An interview with Commons Transition
Can you define Commons Transition, tell us what it means to you?
Chris: To me, a commons transition speaks to the process of communities progressively controlling and self-governing more and more of their collective resources, by and for themselves and future generations. The “transition” implies that we are moving from one system of organizing society – in this case, global capitalism – to a wholly distinct socio-ecological paradigm rooted in age-old practices referred to as “the commons.” What’s particularly interesting about this transition is that, in many ways, it’s a return to principles of managing our homes that evolved over millennia before the onslaught of industrial capitalism. Our contemporary context is obviously much different from the indigenous and peasant cultures that sustained commons-based societies for thousands of years, but we have much to learn from them in how to undertake this transition.
I think this Commons Transition involves both a confrontation with the forces of neoliberalism – the ideology of privatization and commodification of common resources – and a flourishing of economic and political practices deeply rooted in the diverse cultures and ecologies of communities around the world. It’s ultimately about a movement toward the collective management of our common wealth, and ensuring that everyone shares access to and decision-making about the resources they depend on to thrive.
Can you share with us some examples of Commons transitions?
Chris: There are great examples of healthy commons all around the world. Some of the most interesting examples of commons transitions, though, seem to be happening in communities that have been particularly devastated by the forces of capitalism. In Detroit, Michigan, for example, the industrial economy has almost completely collapsed, leaving entire communities abandoned by both the market economy and the state. In response, these marginalized, mostly African-American communities have come together to collectively manage their own water supply (People’s Water Board) when the city started shutting off water to homes, and to cultivate a network of black-owned urban farms and food hubs (Detroit Black Food Security Network) to provide healthy, locally-grown food while building autonomy and self-reliance.
Another example is the huge opportunity created by the massive generational land transfer that is currently happening in the US. Over the next two decades, it is estimated that almost 400 million acres of farmland – about half of all US farmland – may change hands as American farmers retire. This is an important opportunity to ensure long-term stewardship of this farmland for sustainable and ecological agriculture, and facilitate access to the next generation of young and immigrant farmers who are currently landless. The Sustainable Economies Law Center has recently started collaborating on a project with the Agrarian Trust to design a new commons-based legal structure that could aid in this generational transfer, ensure long-term stewardship of the land, and guarantee more equitable access to this common land heritage. As we develop this commons-based legal structure to hold farmland, we are also beginning to look at other places that new commons-based legal structures could be immediately applied, such as community-controlled water districts, open cooperatives, community-owned renewable energy projects, credit unions, and more.
How realistic is a Commons Transition at local, national and global levels?
Chris: I think one of the most powerful aspects of the commons as a framework is the fact that it must happen at all those levels since commons, by nature, exist at all these levels. Many are inherently local or regional – like land and water commons – and some are inherently global – like the atmospheric commons, oceans, and the Internet. Also, due to the interconnected nature of complex systems, it’s very difficult to manage one resource as a commons without managing the surrounding resources as commons, too, so it almost has to happen at all these scales simultaneously.
There are many very obvious and very powerful threats to a commons transition, but history tells us that the commons has been the dominant organizing system for the majority of societies over the vast majority of human history. Global capitalism has a comparatively short existence despite its disproportionately large impact on human and ecological resilience.
Without minimizing the continued threats of enclosure to many common resources, it seems highly realistic to me, both as a result of the continued emergence of local and regional commons across the globe, and the increasing sense that actually-existing-Capitalism is in the process of collapsing on itself. The question is really what will replace that dominant system, not whether it will be replaced – and the commons paradigm is perhaps the most viable option.
What practical steps can we take to enable a Commons Transition?
- Organize! Commons only thrive, or come into existence, when the people that depend on a common resource come together to collectively manage it. So community organizing is an essential part of this transition.
- In some cases, I also think it will require communities to continue challenging the forces of enclosure, privatization, and exploitation. This will often require non-violent direct action, like what is happening along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in North American, and on college campuses around the world in response to increased tuitions costs and the student debt crisis.
- As importantly, this is an opportunity to support local, small-scale, democratically-run businesses, like worker coops, community-supported agriculture, renewable energy cooperatives, credit unions, local currencies, and other ways of ensuring wealth is created and stays local.
- Connect with existing commons-based efforts that already exist in our communities – such as public libraries, tool-lending libraries, and seed libraries – in order to both support their functioning and more fully appreciate their unique way of contributing to community life.
Where do you foresee a Commons Transition taking place?
