At a small workshop outside of Paris, France, twenty-two of us – mostly Europeans except for two of us – got together to discuss the economics of the commons from an on-the-ground perspective.  We wanted to identify promising avenues for future research, writing and political action.  This was the third of a series of “Deep Dive” workshops that the Commons Strategies Group, working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, held in the fall of 2012.  The two other ones were held in Bangkok for Asian commoners, and in Mexico City for Latin American commoners.

This gathering, in Pontoise, France, was exciting because the participants were some of the world’s most serious, creative and internationally minded commons activists.  The dialogues took place at La Bergerie, a lovely retreat center run by the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, which graciously hosted the event.  Our talks probed the conflicts and contradictions in commons thinking, and tried to get each of us to look beyond our own issue-silos and subcultures.  I recently completed a 23-page interpretive summary of the workshop, which can be downloaded here

The report examines such issues as how shall we conceptualize the commons; whether commons have intrinsic purpose or not; the tensions between liberal constitutionalism and the commons; and future steps in building a commons paradigm.  Below, I excerpt a few portions of the report that strike me as especially interesting.

After three years of hard work, I am pleased to announce that my new book – co-authored with Professor Burns Weston of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Iowa College of Law – has just been published.  Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons was recently released by Cambridge University Press.  Here is a short summary of the book:

The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree: we have reached a point in history where we are in grave danger of destroying Earth's life-sustaining capacity.  But our attempts to protect natural ecosystems are increasingly ineffective because our very conception of the problem is limited; we treat “the environment” as its own separate realm, taking for granted prevailing but outmoded conceptions of economics, national sovereignty, and international law.  Green Governance is a direct response to the mounting calls for a paradigm shift in the way humans relate to the natural environment.  It opens the door to a new set of solutions by proposing a compelling new synthesis of environmental protection based on broader notions of economics and human rights and on commons-based governance.  Going beyond speculative abstractions, the book proposes a new architecture of environmental law and public policy that is as practical as it is theoretically sound.

The book has a number of significant endorsements.  At the risk of immodesty, here are a few of the blurbs for Green Governance:

James Gustave Speth, Former Dean, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Professor of Law, Vermont Law School:

“When a vital body of existing policy and law has run its course, the need for reinvention becomes urgent. So it is with environmental law and policy. It is therefore exiting that two enormously well-informed and creative thinkers, Burns Weston and David Bollier, have joined forces to produce this breakthrough in environmental governance. Their book is a landmark in our thinking about rights-based environmentalism and the law of the commons and how these fields can combine in a powerful synthesis. We must take these ideas very seriously indeed. Highly recommended.”

For all the enthusiasm that “going local” has garnered in recent years, securing local control as a legal entitlement is generally a very different matter.  Federal and state law tend to place strict limits on what local communities can do to protect themselves from outside commercial forces.

A hearty salute, then, to the path-breaking work by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that provides legal advice and advocacy for municipal governments and, more recently, international allies.  Journalist Barry Yeoman has a terrific profile of CELDF, Rebel Towns,” in the latest issue of The Nation (February 4). 

The truth of the matter is that local communities don’t really have much legal authority to prohibit polluters and extractive industries (mining, water-bottling, timber companies) from coming into their towns and ruining the place.  In the U.S., at least, and in most other places around the world, national governments have the sovereign power to override local authorities, and they are only too willing to do so.  After all, politicians’ partnerships with major industries help grow the economy, boost tax revenues and reap political contributions to repeat the whole cycle. 

Of course, the “market externalities” that result -- poisoned soil, polluted rivers, etc. – aren’t taken into account.  The traditional response of public-interest attorneys is to “work within the system” to deal with these problems, using available laws and judicial processes.

Last November I was lucky enough to be in Berlin when the newly founded Mercator Research Institute for Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) formally presented itself to the world.  I was initially impressed that a new scientific research institute with serious financial backing would make a commitment to studying climate change and the commons. The new Institute even regards the late Elinor Ostrom as a prime inspiration, to the extent of naming its auditorium for her.

I wondered if the new institute would be a fresh opening for some very different conversations about climate change.  I mused that perhaps the Mercator Research Institute could validate the eco-friendly practices of countless commoners around the world.  It might point the way to a different vision of “development” and more meaningful notions of “sustainability.”  It might even force the economics discipline to revisit some of its core assumptions about human cooperation and reinvent itself.

