Kathryn Milun – Commons: Non-modern Arts of Governing in a Modern World

I want to thank the organizers for putting together this important conference that brings together from around the world those of us who are working as scholars, activists, artists to build commons.

In this talk I will lay out an argument for why I believe commons have become an important historical reality, re-emerging as a multi-faceted political, legal, economic and ecological strategy and framework in our current era where the modern institutions enabling global, industrial capitalism have brought us to a tipping point of planetary climate disaster and expansive social inequality. Commons introduce into our modern institutions categories of existence and of knowledge that were never really modernized, never created for the bounded political and legal categories of the modern state, never created for the limitless expansion beyond time and place of neo-liberal capitalism. Commons thinking can challenge modern conceptualization of humans as separate from nature because commons traditions generally arise in eras that recognize the shared realities of human and nonhuman worlds. Our current ecological reality is demanding a new script for existence and new, complex knowledge forms. In this talk, I’ll point to some examples that show how the existential and conceptual tools of the commons are producing a new political narrative of justice, discovering new uses of old law, using participatory institution building to innovate more equitable governance, and engaging skillful social hacking.Public art has an important role to play in the recognition and reclaiming of commons and I look forward to the rest of the conference where I will hear more about how art and community activism in your region contributes to the commons movement.

Who I Am

I need to note at the outset that I am anthropologist interested in the formal and informal legal forms that enable commons. You will see that this legal perspective influences my approach to commons. For me, its important to see that whether the force of law comes from formal codes and constitutions of modern states or from the power of shared cultural practices, legal constructions are amenable to what I’ll call social hacking, the creative interpretation and manipulation of power; these are the arts that those without power have always resorted to. One other point about where I am coming from. My scholarly work has focused on shared space in modern city design—from the monumental public squares of imperialist cities to the freeways and shopping malls of globally connected urban life today; and it has focused on how globally shared domains like the oceans, outerspace, the atmosphere, the internet, the biodiversity of the earth are imagined and managed in international law. In both cases, I am interested in what shared space tells us about our public self. More recently, my work has taken a more practical, activist turn: I am currently using commons thinking and commons design principles to hack into the fossil-fuel based electricity sector in the United States. The laws and institutions that support the status quo represent a typically modern form of thinking about the public good. I am building what I call a “solar commons,”a community-trust owned solar energy system in public parks that can generate income into low-income neighborhoods. I’ll come back to this project at the end of my talk.

Roadmap of Talk

Here is a roadmap of what I want to cover in the next 40 mintues: I’ll begin with some general conceptual terms used by commons scholars. I’ll take an extended look at the concept of a gift economy, discuss its relationship to the commons and compare its key features to that of a market economy. Then I’ll look at specific commons domains and analyze what they contribute to modern categories of existence and knowledge. I’ll look at ancient commons that have persisted into modernity, traditional commons that have only recently been recognized by modern states, new commons that have been recognized by the market, and two examples of commoners engaged in the social hacking of their state constitutions and market mechanisms to create emergent commons forms. All of these examples demonstrate, for me, the emergent power of commons as a response to the current ecological and economic crises of modern state and market dominance.

Conceptual Terms: nonmodern; commons; gift economy

I want to clarify some terms I’ll be using. When I say I understand the commons as a specifically non-modern social form,by non-modern I do not mean that commons came historically before the modern period.   Rather, I mean that commons thinking contains expectations and ideas about humans and their relationship to the world that are significantly different than what we find inthe globally dominant forms of governance (the modern state) and economy (the modern market). Sometimes commons thinking and activism traces its roots to ancient social forms—indigenous practices that evolved to equitably share the wealth of a local forest; sometimes commons arise as a result of new technologies, like the internet that enables creative sharing. In either case, I’ll argue, the emergent commons movement is providing us with ideas about governance and property that are different than what we have seen with the modern state and market.

Also, I follow the convention of many contemporary activists and scholars by using the term“commons” (plural) to designate three things: first,commons refers to the cultural, social, and natural resources accessible to all members of a society. These would include air, water, and a habitable earth; infrastructures that enable communication and travel such as roads, water sanitation systems, the internet; and finally, cultural heritage such asmusic,stories, and knowledge systems such as mathematics and philosophy. In short, these are forms of common property as opposed to state/public property and private/market property.Commons theorists also refer to the specific institutional forms that manage these shared resources as “commons.”And finally, contemporary commons can also refer to the social movement that promotes commons thinking and commons building. In English we have evens invented a new word for this activity: “commoning.”

