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This is the third of a series of six essays by Professor Burns Weston and me, derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published by Cambridge University Press.  The essays originally appeared on CSRWire.  I am re-posting them here to introduce the paperback edition, which was recently released.

 

In the previous two essays in this series, we outlined our approach to Green Governance as a new model or paradigm for how we can relate to the natural environment. We also stressed how “Vernacular Law” – a kind of socially based “micro-law” that evolves through commons activity (“commoning”) – can establish legitimacy and trust in official state law, and thereby unleash new sorts of grassroots innovation in environmental stewardship.

In this essay, we explore another major dimension of the large shift we are proposing: how human rights can help propel a shift to Green Governance and thereafter help administer such governance once achieved.

Nothing is more basic to life than having sustainable access to food, clean air and water, and other resources that ecosystems provide. Surely a clean and healthy environment upon which life itself depends should be recognized as a fundamental human right.

This is the second of a series of six essays by Professor Burns Weston and me, derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published by Cambridge University Press in January 2013.  The essays originally appeared on CSRWire.

 

Is it possible to solve our many environmental problems through ingenious interventions by government and markets alone? Not likely. Apart from calls for eco-minded behavior (recycle your cans, insulate your house), ordinary citizens have been more or less exiled from environmental policymaking.

The big oil, coal and nuclear power companies have easy access to the President and Congress and expert lawyers and scientists have privileged seats at the table. But opponents of, say, the Keystone Pipeline are mostly ignored unless they get arrested for protesting outside of the White House.

A New Kind of Law to Underpin the Commons

That’s why we believe it’s important to talk about a “new” category of law that has little recognition among legislators and regulators, judges and lobbyists. We call it “Vernacular Law.” “Vernacular” is a term that the dissident sociologist Ivan Illich used to describe the informal, everyday spaces in people’s lives where they negotiate their own rules and devise their own norms and practices.

In our last essay, we introduced the idea of commons- and rights-based governance for natural ecosystems. We turn now to Vernacular Law because green-pin-cushionits matrix of socially negotiated values, principles and rules are what make a commons work.

Vernacular Law originates in the informal, unofficial zones of society – the cafes and barber shops, Main Street and schools, our parks and social networking websites. What emerges in these zones is a shared wisdom and a source of moral legitimacy and authority. Colonial powers frequently used their formal law to forcibly repress the use of local languages so that their controlling mother tongue could prevail.

Professor Burns Weston and I recently published a series of six essays on CSRWire (CSR = “Corporate Social Responsibility”) that were derived from our book Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published by Cambridge University Press in January 2013.  

The book – an outgrowth of the Commons Law Project -- is a direct response to the mounting calls for a paradigm shift in the way humans relate to the natural environment. Green Governance opens the door to a new set of solutions by proposing new types of environmental protection based on broader notions of economics and human rights and on commons-based governance. At the heart of the book is a new architecture of environmental law and public policy that is theoretically innovative, but also quite practical.

The paperback edition was recently released, making it available to a much larger readership.  To introduce the book to people who may have missed it the first time around, I am posting the original six CSRWire essays by Burns and me over the course of the next week.  I hope you enjoy them!  -- David

 

At least since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, we have known about humankind’s squandering of nonrenewable resources, its careless disregard of precious life species, and its overall contamination and degradation of delicate ecosystems. Simply put, the State and Market, in pursuit of commercial development and profit, have failed to internalize the environmental and social costs of their pursuits. They have neglected to take measures to preserve or reproduce the preconditions of capitalist production – a crisis now symbolized by the deterioration of the planet’s atmosphere.

Despite the scope of the challenges facing us, there are credible pathways forward. In our recent book, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, we propose a new template of effective and just environmental protection based on the new/old paradigm of the commons and an enlarged understanding of human rights. We call it “green governance.” It is based on a reconceptualization of the human right to a clean and healthy environment and the modern rediscovery of the age-old paradigm of the commons.

Fixing the Law’s Bias Against Sharing

In the quest to imagine and build a new “sharing economy,” one factor that is often overlooked is law.  What shall be the role of formal law in a world of social enterprises, shared workspaces, cohousing, car-sharing groups, tool-lending libraries, local currencies and crowdfunding?  Who has legal rights in these various contexts, and what do they look like?  Who holds the legal liabilities?

These questions are sometimes ignored by commoners who consider the law a retrograde, irrelevant force to be avoided.  But even among those who acknowledge the inescapability of conventional law, the contours of legal rights and liabilities are not always self-evident because the law tends to be silent about commoning, or construes such activities in archaic legal categories. The law as it now stands presumes that we are either businesses or consumers, employers or employees, or landlords and tenants.  Production and consumption, and investment and usage, are "naturally" considered separate activities pursued by different people. 

