Hate Speech: Liberal Style

“All Republicans should die.”

That’s what a liberal friend said to me at lunch a few weeks ago. It gives one pause, doesn’t it? Well, at least I hope it does, whether you’re liberal, conservative, in between or above or below.

I’ve been hearing a lot of such sentiments from my many liberal friends. (Mind you, I’m a liberal myself, which is why I have so many liberal friends.)

I am of an age where I think of the Democrats and the liberals as the party of love. But over the last two years in particular, it’s gotten to a point where politics are off limits in many of my friendships. It’s a rabbit hole of negativity.

I am particularly concerned when people my friends use broad terms, like “all Republicans.” Like assuming that every asshole on the road is a Republican (I know several liberals who are bad drivers and one that might qualify as an asshole—on the road, I mean). It’s the sweeping nature of the condemnation that bothers me.

Republicans, like Democrats, come in all sizes, shapes and colors. I happen to have some Republicans that I respect in my life. My father is one of them (even though he’s dead now). He was super conservative and I was radically liberal, but we always managed to find common ground (sometimes with difficulty, and most often in the realm of economics). And I learned some of the things about why he was conservative (e.g., a small-business owner dealing with one-size-fits-all government regulations) and that has helped me to understand conservatives in a small way.

Which is to say, they are not all alike. I expect there are as many reasons for being conservative as there are for being liberal.

And for this reason, I suspect that liberals and conservatives might have a lot more in common on a lot of issues than they realize. We box each other into categories and demonize the worst in each other. So easy to do, and almost expected. A knee-jerk reaction.

A potential remedy: The next time you’re in a situation with someone on the opposite side of the political fence, spend some time finding what you have in common. It might not be as hard as you think. Talk about books or health care. Or maybe the number of people in prison. Or the price of soybeans.


Orchard Exuberance

The robin is singing in the backyard, exuberant. Nudging me. Having nothing to do with this post (already titled before the song), the song has finally put my hand to the keyboard, as I was stymied how to begin.

It started when we went to a neighborhood event, and among all the various opportunities, my spouse wanted to volunteer to help with the neighborhood orchard. Sign me up, I said.

I am not particularly fond of getting together with a lot of people I don’t know, especially if all we’re doing is sitting around and chatting. I opted out of an initial planning meeting, but when the opportunity for actual orchard maintenance came up, I was definitely interested. Our first activity: pruning.

We started at noon on Sunday (earlier, if you got the message that coffee and snacks were being provided by the church across the street). And this was one piece of the magic, or exuberance, of the day. When we arrived, there was fruit, breads, cookies, and coffee, spread out on a table in front of the church. Spouse introduced me to people he knew (from the meeting I avoided) and I was stunned.

I was totally comfortable.

It is pretty much completely unheard of for me to be comfortable in a group of strangers. I’m still processing it.

There were about 25 of us (way more than expected), mostly guys (which surprised me). I have never in my life felt comfortable drifting from small group to small group, but unbelievably, I did. I don’t know if it’s the common goal, or that all these people love trees, or if it’s the trees themselves. Perhaps all of the above.

When we moved across the street to the orchard, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves: neighbors across the street, people in the neighborhood, a bunch of people knowledgeable about fruit trees, a bunch that didn’t know so much, and a whole lot of enthusiasm.

One of the older men in the group suggested that if you really want to get to know trees, here’s your chance. Stop by the orchard at least every two weeks. Not a drive-by visit. A stop and park the car and spend some time with the trees visit. It is not so often you get the opportunity to shape a young orchard, or even to engage in its long-term growth. I plan to visit the orchard frequently. I have a great fondness for trees, and while I find most trees grounding, there’s something about fruit trees (even very young ones) that makes me a little giddy.

We spent a bit of time as a group around a tree, discussing pruning, examples, try it yourself, questions, etc. Again, I felt so comfortable. I asked several questions and was also able to just let go of social stress and think about what would work best for the tree.

Aha, there it is. It is the tree after all. I love trees and I have happened upon a community of tree lovers. It was a lovely contagious afternoon—trees, joy, purpose, camaraderie, and a good bit of fun.

The pruning of these little trees was a bit more challenging than I had expected (learned a lot). We will have a mission regarding blossoms in the later spring, watering through the summer, and mulching in the fall.

