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The Things We Have in Common

A new Media Education Foundation film looks at how the common wealth was stolen--and how we can get it back.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010
Image Courtesy of Media Education Foundation

In the early 20th century, the American public was seized by fear of the seemingly unstoppable polio epidemic. At its peak, in 1916, more than 27,000 cases, and 3,000 deaths, were reported in the U.S., the majority of victims children. By the early 1950s, the disease was on the rise again, killing thousands a year and leaving many more paralyzed.

So it's no surprise that when, in 1955, a successful polio vaccine was introduced, its developer, Jonas Salk, was embraced as a hero. Salk, it turned out, was a modest hero, with little interest in celebrity or personal gain. In an old news clip from the time, journalist Edward R. Murrow asks Salk who should own the patent on the polio vaccine.

"The people, I would say. There is no patent," Salk responds. "Could you patent the sun?"

Fast-forward 40 years to another devastating epidemic with far less heartening results: South Africa's AIDS crisis, which by the 1990s was taking 20,000 lives a month. Unlike with polio, in this case, promising new drugs like AZT that could greatly extend the length and quality of life for people with the disease had already been developed. The problem was, those pricey drugs were not accessible to the poor residents of South Africa. And when that country's government tried to make them accessible by allowing the local creation or importation of cheaper generic alternatives, the major drugmakers successfully fought that effort, complaining that it would do too much damage to their profits.

Those two cases are featured at the beginning of This Land is Our Land: The Fight to Reclaim the Commons, a powerful and persuasive new film from Northampton's Media Education Foundation. (The film will premiere at an Amherst screening on Nov. 14; see sidebar.) In the film, narrator David Bollier (an author and activist who wrote the script with MEF's Jeremy Earp) points out that both the polio vaccine and the AIDS drugs were developed with significant public support: in the former case, through contributions made to the non-profit National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now better known as the March of Dimes); in the latter case, through taxpayer money that funds the research of large pharmaceutical companies.

Salk, for one, recognized and respected the crucial role that collective effort played in his work. But, as the South African AIDS story shows, "this ethic has become a distant memory," Bollier notes in the film.

This Land Is Our Land is about what Bollier describes as "one of the great explored dramas of our time: the epic struggle between the marketplace and the commons." And as the footage in the film—of paralyzed children, of AIDS sufferers literally wasting away—makes forcefully clear, that struggle is not just the material for theoretical debate, but has very practical, even life-or-death, consequences.

*

What are, exactly, "the commons"?

"There's no master list of the commons," Bollier explained in a recent interview at a coffee shop in Amherst, where he lives. In its broadest sense, he said, the commons are "the things we share and manage together": our air and water; public parks and mountains and forests; our shared culture, and the ways we share that culture, from concrete institutions like public libraries to incorporeal but still vital means like the public airways and the Internet.

Key to the notion is the role of collective stewardship. Those resources that make up the commons cannot be separated from the community that manages them, and all the cultural norms and expectations that community brings.

"It's relational, not just transactional," Bollier explained. "The market is just about the deal, where the commons is about the relationships."

Consider, for instance, the online, user-driven encyclopedia Wikipedia. While Wikipedia starts with a particular technology that allows users to submit new entries and edit existing ones, that technology alone does not make Wikipedia; rather, it's the people who use the technology to create and debate its content that make Wikipedia, Bollier noted.

Such newfangled examples aside, the commons are a notion as old as human culture, based in an inherent understanding that we share, and are responsible for, a common wealth necessary for our survival. That notion has been codified repeatedly throughout history, This Land Is Our Land notes, from ancient Roman laws to the Magna Carta to the U.S. Constitution, with its ringing insistence on "We the People."

"The commons is a way of asserting a moral connection to a resource," Bollier said. But along the way, that belief in the collective good, and collective responsibility, has been drowned out by what Bollier, in the film, calls the "mythical fantasy world" of the marketplace, where nothing has value that can't be monetized, and what were once viewed as resources to be shared are now treated as commodities to be exploited by whatever private interest gets there first.

Bollier has spent his career tracking the rise of the marketplace-driven culture. He's worked with the consumer activist Ralph Nader and written several books on the commercialization of the commons, including 2002's Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth and 2005's Brand Name Bullies: The Quest to Own and Control Culture. In This Land Is Our Land, he tracks the political changes that moved us, in just a few decades, from Franklin D. Roosevelt's commitment to a governmental role in creating a social safety net to the Reagan/Thatcher era, when government was demonized and privatization and deregulation ruled the day (a philosophy that is hardly partisan, given its embracing during the Clinton era, as the film points out).