Commons And Gift Economy I: obligating the receiver to reciprocate creates not debt that impoverishes but obligation that nourishes a future

A fundamental concept of commons thinking is the idea of the gift and the corresponding mechanism of the gift economy. The political narrative that many commons activists use is that certain resources have been “gifted” to us by nature, by community and by culture. I want to spend a moment focusing on this key concept of the gift and its power as an alternative economic paradigm. Gift economies circulate goods and manage resources differently than market and barter economies built around exchange. In a market economy, I exchange money for a good. When the transaction is over, the relationship I have with the person is also over. You buy a coffee from a shopkeeper and you may never see or think about that person again in your life. These are what sociologists call “disembedded social relationships.”On the other hand, when someone gives you a gift, it generally obligates you to reciprocate in some open-ended way in the future. How and when you reciprocate is generally determined by cultural norms. For example, at a personal level, I received a gift of earrings from “the old country” from my immigrant Sicilian grandmother, and I knew I was being entrusted to pass them on to the next generation now living in the US. At a larger social level, wetechnology users recognize that open-source software is a gift of labor and knowledge from many skilled code writers who are building the internet as an open access commons. Software companies whose products depend on a robust digital sharing culture are sometimes compelled toreciprocate by paying their employees to contribute time to design open-source tools that keep the internet accessible. These two general examples of gifting I just gave are different than what many anthropologists have described in non-modern, small scale societies where gift economies produce wealth in the form of prestige and social status for a giver whose reputation is enhanced. What I am talking about in contemporary, modern societies may be less formally structured gifting, but it nonetheless co-exists among the many market exchanges and territorial national identities of modern life. Values of “the old country”persist through gifting; open source freedom on the internetis valued differently by those who understand the technology than by those who just assume they are getting something “for free” with no strings attached.

Commons And Gift Economy II: Ecological embedded gift economies learn from nature; potential for a future (something more) is in the present.

There is interesting speculation about how humans came to think about circulating goods within a gift economy. It is well known that ancient, agricultural societies treated land and fields as commons, not private property. Anthropologists recount that when seeds collected from a fall harvest were “gifted” to a new farmer for next year’s crop, the custom arose that when it came time to return the seeds he or she had borrowed, the new farmer would return not onlythe original amount of seed but also a little bit more. Why is that? As in many cases,ecologically embedded social forms follow close observation of the natural world. Plants themselves produce a crop to eat, but they also produce something more, the seed containing their potential for future fruit. The custom of returning always a little bit more than you had been given was a way of imitating the gift of nature that had been shared with you at the outset. This “something more” of the gift economy could be given sacred value or it could become a secular system of wealth accumulation. In the European Middle Ages, for example, it was considered a sin for Christians to charge interest (“something more”) on a loan because the interest represented TIME and time was a gift from their God; time was a sacred element in this Christian worldview that could not be owned and therefore could not be sold by Christians. Christians conveniently allowed non-Christian Jews (who they forbid to hold property wealth in land) to charge them interest and thus managed to enjoy the best of both economies: both the circulation of money in a secular exchange economy and the circulation of the sacred in a gift economy.

Commons and Gift Economy III: Beyond possessive individualism

To summarize then, the gift economy is a vehicle for using and circulating things—seeds, water, beads, even money. It includes an understanding that the things that are used or circulated do not belong to you. Unlike the possessive individualism that is enabled by an exchange economy, gift economies promote letting go. You can hold the precious object for a while,but you are really just holding the object “in trust” as we say in English. Eventually things you hold must go back into circulation because in circulating these gifts they fulfill their generative potential. Holding on to them would break the “social contract” of the gift, their “something more.” Gift economies ensure a future world of the gift for others. In so doing, they create potential for community and solidarity. Unlike the negative aspect of debt in an exchange economy, obligation in a gift economy is a positive, generative thing. These categories of existing in obligation and knowing when it is time to give back are non-modern cultural forms that persist into the modern world in gift economies

Summarize: These then are the key arguments I have been making up until now.

