Rajendra Singh, founder of Tarun Bharat Sangh, (TBS, or Young India Association), always wanted to be a farmer. Bowing to family pressure, he studied to be a doctor of traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine and after school moved to the Alwyn district in the arid state of Rajasthan. Singh was not simply practicing medicine, he wanted to test some ideas about healing ecosystems.
Last month we had the opportunity to attend the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin, where commoners from around the globe gathered to discuss the commons as a worldview and practical approach for addressing today’s most pressing problems.
At the conference we were inspired by the sheer number of people working to protect and advance the commons all around the globe, and we would like to highlight the breadth of the commons movement here.
One hopes that in next year’s elections, the stark evidence emerging from state capitols about the difference between the parties can lay the foundation for a nationwide debate on the purpose of government in American life.
At half past three in the morning, Alec Johnson rolls out of bed, puts on his Metro Transit uniform, and walks a block to one of Nice Ride’s bike sharing stations in the Seward neighborhood. He unlocks a neon green bike and pedals down the Midtown Greenway, a former railroad corridor in Minneapolis that now holds biking and walking paths, to 32nd Street and Nicollet Avenue. After docking the bike at another nearby Nice Ride station, he pulls a bus out of the Nicollet Garage and starts his first shift.
How can we organize ourselves for human and ecological survival? And what solutions do the commons, both historic and emerging, offer toward survival?
These are two of the most urgent questions before us today
In a major triumph for protecting genes as a commons, the US Supreme Court ruled last week that human genes cannot be owned and must be available to anyone for study and medical innovation. The case involved a Utah company, Myriad Genetics, that had claimed patents on “breast cancer susceptibility genes,” which gave the company a monopoly on a $3,000 diagnostic test that could detect heightened risk of getting cancer. The patents were widely criticized for impeding breast cancer research and stifling cheaper, more competitive diagnostic tests.
Douglas Kearney is a poet, performance artist, and singer, as you can see on YouTube. His second manuscript, “The Black Automaton,” was chosen by Catherine Wagner for the National Poetry Series and published by Fence Books in 2009. It was also a finalist for the Pen Center USA Award in 2010.
Wenonah Hauter, who works on the political frontlines to ensure safety and health of Americans’ food as director of Food & Water Watch, details the threat that huge unaccountable agribusiness corporations pose to the public health and the natural environment in her new book “Foodopoly”:http://www.foodopoly.org/.
In downtown Northfield, Minnesota, you’ll find The Key—the longest running youth-run youth center in the country. Founded in 1993 by the Northfield Union of Youth, it was named for one of the founders who died unexpectedly before the center opened.
Powered entirely by the sustainable energy of young people, The Key is an at-risk youth center of the youth, by the youth, and for the youth. In other words, the Key is a commons. It’s something we all own together. Every youth, like me, who walks into the Key is an owner.
In 2006 I gave my music away. That music had previously existed on CDs and LPs (yes, I began making music in the days of vinyl and tape). I moved all of it to the Web, downloadable for free.
Today, seven years later, I see that giving away music for free is not as easy as I had imagined. In some ways, it turns out to be impossible. The reasons why this is so say a lot about creativity,property, and power in a networked world of corporately owned digital commons policed by netbots and stochastic algorithms.
Former New York mayor Ed Koch envisioned bicycles as vehicles for the future, and in 1980 created experimental bike lanes on 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan where riders were protected from speeding traffic by asphalt barriers. It was unlike anything most Americans had ever seen—and some people roared their disapproval. Within weeks, the bike lanes were gone.
The commons is, at its essence, the act of giving and receiving carried out on a massive scale across all levels of society. It seems apparent that generosity is hard-wired into human beings, despite several centuries of fevered protest from figures such as Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Richard Dawkins that we are guided by self-interest.
So it’s great news that the subject of giving has recently surfaced in a number of TED talks—the influential video lecture circuit that increasingly functions as the ideas soundtrack for the 2010s.
Founded in 2003, Sol Collective is a community-based meeting space in Sacramento, California that uses art, education, and technology for community empowerment. The nonprofit is led by a dynamic team of volunteers, educators, and activists—community members dedicated to fostering connections between Sacramento residents. We had the opportunity to connect with Rafael Aguilera, an active member of the Collective, at the “2012 Commons Solutions Lab”:http://www.onthecommons.org/work/change-system-we-must-start-everywhere-once.
In 2006, a group of community members expressed a strong desire “to foster a social complement to the scenic landscape and natural ecology of West Marin,” and after a series of discussions about the commons and its life-enriching capacities, an organization called West Marin Commons emerged. Today West Marin Commons is dedicated to establishing, preserving, and enhancing common spaces in the semi-rural western region of Marin County, California. It also seeks to create social infrastructure for resource sharing, conservation, and learning.
Sure, we can treat drinking water in filtration plants before it pours out of your tap. Most cities do just that, some better than others. But with energy costs rising and watersheds in miserable shape, what does it take to work with upstream communities to ensure that the water doesn’t get contaminated in the first place? That’s the challenge that Our Water Commons, an On the Commons project, tackled during a recent conference.
Sure, we can treat drinking water in filtration plants before it pours out of your tap. Most cities do just that, some better than others. But with energy costs rising and watersheds in miserable shape, what does it take to work with upstream communities to ensure that the water doesn’t get contaminated in the first place? That’s the challenge that Our Water Commons, an On the Commons project, is tackling during an upcoming conference.
The international Economics and the Commons Conference is a commons in itself, deliberately planned to include ample time for discussion and convivial spaces for attendees to get to know one another.
Rather than the usual Q-and-A at the close of a presentation, we are encouraged to share our own ideas with the audience. This morning began with fresh perspectives on caregiving, public infrastructure and the dual role of the commons as both a reform and revolutionary movement, followed by a spate of equally compelling observations.
The international Economics and the Commons Conference is off to a flying start. More than 200 commoners from 30 countries met in Berlin May 22-25 to discuss “new ideas, practices and alliances” for gradually installing the commons as the “core paradigm” for our economy, our society and our lives.
Silke Helfrich, co-founder of the Commons Strategy Group, opened the event with a round of rousing answers to the question: How do you get to the commons?
The creative community is experiencing an unprecedented interest in the arts’ ability to impact public life. Just one example is ArtPlace, an Obama administration catalyzed collaboration of thirteen leading foundations, eight federal agencies—including the National Endowment for the Arts—and six of the nation’s largest banks. ArtPlace focuses primarily on creative placemaking, or “investing in art and culture at the heart of a portfolio of integrated strategies that can drive vibrancy and diversity so powerful that it transforms communities.”
We are honored to introduce the inaugural team of poet advisers who have generously agreed to review submissions to UNCOMMON/WORD: A collection of commons-inspired poetry. The team includes poets Sarah Browning, Douglas Kearney, Juliet Patterson, Crystal Ann Williams. And our poet fellow is Elizabeth Dingmann.