CE: How do you think we can reclaim the commons?
RP: Its important to remember that the commons is not just stuff, but that it about the ways of governing that stuff. In the book I talk about how it’s important for us to re-develop that side of ourselves, a side of us that is available to engage in community politics and engage in civic politics. Now that may sound fairly soft, but actually there are some tremendous examples of how we can together value things without surrendering them to a market. That involves things like participatory budgeting, where everyone in a city gets together and discusses how it is that city resources will be spent. This involves us abandoning the side of us that is a consumer…it is important for us to think for a minute about what kind of citizens we want to be, particularly in this economic downturn, when we are facing some pretty dark economic times. If we are serious about reclaiming the commons, I think getting involved in the way our food, for example, can be governed locally, things like food policy councils, [which] offer a way for people to start building the kinds of demographic community organization that we need in order to actually think about controlling resources, and sharing those resources democratically.
CE: Do you think the commons should be extended to include farmland? You’ve spoken in the past about land reform, what do you think that might look like?
RP: I certainly think that the scale of farms in the United States right now is a function both of history, but also of cheap oil. And as oil becomes increasingly less cheap, and as water becomes increasingly harder to find, and as the infrastructure that supports industrial agriculture becomes increasingly unsustainable, the full costs of that come home to roost. [As] we head towards 2050, and there are going to be 9 billion of us and there aren’t the fossil fuel resources and the water resources we take for granted, we know the kinds of policies we’re going to need to survive that: we’ll need a lot more peri-urban farming and urban farming. We need to figure out the ways and strategies now to put the infrastructure in to make sure that we are able to farm and survive in the future. Does that mean that [we’ll see] land democratically and through land reform that compensates [the owner] being brought into the public domain? I think so. I’d much rather that than a few people be able to hold onto tons of land while the rest of us starve.
CE: You’ve been critical about cap and trade as a solution to climate change. Why is price a poor form of regulation?
RP: In Europe, cap and trade systems have been up for awhile, and they’ve demonstrably been bad. I have a quote in the book from someone who is in the emissions trading business making a lot of money out of it, saying basically that the polluters have done well, coal and nuclear have done very, very well, and the people who have done best are bankers. And we shouldn’t be surprised that there are a lot of chops being licked on Wall Street at the prospect of a several trillion dollar market in derivatives that share in many ways the same kind of DNA of the derivatives that got us into the last financial crisis. There are ways in which we can effectively reduce our carbon emissions, and that’s by capping them. Historically, the way we’ve reduced pollutants is by legislating them out of business. So we absolutely need caps, its just the trade which is specious, as there are plenty of opportunities for people to cheat, plenty of opportunities for people to commit fraud…Internationally there is a great deal of fraud in terms of the kinds of projects that are qualified to sell carbon emissions. I write in the book about one of the places that was suspected of being the home of the swine flu outbreak, a huge pig [confined animal feeding operation] in Veracruz, [Mexico] and one of the ways it makes a great deal of money is by selling off-set credits, because of the way that it uses pig shit. Its not as if we don’t have other approaches, other ways of making markets work. We have plenty of things to do, but we need first to invest in alternative energy, we need massive transfers to developing countries, we need to cap the amount of carbon we produce here, and we can do all of that without giving large amounts of money to banks.
CE: A solution that is being proposed to climate change by Jeffrey Sachs, Stewart Brand and others is genetically modified climate change-ready plants. Some even argue that it is possible to combine the best of organic practices with GMOs. I was wondering how you respond to that.
Great interview Paula! Your blog is amazing!