To my readers -- my apologies for my infrequent posts over recent weeks.  I’ve been overwhelmed with a writing deadline on my Commons Law Project, happily sidetracked by a vacation, and attending a conference.  But I promise to be posting more frequently in coming weeks and months.

My visit to the Vis Green Academy in Croatia last week taught me more about the transnational scourge of enclosure and the potential of the commons as a lingua franca for resistance.  The occasion was a major gathering of 200-plus Green Party activists and elected officials throughout eastern Europe, but especially Croatia.  Held on the lovely island of Vis, a former Yugoslavian military base until 1992, the gathering was entitled, “The Crisis of Political Imagination – and the Transformation of Green Politics."

The recurrent pattern of enclosure in Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Herezogovina and other parts of the region is commercial development of urban public spaces and government collusion with speculators and developers in giving away prime coastal real estate.  Corruption is rife.  Political transparency is rare.  Civil society is weak.

One of the most penetrating essays on the commons that I have encountered in the last few years was published this year by Italian comparative law professor Ugo Mattei, who teaches at the International University College of Turin (Italy) and the University of California, Hastings College of Law.  Professor Mattei deals with a topic that gets very little attention – how the commons relates to the State and Market – and does so in the broadest philosophical scope imaginable and with great sophistication.

So far as I can tell, Mattei’s essay, “The State, the Market, and Some Preliminary Question about the Commons,” (in English and French) written this year, has not been published in any scholarly journal.  This is not entirely surprising:  the short essay is too cutting-edge for in its theorizing, and the commons itself elicits limited interest in mainstream academic disciplines beyond the ritualistic flogging of Hardin’s “tragedy” essay.

Professor Mattei starts by pointing out how the categories of “public” and “private” impoverish the possibilities of modern political life.  The former is seen as the realm of the State and citizens, and the latter is the realm of the market and private property.  All of politics is framed by this axis, casting us as “for” or “against” the Market or the State, respectively.  But the very idea of “public vs. private” is, as Mattei puts it, “a distinction without a difference,” one that furthermore shuts down other ways of being, knowing and seeking change. 

The Healing Logic of the Commons

I gave the following talk at the Caux Forum for Human Security in Montreux, Switzerland, on July 13, 2011. 

The commons is, at its core, a very old – and a very new, recently rediscovered – system of governance for managing resources.  It has deep roots in history as a system of self-provisioning and mutual support.  It is also a way of being a human being that goes beyond the selfish, rational, utility-maximizing model of homo economicus that economists say we are.  The commons presumes that humans are more complex, and that more holistic, humane types of human behavior can be “designed into” our governance institutions. 

In its largest sense, the commons is about stewardship of the things that we own in common as human beings.  It’s about ensuring that we protect them and pass them on, undiminished, to future generations. 

Let me add, the commons is also a growing trans-national movement that manifests itself in many different ways.  The commons extends from cyberspace to the many commons of agro-ecological knowledge managed by indigenous peoples.  It reaches from the world’s city squares and parks that are the cradles of community, to the vast repositories of information and creative works that must be shared if they are to be kept alive.

The Commons, Short and Sweet

I am always trying to figure out how to explain the idea of the commons to newcomers who find it hard to grasp.  In preparation for a talk that I gave at the Caux Forum for Human Security, near Montreux, Switzerland, I came up with a fairly short overview, which I have copied below.  I think it gets to the nub of things. 

The commons is….

  • A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity. 
  • A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.

Common Healing, a New Film

Kevin Hansen has released a twenty-minute trailer – really, more of an excerpt or preview – to his new film, Common Healing, which surveys the commons in a variety of international settings.  The film contains some beautiful, inspiring vignettes, and is a great introduction to the commons.

Hansen has traveled the world capturing some wonderful images of working commons and the people who rely upon them.  There is the Amazon Theatre Plaza in Manaus, Brazil, a gorgeous urban space in which people carry out their community life; the Gulf Coast off of Louisiana, which was decimated by the BP oil spill at the expense of shrimp and fishing fleets; and the climate talks in Cancun, Mexico.

Hansen also traveled to the Internatiional Commons Conference in Berlin last November, where he filmed a number of commons advocates describing various enclosures and explaining why and how the commons is important.  Distilling some of the lessons from his travels, Hansen has prepared a short statement, “Twelve Benefits of a Commons-Based Approach,” which is included on the Vimeo website for the film.  Here’s his list:

One: A commons approach is actionable now. It can resolve stalled situations by providing new opportunities for movement. A commons framing does not require government approval as a prerequisite.

Two: A commons approach is declarative. By invoking action via a declaration, it redefines the entire situation on commons terms. The striking act of declaring a new sovereignty over a commons could garner wide interest.

Welcome Libres Savoirs!

For those of you who read French, a terrific new collection of 30 essays about the commons of knowledge has just been published.  Libres Savoirs:  les biens communs de la connaissance, edited by the French organization Vecam, features essays from authors around the world writing about the knowledge commons.  The pieces focus on educational resources, open source software, open access publishing, the patenting of seeds, health, the commons as a movement, and many other topics. 

Among the authors: Charlotte Hess, Prabir Purkayastha & Amit Sengupta, Jean-Claude Guédon, Philippe Aigrain, Peter Linebaugh, Michel Bauwens, Leslie Chan, Subbiah Arunachalam & Barbara Kirsop, Gaëlle Krikorian, Madhavi Sunder & Anupam Chander, Xuan Li, Claire Brossaud…and many others.