But nowadays countless activities in the sharing economy are blurring old categories of law. There may be many parties involved in managing a a workspace, childcare facility or online information, or perhaps many people have ongoing relationships and responsibilities and entitlements that are collective and evolving. Should the strict letter of the (archaic) law necessarily trump our informal, self-negotiated social rules? 

Janelle Orsi, director of the Oakland-based Sustainable Economies Law Center, has tackled these and many other such questions in a terrific book, Practicing Law in the Sharing Economy:  Helping People Build Cooperatives, Social Enterprise and Local Sustainable Economies (ABA Publishing).  The book covers a monumental array of legal topics that are relevant to the sharing economy.  Most of the chapters deal with how to craft agreements that validate special forms of sharing – for example, how to form organizations, how to exchange with each other and how to invest in each other’s work.  There are also chapters for shared working arrangements, mutual provisioning, sharing rights to land, sharing rights to intellectual property, and managing collective risks.  

For a country suffering from economic devastation and political upheaval, Greece is not accustomed to bursts of optimism.  But last weekend provided a showcase of hopeful, practical solutiions at the second annual CommonsFest, held in Heraklion on the island of Crete.  The festival brought together a dazzling array of commons and peer production communities:  hackers, open knowledge advocates, practitioners of open design, hardware and manufacturing, open health innovators, sustainable farming experts, among many others. 

Vasilis Kostakis, a political economist and founder of the P2P Lab in Greece, noted that the “key contribution of CommonsFest has been to bring together so many components of the commons movement and raise awareness amongst them.  People had the chance to meet, talk and learn from each other with the aim of creating the seed of a larger movement.” Kostakis said that the crowdfunded festival “illustrates that the philosophy that has emerged from free software and open content communities actually extends to many aspects of our daily lives.”

The event drew hundreds of people to twenty-four talks, nine workshops and an exhibition of many commons-based technologies and projects.  Kostakis said that CommonsFest participants are preparing a forthcoming “declaration for the protection and the strengthening of the Commons” that will soon be published in Greek and then translated into other languages.  [I will add the declaration to this blog post as an update when it is available. –DB] 

CommonsFest also featured an open art space with more than 30 video works licensed under Creative Commons licenses and the screening of a new documentary, “Knowledge as a Common:  Communities of Production and Sharing in Greece,”organized by the Cinema Group from the University of Crete.  The film’s director, Ilias Marmaras, spoke afterwards.  Both events were intended to “highlight the collaboration that we can build working together as peers” and show that “the freedoms provided by the Creative Commons licenses help us share easily and create cultural value.”

Commons projects and activism seem to be really hopping in Greece:  just last week a collaborative ebook, Πέρααπότοκράτοςκαιτηναγορά: Ηομότιμηπροοπτική, was published in Greece as a free, downloadable pdf file.  The ebook presents a vision for a commons-oriented economy and society.  Print copies will be available at the end of May, at a price defined by the reader.

I’ve busy in recent weeks promoting my new book, Think Like a Commoner:  A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons. I’ve been getting some great responses from a variety of media outlets, interview shows, public events and readers both in the US and abroad.  (There are French and Polish editions, and other translations are currently being explored.)   

Since the focus of the book and my public outreach is to introduce the commons paradigm, long-time readers of this blog will probably be familiar with the substance of my various efforts to publicize Think Like a Commoner. For the curious, here's some recent interviews, book excerpts, reviews and public talks:

Huffington Post, “The Commons as a Rising Alternative to State and Market” (April 14).

Shareable magazine, “New Book Inspires Us to Think Like a Commoner,” interview with Jessica Conrad (April 2).   

Great Transition Initiative, Tellus Institute. Essay, “The Commons as a Template for Social Transformation” (April 2014), with comments from a selected readers -- and my responses to comments.

STIR magazine review (UK), by Danijela Dolonec (Spring 2014 issue). 

Writer’s Voice radio interview, with Francesca Rheannon (April 23), 30 minutes.

C-Realm Podcast, interview with KMO, Episode #412 (April 30), 30 minutes.

Video of my talk at Sustainability Expo, Middlebury, Vermont (March 28, 2014), 45 minutes.

Observatoire des Multinationales (France). Interview with Olivier Petitjean, « Les communs nous aident à sortir du carcan de l’économie néolibérale, à travers des alternatives concrètes » (April 20, 2014).  In FrenchIn English.

Basta! (France). « Les biens communs nous offrent davantage de liberté et de pouvoir que ne le font l’État et le marché » (April 23).

If you know of media venues, reviewers, activists or commoners interested in giving some visibility to Think Like a Commoner, let me know!

