Not many people have the imagination, intellectual depth and sheer courage to take on an entire profession and demonstrate that it is wrong. Jane Jacobs did. The renegade author, autodidact and activist — who died on Tuesday at age 89 — not only took on many such “impossible” challenges, she often prevailed. In her devotion to humanistic, small-scale solutions to big problems, Jacobs can be rightly understood as an early champion of what we now call the commons.
The privatization of the earth and all it contains ultimately is justified on the grounds of something called “progress.” To enclose a resource, or process, or aspect of life – that is, to impose a corporate ownership regime around these – is to re-render them in a way that will lead to human advance. Oases will bloom in the desert, miracle cures will emerge, invention and the arts will rise to ever-higher peaks of achievement. Just look at commercial television – pardon me, I tipped my hand there.
Perhaps you had the impression that the Bush Administration was opposed to family planning in the Third World because of moral scruples regarding contraception and the like. Give people condoms and next thing you know, they might…well, actually do it. It turns out however that the scruples have been more over the lack of opportunities for corporations in the planning pot.
Iloilo is the provincial capital of the province of that name, and the main city on the island of Panay, which is around the middle of the Philippine chain. It is a tired gritty city, with low buildings that become a blur behind the dark web of utility wires, and the grime. There are distant echos of Spanish colonial architecture, a few parks in traffic circles, a bevy of universities that have a bit of grassy charm. But overall, as in much of this country, there is a sense of maintenance deferred to the point of exhaustion, and of a battle against entropy that is not going well.
The Smithsonian Institution is a revered empire of museums because it has long been a faithful curator of American history – a museum that belongs to us all. Its collections contain priceless artifacts of Native American life, the “Spirit of St. Louis” airplane and early space capsules, the Hope Diamond, Archie Bunker’s chair, and millions of other cherished icons of American identity. Now it appears that our history doesn’t really belong to us, after all, and that the Smithsonian’s foremost concern is not really the American people.
On the basis of evidence that is entirely circumstantial, I believe that the motor vehicle licensing exam for the Philippines contains a question that goes pretty much as follows. “True or False? A driver ahead of you on the road poses a fundamental challenge to your manhood and your national pride, and is to be passed immediately, regardless of circumstances and the risks involved.” The correct answer, of course, is “True.” Drivers in many places have reputations for frisky behavior. In the Philippines they are off the charts.
One thing on which I agree with Cato-style libertarians – up to a point – is jitneys. Public transit that uses small vans, individually owned, really can be flexible and do things centralized urban systems can’t. A case in point is the Philippines, where a jitney offshoot called the jeepney (I’ll explain in a minute) is the main means of transportation. The things go everywhere, from downtown Manila to remote farm areas. And at all hours. This morning at 3:00 AM, my wife, son and I, temporally disoriented and tossing in the heat, took a walk out to the road.
Last year, when U.S. President George W. Bush declared the “ownership society” the theme for his second term, he was doing more than throwing up a polemical smokescreen for his policies of providing corporate executives and Wall-Street investors with everything they could possibly want. He was also introducing a radical vision for the entire world.
I marvel at the ability Ben Franklin had to design institutions to fit social needs: the fire department and the library are prime examples of his ingenuity. I wonder if it isn’t time to design some new institutions to fit our social and ecological needs. How can we best care for our commons?
One of my favorite books about the absurdities of property law is Slide Mountain, or the Folly of Owning Nature, by Theodore Steinberg. Steinberg took the name of his book from a Mark Twain short story of the same name, which describes a hilarious legal dispute that occurs when a large chunk of a mountain suddenly breaks loose and falls thousands of feet below, engulfing a farm.
In my constant effort to winnow timely and wise insight from the gushing cataract known as the Internet, I occasionally come across real gems. I thought it might be useful to showcase some of the commons-related sites that I have come to appreciate.
In the 1980s and 90s the concept of sustainable development reached a crescendo built on the notion that poverty was both cause and effect of environmental degradation: poor people do more damage to their surroundings, and a poor environment further impoverishes the humans in it. The precautionary principle emerged out of the theory of sustainable development, and was predicated on the assumption that if we prevented harm to the commons it was wiser than trying to address either environmental damage or poverty.
We – meaning you and I, dear reader – have paid for some really bad things through our public research dollars. Exhibit A: In the late 1990s the research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture teamed up with Delta and Pineland Co. to genetically engineer seed to make it sterile in the second generation, thus forcing farmers to buy seed every year. This rogue technology was named “Terminator Technology.”
While visiting Stanford Law School earlier this week, I happened to catch a guest lecture by author and online gamer, Julian Dibbell, whose new book, Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Struck It Rich in Virtual Loot Farming (Basic Books), will be out in June. In the tradition of George Plimpton, Dibbell decided to test his mettle as the determined amateur in an alien, high-performance demimonde – in this case, a massively multiplayer online game of Ultima Online.
Whack! Pow! Now here’s an inspired idea: a comic book account about how copyright law is both beneficial and harmful to creativity, especially in documentary filmmaking. Bound by Law? is a 78-page comic about a sexy filmmaker a la Lara Croft of Tomb Raider, and her adventures in trying to shoot a documentary about a day in the life of New York City.[inline:1]
It used to be that journalism was called a public trust. Now it’s mostly considered an under-leveraged market asset. Everywhere you look, the drive to monetize the readership and credibility of journalism is leading to its degradation. It’s demoralizing, it’s bad for our democracy, and it’s destructive of local civic culture.
American law must be transformed so that it will promote preservation of the earth rather than accept environmental destruction as a byproduct of economic growth. The law must bridge the gap between biologists, who see us outgrowing our habitat, and mainstream economists, who foresee a future of unlimited economic growth.
It looks like a simple case of IP envy. The fashion industry wants the same sort of intellectual property rights that the big, bad movie and music industries enjoy, and they want it now. Word comes from attorney Henry Lanman, writing in Slate, that the Council of Fashion Designers of America is meeting with members of Congress today (March 14) to seek support for legislation that would give apparel designers copyright-like protections.
Hidden like treasure in the depths of our legal system is the foundation of a law of the commons. American law tends to privilege corporate rights and private property to the exclusion of community, other creatures, health, and future generations. Nevertheless, some legal precepts derived from ancient practices of people sharing water, land and wildlife still reverberate through American law.
Let us meditate for a moment on the power of a single, courageous innovator in changing a landscape that everyone else takes for granted. I’m thinking of the State of Massachusetts. Yes, the government. A few public-spirited officials there have pioneered a new procurement standard for state software that will assure that all government documents will be open and accessible to all citizens. And it may well spark a new movement among governments worldwide to adopt open standards in their procurement practices, at least for computers and software.