  • Commons are becoming an important part of our historical reality because they offer categories of existence and knowledge not addressed by modern categories of knowledge and being.
  • Commons are non-modern social forms
  • Whether they arise from ancient ecological relationships to the earth or recent virtual realities of technology, commons are often grounded in gift economies that value shared property differently than modern states and markets
  • Debt in a gift economy is generative; debt in an exchange economy is impoverishing

Examples of commons that persist today and carry these elements of a gift economy.

Now I’ll turn to some diverse examples of “actually existing commons” –to borrow an old term that we used to say in the old days about socialism when it existed in the form of the modern state. Of course, in my examples, I am emphasizing just the opposite: commons are social forms that go beyond the modern state and the modern market. One way they do this, as you will see, is by carrying elements of a gift economy.

1) Gleaning In France the ancient practice of “gleaning,”gathering what is leftover on the land after the harvest, persists within modern private property rights and suggests the remnants of a gift economy. The French civil coderestates the customary law authorizing anyone to go onto the land of a proprietor after the harvest and take whatever is left. French people do not necessarily know that the practice is protected by law, but they do know it is something that their parents and grandparents did in many regions of the country and in many diverse agricultural and marine environments. This famous painting by Jean Francois Millet in 1857 immortalized the practice and monumentalized the landless peasants—mostly women—who were the customary practitioners of gleaning in France. In 2000, the French filmmaker Agnes Vardamade a beautiful documentary film observing and reflecting on gleaning practices throughout France. She shows scenes of homeless men savaging through the remains of industrial potato fields after the million dollar combine machines have gone through. Industrial potato production values only the uniform potato, and that leaves plenty of “mis-shapen” potatoes out on the field, rotting in the sun. Varda finds a potato in the shape of a heart, films it close-up, and brings it home to her apartment in Paris to make soup. Many qualities are left in the poor nonstandard potato, but these qualities are not valued by the industrial food processors or the chain supermarkets. When Varda goes back into the streets to film, her camera finds many people “gleaning”: conscientious young urbanites picking through the stalls after the noonday market has left; homeless youth dumpster diving for food in the back alley’s of a posh Parisian restaurant; people leaving unwanted items out on their front yards for others to take; and so on and so forth. The culture of gleaning is alive and well in France. Varda interviews land owners who tell her that they understand that people will come and gather what they have left after the harvest. Some proprietors do not know there is a law that protects gleaners, but they do it because it is customary. There are many things we could say about this practice and Varda’s film, but I want to focus on how, in property terms, the power of the private property owner is limited by a cultural practice and moral economy that values the nourishing quality of the land beyond its status as private property. The food that remains after the harvest does not belong to the proprietor, it belongs to whomever needs it. This, I would say, is an ancient form of communing persisting to this day and bringing along with it nonmodern forms of being and knowing on the land.

If you compare the act of gleaning in France to the very same act in the United States, you have two very different things. In the US, private property is privileged. No one has a right to go and take food from another’s land regardless of whether or not it will go to waste. This image is a snapshot of the website of group of young people in Massachusetts who have set up a soup kitchen where they feed the poor during the day and by night gather the ingredients through illegal dumpster diving in the waste bins of one of the wealthiest countries in the world. In France you have a form of communing that is both persistent and recognized by the state. In the US, you have the same practice of communing that, not recognize as legitimate by the state, is illegal.

2) Magna Carta: Nonmodern commons institutions persist in various ways in modern societies. The Magna Carta is an eleventh century charter written by the lesser nobility to limit the power of the King in medieval England. The charter also states the rights that landless peasants have to the bounty of the King’s forests: wild animals, honey, wood for building and heating homes and for cooking—their wood economy is the material equivalent of our oil economy today and the charter protected the just distribution of the forest resources, even if the forests did belong to the King. Many provisions of the Magna Carta have been written into state constitutions around the world: the right of habeas corpus, the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty; the guarantee of due process under the law. But, as the historian Peter Linebaugh points out in his book, The Magna Carta Manifesto (titled after another famous socialist text) the provisions that protect commoning rights did not make it into the constitutions of modern states.   Today we would call these “ user rights. In the vocabulary of nonmodern England, the social relationships in common property rights are contained in the rich vocabulary around the uses of wood. “Estovers,” for example, are the old English term for the amount of wood that a widow may take from a forest. There is a different word for the amount that a married woman might take given the different subsistence need in the household.   In The Magna Carta Manifesto”, Linebaughargues that terms like estovers are examples of a moral economy that can be found persisting around the world in the interstices of the dominant market economies.   Linebaugh encourages commoners to look for the ancient laws that protect prior claim on subsistence resources and reassert the legitimacy of these common property forms alongside contemporary private and public forms of property.

