David Bollier's blog

A fascinating new report just published by Co-operatives UK describes the huge potential of community land trusts and other forms of mutual housing and enterprise. Commons Sense:  Co-operative place making and the capturing of land value for 21st century Garden Cities brings together a wealth of insight into the practical solutions that community land trusts (CLTs) can provide. 

By converting land into commonwealth – capturing escalating land values for everyone’s benefit – it is possible to make housing more affordable and to finance all sorts of infrastructure and services that make communities more stable, attractive and thriving.  What’s not to like?  (Well, if you’re a bank, private landowner or speculator, you may not like the competition of a superior financial model.)

The Commons Sense report, edited by Pat Conaty of Cooperatives UK and Martin Large of Stroud Common Wealth, succinctly describes the basic problem:

The high cost of housing is draining money out of the productive economy, mainly through land and house price inflation, with damaging effects for national and individual household budgets.  Many new homes are unaffordable to ordinary working people, some offer poor value for money in terms of quality or construction, design and energy performance, and cost pressures frequently drive out good design in the spaces between buildings and in the concept of supporting new neighbourhoods.  Many new developments are socially, environmentally and economically obsolete from the moment they are conceived, let alone designed or built.

Conaty and Large note that in Britain, only 0.6% of the population – 36,000 people – own about half of the land.  This is a significant structural reason for soaring housing prices and continuing wealth inequality.

A New Zealand publication, Freerange, has published an artful collection of essays about the commons for a popular readership.  The publication focuses on a wide range of commons themes, including urban commons, global pharmaceuticals, Maori society, the commons possibilities in food activism, and early childhood education as a commons.  A free download can be had here, or a beautifully designed print version can be ordered here.

I was captivated by an interview with Anne Salmond, a New Zealand historian and anthropologist, who pondered the different cosmological outlooks of Māori, as commoners, and Westerners, as neoliberals.  She notes that, for the West, “the Order of Things, which is based on Cartesian logic, divides mind from matter, the observer from the observed, and culture from nature…..”  

But for the Māori, not to mention quantum physics, brain sciences and the life sciences, a very different order prevails – “the Order of Relations.”  This worldview, she explains, bases its forms of order on “complementary pairs of elements and forces linked in open-ended arrays, often ordered as networks or webs (for example, the internet), interacting in exchanges that drive change while working toward equilibrium.” 

Such relational perspectives are much more adaptive and open to collaboration and incoroproation of other ideas, says Salmond, than the non-adaptive myths of Western thought” that are destroying our bio-physical systems.  It is easy to slip into the dualism of Western thought that polarizes “the material” with “the spiritual.”  The point is that in relational worldviews, the two are integrated.

In an essay, Barnaby Bennett reflects on “the commons that can’t be named” -- and that therefore remain invisible  He notes that our own language establishes “a veil between our lives and that which-is-not-named, the things and stuff that are too big, too small, too complex, too profound, too obvious, too complete or too ubiquitous to see.  In doing so it is too easy to forget the common grounding of reality.”

On the eve of Thanksgiving here in the US, Andro Linklater, the author of a new book, Owning the Earth:  The Transforming History of Land Ownership (Bloomsbury), describes how the Pilgrims imposed their notions of private property on the land commons in the New World.  The consequences – while perhaps inevitable, whether from them or other settlers – were nonetheless pivotal in the future development of America.  Lanklater published an excerpt of his book recently on the Bloomberg News website. (Tragically, Linklater died a week before his book’s publication on November 12.)

In 1623, William Bradford, the future governor of the colony, declared that land would be privately owned and managed, with each family assigned a parcel of land “according to the proportion of their number.”  This decision had profound effects on how individual Pilgrims managed their land and related to each other.  

As Bradford wrote:  ‘‘And no man now thought he could live except he had catle and a great deale of ground to keep them all, all striving to increase their stocks. By which means they were scattered all over the bay quickly and the towne in which they lived compactly till now was left very thinne.’’ You might say that private property rights in land were the beginning of suburban sprawl. 