I like tending an orchard. This little orchard is an experiment in Minneapolis. If we can make it work, just imagine: neighborhood orchards everywhere. Why not?

The Things We Do

After the election, I decided to focus more on things here on the home front—at the neighborhood and city as well as the state level. It started with volunteering to “adopt” a storm drain. There were six at the intersection half a block north of our house, and we could pick whichever one we wanted. But it was just too hard to choose, so we adopted all six. This winter with the frequent thaws, we’ve been out there chopping out the snow and ice so the water can drain. You might be surprised at how difficult it can be to find a storm drain in the winter. And when you find one, you’d think the one across the street would be right across the street, right? Well, no.

But it’s always rewarding—good exercise and a sense of doing something in the community. And sometimes people stop and thank us. The bus drivers almost always wave. That feels good too. We’ve also started shoveling out both ends of our alley (where the snow always seems to accrue). We reap a very direct advantage from this, so it is not exactly a civic deed. Nonetheless, one day when we were clearing out the snow, a guy stopped his truck and asked if he could spell one of us for a while—he just wanted to help out. Maybe we will even get to meet more of our neighbors!

The other thing we’ve done right here in our neighborhood is volunteer for our small urban orchard. It is just starting out (no fruit until next year) but we will help to water and mulch and other sundry tasks as assigned. After the trees start to bear, we will also help with harvest and gleaning. It is quite an exciting project—a variety of fruit trees, including apple, crabapple, plum, pear, peach, and cherry. I wonder what a Minnesota peach will taste like?

There are a few town hall meetings coming up—two of them held/sponsored by my state senator and representative. There is also a town hall meeting in February on the minimum wage of $15 for the city of Minneapolis. I absolutely want a higher minimum wage, but I don’t know that $15 and just for the city of Minneapolis is the way to go. Geographically speaking, Minneapolis is a relatively small part of the 7-county metro area. And with a population of approximately 394,000, we are also a relatively small portion (approximately 13.5%) of the population. I need to learn more.

I have stuck to my New Year’s resolution to send a postcard a week to our new Senate majority leader. I have already heard back from him—not wordy responses but acknowledging my concerns (in this case, responding to two separate postcards, one about infrastructure and the other about healthcare). I did not actually expect him to respond to my postcards. I don’t think I’ll tell him that. I’ve also written about funding the University of Minnesota; a potential crackdown on protesters—potentially making it a felony with some serious financial implications; a suggestion that the state NOT invest in developing a from-scratch computer program to distribute health insurance premium rebates (as that has not worked so well in the past—the build from scratch part); and the definition and use of the word “exponential” (sorry, but it’s numbers AND words, an intersection I can’t ignore).

The acknowledgment has further spurred me, and I have chosen to believe that he actually appreciates these postcards. I know this is a glass half-full to overflowing viewpoint, but why not? I am always respectful and try to send interesting postcards (and a nice variety—I have scads that I’ve collected for the haiku project).

Anyway, I should have made the resolution to send AT LEAST one postcard a week, because I have already sent 10! They are addressing so many things in the Legislature (as well they should, leaving so many things undone last year) that I feel I can’t wait a week on some things. I sent three postcards on healthcare, and the legislation is now signed and done. It is a decent piece of legislation, and both sides compromised. The Republicans put some interesting things on the table that I want to learn more about: a farmers health insurance co-op, and a reinsurance program. Since I am one of the 5% that purchases my health insurance independently on the market, I watch this issue very carefully.

Not long ago I got together with a friend for lunch. We were talking about things we were doing since the election. She has doubled her volunteer commitment at a local nonprofit, working a shift two days a week instead of one. She’s made phone calls to national House and Senate leaders (and our reps as well) on various issues. She participated in the women’s march in St. Paul.

It wasn’t a tallying, it wasn’t a comparison, and often it wasn’t even the focus of the discussion. But as we moved on to the second beer, I realized that even just between the two of us, we are doing quite a lot! Lots of contact with government representatives (she more national, I more local), local involvement, even drinking local beer. Yes, I know. Civic to the bone.

A few days later, after reading the newspaper I was a bit despondent. I went online and signed two petitions (one sponsored by a Minnesota senator, one by moveon.org) and sent a congratulatory postcard to the Senate leader for the healthcare legislation which was actually quite a good compromise. But it felt so little.