There are many more examples I could give of persistent forms of ancient commoning. Some have been long protected by law, as we saw with gleaning in France, others may never be, as we saw with the Gleaners Kitchen in the settler/colonial state of the US. In these later cases, the non-modern yet persistent reality of commoning puts into question the very legitimacy of overvalued private property protections in modern states. There are examples of ancient common property forms that have only recently been recognized by modern states—Aboriginal Title in Australia, collective property categories of indigenous forest-dwelling peoples in the Phillipines to name only two. I would be happy to come back to these and more such practices in our discussion period as they bring into modern law non-modern property forms that are truly remarkable for their artistic and practical elegance with regard to ecological knowledge and social relationships. Given the time remaining, however, I want to turn to a new legal strategy for commoning in the US that also involves the use of an ancient legal category of holding property repurposed for the environmental crisis at hand. These are examples where commons practices would need to be reinvented and commons institutions re-imagined and rebuilt.

Building Commons Institutions

Modern markets and modern states have solid, self-legitimating institutions that are forcefully reproducing the social relationships of the exchange economy. Banks, stock-exchanges, the various trade agreements underwritten by the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, not to mention professional Schools of Business and Management, andgrowing popularity undergraduate majors in business. There many other interconnected institutions that also support the sense that the expert and everyday practices that are good for an exchange economy are good for, even the same as, the public domain. The strength of these institutions has helped naturalize the sense that the only meaningful sense of the word economy is the operation of the modern market economy. Even the institutions of the modern democratic state help naturalize this fantasy, all the more so in the last two decades of de-regulated markets: our court systems, our elections, our legislative and regulatory agencies are not immune to the dominant cultural logic that what is good for the market is good for the state. The gift-economies that support many would-be commonsare undervalued and misrecognized. For the modern market system, gifts of nature, community, and culture are simply “free” stuff. They are often referred to (in classical economic terms) as “externalities:” not valued, not priced, and not protected from being captured by the marketplace and made into a commodity. From this perspective, commons are gift economies and nonmodern social forms that need their own institutions to protect them and allow them to flourish. Commons are non-modern gift economies that need to be recognized, respected, and valued by modern institutions of the state and market.

Let me offer an example of how an under-valued gift of nature could, with the help of some creative, robust commons institutions, generate wealth in a gift economy. The carbon-carrying capacity of the earth’s atmosphere is a gift of nature dangerously undervalued by contemporary, modern-market societies. Here are some numbers supported by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

  • 2 degree Celsius—the target accepted in the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Accord as the mean global temperature rise, below which the most dangerous effects of human-induced climate change might be avoided
  • 886 gigatons—the amount of carbon dioxide human kind can place in the atmosphere between the year 2000 and mid-century and still have some chance of keeping below the two-degree target. We’ve already used up one third of this budget in the first decade of this century, leaving us just 565 gigatons to spend by 2050
  • 2,795 gigatons—the carbon potential of the proven coal, oil and gas reserves owned by the world’s private and public companies and governments.(These numbers come from a paper entitled, “Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to 2C,” which was published in April 2009 in Nature, the prestigious science journal. It was the work of researchers from Germany, the UK and Switzerland, led by MalteMeinshausen, a climatologist at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact. Used by Bill McKibben in his Do the Math Tour).

This last number is five times the size of the remaining carbon budget. Energy firms, some of the world’s largest and wealthiest corporations, count as a financial asset a reserve of fossil fuels of which four-fifths must stay in the ground if we are serious about keeping the planet habitable.   Where are the institutions, large social actors, that will make this happen?

