Save the Planet, Starting on Your Own Block

After 40 years of what felt like progress in protecting our environment, the ecological crisis now seems to be worsening. Climate change, caused by greenhouse gas emissions, is heating up. The massive exploitation of the tar sands in Canada might be the tipping point, from which we can never return. Fracking for natural gas and oil threatens underground water supplies. The oceans are being massively overfished. Species extinction is accelerating.

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How to Reclaim Public Spaces for the People Who Use Them

The following are excerpts from On the Commons' new eBook, "How to Design Our World for Happiness" by Jay Walljasper: 
Poor People Need Public Places the Most
It’s easy to dismiss rising interest in public spaces as something that only the wealthy can afford to worry about. But take a look at any bustling place anywhere in the world—from the markets of Africa and Asia to the squares of Latin America to the street corners of Europe and North America—and you’ll find it’s low-income people who depend on public spaces the most.
Enrique Peñalosa—former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia—notes that rich people enjoy the pleasures of big homes, backyards, private clubs, and country houses. Poor people have only their local street to hang out in—and if they’re lucky, a park, library, or playground nearby. He made public spaces the centerpiece of his administration (see “How to Design Our Cities for Happiness”). Since leaving office he has become a globe-trotting ambassador helping out cities from Jakarta (Indonesia) to Dakar (Senegal) improve life for their citizens. 
“Public spaces create a different type of society,” he asserts. “A society where people of all income levels meet in public spaces is a more integrated, socially healthier one.”
The proliferation of autos, and the low social rank afforded anyone who doesn’t drive is an issue all across the developing world, notes Lisa Peterson, formerly with the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). “Cars are seen as status for people. Big, fast roads are seen as status for cities. That is still the idea of progress in many places.”
Peterson sees a number of signs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that people are realizing it’s a mistake to pursue the same kind of auto-dominated development that has created environmental problems and eroded the vitality of public life in the West. The World Bank has backed off from its autooriented development guidelines, while cities like Bogotá and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania provide new models of urban development with an emphasis on transit and bicycles A number of places are also creating pedestrian districts. 
“People in the U.S. now recognize there are problems with building cities for cars and not for people,” Enrique Penalosa says, “and we in the Third World need to know that.”
Build on What’s Good to Make Things Better in Struggling Communities
The biggest problem in many communities—especially low-income ones— is caused by perception more than reality. A part of town gets the reputation for being “tough,” or “declining,” which is constantly reinforced in the media and local gossip A negative incident happening there is widely reported as more evidence of “social breakdown,” whereas the same thing occurring in another place would be thought of as “an unfortunate event” and quickly forgotten.
Making things worse, many well-intentioned efforts to help these afflicted areas wind up stigmatizing the community even more. The whole focus is on everything that’s wrong: bad schools, bad crime, bad housing, bad gangs, bad economic opportunities. Even the people who live there come to feel negative about where they live and helpless to do anything to change things It’s all just bad. Yet even in the most economically and socially challenged communities, there are a lot of good things going on—shared dreams, community assets, and ways that people come together. These are the building blocks to make things better.
On paper, things looked bleak for the Grand Boulevard neighborhood in Chicago in the early ‘90s Eighty percent of children there lived in poverty, and a third of adults were unemployed. Yet below the surface, not visible in government statistics or a quick drive down its rundown streets, there was reason for hope.
This largely African-American community of 36,000 on the city’s South Side was home to no less than 320 citizens groups working to improve life in the neighborhood 
Grand Boulevard’s residents were not just hapless victims waiting for someone from the outside to rescue them; they were taking matters into their own hands. These community groups—which ranged from church committees to senior citizen centers to mothers’ support groups—were mostly involved in the basic caretaking such as providing support for single mothers or taking in children whose parents were in prison.
Eventually many of these groups organized themselves into the Grand Boulevard Federation, which started addressing more complex issues such as creating jobs in the neighborhood and improving social services. They formed partnerships with government agencies, non-profit organizations and businesses, such as United Parcel Service, which reserved 50 part-time jobs for Grand Boulevard residents needing to get back on their feet. This made a difference in Grand Boulevard—both in concrete economic and social measures, but also the community’s own faith that they can solve their problems.
“For the last 40 or 50 years we have been looking at communities in terms of their needs,” says Jody Kretzmann, co-director of the Asset Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University.