And then I remembered the lunch with my friend, and when it all added up, it had seemed like a lot. And I thought it might be inspiring to track that for two or four years. So I emailed my friend and another good friend of ours with this idea: Report in on what you’re doing. It will give each of us other ideas, as we have different approaches and different areas of priority. Even if each of us did one thing a week, at the end of a year, that would be more than 150 actions. It’s not meant to be competitive, but I do hope it challenges us. And I know it will encourage us, just having this list of ongoing things that we’re doing, small and large: a postcard sent, a phone-call to a senator, attending a town hall meeting, a petition, an email, a volunteer gig, a letter to the editor, a march, a poem.

This is not a partisan thing. Everyone can do something to make community stronger, to make their voice heard, to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. Start where you’re comfortable. Maybe make a pact with a friend, keep a list. Do one thing this month, this year, tomorrow.

These are the things we do.

When it comes down to it, perhaps they’re the only things that matter.


I went to my precinct caucus last night—it was a lot of fun. (Mostly.) In Minnesota, both parties bucked the national trend: Democrats’ choice for president was Sanders (62% vs. 38% for Clinton) while the Republicans’ candidate of choice was Rubio (37%) over Trump (21%). I kind of like that we march to a different drum.

I was at the Democratic caucus. It was held at a nearby high school and each precinct met in a different room. Most people (including us) didn’t know our precinct number so that caused a bit of a jam at the door. Once we got inside, we found our room and took a seat. There were 32 desks and it looked to be maybe a third-grade classroom. We arrived about 15 minutes early and there were plenty of desks available. We were suprised by how uncrowded it was. All we had to do was wait.

It turned out 275 people showed up for our precinct. The first thing you do (after signing in) is vote for your presidential candidate of choice. A lot of people left right after voting, but a good number of us stayed around for the resolution portion and it was standing room only. I was glad we got there early!

I have been to caucuses where the resolutions go on and on (and sometimes verge on the silly) but the ones presented last night were pretty good, and many of them passed unanimously or nearly so: restore voting rights to felons once they’re released from prison; remove the Social Security tax ceiling; support urban agriculture; mandatory GMO labeling; reduce the use of toxic chemicals in our parks; a six-point plan to help struggling pollinator species; invest some of our environmental dollars to buy land preserving wild rice habitat; invest in policies and strategies to reduce homelessness; divest the state pension fund from investments in fossil fuels; and require all Democratic candidates to sign a pledge saying they will not accept campaign contributions from Monsanto (I personally would have added Syngenta and Cargill, but singling out Monsanto is not such a bad idea since they are so very keen on their neonicotinoids).

A not-quite contentious discussion arose around a resolution to increase funding for treatment of ash trees (we’re having emerald ash borer problems here). An amendment to not use systemic insecticides (which make the entire tree poisonous to critters that eat, live in, land on, or otherwise use ash trees) was introduced. I learned quite a bit about ash trees and their future, and also systemic insecticides. Eventually the insecticide amendment was added and the resolution passed.

The only resolution that I can remember not passing was for legalizing marijuana for recreational use and allowing people to grow their own. I am heartily in favor of this, as marijuana has great medicinal properties as an herb. A lot of people in the room were in favor of legalizing pot, but the rub was the method: an amendment to our state constitution. I asked if there wasn’t a better route (I hate amending the constitution willy nilly, and a few others had a similar concern). I think I voted for it, even with the constitutional amendment aspect, but I was a little relieved when it didn’t pass (it was close though).

We wrapped up a little after 9:00. It was a good way to spend an evening: I learned a lot, met some of my near neighbors, and got to see which issues we are pretty unanimous about and which are a little more contested. I forget how invigorating it can be to hear different viewpoints and sides. I signed up to be an alternate delegate (I did this once before, and it was a little bit scary and a little bit fun). We’ll see where it goes this time. I’m good with scary but fun.


The Mighty Middle

I just got back from a three-hour breakfast with a friend from graduate school. She’s lived out of state for most of her working life but we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Christmas cards. A few years ago, though, the friendship deepened and we’ve been writing frequently (it’s so fun to get real mail) and seeing each other on the occasions she comes back to Minnesota to visit family.