As a culture, we've so internalized the idea that the marketplace is the best—indeed, the only—model that suggestions of another approach are viewed with deep suspicion, even alarm. Bollier's film includes clips of Glenn Beck and his Fox News-y ilk warning viewers of the impending threat of socialism, in the guise of public healthcare, housing assistance or—as Beck warns in one clip in This Land Is Our Land—"social justice." Not coincidentally, this "ginned-up fear of government power," as Bollier puts it, has created a climate in which big corporations buy up the commons and then sell it back to the public: the oil they extract from public land, the forests they cut down, the water they bottle in plastic and sell under the mantra of "health" while developing nations struggle with devastating water shortages.

More than one-quarter of the world's natural resources have been commodified, according to This Land Is Your Land. And while the natural world might be the first place we see this creeping corporatism, it's happening throughout our society, from industries (perhaps most notoriously the tobacco companies) funding university research to broadcasters filling the publicly owned airways with endless commercial pitches to direct marketing to kids in public schools, where textbooks contain product placements and stadium naming rights are up for sale to the highest bidder.

*

A few days after his interview with the Advocate, Bollier was heading off to Europe to speak about the commons movement in several countries, and to attend the International Commons Conference in Berlin, which he helped organize.

Efforts to reclaim the commons have, so far, gotten better traction abroad than in the U.S., "where everything has to be so Tea-Party individualist," Bollier said. But, in the same way our collective love affair with the marketplace crosses party lines, a campaign in defense of the commons doesn't have to be yet another partisan struggle.

Indeed, Bollier said, to work, a commons campaign needs to be "ecumenical," driven by practical concerns, not political abstractions—"pragmatism versus political correctness." While the political left, he noted, tends to be more skeptical of the excesses of the capitalist system and the right more likely to defend it, notions that sit at the heart of a commons movement, like local control, have an appeal that spans the political spectrum.

And, the dire warnings of Beck et al. aside, a reassertion of the commons is not a call for communism. "This is not about anarchy," Bollier said. "This is not 'smash the market.' The market performs a lot of useful functions. The market can be embedded in a lot of socially useful ways."

So, too, can government play a useful role in the protection and management of the commons—though a limited role. While liberal activists, in particular, are often committed to the idea of government policy as the best way to effect change, our corrupt political system, Bollier argues, has "lost its moral legitimacy."

And, he adds, large, centralized government bureaucracies simply can't operate as efficiently or respond as quickly as smaller, locally controlled institutions—a reality that's paralleled in the business world. "It's why Wikipedia can outperform Encyclopedia Britannica, and Linux outperforms Microsoft," Bollier said.

Under a commons model, neither the marketplace nor a distant, centralized government is the primary organizing principle—the community is. And political fear-mongering aside, communities can do the job, and do it well, as shown in the work of American political scientist Elinor Ostrum.

Ostrum won the 2009 Nobel prize in economics for her work on how local communities can manage natural resources sustainably and without the abuses critics have warned such an approach would bring. Ostrum studied local management of communal pasture land in Africa and of water systems in Nepal, and found that the communities pooled and managed these resources well by developing a set of guiding principles that included rules about usage, sanctions for abuse, and systems for decision making and conflict resolution. While Ostrum's work focuses specifically on management of natural resources, Bollier said, that template can be adapted to other shared resources, from the environment to culture.

*

It sounds like a pretty daunting task: getting a society to rethink principles it has so deeply internalized—about individualism, the free market, the compulsion toward never-ending growth and expansion at any cost—and move toward a very different way of thinking.

The good news, Bollier says, is that it's already happening.

Look, for instance, to the tech world, with its new models, like wikis and open-source software, for sharing information and enabling user-generated content and collaboration. On the cultural front, the non-profit Creative Commons provides free licenses and other legal means for artists, writers, musicians and other creators who want to allow others to share and build on their work without fear of copyright infringement.

"Relocalization" efforts work to build strong, sustainable local communities that aren't dependent on global markets; among the most visible are "locavore" efforts that encourage supporting local food producers. So many of these efforts, Bollier noted, transcend political ideologies and identities.

But despite their shared interests, these disparate groups don't always recognize one another as kindred spirits. So the next step, Bollier said, "is to connect the dots"—something the Berlin conference, for instance, hopes to do by bringing people together to develop a common language and common goals.

And that can't happen soon enough, given the worldwide economic, social and environmental crises that have made it abundantly clear that the way we've been doing things just isn't working, Bollier argues. As he notes at the end of his film, "[W]e desperately need a new vision for the future. We need a holistic paradigm in order to protect and preserve our common wealth. We need to imagine a different future for ourselves."

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