Alas, I now believe that few of these scenarios are likely.  After listening to the four speakers at the MCC’s inaugural one-day conference on November 15, “The Green Growth Dilemma,” the institute seems poised to explore modest, socially minded twists to the standard economic narrative.  In other words, a fairly tame, meliorist agenda within the crumbling edifice of neoclassical economic thought.

There will apparently be no deep critiques of the basic goals, assumptions and methodologies of economics as it is practiced today.  Nor does it seem that the potential of the commons as a form of participatory socio-ecological management will be probed.  That topic lies too far outside the framework of standard economics. Or at least, no one focused on such commons at the institute's inaugural conference.

Social Banking and the Commons

The Swiss are known for their highly secretive banking services for the super-wealthy.  Who would have guessed that they would inaugurate a Summer School on Social Banking and the Commons

The Institute for Social Banking and the Alternative Bank Schweiz are hosting a week-long seminar in the Swiss Alps on “social banks” and how their practices can strengthen the commons.  As the Institute’s website explains, “The Summer School will be a live, working inquiry [that aims] to understand and develop pioneering, entrepreneurial practices and policies that enable the commons to flourish for shared gain.”  The Summer School is intended for up to 100 people who want to learn more about social banking and finance and how they can be used to support the commons.

Among the topics to be discussed:  the commons paradigm; indigenous commons; money and the commons; social banking; the financing of common businesses; and alternative currencies.  The sessions will feature bankers, academics and commoners from all over the world, including Jean-Pierre Caron of the French mutual finance society, La Nef ; Sion Brackenbury, a Wales consultant with Commons Vision who works with business models and the commons; and my colleague Silke Helfrich of Germany, cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group.

There are of course many fascinating new initiatives involving alternative currencies and innovative banking, but I have yet to encounter one that directly addresses the relationship between banking and the commons.  Here’s hoping that the Institute for Social Banking pushes this important line of inquiry many steps forward.

As neoliberal policies put the squeeze on cities, what role can the commons play?  Some commoners in Greece decided to explore this issue by mapping the commons of Athens – and then this year, Istanbul.  The results are an inspiration and prototype for commoners in cities around the world.  The online maps and videos make visible the subjective, experiential commons that sustain people’s daily lives, giving a new twist to the official maps of a city.   

The “Mapping the Commons” project got its start when the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens commissioned the Spanish collective Hackitectura to convene an interdisciplinary group of artists, sociologists, scientists and researchers from universities in Athens.  Hackitectura is a group of architects and programmers that theorizes, and develops projects, that explore how space, electronic flows and social networks converge.  

The Athens project describes itself as “an open collaborative cartography of the contemporary metropolis based on the importance of the commons in times in of disaster capitalism.”  The project explicitly wanted to imagine a new Athens by seeing it through the lens of the commons.  As the organizers put it:  

We propose the hypothesis that a new [view of the] city will come out of the process, one where the many and multiple, often struggling against the state and capital, are continuously, and exuberantly, supporting and producing the commonwealth of its social life.

The workshop will develop collaborative mapping strategies, using free software participatory wiki-mapping tools.

Organizers noted, “Due to our tradition of the private and the public, of property and individualism, the commons are still hard to see for our late 20th century eyes. We propose, therefore, a search for the commons; a search that will take the form of a mapping process. We understand mapping, of course, as proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, and as artists and social activists have been using it during the last decade, as a performance that can become a reflection, a work of art, a social action.”

Smart Phones as Our Modern DataVeils

I’ve always felt that artists will play a leading role in helping us understand the deeper subjective and identity dimensions of commoning.  In Istanbul this past weekend, I encountered a number of artists who confirmed this fact for me.  I was at the “Paratactic Commons” conference, hosted by Istanbul Technical University and Winchester School of Art.  The event brought together a number of artistic interpretations of the commons as well as activist-oriented initiatives on the commons in Turkey. 

I was quite taken by several performance and video works by the Dutch artists Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat.  (I’ll talk about other projects featured at the conference in my next post.)  One of their most provocative works is called Tele_Trust, a performance project that explores how we come to trust each other online.  It explores how our bodies – especially our eyes and sense of touch – are critical to developing trust.  So what does this fact mean as more of our personal and social lives migrate to online platforms?  How do we develop trust there? 

Speaking at the conference, Hermen Maat described how he and his partner wanted to explore the subjective experiences of trust and privacy in a world of ubiquitous personal communications.  We face a paradox in our world of ubiquitous telecommunications:  “While in our changing social eco-system we increasingly demand transparency, we cover our bodies with personal communication technology.”  Our mobile phones function as a kind of “personal armor,” said Maat, covering our bodies and rendering us inaccessible to the public.  And yet we still need to cultivate trust, if only to consummate business deals. 