Libres Savoirs is the first such book on the subject published in France, and is available at the online bookstore of C&F editions.  The organization that edited the book and provided French translations, as needed, is Vecam, a group dedicated to helping citizens understand the economic and political implications of the new knowledge commons.  A hearty salute to Valérie Peugeot, Frédéric Sultan, Hervé Le Crosnier and Nicolas Taffin for their role in pulling this volume together!  It is likely to spread awareness of the commons in France.

Some fascinating commons-animated political undercurrents are starting to surface in Ireland and Spain, two of the “troubled” nations of the Eurozone.  (I will focus on Ireland today and Spain later this week.)  In Ireland, a new all-Ireland political federation, Fís Nua hopes to shake things up.  Its self-professed goal is “to bring together, under one umbrella, all those disaffected with the corruption in politics and government and who feel that they have been left without a voice within the political arena in Ireland.”  (A tip o the hat to Michel Bauwens of P2P Foundation blog for this news.)

Fís Nua, a registered political party, wants to open up a new sort of political conversation and agenda.  The catalyst for the movement is the systemic ripoff of the Irish people in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  As the Fís Nua website puts it: 

We believe that up to 90 billion Euro of our tax money that is presently being used to ‘bail out’ or pay for the corruption of politicians and banking officials is the greatest crime in Irish history, one that we are paying for with a collapsed economy, soaring unemployment, diminishing social facilities and a scarred environmental and cultural landscape.  We believe that this money belongs to the Irish people and it should be devoted to dealing with our present crisis rather than guaranteeing the profits of criminal developers, bankers and corrupt politicians.

As set forth in a bracing manifesto, Fís Nua seeks to draw upon the work of social justice, ecology and anti-corruption constituencies “with the intent of breaking the mould in Irish politics.”  The party’s manifesto is comprehensive, thoughtful and well-worth reading.  But what I found especially exciting were Items #6 and #7 in the party’s “Ecological Economics” platform:

The fight to stop global warming just got more interesting.  A newly formed activist group iMatter and its litigation partner, Our Children’s Trust, have launched an ingenious new strategy to use the public trust doctrine to protect the atmosphere in conjunction with a mass mobilization of young people.

The project seeks to rally young people around the world to protect their futures, quite literally, by organizing street protests and other citizen action.  But the project also casts young people as the lead plaintiffs in simultaneous common-law lawsuits against all fifty states as well as several federal agencies (EPA, USDA, Commerce, Defense, Energy and Interior) for failing to curb carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

It’s been 23 years since James Hansen, the eminent NASA climatologist, first raised alarms about global warming in testimony to Congress.  Since then, the U.S. government and international bodies have done precious little to take action even as the evidence of an impending planetary disaster continues to mount.  Bottom line:  the government has been grossly negligent in protecting our atmospheric commons, and must be held to account. 

One way to do so has been a series of marches in cities around the country, including Russia, Brazil, New Zealand, Great Britain and more than a dozen other countries. The iMatter campaign was launched on Mother’s Day (May 10) and will continue throughout the summer.  But a key tie-in to the protests is a litigation strategy based on the often-overlooked “public trust doctrine.”  The public trust doctrine is an ancient legal principle that declares that government must exercise the highest duty of care in managing property that is necessarily held in common by all – such as the atmosphere.

I delivered the following remarks on May 11 as part of The Illahee Lecture Series 2011, "Searching for Solutions:  Innovation for the Public Good," in Portland, Oregon.

This evening, I’d like to get innovative about how we think about innovation itself.  The corporate cliché is to “think outside the box.”  That is such an inside-the-box way of thinking!  I say let’s get rid of the box!  Tonight I want to talk about a new vector of innovation:  how we’re going to manage our dwindling, finite natural resources and arrest the pathological growth imperatives of our economy while recovering a more sane, socially constructive way of life for human beings.  Now there’s a radical innovation challenge!

The subtext of most innovation-talk these days is efficiency and profitability.  Innovation is essentially the bigger-better-faster ethic – the next super-computer or bio-engineered cow or Segue scooter.  But the grim reality is that there are a whole class of societal problems that are not likely to become market opportunities,ever

Worse, conventional markets, in the course of creating new wealth, are generating all sorts of illth, in John Ruskin’s phrase – cost, unintended byproducts that must be put on the ledger sheet in any calculation of our supposed wealth.  Our market economy is generating whole new classes of illth such as  global warming, dying coral reefs, biodiversity loss and species extinctions.

The City of Linz in Austria has long been in the forefront of civic-minded uses of the Internet and digital technologies.  In 1979, it started the Ars Electronica festival, a showcase for cutting-edge experiments in digital and media arts, which was followed in 1987 with the Prix Ars Electronica, a prestigious international award for the most exemplary, pioneering websites and computer art.  In 2005 the city built 118 wifi hotspots in public squares so that citizens could have free access to the Internet.  Through the Public Space Server project, Linz began to provide personal e-mail inboxs on the city’s servers and to host non-commercial content on the Internet.

So it is exciting to learn that the City of Linz is now trying to take the free culture/open platform sensibility to a whole new level.  It wants to use the Internet to transform city politics, governance and culture into a vast ecosystem of commons.  Last July city officials announced that it would launch Open Commons Region Linz, a series of region-wide initiatives that aspires to make local information and creativity as open, accessible and shareable as possible.  The Green Party and politically minded digital leaders believe that by making it easy for citizens to access and share knowledge on a local basis, it will stimulate digital innovators to produce locally useful information tools while encouraging greater civic engagement and more robust economic development.

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