Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Commons, Part II

The International Forum on Globalization distinguishes between three types of commons. First, the natural resources of the planet. These are the commons we spoke about in our post last month: water, forests, mountains, wildlife. Second, they talk about a social commons: health care, social security, education and the other social goods that many believe should be basic human rights. Third, they talk about the cultural and knowledge commons. It's this third one we want to expand on here.

As medical sociologists, we have written extensively about the ways knowledge can be viewed as a resource. Knowledge about our bodies, how they work, what we need to do to keep them healthy; knowledge about what kinds of services are available to us and how we can access them; knowledge about the impacts of our daily practices on our health; knowledge about signs and symptoms and how to respond to them are all important for overall well being. Lack of access to such knowledge is often cited as a major culprit in health inequalities. 

These same principles extend beyond medical and health-related knowledge to knowledge about any number of subjects. Access to knowledge is a resource. Period. Those with greater access to knowledge can learn about things that matter to them and take actions based on that knowledge.

The Internet is a major resource for promoting the knowledge commons. Wikipedia, Craigslist, YouTube are examples of extremely popular websites which enable people to freely access--as well as contribute to the creation of--knowledge and information. The popular photosharing website Flickr partnered with the Library of Congress to create The Commons--a free and accessible library of publicly-held photography collections (the above photo of the New York Public Library circa 1911 is from there). The concept of knowledge as commons is also alive and well in public radio, television and the people actively fighting to keep the airwaves free.

Alongside examples of keeping knowledge free and readily accessible are pressures to do the opposite. Copyright laws and corporate ownership of knowledge limit access for many. The group Creative Commons is working to counter these pressures and provide an alternative to the private ownership of ideas. They provide free licensing to artists, scientists, engineers or others who may want to copyright portions of their work, but also provide access to some or all of it for others to use, re-use, build upon, etc.

Another champion of the knowledge commons is Carl Malamud, a long time activist for public access to knowledge and information, who has accumulated vast amounts of government documents, films, court proceedings and raw data to ensure free availability on his website Public.Resources.Org. He also fights against attempts by governments or others to copyright what is in the public domain.

This spirit of activism and sharing of knowledge and ideas as well as tools has been a vital part of computer engineering, where alongside the corporate, private sphere an alternative, free and open world of computing has grown. For example, the Free Software Foundation was founded in 1985 to promote computer user freedom and to defend the rights of all free software users. Among other FSF provides free licensing and software for people who want to share, develop and use software. They say, 

“To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting the right to learn, and share what we learn with others. Free software is the foundation of a learning society--where the tools we all use are free to share, study and modify.”

Perhaps the quintessential example of the knowledge commons is the public library. In addition to the holdings of the library itself, libraries are places where people without other access can freely use the Internet, they often serve as community centers, venues for free lectures and group gatherings. At the library you can search for a job, figure out how to fix your car, learn how to manage high cholesterol, delve into ancient history or access SAT study guides: Libraries provide people with free access to knowledge and resources that can make a difference to their everyday lives. For these reasons, we think strong public libraries--and the knowledge commons more broadly-- are essential to social sustainability.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Obstacles to Living Green: Illegal Clotheslines

Photo by Willow Poppy

On our recent trip to the High Point neighborhood in west Seattle, one of the folks we talked to pointed out a significant way his capacity for green living was hindered: local ordinances that forbid the use of clothes lines. It turns out that High Point, like many planned communities, cities and muncipalities across North America is a place where line drying clothes outside is banned as an unsightly nuisance to neighbors.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that close to 6% of electricity generated in the United States comes from clothes dryers.
Project Laundry List estimates that the average resident could save up to 15% on their utility bills by line drying instead of electric drying. Their website features a calculator where you can see for yourself how much money you could save by greening your laundry practices. Using the power of solar energy and wind to dry clothes seems like such a simple way to live greener in our everyday lives. Why would it ever be restricted or banned?

The restrictions may come from citywide architectural regulations or, more commonly, from Homeowner's Associations (HOA) which are charged with protecting the value of homes in planned communities and condominiums. Restrictions on line drying stem from the perception that laundry on a line is an eyesore. And that isn't the only thing that's being restricted: many HOAs forbid the use of solar panels, forbid small houses, large vegetable gardens, native gardens or require the use of lights from dusk to dawn, the use of water and/or pesticides on your yard. It seems HOAs may be acting as significant barriers for many people to improve their carbon footprints.

Luckily, slowly, governments are taking action to ensure that every citizen has the right to live green, regardless of what their HOA says. In Florida, for instance, legislation ensures the right of all of its citizens to erect solar panels on their homes and also, happily, to dry their clothes outside.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Commons, Part I

In our forthcoming book, Living Green: Communities that Sustain, we describe ten principles, derived from our research, that are key to making a community sustainable: We call these the Ten C’s of Social Sustainability. One of these is the principle of the commons.

The model of the commons understands the Earth and its resources as shared gifts, rather than private property. Perhaps the most practical and specific lesson we learned about what makes a community sustainable over time is the way that sharing resources enables each person to live higher quality lives with less of an environmental impact. From shared spaces and car shares to clothing swaps and shared infrastructures, the possibilities for commons abound and the impact on people’s everyday lives can be profound.

We found this video on YouTube and it inspired us to investigate a bit more the ways activism around the idea of the commons is emerging at different sites.

Many of the planet’s natural resources--water, forests, wildlife--have traditionally been commons, shared resources. Historically, in Europe, the commons were shared agricultural, grazing and open lands and they were steadily enclosed and privatized over the course of many hundreds of years. The privatization of public resources is not new, but it is expanding through regressive politics and policies and as new technologies enable different kinds of enclosures: patenting seeds, genetic materials, claiming parts of outer space and cyberspace and probing more deeply into the earth’s core.

Protecting the water commons has become a particularly intense site of activism. Many believe that as a non-renewable, essential resource, water should exist outside the realm of private property. But, as the planet’s water supply dwindles, private sector interest in it grows. The Blue Planet Project asserts that over one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and more than one million children die each year of diseases caused by unsafe water and lack of sanitation. In response, the organization and others like it around the world are working to protect water from commodification and maintain free access.

For an excellent articulation of the water commons, the group On the Commons has published an extensive report which you can download here. In it, they describe some of the ways private interests have encroached upon the water commons. One of these is the bottled water industry which has taken, virtually without limits, from the water commons and then sold it back to us at enormous profit. Also at a signifiant environmental cost. Another pathway to privatization is through the industries that have emerged around cleaning and reclaiming water--these provide an expensive and easily privatized solution to the water crisis, which might also be addressed by stopping pollution and ensuring the safety of the water commons for all.

Champions of the commons argue that if we see water as a commons, we are more likely to feel shared ownership of it and be invested in keeping it clean or cleaning it up. This is evidenced in the many victories of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an alliance of organizations that empowers citizens to get involved in protecting lakes, rivers and streams in their own communities.

The air we breathe, the atmosphere, the sky, outer space can be seen as another commons. In his recent book, Who Owns the Sky, Peter Barnes proposes the idea of a “sky trust” to protect this commons. The Sky Trust would require companies to pay for the right to release their carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The money would then be placed into a Sky Trust owned by all citizens--thus providing financial incentive to reduce emissions. The money from the sky trust would belong to the public to be used for common benefits.

Perhaps the most powerful example of protecting the commons can be found in the work of Vandana Shiva and her organization Navdanya (which literally means, nine seeds). Central to their work has been protecting the rights of farmers to freely use seeds, protecting seeds from patents and privatization at the hands of large corporations and in the process, protecting farmer’s rights to earn their livelihood as well as protecting all of our rights to biodiversity.

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