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Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers

Posted: September 17, 2010 08:26 AM

Standing at the now infamous 7,500-acre mountaintop removal mine on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, long-time scholars and activists Herb Reid and Betsy Taylor did not only experience the tragedy of the "bizarre postbiotic, post-industrial landscape."

They witnessed a "global pilgrimage site," where activists from around the nation and the world converged to exchange "tales, feelings, and pathways of a distinctively twenty-first-century-sort." The conversations taking place within the background of environmental destruction served as a crossroads for the Kentucky and Virginia-based scholars.

"We believe that if there is hope for our species," Reid and Taylor write in their provocative new book, Recovering the Commons: Democracy, Place, and Global Justice, "It is in the hard thinking taking place at crossroads like this."

With the climate justice movement floundering after the collapse of the Copenhagen talks and the legislative debacle in Congress, Recovering the Commons is a timely and critical analysis on civic activism and how social theory and theorists--from academics to armchair environmental activists--must come down to the grassroots frontlines to strengthen any conversations for the re-emergence of a new climate movement.

The authors ask: "How are we to weave and reweave democratic spaces for seeking a tapestry of global justice and a more sustainable world?"

In a critical review of American history and politics, Recovering the Commons offers "a rethinking of ideas of public space and democratic intelligence associated with social theorists such as Hannah Arendt and John Dewey. At the same time, we critically review American history and politics to emphasize key notions of commonwealth, competency, and liberty relevant to revitalizing the commons in both its civic and environmental aspects. Truly public spaces are built from this earth-ground."

I caught up with Reid and Taylor for an interview, as they headed to Asheville, North Carolina for their national book tour. They will be appearing at Malaprops Bookstore on Tuesday, September 21.

Q: Can you describe the difference between the commons and public spaces?

BT and HR: We define public space as where people debate, fight over, and eventually ratify their collective scripts about how to reproduce social and ecological order. So, the commons are like a complicated jazz improvisation in which musicians complement and surprise each other, so that, if it's working, their individual riffs flow together into a kind of harmony that is larger than the individual. Public space is sort of like the musicians arguing about how to play together, but then, producing something like a score for their performance.


In our book, Recovering the Commons, we explore the history of how corporations have staged coup d'etat of American public spaces - creating fake public spaces and rhetorics which puts the commons behind a deep veil - a history that starts in the 19th century but is dramatically intensifying now as corporate power is enclosing and privatizing more and more - air, water, health, energy, etc. For instance, Chapter 3 looks at some truly weird PR ad campaigns from oil and gas companies.

Q: Describe how public spaces and commons have been lost or overrun?


BT and HR: Suburban sprawl is a tragic example of what happens when the commons and public space get disconnected. The commons are the webs of interdependencies among living creatures and the material world. Our bodies are like hinges that connect us to the commons. For instance, what we call "food" is a cycle of energy and nutrients through us - a nutrient, first for our bodies (and souls, but more on that later), and, then, nutrients (or toxins) for other creatures. The commons are the wildly complicated synergisms between multiple flows and cycles of energies and materials between creatures. Corporate capitalism has radically disrupted the connection between the commons and our personal life rhythms.It has vastly extended the geographic reach and complexity of the human/nature cycles that engulf us.

So, for instance, most American suburbs, are "unwalkable" - the regular daily pathways of our lives to not allow us to shop and take care of other material needs using our own animal power. In a sustainable society, the basic cycles of our personal quests for sustenance - food, shelter, air, water, etc. - would harmonize more or less with the big ecological cycles, as nature creates forms that die and recycle into nutrients for new creaturely forms. Suburban sprawl is the kind of cultural / political / economic / architectural landscape you get when the cycles of the commons get discombobulated. It radically discourages forms of mobility and interaction that make people conscious of the ecological cycles they are in. It limits our choices on a daily basis - forcing us into a radical dependence on sources of energy, food, material items that are locked into huge, unjust, exploitative, global chains of production and investment.

Q: In light of the floundering climate justice movement, how do you see public spaces playing a role today?

BT and HR:

Much of the book is about how justice movements are mobilizing to take back public spaces so that they can defend their commons. We've watched many marvelous events when ordinary grassroots people have risen up to insist that they have a right to the kind of public spaces where the scripts get written about how our societies do (or do not) get hinged into the great cycles of the ecological commons.

This kind of uprising has been happening in the Appalachian coalfields, as some courageous grassroots leader have spoken up against Mountaintop Removal (MTR) mining - which is a violent near annihilation of life commons in some of the most biodiverse forests in the world. The coal industry is so powerful that it controls most public spaces (local, regional and national). In areas where corporations own between 70-90% of the land, grassroots, anti-MTR organizations have even had trouble finding office space, and have been intimidated or assaulted in public forums. However, these tenacious networks are holding a mass demonstration in Washington DC, September 25-27 - "Appalachia Rising"-- to literally take back the national public stage.

At stake is both the global climate commons (as coal is prime greenhouse gas producer) but also the local commons of Appalachian communities. The Appalachian grassroots leaders are acutely aware that what is at stake is not just economic but also cultural. Traditional Appalachian livelihoods were based on a forest commons - where people's supplemented wage work with hunting, and gathering of herbs and other forest products. Through daily and seasonal walking of the land, people built up a wealth of local knowledge, stories and skills that wove their cultural identity together with the ever-changing tapestry of the ecological commons. The folklorist Mary Hufford has put together a powerful video and audio archive of this interpenetration of cultural and ecological in the Appalachian forest commons - on the website "Tending the Commons"


Q: In the process of reclaiming public spaces, where do you think we will find a new type of political action?

BT and HR:

The frontline of grassroots struggle and the global justice movement are crucial efforts to re-world human and nonhuman life. It is in these projects challenging the political and social bases of unlivability fostered especially by irresponsible corporate power that we see at least two crucial features of a new politics. One is the critique of what is usually called neo-liberal corporate globalization. Today this is glaring in such developments as the construction by WalMart and other corporations of a global cheap labor market. It is also visible in the increasing shipment of U.S. coal to China and how this adds to pollution of the Atmospheric Commons by the two nations contributinng most to the climate crisis.

Two, a new politics for critical alternatives to such trends and policies needs a new translocal understanding or conception of solidarity. Your reference to the "climate justice movement" reflects both the reweaving of social justice and environmental issue but also a new translocal politics for our world-in-common. Yes, at Copenhagen much time and policy initiative was lost. But hopefully there is greater sharing of a keener sense of needed forms of democratic space and global justice. Turning to other specific questions you ask: our activist/intellectual focus should be on both the global justice movement and its regional-local incarnations where we usually act on our values and ideas. The current battle with the Fossil Fuel Sector of our Transnational Corporate State regarding the EPA's approach to coal is one example.


Q: You call on intellectuals to "let go of abstractions" and listen to people on the grassroots level. Do you think the election of President Obama signaled the revival of the public intellectual? Or, rather, has the global justice movement been a factor in making a new landscape for engagement by public intellectuals, scholars and activists?

BT and HR: Academics foster political passivity with lame, uncritical notions of an enduring, plutocracy-proof liberal-democratic polity and a relatively new "consumer republic." Relying on a modestly encouraging presidential election and on a "less worse" Presidency is not the way to get anywhere.

Our book is an attempt to illuminate at least two paths through a treacherous landscape. One involves those caught up in corporatizing, globalizing universities whose institutional contradictions simultaneously manifest "sustainability" projects and hollow them out. The other path is the high road, recognizing with Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder that the world is places and we have to have a politics empowering places and their creatures, human and nonhuman.