“We have run into a brick wall with that approach.” Kretzmann and his colleague John McKnight of Northwestern pioneered a new approach to urban problems that starts with looking at the assets that exist in a community, rather than just looking at what’s wrong. This empowers people, Kretzmann says, drawing on the abilities and insight of local residents to solve a neighborhood’s own problems. This does not mean, he is careful to note, that troubled neighborhoods don’t need outside help Kretzmann suggests all local revitalization projects begin with an assets inventory—which can be as simple as a list of what’s good about the neighborhood Solicit the opinions of everyone, including youngsters and senior citizens, when compiling your list.
Jim Diers, a veteran activist who has held workshops throughout Seattle to help residents improve their neighborhoods, says, “The assets a neighborhood can build on range from natural features to a school playground, great stores, networks, organizations, artists, and the whole range of human and financial resources, energy, creativity, and ideas. Whether it’s a restaurant with especially delicious food, a gigantic cedar tree, or a longtime resident, a neighborhood treasure is something that makes us glad we live where we do.”
The Perplexing Absence of Pedestrian Streets in America
I am bewildered by the almost complete lack of pedestrian streets in North America Why is it that carfree commons—designed for pleasurable strolling, shopping, and socializing—which have become typical in European city centers, are almost non-existent here?
I’ve only seen a few—a couple of blocks in downtown Boston, Rue Prince Arthur in Montreal, Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, and short stretches of downtown streets in college towns like Boulder, Ithaca, Iowa City, Charlottesville, and Burlington. (A glance at Wikipedia turns up a few more, although I 
notice many on the list are not truly car-free.)
Look what we’re missing. The heart of most notable German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Scandinavian, and, increasingly, South American cities are bustling pedestrian zones.They stand out as favorite spots for young people to gather, lovers to linger, kids to romp, women to show off their new clothes (and discreetly admire the looks of passers-by), men to admire the looks of passers-by (and discreetly show-off their new clothes), and everybody to feel part of the wider community This is the urban commons at its best.
Our one widespread experiment in reclaiming the streets—the downtown transit malls of the ’60s and ’70s—failed in most cases. That’s because they were usually narrow, last-ditch measures to recessitate fading stores overwhelmed by suburban flight and new shopping malls, rather than efforts to reinvigorate the downtown as a whole Another factor in transit malls’ failure is that most were not actually pedestrian places—big buses rumbling up and down the avenue squelched the carefree, car-free ambience that fosters exuberant street life.
But I am happy to report that I discovered a genuine Euro-style ped street in the most unlikely spot: Calgary, Alberta—a sprawling city whose economy depends, ironically, on the petroleum industry. Yet right in the center of its downtown, among glass skyscrapers and traffic-choked five-lane avenues, you can happily wander five blocks down the middle of Stephen Avenue, passing sidewalk cafes and swank shops, playful public art, and bustling public spaces, unencumbered by cars or trucks during the daytime. (Local residents were no doubt glad to get back to their beloved pedestrian street after the flood waters receded this summer.)
Stephen Avenue proves: If you keep out the cars, the pedestrians will come. The notion that cars are the Kings of the Road is a relatively new attitude. For almost all of human history, the city street functioned as a vital commons welcoming all—it’s where carriages and streetcars traveled but also where youngsters played, teens flirted, dogs slept, and everyone else chatted with their friends. That all changed between the 1920s and the 1960s, depending where you lived, as motor vehicles 
claimed these commons for their exclusive use. 
Still, I am noticing a few signs that this auto-cracy may be weakening, even in North America. The growth of traffic calming and bike lanes means that motorists are learning how to share the road. And many of us are getting a foot back in the street thanks to modest pedestrian projects being created—a block here or a half-block there in spots like Atlanta; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Rochester, Minnesota; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
Don’t underestimate what can arise from these small beginnings Even a short stretch of car-free pavement empowers people on foot to realize the road belongs to them too. Jan Gehl, the influential Danish urban designer who helped create Copenhagen’s pioneering pedestrian district in the 1960s, counsels people to start small and add to it bit by bit through the years.
Green Lanes Get More People on Bikes
You can glimpse the future right now in forward-looking American cities—a few blocks here or a mile there, where people riding bicycles on busy streets are protected from rushing cars and trucks. These new projects go a long way toward reclaiming North American streets as commons belonging to everyone.
Chicago’s Kinzie Street, just north of downtown, offers a good picture of this transportation transformation. New bike lanes are marked with bright green paint and separated from motor traffic by a series of plastic posts. This means bicyclists glide through the busy area in the safety of their own space on the road Pedestrians are thankful that bikes no longer seek refuge on the sidewalks, and many drivers appreciate the clear, orderly delineation about where bikes and cars belong.