If our electronic devices function as “digital data veils,” Maat reasoned, why not explore that idea by connecting it to its nearest analogue – the wearing of a burqa? 

Maat and Lancel developed an interactive wearable “DataVeil” to cover one’s entire body.  Gender-neutral and one-size-fits all, it is “inspired by eastern and western traditions, like a monks’ habit, a burqa, Darth Vader, and a 'trustworthy' chalk stripe business suit,” they explain.  “When wearing the DataVeil it functions as a second skin.  Flexible, invisible touch sensors woven into the smart fabric of the veil, transform your body into an intuitive, tangible interface. It is a a membrane for scanning an intimate, networking body experience.”

Belgian Greens Explore a Commons Agenda

The Greens in Belgium have been taking a serious look at the potential of the commons to transform their political agenda.  Last week, a thoughtful 60-page report on a one-day symposium on the commons, "The Commons:  (Co)Managing Commonly Owned Resources" (pdf file), was released.  It describes the highlights of a March 9, 2012, event organized by the Green European Foundation in cooperation with the Belgian Green foundations Oikos and Etopia.  An overview of the symposium is available here.  The full report is here. My previous blog post on this event is here.

The report brings together a number of papers presented at the symposium (including mine).  Here is the contents page:


Conceptual Clarification

The Commons:  DNA of a Revival of Policy Culture (David Bollier)

Science:  The Commons and Knowledge (Valerie Peugeot)

Nature for All, and By All:  The Common Resources of Environmental Infrastructure (Pablo Servigne)

Constructing a New System:  Collectively Produced Common Resources (Maarten Roels)

Reclaiming Finance and the Economy:  Economic Commons (Arnaud Zacharie)

Sharing without Owning:  Genetic Heritage as a Common Resource (Tom Dedeurwaerdere)

Conclusion:  The Commons and Reinventing Prosperity (Tom Dedeurwaerdere and Isabelle Cassiers)

Every year the Elevate Festival in Graz, Austria, awards its International Elevate Award to an exemplary project of commoners, a recognition that comes with a 2,500 euro prize.  Elevate is a rare event that brings together cutting-edge music with leading thinkers about the commons and politics.  What a combo!  I had the privilege to attend four years ago, which led to some collaborations on the commons that continue to this day.

The Elevate Awards don't just recognize past achievements, but also future promise.  As the name "elevate" implies, the awards seek to recognize under-recognized but strong, innovative projects that take account of "the environmental and cultural commons of our planet." 

The 2012 winner of the Elevate Award has just been announced:  the Women’s Network for Sustainable Development in Africa, or REFDAF. The Senegal-based organization is a network of hundreds of grassroots women’s associations in the southern regions of West Africa.  It’s dedicated to the empowerment of women to establish their own livelihoods through sustainable regional production. A live-stream of the awards show on October 28 will be shown here.

On October 11, I gave a talk at the "Economies of the Commons 3 Conference:  Sustainable Futures for Digital Archives."  My remarks were entitled, "The Great Value Shift:  From Stocks to Flows, from Property Rights to Commons."  The text is below.  A video of my talk (29:36 minutes) can be watched here.

This panel is supposed to focus on new forms of value creation in the “audiovisual commons.”  I am not an archivist and I’m not even a techie.  But I have studied the commons quite a bit.  Today I’d like to suggest how the idea of the commons can help us think more clearly how to manage sustainable digital archives in the future.  The commons helps us in a number of ways.  It gives us fresh philosophical premises, ethical principles, valuable legal models, and a worldview that can help us understand value in some new ways. 

A big part of our challenge is simply shedding the comfortable prejudices with which we have been brought up.  Let’s face it, we are creatures of the 20th century and its overweening faith in free markets, private property, technology as the path to “progress.”  It’s not easy to escape this mentality.  Or as John Maynard Keynes put it when trying to introduce his own new ideas to economics:  “The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious.  The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify…into every corner of our minds.”

The ideas behind the commons are actually quite simple and obvious.  It’s about access, sharing, fairness, collaboration and long-term sustainability.  It’s about protecting and expanding a resource.  But living in a culture that celebrates markets, large institutions and copyright has instilled some deep prejudices in us about how the world can and must work.  The language of the commons can help us re-think these assumptions by giving us a new vocabulary and perspective.  And if we’re ingenious enough, it may help us reinvent many contemporary systems of production and distribution as commons.

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