Linklater points out that the native people, the Wampanaog, had allowed individual parcels of land to be used and occupied by individual families, but no one could have exclusive, permanent ownership of the land.  As the Wampanaog leader Massasoit explained:  ‘‘The land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish, and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?’’

Five years ago I wrote about the concept of “sousveillance,” which was then a budding counterpoint to surveillance. Surveillance, of course, is the practice of the powerful monitoring people under their dominion, especially people who are suspects or prisoners – or today, simply citizens.  Sousveillance -- “to watch from below” – has now taken off, fueled by an explosion of miniaturized digital technologies and the far-reaching abuses of the surveillance market/state. 

Following my earlier post on corporate espionage of activists, I figured it was an appropriate moment to revisit this topic.  As it happens, the fellow who coined the term “sousveillance,” in 1998 -- Steve Mann, a pioneer in “wearable computing” who teaches at the University of Toronto – has recently written two terrific essays on the subject.  Both were released at the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers] International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS) in June 2013. 

Mann argues that sousveillance is an inevitable trend in technological societies and that, on balance, it “has positive survival characteristics.”  Sousveillance occurs when citizens record their encounters with police, for example. This practice exposed the outrageous police brutality against Occupy protesters (blasts of pepper spray in their faces at point-blank range) and helped transform small citizen protests against Wall Street into a global movement.

In the first of his paired essays, Mann writes:

We now live in a society in which we have both “the few watching the many” (surveillance), AND “the many watching the few” (sousveillance).  Widespread sousveillance will cause a transition from our one-sided surveillance society back to a situation akin to olden times when the sheriff could see what everyone was doing AND everyone could see what the sheriff was doing.  We name this neutral form of watching “veillance” – from the French word “veiller,” which means“to watch.”  Veillance is a broad concept that includes both surveillance (oversight) and sousveillance (undersight), as well as databeillance, uberveillance, etc.

It follows that: (1) sousveillance (undersight) is necessary to a healthy, fair and balanced society whenever surveillance (oversight) is already being used; and (2) sousveillance has numerous moral, ethical, socioeconomic, humanistic/humanitarian and practical justifications that will guarantee its widespread adoption, despite opposing sociopolitical forces.

(This passage is from “Veillance and Reciprocal Transparency:  Surveillance versus Sousveillance, AR Glass, Lifeglogging and Wearable Computing,” available as a pdf download here. A companion essay, “The Inevitability of the Transition from a Surveillance-Society to a Veillance-Society:  Moral and Economic Grounding for Sousveillance,” can be found here.

There are the official stories that we tell ourselves about constitutional democracy and citizen rights -- and then there are the ugly political realities of the struggle against unaccountable power.  Gary Ruskin, a veteran activist (most recently in the California voter initiative for GMO labeling), shines a bright light on the latter in a new report, Spooky Business:  Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations (pdf file), just published by Essential Information

Ruskin’s report exposes a world about which we have only fragmentary, accidental knowledge.  But enough IS known to confirm that large corporations carry out a broad range of corporate espionage activities against citizen activists for exercising their constitutional rights (to petition their government for change and to publicly speak out on public policies).  

“The corporate capacity for espionage has skyrocketed in recent years,” writes Ruskin.  “Most major companies now have a chief corporate security officer tasked with assessing and mitigating ‘threats’ of all sorts – including from nonprofit organizations.  And there is now a surfeit of private investigations firms willing and able to conduct sophisticated spying operations against nonprofits.”  Many of these “security” personnel are former intelligence, military and law enforcement officers who once worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), US military, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Secret Service and local police departments. 