Most of all this is a safety project,” notes Chicago’s Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein. “We saw bikes go up from a 22 percent share of traffic to 52 percent of traffic on the street with only a negligible change in motorists’ time, but a drop in their speeds. That makes everyone safer.”
Klein heralds this new style of bike lane as one way to improve urban mobility in an era of budget shortfalls. “They’re dirt cheap to build compared to road projects.”
People on bikes around the world feel more safe and comfortable on busy streets with a physical barrier between them and motor vehicles In some places it’s a plastic post or line of parked cars. In others it’s a curb, planter, or slightly elevated bike lane But no matter what separates people on bikes from people in cars, the results are hefty increases in the number and variety of people bicycling.
“We’ve seen biking almost triple on parts of 15th Street NW since installing a protected bike lane,” reports Jim Sebastian, Active Transportation Project Manager for the District of Columbia. “And we’re seeing different kinds of cyclists beyond the Lycra crowd People in business suits, high heels, families out 
for a ride, more younger and older people.”
Five years ago, these designs were barely on the horizon in the U S , although they’ve been standard in Europe for decades. “Today, cities across the country are looking to green lanes to tame busy streets,” says Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lane Project, which is showcasing the potential of this 21st Century innovation in six U S cities: Chicago, Washington DC, San Francisco, Portland (OR), Austin, and Memphis. 
“The idea is to create the kind of bike networks that will attract the 60 percent of all Americans who say they would bike more if they felt safer,” says Randy Neufeld, a longtime bike advocate in Chicago who is Director of the SRAM Cycling Fund. “It’s about helping people from 8 to 80 to feel safe biking on city streets.”
Many cities are paying particular attention to make sure that low-income and minority communities—where many families don’t own cars and others are financially strapped by the rising costs of operating one—have access to state-of-the-art biking facilities. Danny Solis—a Latino alderman representing a district on Chicago’s West Side with a high percentage of Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans—says good bike lanes are important to improving public safety and economic vitality in lower-income communities. “It increases interaction between neighbors, which is a boost for businesses 
and keeps the gangbangers away.”
Encouraging more people to ride bikes offers substantial rewards for all Americans (whether they ride a bike or not) by using streets more efficiently to move people and offering an economical choices in transportation along with addressing looming problems such as the obesity epidemic and volatile fuel prices. And it gets even better from there—the more people ride, the more benefits we’ll all see.
4 Ways Government Can Spark a Self-Help Revolution
Politicians and activists devoted to deep slashes in government spending have an easy answer when asked what happens to people whose lives and livelihoods depend on public programs. They point to volunteerism—the tradition of people taking care of each other, which has sustained human civilization for millennia,
It’s an attractive idea, which evokes the spirit of the commons. Volunteers working largely outside the realm of government—neighborhood organizations, local fire brigades, blood banks, and other civic initiatives—are obvious examples of commons-based sharing and caring.
Theoretically you could picture a society based upon strong incentives for everyday citizens to provide the services now provided by federal, state, and local governments—everything from police protection to the Public Health Service. To actually create such a society, however, would mean some sweeping changes to current economic and social policies.
To truly encourage widespread volunteerism, we’d need to make sure that everyone (not just the wellto-do) have the time to do it Most people today working longer hours for less pay are frantic just to get through the day Finding extra time in their crunched schedules to manage upkeep at the local park or take care of elderly neighbors looks impossible.
Here are four ways we could create a strong society based on America’s great tradition of volunteerism:
  • Dramatically expanded vacation time and family-leave benefits, and the institution of a four-day workweek—along with stringent enforcement of overtime provisions for all people working more than 40 hours a week.
  • A return to the days of the family wage—the period before the 1970s when a middle-class household could get by on one worker’s wages. And unlike those days, minorities and low-wage workers would not be excluded from this social contract. Since we live in a different era now, it’s likely that many couples today would elect to both work half time. But any way you want to do it, this would trigger a volcanic eruption of volunteers.
  • A universal national health care system that goes beyond the insurance reforms of Obamacare.
  •  Most important of all would be a major boost in the minimum wage so that Americans at all rungs of the social ladder would not need to devote all their time and energy to paid work.
These kind of pro-volunteer, pro-commons policies also depend on government playing an important role: Enforcing vacation, family leave, work hours and minimum wage laws, as well as making sure everyone receives adequate health care coverage. Volunteers will not magically appear without positive measures to ensure that all people have time for the common good.

