Currently, less than 3% of the food that Americans eat is grown within 100 to 200 miles of where they live.  And many people in poorer neighborhoods simply do not have ready access to affordable local produce.

A fascinating new project, the Food Commons, aspires to radically change this reality.  It seeks to reinvent the entire “value-chain” of food production and distribution through a series of regional experiments to invent local food economies as commons. 

By owning many elements of a local food system infrastructure – farms, distribution, retail and more – but operating them as a trust governed by stakeholders, the Food Commons believes it can be economically practical to build a new type of food system that is labor-friendly, ecologically responsible, hospitable to a variety of small enterprises, and able to grow high-quality food for local consumption.

Food Commons explains its orientation to the world by quoting economist Herman Daly:

“If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food.  This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one.  A community’s complete dependency on outsiders for its mere survival weakens it….The most fundamental requirement for survival is food.  Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”

Food Commons is a nonprofit project that was officially begun in 2010 by Larry Yee and James Cochran.  Yee is a former academic with the University of California Cooperative Extension who has been involved in sustainable agriculture for years.  Cochran is the founder and president of Swanton Berry Farms, a mid-scale organic farming enterprise near Santa Cruz, California.

Upcoming Conferences on the Commons

There are a number of upcoming conferences focusing on various sorts of commons.  For those of you with a passionate interest in any of the following, check out these four gatherings in coming months:

A Virtual Town Hall for the Great Lakes Commons, March 18

What would happen if the Great Lakes in North America were managed on principles and practices that empower communities to become stewards of the water?  What if decisionmaking was local and collective? To discuss these themes, several organizations are convening the first webinar in a series, “Protect the Great Lakes Forever Virtual Town Halls.”  This first one will take place on March 18 from noon to 1 pm ET. For more information, visit here.  Or check out the Facebook invite

The event is convened by Alexa Bradley (Program Director for On the Commons), Sue Chiblow (Environmental Consultant for the Mississauga First Nation) and Jim Olson (Founder and Chair of FLOW for Water). Emma Lui (Water Campaigner for the Council of Canadians) will be moderator.  The organizers want to use the commons to “prioritize the basic needs of communities, the rights of indigenous peoples and the sustainability of the land,” noting that “the lens of the commons can act as a political framework for many Great Lakes issues including extreme energy projects, bottled water extraction, invasive species and pollution.”

Knowledge Commons Conference in September

Make plans now to attend the International Association for the Study of Commons’ second Thematic Conference on Knowledge Commons, to be held at NYU’s Engelberg Center on Innovation, Law and Policy, from September 5 to 7, 2014. 

The interdisciplinary conference seeks “to better understand how knowledge commons work, where they come from, what contributes to their durability and effectiveness, and what undermines them.”  This year, the focus will be on “Governing Pooled Knowledge Resources, with special attention to the fields of medicine and the environment.” 

Keynote talks will be given by Yochai Benkler (Harvard Law School), Eric von Hippel (MIT Sloan School of Management), and Michael McGinnis (Political Science, Indiana University, Bloomington).  Co-chairs of the conference are Katherine Strandburg, NYU School of Law, and Charlie Schweik of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. More information at the conference website.  

CommonsFest in Greece To Explore Peer to Peer Civilization

CommonsFest is an initiative to "promote freedom of knowledge (or free knowledge) and peer-to-peer collaboration for the creation and management of the commons." The focus of CommonsFest will be on “the emergence of the peer to peer civilization and political economy.” Festival organizers explain that peer production "has spread through free software communities and extends to many aspects of our daily lives, such as the arts, governance, construction of machinery, tools and other goods. Through an exhibition, talks, screenings and workshops, the aim of the festival is to promote the achievements of this philosophy to the public and become a motive for further adoption."

Oct
23

Omega Institute Conference

Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, NY:  "Where We Go From Here" conference.

May
1

Book Party, Pt. Reyes Station, CA

Book reading and discussion, at Mesa Refuge (pre-register).  Co-sponsored by Mesa Refuge and Pt. Reyes Books.

Apr
5

Harvard Law School

Conference, "Unbound:  This Land Is Your Land:  Remaking Property After Neoliberalism," Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mar
31

Book Party, Amherst Books

5:30 pm at 8 Main Street, Amherst, MA.  For more information, call 413-256-1547.

Mar
30

Bristol Town Hall

Public talk with Q&A following.  In cooperation with Vermont Family Forests.

Mar
29

Sustainable Living Expo 2014

Middlebury, VT:  Workshop on the commons and sale of Think Like a Commoner.

Joseph Sax’s illustrious career in the law should be remembered for the importance of blending visionary thinking with rigorous scholarship. At a time when private property rights were the only serious framework for managing air, water, land and seas, Professor Sax single-handedly breathed new life into the public trust doctrine with his seminal 970 law review article. Sax died on Sunday, which prompts these reflections on the far-reaching effects of his creative legal scholarship.

In the late 1960s, as a professor at the University of Colorado teaching courses on mining, water and oil and gas law, Sax realized that all of it was oriented towards the maximal private exploitation of natural resources.  He asked:  “How come there’s no public dimension to natural resource law, and the public who uses these areas and actually owns most of them doesn’t have a say in what goes on?”

His answer, in 1970, was “The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resource Law:  Effective Judicial Intervention,” in the Michigan Law Review -- a piece that went on to become one of the most influential law review articles ever.

The essay looked to Roman law, English common law and a handful of U.S. Supreme Court rulings to declare that the “public trust doctrine” empowers courts to intervene in government and market actions to protect citizens' sovereign interests. The basic idea is that the government does not own natural resources; it is merely a trustee who must act on behalf of the unorganized public to protect their interests and those of future generations who cannot yet represent their interests in court.

The good folks at the Tellus Institute in Boston have recently relaunched the Great Transition Initiative -- “an online forum of ideas and an international network” dedicated to developing “a new praxis for global transformation.” As part of that effort, I was invited to submit an essay on how the commons might contribute to the “Great Transition.”

In my essay, “The Commons as a Template for Transformation,” I argue that “the commons paradigm can help us imagine and implement a serious alternative—a new vision of provisioning and democratic governance that can evolve within the fragile, deteriorating edifice of existing institutions.”  My basic argument: 

The commons—a paradigm, discourse, ethic, and set of social practices—provides several benefits to those seeking to navigate a Great Transition. It offers a coherent economic and political critique of existing Market/State institutions. Its history includes many venerable legal principles that help us both to imagine new forms of law and to develop proactive political strategies for effecting change. Finally, the commons is supported by an actual transnational movement of commoners who are co-creating innovative provisioning and governance systems that work.

For readers of this blog, most of the themes in my GTI essay will be familiar.  My goal was to synthesize many disparate threads into a single, 5,000-word case for the commons. I wanted help a policy-oriented readership see how the commons paradigm could help us re-imagine and transform economics, politics, culture, and particularly ecological stewardship. 

After introducing the whole commons concept for the uninitiated, I review a sampling of commons that manage ecological resources and describe the rise of the contemporary commons movement.  I also urge that we imagine “a new architecture of commons-based law and policy,” drawing heavily on my recent book with Burns Weston, Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons (Cambridge University Press).  And finally, I assess the prospects and limitations of the commons paradigm, and conclude:

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