None of this should be entirely surprising.  The early labor movement in the US was often illegally attacked and infiltrated by Pinkerton thugs.  In 1965, General Motors notoriously hired private detectives to investigate Ralph Nader’s private life and try to dig up incriminating information about him.  Nader, then a 31-year-old unknown, had just published a book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which exposed the designed-in dangers of automobiles.  The revelation of GM’s tactics and its awareness of its cars’ defects unleashed a ferocious backlash, enough to make Nader a famous crusader and to spur enactment of a new federal agency to regulate auto safety.  More recently, police and corporate infiltration of the Occupy movement has occurred.  (David Graeber’s recent book, The Democracy Project, has some good accounts of this.  See also The Progressive magazine.)

While Ruskin concedes that his accounts represent only “a few snapshots, taken mostly at random arising from brilliant strokes of luck,” his report documents an alarming range of acts of corporate espionage or planned espionage.  Among the highly unethical and/or illegal acts committed:  surveillance, infiltration, manipulation and dirty tricks.

Writer’s Voice, a national radio show and podcast featuring authors, recently devoted an hour to talking with me about the commons. The chief focus was on my new book co-authored with Burns Weston, Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, which Cambridge University Press published in January. 

Our book recovers from history many fragments of what we call “commons-based law” from such sources as Roman law, the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest, and public trust doctrine governing natural resources.  We also point to many modern-day analogues such as international treaties to manage Antarctica and space as commons. We wish to show that commons-based law is in fact a long and serious legal tradition – but one that has also been quite vulnerable, particularly over the past two centuries as market-oriented priorities have eclipsed the commons. 

Burns Weston and I argue that the right to a clean and healthy environment, and to access to nature for subsistence (as opposed to for profit-making market purposes), should be recognized as a human right.  The right to meet one’s everyday household needs – by responsibly managing forests, pasture, orchards and wild game as a commons – was recognized by the Charter of the Forest, adopted by King Henry III, the son of King John, in 1217.

This right was essentially a right to survive because commoners depended on the forest for food, fuel, economic security and other basic needs. Such precedents ought to inform our discussions today, when the rights of investors and markets in effect override any human right to survival (consider the many free trade treaties that override democratic sovereignty, ecological protections and local control).

Homegrown Urban Parks in Toronto

To the people of Toronto, city parks are not something that the city government simply provides.  They are a passion that engages ordinary citizens acting as commoners.  A great example is the Homegrown National Park, a new green corridor in the heart of Toronto that the David Suzuki Foundation is building with the help of 21 “Neighborhood Park Rangers” and 14 partner groups. 

Taking inspiration from authors Richard Louv and Douglas Tallamy, who have written about our extreme alienation from nature and its negative effects on our well-being, the Homegrown National Park is building green space along the path of a “lost river” in Toronto, Garrison Creek, that was built over many years ago. The project also wants to connect all the “islands of green” in the city into an interconnected ecological space.

What makes the Homegrown National Park so unusual is its mobilization of citizens.  The idea is not just to build another park – which would be a fine and welcome mission -- but to re-connect people to nature.  It aims to help people step up to the responsibilities and pleasures of acting as stewards of their own urban spaces.  Volunteers are invited to plant native trees and shrubs, cultivate spaces for birds and butterflies, and help people grow food in their backyards and balconies.  You can watch a video of the project here.  (Thanks for the alert on this project, Paul Baines!)

The election of Bill de Blasio as Mayor of New York City suddenly presents a rich opportunity to reclaim a commons-based resource that the Bloomberg administration was on the verge of giving away. I’m talking about the pending introduction of a new Internet “Top Level Domain” for New York City, .nyc.   

Top Level Domains, better known as TLDs, are the regions of the Internet denoted by .com, .org and .edu.  They amount to Internet “zones” dedicated to specific purposes or countries.  Over the past few years, far beyond the radar screen of ordinary mortals, the little-known Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – which manages TLDs -- has been pushing the idea of TLDs for cities.  If Paris wants to have its own Internet domain -- .paris – it can apply for it and get it.  Rome could have its own .rome and London could have .london. 