A Stormy Reminder of Why We Need Government

If this election is a referendum on the benefit of government then superstorm Sandy should be Exhibit A for the affirmative. The government weather service, using data from government weather satellites delivered a remarkably accurate and sobering long range forecast that both catalyzed action and gave communities sufficient time to prepare. Those visually stunning maps you saw on the web or t.v. were largely based on public data made publicly available from local, state and federal agencies.

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10 Water Commons Principles

Through our co-creative fieldwork, On the Commons seeks to transform society’s decisionmaking about water toward participatory, democratic, community-centered systems that value equity and sustainability as core values. Our work is based on the following ten water commons principles.

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Are We About to Lose the Postal Service?

 In the next few days we may decide the future of the Post Office. The signs are not auspicious. President Obama has agreed to a plan to cut Saturday delivery. The Post Service’s management wants to close 2500 post offices immediately and up to 16,000 by 2020. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) has introduced a bill that could end free door-to-door delivery.

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The Destructive Conservative Myth That Keeps Our Economy in Tatters

 A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only and ignorant with its ignorance. Observe how the greatest minds yield in some degree to the superstitions of their age. —Henry David Thoreau

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Looking for Support in Hard Economic Times?

This is part of a special AlterNet series on Obama's latest plans for a rescue of the bankers and Wall Street's toxic assets.
Read our editorial on the big picture.

The common security club model was born out of work done in the last few years by people struggling with overwhelming indebtedness. Participants spend some time discussing the root causes of the economic crisis, drawing on readings and materials provided by the network. But they mostly focus on what they can do together to increase their economic security and press for policy changes.

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Why Are Public Assets Being Cut Right When We Need Them Most?

There is an absurd Alice in Wonderland feel to the current economic crisis.

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Good Thing Minnesota Has Someone in Charge Who Cares About Counting Every Vote

What happens or doesn't happen in Washington over the next two years may depend on who wins the Minnesota senate race, in which Democrat challenger Al Franken and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman are now separated by about 200 votes of 2.9 million cast. Democrats are just two seats shy of 60 in the Senate, which is the magic number at which they can shut down Republican filibusters against progressive legislation.

America is still waiting for results in two races. One will be decided December 2 in a Senate run-off election in Georgia, and the other depends on the laborious and already controversial outcome of a hand-by-hand recount of ballots in Minnesota's Franken-Coleman contest.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie finds himself smack in the middle of what pundits say is the fiercest election in state history, and certainly the most expensive. Coleman, who won in 2002 after his opponent Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, is famous as a combative campaigner. Franken meanwhile is deeply determined to win back the seat once held by Wellstone, his close friend. Both camps are raising large sums of money to cover costs of monitoring the recount and whatever lawsuits may ensue. Coleman's election night margin see-saws up and down with each day's recount results. The race may be decided by what happens to challenged ballots that will be reviewed by Ritchie and the State Canvassing Board.

It is Mark Ritchie's challenge to ensure that every legitimate vote is counted in this hard-fought contest for which the whole country is waiting for the results. Already Ritchie -- voted into office in 2006 on the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) ticket, as Democrats are called in Minnesota -- has become a favorite target of right-wing commentators here and around the country. But he has also drawn complaints from the Franken camp for some of his decisions.

Each day Ritchie faces phalanxes of lawyers and recount observers from both sides as he tries to ensure the election results are accurate, fair and above partisan reproach. To that end, he appointed judges with ties to Republicans and the state's Independence Party (but none with apparent Democratic ties) to join him on the board that will oversee the recount' final results. Minnesota Governor Pawlenty, a Republican, has stated his public support for Ritchie and for the process despite complaints from the right-wing of his party.

Making sure that every vote counts is exactly the reason Mark Ritchie ran for Secretary of State. He realized the vulnerable nature of democracy in 2002 (not just in Florida, but in his home state) when Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash two weeks before election day.

