In the following interview, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation and Shareable publisher Neal Gorenflo speak with Shareable cities columnist Jay Walljasper about his new book, All That We Share, fostering new lifestyles based on sharing, building more equitable and sustainable cities, and much more.
Michel Bauwens: Jay, in your discovery process of so many real and constructive commons projects that are already out there, how do you see the right balance between making something new that can create already new lifestyles based on sharing, i.e. commoning; and perhaps more politicized resistance movements. In other words, when do we go from yardsharing to joining the Egyptian crowds?
The principles and practices of the commons can make positive impact on people’s lives at both at the intimate level of the community and on the wider political and economic sphere of larger society. And, indeed, the two are inextricably linked. Both represent an alternative to the modern market mentality, which holds up a model of buying and selling as the highest form of social organization. Sharing is dismissed as an outdated and impractical ideal. So, anytime we can show how cooperative efforts have created tangible benefits for people, then we are making progress toward a commons-based, not market-ruled, future.
A basic rule for community organizers is that small-scale local victories set the stage for bigger projects to come. People who have experienced the rewards of the commons in creating a community garden or being part of a car- or bike-sharing project may feel empowered to tackle bigger issues like global economic inequity or environmental devastation. Yet, at the same time the sight of people in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen standing up for the common good can inspire us to reach out to our neighbors to make a difference in our own backyard. And that may start the wheels turning for further changes to come.
Cartoons by Andy Singer
Michel Bauwens: Do you think the commons can flower in the long-term, in the face of a perhaps hostile corporate-market-state? Do you believe commoners should also be thinking about the kind of policies which can sustain the commons on the longer term, and help them become a more substantial part of society?
Yes, I think the commons can prevail over the long term although I have no illusions that a peaceful, evolutionary revolution will be simple or quick. The market mentality has taken root in people’s minds over the past 300 years, and with a particular fierceness over the past 35. History shows that any successful movement—from women’s suffrage to civil rights—takes decades to make things happen. Even remarkable successes that appeared to happen overnight—dissidents tearing down the Berlin Wall, the dismantling of apartheid, and the recent Middle Eastern revolutions—were years in the making. But at the same time, the rise of the Internet and other instantaneous global communications might speed up the process.
However, the formidable power of corporations, abetted by their agents in government and media, cannot be underestimated. We commoners face a daunting task. What makes me optimistic is that the rise of market forces over recent decades has not delivered on the promise of making us happier, healthier or more secure. Just the opposite—a small coterie of fabulously rich investors rule the world while the rest of us struggle against economic uncertainty, ecological degradation and social alienation. I believe people will become increasingly open to hearing new ideas about how best to manage our economy and political systems.
That’s where the importance of both commons policies and demonstration projects come in. If we can point to the success of various commons-inspired initiatives around the world—environmental restoration in India, community revitalization in Ohio, a step toward democratization on Facebook (all examples from All That We Share)—we can win people’s hearts. And the more we can articulate practical commons-based policies that can solve old problems and create new opportunities, the more we can change people’s minds.
Michel Bauwens: What do you see as being the most imposing roadblocks facing commons initiatives, and how have the most effective initiatives overcome them?
The powers that be stay on top through their brilliant manipulation of our fears. They’ve convinced many people that more sharing will lead to chaos, conflict and poverty. They preach that avarice is the most basic of human traits, while cooperation is a risky proposition. This amounts to a rewriting of both history and anthropology. Reams of evidence show that human advancement has always depended more upon collaboration than competition—but that gets lost in the flurry of advertising, PR and other forms of modern mythmaking that shower us each day.
As commoners, we must begin to counter this misinformation and spread a new message about the importance of all protecting and expanding all that we share—which can become the cornerstone of a new kind of society where more people around the world enjoy happier lives.
Neal Gorenflo: Though All That We Share is just out, you've already done some speaking events about it. What has surprised you the most about its reception so far?
I have been doing a lot of radio interviews all across the U.S., both public and commercial stations, and am surprised about how much enthusiasm the radio hosts express about the commons. These are people who have been professionally trained to be skeptical, but when they take a good close look at these ideas, they see all kinds of possibilities—even ones that I have not thought about.
The hard thing in talking about the commons is that it is a new, and in some ways radical idea, but once people understand it, they get excited about what it could mean for creating a brighter future. It gives us all permission to ask “What if?”—What if we really did treat the environment as an inheritance we want to pass on to our children? What if we really did treat all humans as equal?
Neal Gorenflo: Since you're a fellow commons activist as well as a journalist, I assume you have a goal for the book beyond telling a good story. What do you hope to achieve with the book?