For many people, the commons exists as some sort of Platonic ideal -- a fixed, universal archetype.  That’s silly, of course, because commons are so embedded in a given place and moment of history and culture, and therefore highly variable.  Derek Wall takes this as a point of departure in his new book, The Commons in History:  Culture, Conflict and Ecology (MIT Press).  At 136 pages of text, it is a short and highly readable book, but one that conveys much of the texture of commons and enclosures as paradigms -- and the implications for ecosystems.

Wall is an economist at Goldsmith College, University of London, so he knows a few things about the biases of conventional economics.  He is also a member of the Green party of England and Wales, and therefore knows a few things about corporate power and oppositional politics. 

As the author of a recent intellectual biography, The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom (Routledge), Wall has a subtle mastery of Ostrom’s approach to the commons, but he is not afraid to wade into the political aspects of commons.  He notes, for example, “most commons have not been found to succeed or fail on the basis of their own merits.  Instead, they have been enclosed, and access has been restricted and often turned over to purely private ownership or state control.”  He adds that “commons is a concept that is both contests and innately political in nature.  Power and access to resources remain essential areas for debate.”

It is entirely appropriate, then, that Wall goes beyond the familiar Hardin-Ostrom debate on the rationality and economic value of commons, to explore what he calls “the radical case for the commons,” as outlined by E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, among others.  While Marxist criticisms of the environmental effects of capitalism so often hit the mark, Wall points out that “the commons is not utopia.  A common-pool property rights do not guarantee a free and equal society.”  

That’s partly because a commons is not a unitary model, but only a template with highly variable outcomes.  People may have common rights to use “usufruct rights” on privately owned land, for example, authorizing them to gather fallen wood.  This can be considered a type of commons, albeit not one as self-sovereign and robust as those with communally owned and controlled land.  Commons may also coexist with hierarchical power relationships – a reality that also militates against a radical equality.

It is always refreshing to read Peter Linebaugh’s writings on the commons because he brings such rich historical perspectives to bear, revealing the commons as both strangely alien and utterly familiar. With the added kick that the commoning he describes actually happened, Linebaugh’s journeys into the commons leave readers outraged at enclosures of long ago and inspired to protect today's endangered commons. 

This was my response, in any case, after reading Linebaugh’s latest book, Stop, Thief!  The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance (Spectre/PM Press), which is a collection of fifteen chapters on many different aspects of the commons, mostly from history.  The book starts out on a contemporary note by introducing “some principles of the commons” followed by “a primer on the commons and commoning” and a chapter on urban commoning.  For readers new to Linebaugh, he is an historian at the University of Toledo, in Ohio, and the author of such memorable books as The Magna Carta Manifesto and The London Hanged. 

Stop, Thief! is organized around a series of thematic sections that collect previously published essays and writings by Linebaugh.  One section focuses on Karl Marx (“Charles Marks,” as he was recorded in British census records) and another on British enclosures and commoners (Luddites; William Morris; the Magna Carta; “enclosures from the bottom up”).  A third section focuses on American commons (Thomas Paine; communism and commons) before concluding with three chapters on First Nations and commons.

Poetry of the Commons

I’ve always thought that the commons, in its attempt to achieve a holistic balance of relationships, is profoundly aesthetic and ethical.  It aspires to a certain dynamic but disciplined shapeliness.  How wonderful, then, to encounter Harris Webster’s Japanese-style poetry about the commons, inspired by his reading of The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State!     

A few years ago, Webster, a retiree living in Montpelier, Vermont, heard a presentation on the commons by University of Vermont professor Gary Flomenhoft.  Then he read a number of pieces on the commons in Kosmos journal and discovered The Wealth of the Commons.

Webster has a hobby of writing tanka poems, a genre of classical Japanese poetry akin to haiku.  He had developed a taste for Japanese poetry in the course of several exchange visits with the prefecture of Tottori, Japan, as the representative of the Japan-American Society of Vermont.  Webster decided that he wanted to capture the essence of some essays in The Wealth of Commons in the succinct, austere style of tanka. (Links to the original essays are embedded in the authors' names and essay titles.)

I hope you enjoy this wonderful poetic experiment as much as I do! 

Introduction

Question: Should earth’s people share

our earth’s seven seas?

Answer: When some Somalians

lost their share of fishing grounds,

they became pirates.

 

Good church members are stewards

of the church commons,

its resources  and culture.

Earth’s people should be stewards

of the earth’s Commons.

 

Unknown Elinor Ostrom

won a Nobel Prize

for research on the Commons

throughout our wide world.

May it be well known world wide!

 

The Commons looks at the ‘whole.’

resources, people, and norms,

(oceans, fishermen, and rules,)

nested together.

Do markets and government?

 

Do people value

good soil and fresh air?

Of course , but they are not priced,

advertised or for sale.

Is that why they’re uncommon?

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.

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