Chris: In the short-term, it appears that many attempts at a commons transition are being catalyzed by threats to shared resources and ways of life. This is happening in communities like Detroit in the wake of industrial collapse, in bioregions like the Great Lakes of North America in response to threats by tar sands extraction, and also at a national scale in places like Ecuador in response to climate change and neoliberal economic policies and institutions. In many ways the Global South is leading this transition to more commons-based societies, perhaps because many such cultures still have a collective memory of a commons-based society.
I think the commons offers a way of tying a lot of movements together – social justice, environmentalism, economic and food justice, localism, bioregionalism, open source, etc. – and we could see an increasing number of solidarity movements across the globe uniting under the idea of a commons transition.
If we were to achieve a Commons-based society, what could be the risks and pitfalls?
Chris: Commons-based societies offer the potential for a far more just and resilient future, but they will not be utopias. Anytime people are collectively making decisions about something, there is a risk that certain voices and interests will dominate. Commoners must work to ensure equitable access to common resources, and inclusive participation in decision-making to guard against hidden hierarchies that can evolve in the absence of more apparent hierarchies. For example, I did some research on community forest management in Nepal, which is a fantastic example of a successful commons-based approach to resource management, but also found that there were often power hierarchies within communities that marginalized women and indigenous people.
What are the potential roadblocks on the way to a Commons based society?
Chris: There are at least three sets of roadblocks that commoners must work to transform:
- Structural roadblocks, such as a legal system that elevates private property and corporate rights without sufficient corresponding duties to the public good. Even laws designed to regulate industrial activity and protect workers and the environment are now prohibiting small-scale and community-based activities like seed libraries, home-based businesses, local currencies, and urban farms. International trade treaties, such as NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership that is currently be negotiated behind closed doors are major threats to the commons and local economies everywhere. And at least in the US, the stranglehold of corporate money over politics is a fundamental barrier to any real practice of democracy.
- Cultural roadblocks, such as a lack of public education and training in democratic governance, which often makes it difficult to operationalize democratic projects when people must be retrained in how to collaborate. The general culture of separation and individualism that is pervasive in the US and other Western cultures also represents a massive and invisible roadblock, but one that I think can be transformed through more participation in commoning. In my own personal experience, working together with others in my community to steward something we collectively care about, like a local waterway or a community farm, has created some really meaningful relationships that are the basis of a healthy commons.
- Physical roadblocks, including general resource scarcity and degradation in a rapidly globalizing world. We are already in the midst of several global oil wars, and as the extreme drought we are experiencing in California portends, water scarcity might be a future source of conflict. Large-scale land grabbing in Africa, and increasingly in Europe and the US, is an example of this already unfolding.
Give a concrete example where a Commons-based societal dynamic would solve a present-day problem (and tell us how it would achieve this).
Chris: One major issue in many societies is access to land, arguably the source of most wealth in both commons-based and capitalist societies. As mentioned before, almost half of all US farmland is likely to change hands within the next generation, which presents an incredible opportunity for a commons-based approach to large-scale land stewardship. Of course, it also presents a massive opportunity for institutional investors, hedge funds, and foreign governments to further concentrate land and wealth through large land grabs, as is happening across Africa. SELC’s collaboration with the Agrarian Trust to create a new commons-based legal structure – or constellation of legal structures – to hold land in trust in perpetuity, train young and beginning farmers in the ethics and practices of ecological agriculture, and seek community-based and more traditional forms of finance is a really exciting attempt to create a farmland commons across the US.
As I type this, US society is also experiencing a sustained wave of racial justice protests in the wake of multiple tragedies involving white police officers killing unarmed black men. The roots of racial injustice, mass incarceration (California alone incarcerates over 1 million mostly Black and Brown people in a for-profit prison system), and police militarization lie deep in our country, but I can’t help but think a more commons-based approach to public safety could significantly address some of these systemic injustices. Restorative justice and community policing are two strategies that many communities have successfully utilized across the world that are based in principles of the commons. Likewise, racial injustice and economic exploitation are very closely intertwined, so economies that genuinely build local wealth, resilience, and community self-determination could transform the root causes of systemic racism.
How do the Commons Transition policy proposals fit in with Policies for Shareable Cities? How do they compare in their approaches?
