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.

The co-organizers of the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) held in Berlin have just released an 80-page report (pdf file) that distills the highlights of that landmark gathering in May 2013. The conference brought together researchers, practitioners and advocates from around the world to explore the relationship of conventional economics and the commons. 

Discussion focused on several key themes: 

·      The commons as a way to move beyond conventional economics;

·      Alternative economic and provisioning models;

·      The transformations needed to move to a new type of economy.

The report consists of abbreviated versions of all ten keynote talks; brief summaries of the stream discussions; short overviews of each of the side events (with contact information for the hosts); a guide to the wiki resources on commons and economics; and an account of the Francophone network of commoners.  Videos of the keynote talks have been posted here, and as noted yesterdayRemix the Commons is releasing a series of video interviews that it conducted during the conference. 

The ECC Report also includes some final reflections by the Commons Strategies Group on the event’s significance for the commons movement.  We look back at the 2010 International Commons Conference and consider some of the ways in which our efforts have matured, and at some of the challenges that we face in the years ahead.

Remix the Commons is a terrific collaborative multimedia project that works hard to document the commons movement and reach out to general public with stylish, intelligent productions. It was one of the partners at the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) in Berlin in May 2013.  While the rest of the conference was swirling along, Alain Ambrosi, Frédérc Sultan and their associates spent three days in a makeshift studio filming dozens of interviews with participants at the conference. It was a kind of parallel conference within a conference.  Now, finally, the fruits of that work are available online.  And what a rich body of material it is!

Remix has released fifty new short interviews as part of its ongoing series, “Define the Commons.”  Like the previous videos in the series, this batch consists of one- to two-minute interviews with commoners from around the world.  Each gives his or her own personal definition of what the commons is.  I loved hearing the different voices and ideas.  The opening blend of multilingual voices all speaking at once but resolving into a resonant bell is a beautiful metaphor.

The Remix videos series also include some longer roundtable interviews in which commoners focus on a shared theme.  One such roundtable was an interview with the Commons Strategies Group, which consists of my colleagues Michel Bauwens, Silke Helfrich and me.  Our interview, conducted the day after the conference concluded, focused on several questions:  how the 2013 commons conference differed from the previous one in November 2010; what single insight or theme stood out for each of us; our reactions to the strong interest at ECC in using the commons as part of power and political struggles; our predictions for the future of the international commons movement; and our advice for existing and future commoners.  Here is the link to our 26-minute video interview.  

Cartographers of the Commons

How far we’ve come in ten years!  In 2004 a number of us at the Tomales Bay Institute – the predecessor to On the Commons – tried to get a number of small communities to conduct what we called “local commons surveys.”  The idea was to encourage people to make their own inventory of the many overlooked commons that touch their everyday lives, and especially those that are threatened by enclosure.  By making commons more visible, we reasoned, people might begin to organize to defend them.  It was a great idea, but only one or two communities actually got it together to survey their local commons.  A valiant experiment with modest results. 

Now we are the midst of a veritable explosion of commons mapping projects.  In October alone, there have been two loud thunderclaps of activity along these lines -- the MapJams organized by  Shareable.net and Ville en biens communs in France. 

The MapJam took place this month in over fifty cities in the US, Europe, Australia and Arab nations.  The process consisted of people meeting up to share what they know about sharing projects in their communities.  They ten categorized the results, co-created a map and spread the word.  It’s all part of the new Sharing Cities Project launched by Shareable.

Many of the new cartographers of the commons are overlaying specific sharing projects and commons on top of Google Maps.  Here, for example, is a map from Share Denver. And here is the map from Sharing City Berlin.  

As if by cosmic coincidence, hundreds of self-organized commoners in dozens of communities in France and Francophone nations recently participated in a similar exercise. Hosted by Villes en biens communs, many communities produced maps while others hosted workshops, experiments or convivial meet-ups.  All of them focused on the commons.

American culture has been dominated for so long by Hollywood, Broadway and the nonprofit industrial complex that it is hard to imagine theatrical performance without the stars, the spectacle, the corporate investments and marketing hype.  What would it be like if theater were taken off its big-money pedestal and allowed to speak to serious social concerns, politics, ethnicity and the human condition as it is actually experienced? 

Welcome to HowlRound, a growing hub of the nonprofit theater world hat boldly bills itself as a “Center for the Theater Commons.”  HowlRound, hosted at Emerson College in Boston, is dedicated to the idea of “recouping the idea of nonprofit theater as an instrument of civilization."   

For those who participate in HowlRound, the commons is not just a fashionable buzzword; it is a fundamental organizing principle and ethic.  As its website explains, “HowlRound is modeling a commons….. A theater commons, if it is to be manifested, will need to be cocreated by others committed to its existence.”

In a world of shrinking foundation grants, government austerity and hyper-competition for entertainment dollars, can nonprofit theater reinvent itself as a commons?  I spoke with Polly Carl, director and editor of HowlRound, to learn more.  On the project's website, Carl describes herself as “a scholar and dreamer. A bicycle enthusiast, and tattoo 

aficionado, her most recent ink job features her pup Joey riding a blue Schwinn, tennis ball in mouth. She makes her ravioli from scratch.”

That's more or less what HowlRound is trying to do for nonprofit theater:  to make it from scratch. Carl is convinced that commoning is the most effective way to revive the creativity and relevance of theater for ordinary people.  “Sometimes you just have to let go of things that you think are really valuable [like conventional structures for nonprofit theater], and experiment,” she said. 

HowlRound was born two years ago when Carl, David Dower, Vijay Mathew and Jamie Gahlon decided that all artists should have more say in how the American theater is run. Carl explained that “market-driven institutions have left the artist behind financially, and artists can no longer control their destiny.”  

So why not try to amass a community of people dedicated to “the core principle that theater is for everyone”?  

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