Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Budget Crisis at UC Berkeley

A friend sent us an update about the teach-in at UC Berkeley, which is part of the protests surrounding the budget crisis at UC Berkeley. All framed around the importance of the public common, Ananya Roy's speech was especially poignant:

You can find more speeches at the CalCommunity channel on You Tube.

For more information on the budget situation, visit Berkeley News.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

We're #37

A friend of mine sent me this music video on youtube by musician and actor Paul Hipp. It cheekily celebrates the US position at #37 in the world in healthcare.

We’ve talked about healthcare’s role in the commons several times on this blog, but there’s nothing like you tube to illustrate shortcomings as a nation.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Who owns my seeds?

When I talk about “the commons” to people unfamiliar with the concept, I often use examples that seem very obvious to me, such as water and air. Many people are familiar with water wars and how Coca-Cola, Vivendi and other multi-nationals have bought water rights, or how towns and cities have to fight to keep their water systems publicly owned, and how many people have lost that fight. Air presents a different problem, since no one can own the air, but because of that, corporations can dump pollution into the air for free. Still it’s something that people easily grasp as part of the commons.

One example of the commons that people are often surprised is even an issue is seeds. If I buy tomato seeds and grow tomatoes, it seems obvious that if I wanted to, I could keep seeds from some of my tomatoes and plant them next year – ditto for corn, rice, wheat or whatever. In fact for most of the world’s history, this is exactly how crops were grown—seeds from one crop became the plants for next year.

Enter Monsanto to whom the right to keep my own seeds and plant them next year is not at all obvious. What is obvious to them is that they should own all seeds and that people should have to buy seeds from them every year. As of this year, here in the United States, Monsanto – through acquisitions and cut-throat business practices – has cornered 90% of the soy, 65% of the corn, and 70% of the cotton markets, and has a rapidly growing presence in the fruit and vegetable markets. Monsanto seeds are sold all over the world, but here in the United States, we theoretically have anti-trust laws to prevent this kind of thing. Further, in order to be as productive as possible, Monsanto's seeds need the toxic herbicide, Roundup, which is also owned by Monsanto. And, as the final nail in farmers’ coffins, Monsanto raised its prices 42% on its most popular genetically modified seeds, which in many areas of the country are the only ones available.

So far there has not been a peep from the Obama administration about this clear and flagrant abuse of anti-trust laws. I am sure that this is partly due to the fact that most people who are not farmers could never imagine the notion of owning seeds, let alone owning almost all of them, and so there is little outcry. David Bollier says that the preeminent task of our day is recognizing all the commons in our midst and certainly this is an excellent example.

For more information and to send a letter to President Obama's antitrust chief Christine Varney, visit Change.org

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Commons and Community Gardening in Detroit

The Nation has a great article about the local foods movement in Detroit written by movement-legend Grace Lee Boggs. She calls this movement a “quiet revolution” and describes the ways that it’s transforming one of the nation’s most suffering cities. At the same time, this story from Detroit has much to say about the notion of the commons broadly.

Detroit has been dealt a one-two punch by decades of deindustrialization and the economic crisis of the last few years. And on top of concerns about joblessness, crumbling schools and the racism and brutality of the criminal justice system, Detroiters have to worry about food too!

Even if a family had enough money to budget for healthful foods, much of Detroit (like many other inner city neighborhoods) is a “food dessert,” with no grocery stores or fresh fruits and vegetables in sight. But instead of relying on the corner stores and bodegas that sell the pre-packaged foods (loaded with carbs and synthetic ingredients derived from our nation’s huge corn subsidies) that contribute to our comunities' obesity epidemic, activists and organizers in Detroit have been seeding community gardens throughout the city.

Community gardening is a simple intervention that addresses multiple challenges at once. As Grace Lee Boggs mentions in her article, urban farming is helping communities reclaim and repurpose vacant lots, thereby transforming urban blight into a shared resource. Detroit Summer, the program Boggs founded more than 15 years ago, also capitalizes on the potential of gardening to rebuild a sense of community, or as she puts it “respirit” Detroit.

This notion of “respiriting” seems to be the heart of what other activists and thinkers have called “the commons.” Grace Lee Boggs writes about self-reliance, reconnecting children and adults, and community, but nowhere in the article does the words “common” and “commons” appear. Of course, movements aren’t based on terms but on ideas, so it probably doesn’t matter whether the word 'commons' gets used. However, it IS critical that the many examples of ‘the commons’ are told in a way that connects them together. We need to develop and share a story of the commons that crosses lines of race and geography. And what Grace Lee Boggs and other activists in Detroit are doing is a critical chapter of that larger story of commons-building.

Friday, September 4, 2009

How far will we go to avoid taxes?

I have lived in California off and on (mostly on) since 1976. I came here attracted by what attracts everyone: the unbelievable variety of natural beauty, free thinking, lots of sunshine, fresh fruit and vegetables, and the ocean. Over the years, like all Californians, I brushed off the jokes: “all the fruits and nuts drift to California,” and the expressions, “that’s SO California” (which refers to anything new age) or “You’re not in California right now” when I would say something left of center and act like most people would agree. California has produced more than its share of characters with major impact: from Richard Nixon to Timothy Leary, Ronald Reagan to Ram Dass. Much of this is a function of size—we are the third largest landmass and, at 38 million people, we are the most populous state; bigger than many countries including Canada.

For a state with a very liberal reputation, we have voted for some of the most conservative and oppressive legislation in the country: against gay marriage, for “three strikes” which puts people in prison for life after three felonies, often against immigrants, affirmative action, and almost always, against taxes.

Our anti-tax stand now threatens everything that we hold dear as we have no money to pay for anything. All domestic violence funding—cut entirely. Cal-Works, a very successful welfare to work program—cut entirely. Guaranteed health care for uninsured children—cut. And the list goes on.

But possibly the most absurd set of cuts is of the state parks, 80% of which are to be closed. 100 public parks are to be closed to the public. And if an enterprising member of the public is found in a closed park, he or she will receive a hefty fine. Our physical commons is enclosed and we are to be fined if we enter our commons. Of course, few people will be fined since those who have the authority to fine us have lost their jobs. It is hard to believe that the cost of closing the parks (which are not fenced, and except for a few, don’t even have main gates that can be locked) and patrolling the closed parks would not be equal or greater to keeping them open and calling for the public to help take care of them. And that the damage that will result from closing the parks, and thus opening to fairly unmonitored criminal activity, increasing fire danger from unmaintained trails, and the like, will take far more money to clean up and repair. The savings will be negligible and the damage possibly permanent.

Tax cuts rarely actually save money for the public. They enclose our commons and they only allow very wealthy people and corporations to become wealthier. The sooner we understand the absurdity of saving money by cutting taxes, the sooner we can actually become the state (and eventually the nation) that people imagine: welcoming to all, with high quality schools and health care, well paying jobs, and vast protected natural beauty beckoning visitors to come and appreciate.