She’s one of the smartest people I know, and I never tire of talking with her. We have much in common (as well as many differences) and range all over the conversational landscape (in three hours we didn’t even get around to books!). Towards the end of this marathon breakfast we discovered a shared passion that surprised both of us: We want to bridge the partisan political divide.

It sounds so dry, doesn’t it? Hardly a passion.

It seems the parties work so hard to convince us how different they are, and thus how different we elephants and donkeys are. Government has become frightfully partisan, to the point where it has shut down more than once and shut-down threats have become the currency of the day. These are the people we have hired to run our government. Compromise is considered treason.  A lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly frustrated with this dysfunction.

On the other hand, according to numerous polls, Democrats and Republicans as people (as opposed to elected officials) agree on quite a large number of things, though you would hardly know it from reading the newspaper or talking to your friends. I have friends who demonize Republicans as evil incarnate. I’m serious. I used to stay silent, but the last time one friend pinned all the economic woes of this country on Ronald Reagan, I reminded her that it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which contributed greatly to the 2007 meltdown.

A scad of polls has found large majorities of the population favor labeling of genetically modified foods. An Associated Press poll reported in January 2015 that 64% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats support GMO labeling. That’s a lot of agreement.

Gun control is usually considered a very partisan issue, and in ways it is, in that Republicans are more likely to oppose stricter gun laws (79%) and Democrats are more likely to support them (77%). On the surface that seems pretty cut and dried, but if you go just a tiny bit below the surface you find that 87% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would support a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online. Maybe not so polar after all. (Quinnipiac University, December 2015)

Even abortion is not as polarized as it is positioned in the political arena. Yes, Democrats generally defend and Republicans generally oppose it, but let’s face it: Nobody really likes abortion. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that fewer abortions is better and perhaps they would agree that none is ideal but not realisitc. I do know that even my most radical liberal friend who demonizes Republicans (“Can you tell them by the way they walk?”) is opposed to abortion as birth control. And nearly every Republican I know is in favor of the option for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Again, we enter shades of gray.

Economic reform is another issue on which huge numbers of Democratic and Republican people (if not politicians) agree. Big money controlling politics is a huge concern for the vast majority of the people, in stark contrast to elected officials who—of course—embrace big money because that’s how they get elected. More than three-quarters (80%) of Republicans and 90% of Democrats believe money has too much influence in political campaigns. (NYTimes/CBS News poll)

There is also huge bipartisan support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. A Bloomberg poll in September 2015 found 80% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats opposing the Citizens United Ruling.

You still think we have nothing in common?

I’m just scratching the surface here.

In Winter’s Kitchen

I picked up In Winter’s Kitchen: Growing Roots and Breaking Bread in the Northern Heartland by Beth Dooley when I saw it at Subtext bookstore in November, because I love books about food and I figured it would be a good December read. And also because it’s set in Minnesota. I expected a good memoir, engaging, mentioning places I count familiar. But I was not really expecting to learn anything new. Oh hubris, thy name is Peterson.

In the very first chapter, about apples, I learned a good bit about my own very local University of Minnesota, home to the oldest and largest apple breeding program in the United States. I knew it was a good program (they did, after all, bring us the Haralson and the Honeycrisp) but I didn’t realize they were such a big player in the game. And maybe not such a fair one.

In 2008, when the apple-breeding budget was cut by two-thirds, they moved to a patented-licensing arrangement wherein interested growers are required to apply for permission to grow the new U of M varieties and, if accepted, follow strict guidelines for growing and selling. Seems a bit Big Brother to me (especially the selling), but let’s ride with it for a moment.

The U of M also patented SweeTango (they had a contest here to name the new apple; I submitted but they didn’t pick SnowSweet) and Zestar! (which I didn’t even realize was a Minnesota apple before this book). This new program resulted in limiting apples available for wholesale (i.e., at grocery stores) to 45 growers, mostly in Washington, Michigan, and Nova Scotia. Only one Minnesota grower was allowed (that would be Pepin Heights). One!