New Yorker Thomas Lowenhaupt of Connectingnyc.org – a long-time advocate for treating the TLD as a shared resource – has written, “I’ve often thought of the .nyc TLD in its entirety as a commons -- that the .nyc TLD is a digital commons that we all need to protect as we today (seek to) protect our physical streets and sidewalks by not littering, and provide clean air, parks, schools, health care, fire and police protection, and the like, to our built environment so that it best serves 8,200,000 of us.”

Here are some examples that Lowenhaupt has come up with for how .nyc could make New York City more accessible and navigable: 

The idea is that Internet users could use the TLDs to access various aspects of city life by using them in creative ways.  Instead of having to rely on Google to search for museums in New York (which would yield thousands of not-very-well-organized listings), you could use museums.nyc and find everything laid out more intelligently.  Or if you were new to Brooklyn Heights, you could go to brooklynheights.nyc and find all sorts of civic, community and commercial website listings for that neighborhood – the library, recycling resources, parking rules, links to relevant city officials.  And yes, the businesses. The possibilities are endless -- and potentially enlivening for a city.

Farmers in the small town of Hoxie, Kansas, have been pumping water out of the Ogallala Aquifer six times faster than rain can naturally recharge it.  This is a big deal because most of the town depends upon the flow of water to grow corn, which is the mainstay of the local economy.  But here’s the remarkable thing:  In order to preserve the water at sustainable levels, the farmers have agreed among themselves to cut back on their use of the water by 20 percent for five years. 

As Dan Charles of National Public Radio reported (October 21):

A few years ago, officials from the state of Kansas who monitor the groundwater situation came to the farmers of Hoxie and told them that the water table here was falling fast. They drew a line around an area covering 99 square miles, west of the town, and called together the farmers in that area for a series of meetings.

They told the farmers that the water was like gasoline in the tank. If every one agreed to use it more sparingly, it would last longer.

Proposals to cut back water for irrigation have not been popular in parts like these, to say the least. In the past, farmers across the American West have treated them like declarations of war. Raymond Luhman, who works for the groundwater management district that includes Hoxie, says that’s understandable: “Many of them feel like the right to use that water is ...” he says, pausing, “it's their lifeblood!”

It’s also their property. Under the law, it’s not clear that any government can take it away from them, or order them to use less of it.

But in Hoxie, the conversation took a different turn.

Contrary to the “tragedy of the commons” parable, which holds that no single farmer would have any incentive to rein in his or her water consumption, the farmers of Hoxie found a way to cooperate and overcome their over-consumption problem.  They came up with a set of rules to reduce their water usage for a five-year trial run; had the state government make it a formal requirement; and installed meters on everyone’s pumps to verify compliance. 

“Love, Me, I’m a Liberal”

Maybe it’s time for the commons and liberalism to have a frank talk.  Liberals would seem to be natural allies of the commons; they certainly often profess its values and goals, however superficially.  But the politics that liberals generally deliver -- even in their re-branded guise as “progressives” – tends to be seriously disappointing.   

Consider this little vignette recounted by the New York Times last week.  It was a story about declining sales for soda, the rising popularity of water and First Lady Michelle Obama’s role as a cheerleader for healthy choices.  This paragraph jumped out at me:

“Last month, Michelle Obama heavily endorsed water, teaming up with Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé Waters, among others, to persuade Americans to drink more of it.  Health advocates complained that Mrs. Obama had capitulated to corporate partners by not explaining the benefits of water over the sodas they sell and that her initiative promoted even greater use of plastic bottles when she could have just recommended turning on the tap.”

What could be more quintessentially liberal:  sincere, passionate commitment to a laudable social goal (drinking water instead of sugary soda) but no willingness or courage to fight for the right choice – tap water.  The reason is fairly obvious:  What would the corporate benefactors think?

The corporate backers of the First Lady's anti-obesity campaign are only too willing to bask in the socially minded glow. The brand director for Dasani, the bottled water brand sold by Coca-Cola, proudly declared, “…We are looking to lead in packaging and sustainability because those things also matter to out customers.” 

Yes, let’s sell more bottled water in “sustainable” plastic bottles.

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