Although the atmosphere is recognized in international law as a global commons belonging to everyone, it is treated in practice as ifit belongs to no one. It continues to be used as a free dump site for industrial society and all of us who emit CO2 into this common pool resource. In terms of the dominant US market economy,fossil-fuel burning is currently valued at $0. In the European Union, on the other hand, when the atmosphere’s value was recognized and valued, it was captured by the institutions of the exchange economy and made into a carbon-trading market that produced wind-fall profits for bankers and zero for the “commoners” (present and future generations of oxygen users). From a common propertyperspective, the commons asset of the atmosphere was not really owned by those who traded its market shares. Rather, according to international law, it was “owned” by its users. The atmosphere was not a “free” resource to begin with. It was a gift of nature to many, many users—including nonhuman species. If it had been recognized within the existential and knowledge categories of the gift economy, could it have generated multiple forms of wealth—physical well-being and monetary wealth—for its user-community of commoners? In order to do that, the atmospheric commons would need first and foremost some key institutions and it would need to have those institutions recognizes by markets and states. Some of these commons institutions are already there. We have state legal systems (international law, in this case; or even the property law of the European Union) that could have recognized that the atmospheric commons was not what lawyers call “alienable,” meaning it could not be bought or sold. There are many things that states recognize as unavailable for sale—human beings, human organs, endangered species, etc) and they make laws that prohibit markets from trading in them.

So, let’s say that the legislative institutions of a state, or group of states, or an international legal institution like the United Nations passes a law saying that scientists have determined that the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphereis 886 gigatons. Let’s say that their law also specifies that this capacity of the atmosphere is the common property of present and future generations of climate users. That would mean that anyone who tried to set up a market exchange economy for carbon would be making money from something that was not theirs to sell. They would be financializing a commons asset as if it were their own private asset. They would be dispossessing, expropriating the commoners of their commons asset. Theft, some would call it. But, certainly those who set up carbon markets would argue that there is no other way to capture the potential monetary wealth that comes when we incentivize carbon reduction. They might argue it would be morally wrong to waste such potential wealth. How should commoners respond? How can they themselves capture the potential wealth to be made here? You could do this with a cap and share program (see diagram) but that would not This is where the creation of commons institutions comes in.

[Trust/2 slides] sHere is how you could build a commons around the atmosphere: Once the state recognizes the common property status of carbon emissions, it can set up a trust fund and, on behalf of all present and future carbon users, it could charge rent to carbon emitters. All industries and personal users of the atmosphere’s carbon-carrying capacity would pay rent that would be collected by the state like a tax. So the state is recognizing and working with the commons sector just as today states recognize and work with market sector institutions. What is essential here is that this commons rent is NOT a tax. The rent money collected could not go into the state’s coffers and be appropriated by state lawmakers for whatever projects they wanted—a new dam, a new war, a new poverty program, a new school. This commons wealth would be paid back as dividends to commoners—one breather, one share—and it could save a portion of the fund and earmark it for those who will initially be most hurt by the new carbon cap—1) countries who have historically used less than their share of the atmospheric carbon capacity (i.e. countries which are starting to develop industries) and 2) the poor for whom it would be too great a burden to pay.

There are many things that could be done with money from a commons trust fund. The US commons theorist, Peter Barnes, has proposed the cap and dividend model for the US, suggesting that each state should set up a rent collection system for carbon emissions based on an allocated metric by a valid scientific body. States could pay all citizens a dividend from that rent pool—each citizen would get one dividend share—and the remaining funds would go to various atmosphere-protecting activities. Citizens would be incentivized to not emit CO2 in their common environment and those who emitted less would be paying less rent. The true value of the atmosphere would be represented in the cost of activities—industrial production, driving, etc—that are now simply “free riding” on the atmospheric commons.

In the US, the state of Vermont has introduced legislation that would do exactly this with all their gifts of nature—water, forests, air, fish, minerals, etc. The legislation proposes that these gifts be treated as the commons assets and that the state of Vermont “help out the commons” by being their trustee. As the trustee, the state would charge users rent.   The rent would go into a special commons trust fund to be used for environmental protection and clean energy development. The law has not passed yet, but there are places in the US where we are working on this.

What I want to emphasize here is that the wealth generated from the commons asset would be circulated in some way that would protect the gift of nature and generate wealth for commoners. It would create a gift economy with a set of commons institutions (trust property; trustees to oversee the process; rent collection; commoners as beneficiaries of the trust). These commons institutions would be recognized as legitimate by states and markets. They would be supported by citizens who would be commons users. Non-modern forms of shared property circulating alongside property forms of the modern state and the modern market.