A lot of Minnesota apple growers were less than happy with this situation. And I can testify that a number of alumni (ahem) and Minnesota citizens in general are not so pleased about this. These apples were created with my taxes. I am actually quite proud of that (particulary the Haralson, which is my north star of apples). I am one of those people who believe in paying taxes, and I love what I get for all my taxes (though of course one always has one’s quibbles—one of mine these days is that more of my tax dollars seem to be going for athletics than for infrastructure and we have some really old bridges here). And I love the University of Minnesota’s apple breeding program. But giving the licenses so far abroad—why?

According to Dooley, local apple growers were finding the University of Minnesota their largest competitor for sales, as the large licensed growers sent their fruit back to Minnesota—labeled local even if they were from Michigan—and undersold the local growers.

I would rather have my tax dollars help local growers. The University of Minnesota could have poured the glory of the SweeTango into the state of Minnesota. It could have been the Colorado peach of apples. Instead, more are grown outside Minnesota than in. Lesson: go to an orchard or look for local local apples.

Hoping to be back more regularly as the technology problems dissipate.

Sugar Beets, GMOs & Cargill: Are the Winds Shifting?

Winne bookI’ve recently finished Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cooking Mamas, by Mark Winne. What most caught my attention in this book was a fight that took place in Boulder, Colorado, several years ago (the book was published in 2010). Not a fistfight; more of a showdown between the industrial food system and the alternative (be it organic, grass raised, free range, humane, or simply slow as opposed to fast). Here’s the deal: Six farmers asked the county for permission to plant genetically modified sugar beets on publicly owned farmland.

They held a public hearing. Of 58 citizens who testified, 47 were adamantly opposed. They were particularly concerned about “seed drift,” where GMO crops contaminate non-GMO crops (they don’t have to be organic to be contaminated by GMOs). A big concern about seed drift is that GMO food is unwelcome in a lot of markets (the European Union and China would be significant examples), and non-GMO crops that get contaminated by seed drift are no longer non-GMO, and cannot be sold in many markets (and to make matters worse, the non-GMO farmer is open to being sued by Monsanto for “growing” their crops).

One of the farmers was already farming 1,300 acres on public land. Of that, 14% was sugar beets (conventional seed), but they accounted for 32% of his income. And the farmer said,

By removing Roundup Ready sugar beets you have essentially delivered the death blow to another independent farmer.

Say what? The citizens didn’t want to deliver a death blow to a farmer. They just didn’t GMO sugar beetwant their public land planted with GMO crops. Public lands in particular shouldn’t contaminate other farmers. So what’s the big deal here? Just plant conventional crop like you have on the public land you’re already farming. That seemed rather obvious and the perfect solution.

Oh, a snag: The sugar beet farmers weren’t able to purchase conventional seed. Two years prior, 60% of the sugar beet seed on the market was GMO. At the time of their GMO sugar beet request, it was 95%.

Does that scare you? It scares the shit out of me. Farmers going out of business simply because they can’t purchase seeds that aren’t genetically modified? What kind of democracy is this?

Imagine if the entire world food supply was controlled by one or two persons. Or one or two companies. One of these companies would almost certainly be Cargill, practically in my back yard.

Oh, but who cares about farmers, anyway? Let’s talk about Cargill instead.

China has refused shipments of U.S. corn since November of last year because of GMOs (almost all U.S.-grown corn is GMO). This is a huge concern for Cargill, since China is the world’s fastest growing market for corn.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Cargill saw a 28% decline in earnings in the first quarter of the year, due primarily to the rejection of its GMO corn.

It would seem that the United States is pretty much the only country in the world that loves GMOs. Most developed countries have restrictions. (But then again, most developed countries have healthcare systems that cover pretty much everyone. I am thinking these two facts are not completely unrelated.)

However, if we want to trade with the rest of the world, we might want to produce the kind of products that they would like to buy. That makes sense, doesn’t it? If your trade partners don’t want GMOs, and most of your captive audience doesn’t want GMOs (52% think GMOs are unsafe while an additional 13% are unsure, according to an ABC News poll), you’d think that maybe the GMO winds are shifting. And not only because of seed drift.


And while I know little about the World Trade Organization, already I realize that wanting to please the potential customer is naive. There is no goodwill here. This is all about control. And Cargill has a lot of control. Including a lot of control in the World Trade Organization.

I have much to learn.