Chris: From what I understand of the Commons Transition policy proposals, they are very complementary to the Policies for Shareable Cities brief that SELC and Shareable co-published. Whereas the Commons Transition Plan takes a national or trans-national perspective and suggests policies to cultivate the commons at a large-scale, our policies have focused on what we see as a more responsive level for policy intervention – cities. As mentioned before, most commons are highly interconnected with surrounding commons though, so just crafting local policies for the commons likely won’t be sufficient without larger-scale policies to support larger-scale commons.
Where our approaches seem most similar is looking at how to transform organizations and networks of organizations to better embody principles of good commons management. Peer production licenses are one way of supporting and incentivizing a commons-based approach to enterprise, just as SELC’s focus on democratic and participatory governance of enterprises offers another.
How would you foresee a possible collaboration?
Chris: Two things most immediately excite me about a possible collaboration: 1) articulating a shared framework and understanding of the commons to a much broader and more diverse audience across the US and around the world, and 2) working to develop some really practical and effective governance models for both commons-based enterprises and possibly even Phyles. There isn’t a great literacy with the commons here in the US, so we could likely benefit from the perspectives and experiences of folks in Europe and the Global South. Likewise, SELC is really good at developing innovative yet really practical and easy-to-understand governance models that could help to make emerging commons-based businesses, like open coops, structurally sound for the long-term.
We’d love to discuss other ideas for collaboration in more depth, though!
What are the next steps for Policies for Shareable Cities?
Yassi: The Sustainable Economies Law Center and Shareable co-published Policies for Shareable Cities: A Primer for Urban Leaders in 2013 because we realized that grassroots sharing economy efforts were being stifled by legal barriers at every turn. Of course, legal barriers to the sharing economy span all levels of government, but many legal burdens are imposed at a local level, thus our focus on cities. In writing this brief, it was important for us to clarify that in most cases, the laws challenging the grassroots sharing economy are outdated and were not originally intended to prohibit the types of activities to which they are now posing a barrier. Prevailing regulatory structures such as zoning codes, building codes, securities laws, employment laws, and health and safety laws – though essential protections in many circumstances – do not account for the fundamental difference in purpose, power, risk, and profit in the sharing economy. In the wake of market and state failures to meet the basic needs of communities, the innovative ways people have found to provide for themselves and each other should be cultivated with new policies, not prohibited by the old.
Our purpose in writing this policy brief was to remove unnecessary burdens on sharing economy initiatives in the areas of food, transportation, housing, and jobs, and to replace these legal barriers with more appropriate regulations. If adopted, the recommendations would remove some of the most common regulatory challenges facing cohousing, cooperative housing, tiny house ecovillages, carsharing organizations, community-supported agriculture, and community gardens. But we don’t want local policymakers to stop there: We want cities to realize that the grassroots sharing economy will help meet local goals for affordable housing, climate, food security, mobility, and economic development, and, as such, policymakers should actually incentivize these activities and initiatives. Cities have the potential to benefit enormously from this new economy, yet local policies will ultimately decide whether the sharing economy is a fringe or fundamental part of the fabric of our communities.
Policymakers can use Policies for Shareable Cities as a how-to guide to becoming active players in the creation of just and resilient economies at the community scale. Similarly, community activists and the stewards of local sharing economies can use the brief as a tool to tell their governments how important it is that their city becomes a sharing city. Our city policy initiative does not end with one publication; it is a dynamic, evolving effort. Future iterations of Policies for Shareable Cities will include public banking as a strategy to create access to finance for the new economy; water policies that enable the capture, reuse, ownership, and collective management of water resources; and policies that support the development of community-owned renewable energy projects that give communities an ownership and governance stake in their energy sources.
Going forward, we will continue to build on our policy recommendations, as well as advocate for their adoption. Because, truly, what is more convincing to a local policymaker than existing, replicable examples of success? Being based in Oakland, California, we are well positioned to apply the concepts of Policies for Shareable Cities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area – and we’ve already started. In San Francisco, we are helping to develop a democratic governance model for what may be the first-ever municipal public bank in the US. Next year, we will advocate for the adoption of our model worker cooperative ordinance in Oakland. And with the release of our forthcoming policy recommendations for the equitable regulation of short-term home rentals, we will work to ensure that local governments in the Bay Area and beyond understand the nuances of this complex issue in order to allow reasonable latitude for cost-sharing without jeopardizing public interests.
In short, the Policies for Shareable Cities initiative is a long-term, multi-pronged effort to lay local policy foundations for a new economy, and opportunities for collaboration with Commons Transition abound!