Mixed Property Systems

I should add that we already these kinds of mixed property systems operating around us, most notably on the internet. The internet allows private property holders who own computers and software to engaging in private market practices (purchasing goods) and commons practices (sharing music, art, scholarship and all manner of things). Creative Commons licenses are a legal tool that basically “hacks” the social form of copyright and turns what used to be a tool of private property into a tool common property. If you put a Creative Commons license on a song you wrote or an artwork you want to share, it is protected from someone else considering it “free stuff” and selling it themselves. Creative Commons licenses are what I would call a new, non-modern, commons institution. What is the role of the state, of public property, within the market and gift economies enabled by the internet? Well, the role of the state is to use its institutions—law-making and courts—to make sure that the internet stays open for both sharing and selling. For both kinds of property to circulate. This is what the recent “net-neutrality” debate in the US was all about. Fortunately, the Obama administration settled this debate in favor of net neutrality.

The Public Trust Doctrine is a legal tool in the civil law tradition that goes back to Roman law and certainly beyond.  It authorizes states (“the public”) to be trustees of certain things (the trust or commons asset) that belong to everyone (the beneficiaries) which including future generations. It’s a very interesting, non-modern legal concept, the Public Trust Doctrine, but states rarely use it. There is important precedent for its use in the US in the 19th century against the railroads taking peoples lands.   Since the 1970s, environmental lawyers in the US have advocated using the Public Trust Doctrine to recognize water, wildlife habitat, wetlands and other endangered ecosystems as trust property with individual states held liable for environmental damages enabled by lawmakers who will not pass or enforce strong environmental protection laws. There is a commons movement across the country called the Children’s Trust which is having children sue their state governments under the Public Trust Doctrine for not enacting a tax on carbon emissions. The children represent future generations and claim to be the beneficial owners of the atmosphere and the earth’s climate. Even if the strategy does not succeed in court, it has people using categories of existence and knowledge coming from a non-modern, commons framework. Children (and parents) who sue are not only citizens of the state, they are advocates of the earth. And, under the Public Trust Doctrine, states are not just modern institutions obligated to voters in their temporary election cycle. They are trustees of resources that they are stewarding for others. Finally, what is the political identity of the market in the framework of the Public Trust Doctrine? The market is held to a new standard of behavior. It’s reach is limited by the moral economy of nature’s gift just as the overreach of King John in early England was limited by the provisions established in the Magna Carta.

[Slide) One final word on another important US / Canadian Public Trust campaign being lead by Maude Barlow, the Canadian environmental activist and author who was a leader in getting water recognized as a human right at the United Nations at the beginning of this millennium. Barlow has partnered with many NGO across the bioregion of the Great Lakes in a social media campaign to have the Great Lakes recognized as a commons. The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system on Earth. Only 3 percent of the world’s water exists as fresh water and 2 percent of that is locked in the polar ice caps. How do you build a commons institution to protect the Great Lakes? That is by no means evident to all the activists working on this project. But one essential thing for both Canadian and American activists is to demand that the Great Lakes be protected from the most pressing threats by bringing public trust cases against states, provinces, and federal governments around the lakes who are supporting the recent and highly capitalized movement of some of the earth’s dirtiest oil across its waters. As the US has now become the world’s largest oil and gas exporter, fracked gas and tar sands oil transported by pipelines and ships are making the Great Lakes an oil pipeline of the world. There have been serious spills already, not to mention the fact that this oil is being pumped with no cap on atmospheric carbon levels. It is glutting the market, bringing prices ridiculously low, and making windfall profits for the wealthiest corporations on the earth. Barlow and the commons activists are using the new political narrative of the commons, however,the complex problems of governance remain: if the institutional power of states and markets must be limited with regard to the Great Lakes, what kinds of political, economic, and legal institutions must be built to effectively co-govern the shared resources of the Great Lakes at local levels as commons?   I can talk more about the ups and downs of this campaign if you are interested, as I have been involved myself.

Social Hacking For Commons

In the few minutes left, I want to note two examples of commons activism that “hacks” social institutions to reclaim commons. In Italy, a recent attempt to privatize water and other municipal goods was fought by the “beni commune” movement. Legal scholars working with the activists found a precious article in the Italian constitution that allowed citizens to launch a successful call referendum against the privatization of common goods. In Naples, a community has taken over its water management from both the state and the private sector. Truly, citizens there are inventing institutions for autonomous, community water commons. This is a case we can discuss further during our conference, but one important point to make is that this movement and its legal theorists are creating the social and legal theory to support autonomous, constitutional events where citizens create—constitute themselves as political subjects without states. Again, the eruption of the non-modern to repair the broken governance systems of modern states and markets.