Earth Summit 2014

I’ve just learned about an online conference coming up in March, the Whole Earth Summit. There are 42 speakers from around the world. Among those I’m most excited about:

  • Vandana Shiva
  • Charles EisensteinFree
  • Bill McKibben
  • Anna Lappé
  • Joel Salatin
  • Terry Tempest Williams
  • Raj Patel
  • Starhawk
  • Susun Weed

It’s an online event, March 11-13, running from 4-10 p.m. each day (eastern time). I know I won’t be able to watch all of it, but I’m going to try to catch at least the speakers that most interest me, and I will walk on hot coals to hear Terry Tempest Williams.

You can register for the summit here, and it’s free! You will also get a preliminary schedule of events. A few speakers are yet to be announced (I am still hoping for Wendell Berry and Naomi Klein).

Sacred Economics 3: Solutions

Sacred Economics picI have just finished Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein and I am starting to change—at least a little bit—the way I think about money and the economy. And I’m changing my behavior: I’m starting to do much more on a cash basis. I track it just like I did my debit card, but I find I am spending less. I am much more stingy with cash than credit (or debit). I seem to think about it more when I’m paying cash. I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve read studies that say people tend to spend less when they use cash than credit, even when their income stays the same.

Eisenstein has seven policies or strategies that he believes will move us toward an economic system that values nature and people over money and the accumulation of wealth. I will be giving them very short shrift here—after all, he has devoted nearly 500 pages to this analysis, so if any of these approaches interest you at all, I strongly encourage you to pick up the book. You don’t even have to pay for it—in the spirit of the gift economy, Eisenstein is making his book available online at no cost. Here are the seven policies/pillars/strategies, and a comment or two about each:

Negative-interest currency. This is the one I have the hardest time getting my arms around, but apparently it’s not as wacky as it sounds, as the Fed has written at least one paper about it and Sweden has implemented it. The purpose of negative interest is to keep money circulating and to discourage its hoarding. Negative interest rates have been used primarily as a temporary measure to force banks to lend money rather than sit on it. This also makes a steady-state economy acceptable, whereas an interest-based economy needs to keep growing or it will implode (another thing I have a hard time getting my arms around).

Elimination of economic rents, and compensation for depletion of the commons. This shifts the tax burden away from labor and toward property owners. In this way, private interests can only profit by using a property well and improving it, and not by merely owning (or destroying) it. Also, shifting taxes onto property and resources will reduce or eliminate sales and income taxes and create a strong economic incentive for conservation.

Internalization of social and environmental costs. Currently, society pays mostEconomy Ecology of the costs of pollution and environmental damage. These costs are referred to as externalities (external to the company, that is; not external to taxpayers or the environment). Internalizing these costs to the companies themselves will end the opposition between ecology and the economy. “With economic disincentives for cheap, throwaway goods, manufactured items will become more expensive, more durable, and more repairable. We will care about our things more, maintain them and keep them.” Wouldn’t it be great to move away from our throwaway culture?

Economic and monetary localization. Hidden subsidies and decades of policy (NAFTA, anyone?) have pushed many things that can and should be local into the global commodity economy. This puts local regions into competition with each other, resulting in a “race to the bottom” in wages and environmental quality. Not everything will be local in our more localized economies, but we’ll probably stop importing honey and apple juice from China.

The social dividend. This is basically a return to every individual for use of the commons—physical, social, and intellectual. The dividend will come from the pollution taxes and payments for the use of our commons.

The social dividend would ideally provide the bare amount to cover life’s necessities; beyond that, people could still choose to earn their own money. It frees work from the pressure of necessity; people would work because they want to, not because they have to…. The point of economic life…will no longer be to “make a living.” Freed of that pressure, we will turn our gifts toward that which inspires us.

plantEconomic degrowth. It is time to stop growing. It is time for stability, or perhaps even some economic shrinking. With all the labor-saving devices we’ve invented, we have consistently chosen to consume more rather than work less. Now it is time to consume less. Everyone seems to think this is so scary, but I think it provides wonderful opportunity and happiness quotients will soar. “People will spend more and more of their time in noneconomic activities as the money realm shrinks and the realm of gifts, voluntarism, leisure, and the unquantifiable grows…. People will also share more and consume less, borrow more and rent less, give more and sell less—all reflecting and engendering economic degrowth.”