My first hope with All That We Share is that it helps people identify how the commons enriches their lives. From the bike trail that they love to ride on the weekends, to the Internet they use for work and pleasure, to the municipal water supply that pipes clean H2O into their homes, to the dance steps they show off at the nightclub—these things are no one’s private property, they are there for everyone to use. The focus in the media is so much on the privatized world of individualism that we forget about all these common assets upon which we depend. And once folks experience that “a-ha” moment, they will be more motivated to protect and promote the commons everywhere—from volunteering at the local library or fighting deep cuts in the local parks budget to speaking up about the importance of global biodiversity and demanding pharmaceutical companies make life-saving drugs available to poor people around the world.
The idea of sharing the commons motivates people to think differently about how the world works. An important message here is that the commons is not all about duty, obligation and sacrifice; it is also about fun. The art of sharing improves our lives as it improves the world. We feel more connections with others, and less isolated because realize that were not completely on our own.
I wanted to the book to reflect this sense of fun and kinship. That’s why it’s not all just ideas and theories. I included cartoons, lists, stories about how the commons has changed people’s lives and brought about improvements in communities from North Dakota to Colombia.
Photo credit: Jan Gehl + Associates
Neal Gorenflo: Do the values of the commons have a shot at gaining parity with marketplace values? And where do you see the commons getting the most traction?
For most people, commons values are already more important than market values. In our families, we don’t give our daughter with “A” grades at school healthier food and warmer clothes than her sister who gets “B” grades. We share what we have as fairly as we can. This is even true across society. We don’t sell police and fire protection according to how much you pay in premiums, denying some lower-income people police assistance in the case of burglaries, vandalism and domestic disputes. That defies common sense and common decency.
So why do market values totally dominate other parts of our lives? Because we’ve been told that it’s more effective, efficient and productive. Yet is that really case? The U.S. has a largely market-driven medical system that has resulted in more expensive, lower quality health care than in other countries.
The Great Recession has shown many people that the unrestrained market is not the best operating system for all human activity. There is a place for governance, whether in the form of government regulation or citizen initiatives. Tea Party types, of course, resist this common sense but they will likely run out of steam when faced with the reality that we face serious problems besides budget deficits. At least, I hope so. Most people are beginning to see that some essential needs are better met through cooperative, collaborative action than by privatization. Protecting our communities, the environment and the overall social fabric are three areas where the principles of the commons can be applied most immediately to create new solutions and opportunities.
Neal Gorenflo: What part do you see cities playing in the advancement of commons as a social, political and economic force in society?
By its very nature, urban life is about sharing. City dwellers all depend on the same water supply, sewage system, street network, transit systems, public health measures, public safety etc. This explains why urbanization has increased steadily through the centuries, and the fact that half the world’s people now live in cities. Cities, by design, allow people to mingle—and from all these human connections come great new ideas for businesses, cultural institutions and community improvements. But for cities to remain vital and healthy places to live, the commons must be protected. More and more people who care about the fate of their communities are coming to understand that and are fueling the growth of the emerging commons movement.
Neal Gorenflo: What commons-based innovations and policies can most increase the social equity and sustainability of cities?
A great example is Bogota, which I write about in the book and also on the Shareable site. It’s not a place you’d immediately think to look for shining examples of urban revitalization, but they have done some remarkable things. A former mayor, Enrique Penalosa, was dedicated to the idea of social equity but realized that under the current economic conditions, equity of income was not going to happen anytime soon. But he was not going to give up on equity of quality of life. Happiness, he believed, is not just for the rich. So he set about strengthening the commons throughout the city: parks, libraries, public schools, public transit, public spaces, bike trails, sidewalks, pedestrian streets, water and sewage services.
His theory was that wealthy people can buy what they need to make them happy, but everyone else depends on the commons. So he wanted to make sure the commons were as good as possible. One very symbolic thing he did was to stop cars from parking on the sidewalks. Poor people don’t have yards to hang out in; they hang out on the sidewalk, and shouldn’t have this space taken away so wealthy folks can park anywhere they please. He also created a world-class Bus Rapid Transit system, which works like a subway except that people ride in buses on the surface of special transit streets, which even the wealthy love to ride. Penalosa admits that he wasn’t focused on sustainability in doing all this, but the result was that Bogota is now looked to as a leader in sustainable urban development. Sustainability and social equity often go hand in hand.
But it’s important to keep in mind that social equity is not just about providing poor- and middle-class people with services, it also about including them in decision making that affects their future. The idea of participation and collaboration is at the very core of the commons. Decisions that are made at the top and handed down to the rest of us frequently fail. That’s because the wisdom and knowledge of people affected by these policies is left out of the process. This is especially true in cities. The people who live in a neighborhood are the experts on that particular place, and can offer the best—and often cheapest—ideas on how to improve it. That was the theme of my earlier book, The Great Neighborhood Book.