Rethinking communal goods in the time of Covid-19

At Sparknews, we believe that they can also be great opportunities to adapt and rethink our relations with the world. As a team who wants to ignite new narratives that can accelerate the ecological and social transition, we can’t avoid asking ourselves what will be the shape of the global collective story emerging from the current worldwide sanitary emergency. In this week #SparkMinute, let’s focus on the commons with local examples, of businesses rethinking their models, and of articles and opinions that can nourish our imagination.

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What do Guérande Salt, Wikipedia and the Chipko movement in India all have in common? Be careful; the answer is in the question: they are commons. Somewhere between a free self-regulating market and nationalization, common goods, or more concisely known as ‘commons’, are resources managed collectively by a community. The resource is maintained and managed with clear rules and governance. A common is not only a resource, but also fosters social interactions, whether they be economic, cultural or political, within the community taking care of the resource at hand.

The “tragedy of the commons” concept is nonetheless enough to dishearten many. Its author, the Biologist Garrett Hardin, argues that the depletion of common resources would be a perverse effect of joint exploitation, using the example of a plot of land with an increasing number of farmers. It would indeed be rational for each person benefiting from the resource to use it fully, even if this leads to its depletion. Human beings, always greedy for more, would thus exhaust of any natural resource left in common. “The inherent logic of the commons is a remorseless bedrock of tragedy“, the biologist said. The article, written amid the Cold War and permeated with Neo-Malthusian convictions, is still one of the most cited texts in the social sciences and has prevailed for decades in all development models, such as behind plans to privatize water in developing countries.

The American economist Elinor Ostrom has since developed a reverse analysis: human beings are indeed quite capable of self-organizing to protect and exploit the resources on which they depend for their survival. From the peasants of medieval England to the indigenous communities of Latin America, the world is full of examples of “commons” that have not been exhausted. Resources are shared within communities that collectively organize their exploitation everyday. From free software to shared gardens, from self-managed art venues to open science or cooperative grocery stores, you may already be benefiting from commons and their collective management.

The coronavirus crisis has accelerated these convictions: shouldn’t some resources be taken off the free market? In May, the Sanofi Group caused a lot of controversy when it announced priority access to the US market for a possible vaccine against Covid-19. Many governments were outraged at the announcement, calling on the notion of the global common good. Government’s management of the common good is also being undermined as members of the government are being sued for their management of the health crisis. This crisis, and those that preceded it, have nevertheless shown us that we live in an interconnected network. Respecting social distanciation has made each of us managers of the common good that is public health. This newsletter is an introduction to what a society of commons could look like with examples of associations and collectives pushing for it. To go further, the notion of commonality invites us to take a step aside. Do we wish to participate in the management of all the goods that allow us to live? In what situations do we want to delegate this responsibility to the State or free market? What new forms of organization will allow us to combine freedom and collectivity?

When organizations go the extra mile

Even with borders locked, participatory science has not had its last word, according to The New York Times. Amid the coronavirus crisis, the non-profit platform Just One Giant Lab (JOGL) launched OpenCovid19. This gathering of enthusiasts aims to develop needed innovations at a lower cost, such as detection tests or syringe pumps. The fruit of their cooperation is open-source, with a permissive license, and can, therefore, be used by everyone, including in a commercial context. Read more in The Guardian and Crosscut.

Confronted with rushed remote learning and overloaded digital work environments, teachers have turned to Zoom, Moodle, Youtube and Sofatutor, which has raised questions about the use of their users’ data. German authorities have suggested two alternatives: an encrypted messaging app called Threema, and an open-source platform called BigBlueButton for video conferencing. Read more on DW and on Carleton Newsroom, the university where BigBlueButton was created in the late 2000s.

Local initiatives against global disorder

We no longer cultivate 90% of traditional agricultural varieties. After decades of mergers and acquisitions, four agri-industrial companies – Corteva, ChemChina, Bayer and BASF – control 60 per cent of the worldwide seed market. In November 2019, Open Source Seeds launched the “free bread” campaign in Berlin. Two farms, a flour mill and several bakeries joined forces to preserve all the ingredients of their bread under the protection of the Free Seed License. Across the Atlantic, 600 seed libraries are facilitating pandemic gardening in the name of better health and food security, according to Shareable.

Another link in the food chain is collaborative grocery stores. In these structures, members must devote a few hours each month to the management and smooth operation of the supermarket. The Park Slope Food Coop runs on the sweat-equity of 17,000 “member-workers”. For the first time since it opened its doors in 1973, the monthly labour requirement for members was suspended during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City. Yet, this legendary food co-op shows how community organizations can still thrive in a pandemic. Read this article in Quartz.

2.2 billion people, one in three people worldwide, live without access to safe drinking water. During a health crisis in which hand washing is mandatory, those who want to have water recognized as a common good have pointed out the failures of the privatization of drinking water services. In Chile, the association Modatima has launched an emergency campaign to raise funds and deliver two six-litre cans of water per person to the rural areas most affected by drought and lack of water. They are now calling to stop the privatization of water sources. Read more in the Resilience blog.

Let’s imagine the future

In this piece, David Boiler, editor of Free, Fair, and Alive and co-founder of Commons Strategies Group shares how commoning can be a pandemic survival strategy. For him, the coronavirus is indeed an opportunity to think about long-term system change. The pandemic confirms, in tandem with climate change, that modern economic and political systems must change in some profound ways. He criticises state officialdom as it is pushing for more bailouts. It comes down to one choice humanity needs to make: “Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity?Read it here.

The Commons is a documentary film about communities re-asserting sustainable futures using consensus, equity and shared resources. Sparked by the ongoing privatization and destruction of commons, this film by Kevin Hansen shows how many activists are reinstating commons and re-establishing communities managing commons such as maker spaces, land trusts, cooperatives, local food production and distribution, shared housing, free education, and community centres. Watching people working together democratically, currencies being re-imagined, and cooperatives being launched, is quite an invigorating sight. Watch the documentary here.

How can public services interact with the commons? Satoko Kishimoto, Lavinia Steinfort, and Olivier Petitjean edited in May 2020 ‘The Future is Public. Towards Democratic Ownership of Public Services’. They used a database of over 1,400 successful (re)municipalization cases involving more than 2,400 cities in 58 countries around the world. It goes from local insourcing in the face of a national privatization push in Canada to a new water culture in Catalonia, Spain. paroles bibliques In this book, they offer an exhaustive look of how cities and local communities have been reinventing public services to serve the needs and protect the rights of their people, as well as to tackle social and environmental issues collectively. Read the book here.

At Sparknews, are convinced that the coronavirus global outbreak will lead us to draw valuable lessons about our globalized economic system. Whether on matters like education, solidarity, biodiversity or our way of work, it will be up to us to return to the status quo once the health crisis is over, or to reshape everything. Discover our #SparkMinute on education, energy, work, our diet, biodiversity, democracy, bioregionalism, gender, solidarity, circular economy, and time.


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