hack, a global network that makes open source farm equipment…. the Bangla-Pesa currency that has helped revive a poor neighborhood in Kenya…. a collaborative online mapping project that help humanitarian rescue efforts….the theater commons HowlRound, the Obstea forest commons of Romania, and the water committees of Cochabamba, Bolivia.

When my co-editor Silke Helfrich and I published the book a year ago with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we deliberately bypassed commercial publishers because they demand too much control and deliver too little in return. We self-published the book with the help of dozens of commoners who pre-ordered the book, and then printed and distribute it via Off the Commons Books in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Since we have retained control over the copyright and publication, we were able to use a Creative Commons license and post the book on the Web.  This is what we also did for our previous anthology, The Wealth of the Commons, whose website continues to get a lot of readers worldwide.

So head on over to the website for Patterns of Commoning, and check out the many fantastic chapters, each on its own webpage.  Don’t be shy about buying a printed copy of the book via Off the Common Books or, if you must, Amazon.com. Because of our commons-based publishing scheme, we are able to offer a handsome 405-page softcover book for only $15 plus postage.

Ebook versions are available in Kindle, Nook and ePub formats.  Outside of the US, the book can be ordered from Central Books in London. The German edition of the book -- Die Welt der Commons Muster gemeinsamen Handelns, published by transcript Verlag – can be found here. 

In the burgeoning genre of books focused on building a new and benign world order – a challenge variously known as the “new economy,” “Great Transition,” and the “Great Turning” among other terms) – John Thackara’s new book stands out.  How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today is low-key and sensible, practically minded and solidly researched.  Written in an amiable, personal voice, the book is persuasive and inspirational.  I can only say:  Chase it down and read it! 

It’s a shame that so many brave books that imagine a post-capitalist world surrender to grandiose theorizing and moral exhortation.  It’s an occupational hazard in a field that is understandably wants to identify the metaphysical and historical roots of our pathological modern times.  But critique is one thing; the creative construction of a new world is another.

That’s why I found Thackara’s book so refreshing.  This British design expert, a resident of southwest France, wants to see what the design and operation of an ecologically sustainable future really looks like, close-up.  He is also thoughtful enough to provide some depth perspective, following his own motto, “To do things differently, we need to see things differently.”

How to Thrive in the Next Economy seeks to answer the question, “Is there no escape from an economy that devours nature in the name of endless growth?”  The short answer is Yes!  There is an escape.  As Thackara shows us, there are scores of brilliant working examples around the world that demonstrate how to meet our needs in more responsible, fair and enlivening ways.

He takes us by the hand to survey a wide variety of exemplary models-in-progress.  We are introduced to scientists and farmers who are discovering how to heal the soil by treating it as a living system.  We meet urbanists who are re-thinking the hydrology of cities, moving away from high-entropy engineered solutions like reservoirs and sewers, to smaller, localized solutions like wetlands, rain gardens, ponds and worm colonies.  Other bioregionalists are attempting to de-pave cities and bring permaculture, gardens, “pollinator pathways” and informal food systems into cities.

Yesterday evening, Thom Hartmann, the progressive talk show host, interviewed me on his "Conversations with Great Minds" national TV show.  The first 12-minute video segment can be seen here, and the second one here. I don't think the commons has ever had this much airtime on American (cable) television.

A big salute to Thom for hosting this kind of material on his show. He is a rare creature on American TV and radio -- an intelligent progressive willing to give airtime to ideas from outside the Washington, D.C. echo chamber. Since the retirement of Bill Moyers, there are very few American TV personalities who actually read history, understand how it informs contemporary politics, and give sympathetic exposure to movement struggles seeking social and economic transformation. 

Since I'm sharing links, let me also share the link to my 20-minute presentation yesterday at Ralph Nader's conference, "Breaking Through Power.org" conference, which is being held this week in Washington, D.C.  My talk, "Controlling What We Own -- Defending the Commons," can be seen here at the timemark 5:35:15.

Check out the other presentations on this eight-hour video from Real News Network -- some amazing segments by folks like John Bogle, William Lerach, Ellen Brown and others focused on corporate governance, power and financial abuses.

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