Gift culture and peer-to-peer economics. Shoveling your neighbor’s walk. Giving an extra potato masher to a friend that needs one. Carpooling to the grocery store, sharing a lawnmower, watching the neighbor’s kids. More needs will be met without money. We are seeing a huge growth in peer-to-peer economics already, through the Internet: Craigslist and freecycle come to mind.

I have shortchanged every single one of these ideas. It may seem pie-in-the-sky to you, but some of these practices are already taking root. Look at Wikipedia. Farmers’ markets. Co-ops and credit unions. Community gardens. Car-sharing programs.

Enough, anyway, that it just seems possible.

The Importance of the Commons

In an earlier post, Sacred Economics 2, I alluded to the commons. The commons refers to things we hold in common—things that belong (or should) to all of us. Many are nature-based: the oceans, rivers, air, and our topsoil, but public spaces and language are also examples of commons. According to On the Commons, “The commons is the essential form of wealth that we inherit or create together, and which must be shared in a sustainable and equitable way. Ranging from water to biodiversity to the Internet…the commons provides the foundation of our social, cultural, and economic life.”

Our Common Wealth bkThe reference to the commons in Sacred Economics made me pick up Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work, by Jonathan Rowe (his is a site well worth checking out—tons of interesting, challenging, and thought-provoking articles). I highly recommend this short book (123 pages) that so explicitly and clearly focuses on our commons. He refers to the commons as “the economic realm that promotes relationships rather than stuff.” And he was hopeful (he died in 2011): He cites examples of people working to resurrect and reclaim various kinds of commons as a growing trend:

Consider the World Wide Web, where people connect and share with a minimum of market-imposed restrictions. Social networks facilitate communication among friends. Creative Commons licenses allow creators to distribute music, photos, and other works without legal rigmarole. General Public Licenses keep open source software available to everyone. And of course there’s Wikipedia, the largest compendium of human knowledge ever assembled.

He also references the resurgence of commons in the food sector. For example, farmers’ markets have increased by 364% since 1994, and they continue to grow. From 2010 to 2013, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. increased 33%. That is not small potatoes! Farmers’ markets are rich on many levels:

They are about local food and the opportunity to deal directly with the people who produce it. They also are about the festive sociability of the market itself. People go to partake of the bustle and good spirits, something that doesn’t much happen at Safeway or even Whole Foods. 

Farmers marketCommunity gardens are another example of a growing commons that enriches a large swath of life.

Would it surprise you to know this is all coming from a conservative? It shouldn’t. At least if you think about the old-fashioned conservative. My dad was a conservative (I am more on the other end of the spectrum) but we often were able to find common ground. I know it exists, I constantly seek it out, and I love when I find it. Rowe:

Few things would shake up American politics as much as clarifying the term conservative. From the daily media one might surmise that conservatives are people who hate taxes and gays and love markets and religion. But the conservative tradition runs deeper than that, and in some ways contrary to it. 

Conservatism is, or at least used to be, a way of thinking about society as a whole and the qualities that help maintain it…. This view of society has large implications. For one thing, it means that people have a duty to support the whole with taxes…. For another, it means that humanity must take the long view.

And he echos a concern that I believe is felt by many conservatives:

In recent decades authentic conservatism—the kind that respects community, locality, tradition, and virtue—has been displaced by a phony kind that is politically expedient and cynical to the core. It channels the conservative impulse into a few red-meat issues—abortion, gays, school prayer—that pose no threat to the bankrollers of either party…. 

What this phony “movement” really professes is not conservatism but the opposite—a belief that it is okay to waste the patrimony so long as somebody makes money doing it.

This reminds me so much of my dad. He drummed “buy local” into me decades ago. And I will say he was also big on community, tradition, and virtue. And we found a lot of common ground through those values. Sigh. I miss my dad.

Rowe is not anti-market and has no pretensions to getting rid of it or having the economy run on commons principles. “The two realms are symbiotic, not mutually exclusive.” The view of the market will always be the short term, and the view of the commons is by necessity long term. In the last several decades, the market has grown while the commons have shrunk. Now it is time for the protected commons to be enlarged.

“It does what the market can’t do, and that is what nowadays most needs to be done.”

North Shore