And finally, my own project in Phoenix Arizona, a place I lived for several years when my kids were little. Arizona could power the entire United States with the solar energy it is gifted from the sun. But there is no incentive for the electrical utility companies to change their business plan which is highly invested in the ownership of coal and gas-burning power generation stations, transmissions lines, that bring the power (inefficiently) across the state, and the distribution grids that give access to electricity in the cities. That complex infrastructure system generates a lot of wealth, a lot of waste, and a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. Using commons thinking, I wondered if I could place solar energy collectors in public city of right of way or public parks, “own” the solar collectors as a community trust, sell the electricity generated to a nearby user, and create an income stream that serves local low-income neighborhoods. I figured that solar energy could produce that “something more” of the gift economy and bring social and ecological benefit to the community. I produced a business plan for this and submitted it to the US Green Building Council, our most powerful sustainable building institution, and the project won their annual legacy project prize in 2009. With that prize I raised money for a demonstration project. I have been trying to build the project since 2009, getting kicked off the grid everywhere I go by the utility companies not allowing me to put this community solar energy into their systems. This year I figured out a way to use city parks as partners in the project. Now we are moving forward with a plan that I hope will be repeatable for communities across the US to put more green electricity online and to capture that something more of wealth—both monetary and educational—for the community. I say educational because the solar commons project designs public art into the installation, using the art to educate park goers to the commons concept, how gift economies work, and how they fit in as commoners. There is a wonderful project that was created for rural electrification in Brazil called “The Sun Shines For All.”It produced affordable solar generation kits for rent that would cost users as much as they were paying a month for candles and kerosene with much better results. When I would get thrown off the grid from one site to another, I would think of the problem that Fabio Rosa faced in selling his units to Brazils poor. As renters, the households did not sufficiently care for the property they were using and there were many careless problems. Then Rosa started to include little saint statues attached to the batteries. Connecting solar energy with something of value to the community he was serving was exactly what he needed and the kits were well cared for after that. And so, I often remind myself that commons thinking—and social hacking on behalf of commons building– always needs something more, something that is connected to the specific values of specific communities.

Conclusion: I began this talk by saying that commons offer us categories of existence and categories of knowledge that are not modern. The categories of existence offered by the modern state—citizenship and inadequate political representation in government–have proven insufficient for putting necessary limits on global capitalism. How do commons offer new ways for humans to see themselves in relation to the tasks of governing shared resources? In a world whose infrastructures, industries, government bureaucracies, and wealth-creating institutions are designed in the modernist paradigm that views human agency as separate from and dominant over the natural world, what forms of knowledge are required to reconnect our well-being to the well-being of the planet? How can we keep the best of the modern world—the aspirations of democracy and human rights—as we rework our identities and skill sets to better connect to and care for the earth and our local communities? Who am I if I am a member of a commons?Of many commons?Can I be a producer, consumer, citizen, and a commoner? What will a political world valued and governed in this diverse way look like? Could the accumulation of commons asset wealth pre-distributed through commons trusts to humans and nonhumans change the face of social equity? There is much work to be done to answers these questions. As an academic, I try to be a commons theorist and activist so I can better see the successes, failures, complexities, and work that needs doing when commons are the new arts of governance. Commons are indeed re-emerging and, as I have argued here,they have a significant role to play: they give us a new justice narrative connected to gifts of nature, community, and culture; they call for social hacking into unresponsive/irresponsible institutions and innovations in all areas of social life.  The Sun Shines for All.


Kathryn Milun created and directs the Solar Commons project (solarcommons.org), an innovative plan to place solar energy collectors in urban right of way and hold the contract for electricity sale, as a community trusts that funds low-income housing. She is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth where she teaches a course on The New Commons. She is also a Fellow at On the Commons, a national organization devoted to reclaiming the commons (onthecommons.org). In addition to articles, she has written two books on the commons: the urban commons in modern city planning (Pathologies of Modern Space: Empty Space, Urban Anxiety and the Recovery of the Public Self, Routledge 2006); and the global commons in international law (The Political Uncommons: A Cross-Cultural Study of the Global, Ashgate 2010). 

This paper was presented at Conversation Across Commons.