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Towards a Convergence of Place-Based? and Information Commons?

An exploration of theoretical and activist convergences between place-based or ecological commons and the information commons

Shiri Pasternak in discussion with Nishant @ Conference Room, YMCA Tourist Hostel, Jaisingh Road, Off Sansad Marg (near Jantar Mantar), New Delhi 110 001. Friday November 30 2007 6–8 pm.

Shiri Pasternak is a Toronto-based writer and activist, who researches and campaigns on issues related to food sovereignty, intellectual property, and the commons. She worked for years in Montreal, QC on food security issues with research collective Food Not Lawns and then in Victoria, BC as a Research Associate at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, where she researched indigenous perspectives on genetically engineered food. She has published on the subject, for example, contributing chapters to Gene Traders: Biotechnology, World Trade, and the Globalization of Hunger, and to a forthcoming book by SUNY Press on religious perspectives on transgenes in food. She is the former Associate Director of the Forum on Privatization and the Public Domain and it was through this position that she began to make links between genetically engineered seeds and the expansion of property rights across all sectors and communities. Her focus now is on the history of property rights and decolonizing privatization attempts and struggles in Canada. She is also currently working with a coalition of housing activists in Toronto fighting to get abandoned and underutilized buildings in Toronto turned into affordable housing.

Nishant is a Delhi based geek who dabbles with literature, politics, history, films, radio, publishing, web journalism and everything that’s out there to experiment with but likes to call himself a journalist.

Presentation Brief for Discussant – Shiri Pasternak

Towards a Convergence of Place – Based and Information Commons

This presentation is a critical appraisal of the relationship between place-based and information commons. The subject of this presentation responds to a need developing out of significant political shifts occurring in the nature of property rights and the legal frameworks governing these property rights regimes.

Indigenous people have been at the forefront of drawing the links between the expropriation of their lands by European settlers and the ownership claims of transnational corporations over their plants, animals, human genetics and biology. These enclosures – first of land, then of all that grows and lives upon it, including the bloodlines and genetics of human beings – have had dire social and political impacts, destroying communal practices and shared systems of meaning in communities around the world.

In recent years, political struggles have expressed a direct challenge to these private enclosures of material and intellectual property, often emphasizing the need for a renewed “commons.” But when and how are the ongoing, relentless demands by indigenous people worldwide for the return of their lands and against the theft of their knowledge through biopiracy going to be joined by the anti-privatization movements calling for shared natural resources, healthcare, education, and strong public sectors, as well as for an “information commons” of open access journals, open source software, and freely tradable music, art, and culture? Can the idea of the commons inspire people to think differently about how to defend alternative ontologies of property against the encroachments of neo-liberal capitalism into every spheres of life? What are the relationships – potential and practical – between struggles for place-based and information commons?

I am defining and distinguishing between information and place-based commons in the following way: place-based or ecological commons can refer to a range of shared goods, such as water, forests, education, healthcare and city parks. Information commons represent a range of ‘open’ digital initiatives, such as software and electronic journals. Both forms of commons that interest me here refer to the recent anti-capitalist emergence of “commons” as a political term to describe forms of social organization that attempt to resist the commodification of nature, knowledge forms, and social relations by embracing alternative conceptions of property rights.

‘Open initiatives’ refers here to the open source software movement, open access journals, and open science, though, as we will see, they have important crossovers with shared forms of space, natural resources, and land by virtue of a common appreciation for the link between control of knowledge and sustaining diverse political forms of governance. The important distinction here is that these shared goods are not defined strictly as a fair economic distribution of goods, but rather also as embedded within a particular set of social relations that both challenge liberal capitalist ideas of the “public” and recognize a genealogy of “enclosure” that dates back to colonialism.

The broad aim of this presentation is to explore the relationships between political struggles for a renewed notion of commons in the 21st century through the comparative lens of place-based and information commons. Convergence is meant here to signify “a coming together from different directions, especially a uniting or merging of groups or tendencies that were originally opposed or very different.” [1] Another equally compelling way to think about convergence in this context is in terms of convergent evolution, where the word means, “the tendency of different species to develop similar characteristics in response to a set of environmental conditions.”[2] If we think about political movements (as different “species” of a kind), coming together from different directions to respond to a set of conditions – environmental, social, political, economic – then we move closer to a perspicuous understanding of the space of intersections that I am trying to explore.

I will first provide an overview of four broad categories of convergence theories on the commons: (1) specific comparisons of the aims and methods of seed saving and open source software; (2) new global political formations around commons struggles; (3) convergences within the information commons; and (4) ontological and colonial roots of property rights. All of these theories attempt to link ideas about shared knowledge and political space against the encroachments of colonialism, capitalism, and neoliberalism. However, I want to focus on property as a central feature of this convergence because I believe it has significant explanatory power for understanding some of the theoretical and practical potentialities of convergences between place-based and ecological commons.

My case study examples will showcase features of this property argument concerning convergence and the challenges to securing and maintaining common spaces. For example, I will look at the Nu Chah Nulth of Western Vancouver Island and read their story of stolen blood – taken by university researchers for specific medical purposes, then flown to England for countless non-consented experiments – against their creation stories and territorial claims. This case study example will lead me to draw observations regarding the overlapping and indiscrete phases of colonialism that I (nonetheless) schematize into three periods of enclosure. This will give us a chance to take a closer look at the meaning of property, its place at the heart of the commons, and why it is central to convergence theories about place-based and information commons. Finally, I will conclude with some observations on how this convergence fits into the broader anti-privatization frameworks prevalent in Canada and around the world today.


[1] Encarta World English Dictionary, 1999.

[2] Ibid.

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