On a problem as huge and frightening as climate change it’s sometimes the small stuff that really gets us thinking.
Predictions of melting polar ice caps inundating seacoast cities and blistering heat turning the Great Plains to desert boggles the mind, often leaving me dumbfounded and defeated rather than charged up about saving the earth.
Imagine what would happen if you took down road signs and traffic signals. More accidents would surely result, or at least significant confusion and slower traffic. Or would it? The surprising thing is that a number of cities around the world have actually done this, and experienced dramatic declines in traffic accidents.
In a recent interview with Enrique Peñalosa — the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, and champion of enlightened urban design — reporter Deborah Solomon elicits the insight that sidewalks are a critical design element for democracy. (New York Times Magazine, June 8, 2008) As mayor of Bogotá, Peñalosa famously banned parking on sidewalks as part of a larger effort to revive human-scale city life.
The government of Quebec is considering legislation that would establish a policy that water legally belongs collectively to the people of Quebec, the Montreal Gazette reported last week. Bill 92 would for the first time give the government the right to require permits for water use by bulk users of water (75,000 liters a day, or the equivalent of two above-ground swimming pools). It would also let the government sue companies that degrade the quality of water or alter the environment.
No democratic society worthy of the name can govern itself without transparency and information. It sounds basic, of course, but the past seven years have seen an unprecedented suppression of government information, scientific research, court documents and the rights of access to such stuff. What a pleasure to see that the tide may be turning.
To encourage students to appreciate the value of the information commons, four library associations, Students for Free Culture and the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups have announced the second annual Sparky Awards, a video competition that seeks to recognize “the best new short videos on the value of sharing.”
What happens when corporate marketers commandeer a grassroots health movement and turn it into a mini-industry? Samantha King provides a revealing look in her book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (University of Minnesota). King, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, describes how corporate marketers have transformed a once-stigmatized disease into a branded cause that subtly serves their commercial self-interests.
There is a simmering debate in certain tech circles that is starting to come to a boil. It concerns the significance of Web 2.0 to the political economy. Web 2.0, refers to websites like Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, among thousands of others, where people can self-organize themselves into communities and share stuff for free, without the blessings of a marketplace.
The latest U.S. News & World Report features a two-page interview with On the Commons fellow Peter Barnes (“A Climate Change Proposal with Cash”). http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/national/2008/06/02/a-climate-change-proposal-with-cash.html?PageNr=1
One of the uncounted “externalities” of industrial-style agriculture is an inefficient overuse of chemical fertilizers. Some 85-90 percent of the nitrogen used in fertilizers is washed away into the environment, much of it ending up in the ocean. There, the nitrogen depletes oxygen in water, killing fish, shrimp, claims and other marine life. The “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, between Louisiana and Texas, may be the largest, most famous casualty of big agribusiness practices, but there are hundreds of other dead zones in coastal waters around the world.
Critics in Wyoming complain that the state Game and Fish Department is maintaining feedgrounds for wild elk even though they help incubate and spread “chronic wasting disease” among elk. Cattle-ranchers like the feedgrounds because they allow herds of cattle to forage on public lands instead. But now that an epidemic of “chronic wasting disease” – a variant of “mad cow disease” – is spreading among elk, hunters and environmentalists charge that the feedgrounds are spreading the disease.
They save us money, boost community connections, and celebrate the commons.
Public water fountains, which have been disappearing from the streets of our cities for many decades, are an excellent example of what the commons means.
Instead of paying a buck for a polluting plastic bottle of water, we can drink for free from a resource that belongs to us all—and do it in a public setting that helps instill a sense of community. Traditionally fountains have been the meeting place for villages and neighborhoods.
The emerging commons movement reminds many people of environmentalism in its early days. In both cases, a familiar set of concerns is united into one broad cause under a new name.
Environmentalism addressed issues as varied as smog, roadside trash and wildlife conservation together in one movement to save the planet. The commons too stretches across many fields that people once considered separate: public spaces, internet democracy, climate change, economic justice.
One of the most ambitious, public-spirited tech projects of recent years, the One Laptop Per Child project attracted a great deal of enthusiasm over the past several years for its mission to bring millions of cheap and sturdy laptops to kids in developing nations. Already, some 600,000 laptops have been sold to the governments of Peru, Uruguay, Mexico, and other poorer nations. A key part of the project has been its exclusive reliance on open-source software.
I am struck by the excessive, near Pollyannaish optimism of mainstream economics in its assumptions about human reason and, in an odd way, the peaceable nature of economic order. Our discipline tends to gloss over the central role of power and violence in the creation of wealth, the distribution of opportunity and the fact that suffering and well-being are tightly connected. This paper, reflecting the horror and obscenities of New Orleans’ agony, keeps the blood-stained nature of economic life firmly in mind.
The national parks are suffering from huge budget shortfalls and maintenance backlogs, so it is good news to hear about the National Parks Centennial Initiative . This project aims to raise $100 million per year in government funding for ten years so long as the money is matched by private donors. That would generate $2 billion for improving visitors’ facilities, restoring hiking trails, saving the habitat of endangered species, and in other ways preserving our national parks.
Can works of art help us see the world anew and help us glimpse the ways in which human beings are truly connected to each other and to nature? Can they help us slip the shackles of old habits of thought, and help us develop more integrated forms of feeling and thinking?
Tevereterno, multidisciplinary art project, Rome Italy, by Kristin Jones, photo by Mimmo Capone