Ritchie, a former high-ranking official in the state's agriculture department and founder of the Institute for Trade and Agriculture Policy, was shocked to learn that Minnesota's then Republican Secretary of State tried to block people who had voted for Wellstone on absentee ballots from casting a new ballot for Walter Mondale, who succeeded Wellstone as the Democratic nominee in the race against Coleman. (Several years earlier, a Democratic Secretary of State had done just the opposite when a new Republican candidate for Minnesota governor was added to the ticket at the last minute after a sex scandal and went on to win a very narrow victory.)

This struck Ritchie-a longtime advocate for small farmers, sustainable agriculture, fair trade policies, and human rights-as deeply unfair. It was not just that these absentee ballots could conceivably have made a difference in the election, but that citizens were to be denied the right to vote. (The Secretary of State ultimately allowed Minnesota voters to cast new absentee ballots.)

Ritchie views voting as what he calls, "a civic commons, which is essential to good government and democracy itself. But that commons can be taken from us by measures that make it difficult for many people to vote."

In 2004, Ritchie took a leave of absence from the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy to lead National Voice, a non-partisan organization working to increase voter turnout across America in the 2004 election. (You may not know the organization but you might remember the "November 2" t-shirts seen everywhere in the weeks before election day that year.)

Ritchie then made his successful run for Secretary of State in 2006, and did all he could to turn out voters for this year's election. It ranked first in the nation as it had in 2004. "Not withstanding Garrison Keillor's claim that we are all above average here, that's not the reason we have higher vote totals than other states" he explains. "It's that we have a system that encourages people to vote."

Central to that system is same-day registration, which means that you can register at the polling place on election day if you can prove you live in the precinct by showing an ID or even a utility bill. "Ten states have same-day registration or something very close," Ritchie notes, "and most of them have among the highest voter turn-out." Ritchie also champions voting by mail -which is done in Oregon, most of Washington State and the city of Milwaukee-as a "great way for some communities, especially in rural areas, to increase voter turnout."

He is interested to see how another new idea known as Instant Run-Off or Ranked Choice voting will work. This system, which has been adopted in a number of cities, including ten pilot locations in North Carolina and his hometown of Minneapolis, lets you vote for more than one candidate by ranking your choices in order of preference. The hope is that this system will bring fresh thinking into mainstream politics by making people feel more comfortable voting for third parties. It takes away the fear that voting for your favorite candidate (think Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan in 2000) might help your second favorite candidate lose to an opponent (think George W. Bush or Al Gore) you really do not want to see in office.

Under Instant Run-Off Voting all top-ranked votes are tabulated and if no candidate wins a majority then the second choices of people who voted for the candidate with the lowest overall totals are tabulated. This process continues until one office-seeker has a majority of votes. The Irish president, Australian House of Representatives, London mayor as well as the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, are elected this way-and the idea is gaining ground in places that do not use the proportional voting systems found in continental Europe and many other countries around the world.

To increase voter turnout in Minnesota, Ritchie is working on automatically updating a person's voting registration when they send a change-of-address form to the post office. He found ways to streamline voting for the 80,000 Minnesotans living abroad, including troops stationed in Iraq, by allowing them to receive ballots by email that were returned through a special arrangement with FedEx. He's also launching a campaign to reinvigorate the teaching of civics in Minnesota schools so young people can learn about the electoral system and why voting is important.

"Some people question efforts to expand the number of voters by saying democracy depends on the quality, not the quantity, of voters," Ritchie says. "Both are important. Voters being informed is a very important element of the democracy commons."

In an election year when voter suppression-bureaucratic hurdles to voting, especially for lower-income and first-time voters-has become a major issue in campaign coverage, Ritchie is well aware of the power of Secretaries of State to either expand or constrict the number of people participating in the democratic process. "It's part of my job to make it possible for everyone to go to the polls and make sure their vote counts. You make decisions morning, noon and night that help or hinder people in voting. "Helping people participate in elections is part of the historic process in America of extending voting rights," he adds. "We expanded suffrage to women and Native Americans and, thanks to the civil rights movement, to all African-Americans and then to 18-year-olds. This is all part of a battle for enfranchisement that continues today. It's an essential part of democracy-and of the commons-that everyone should be easily able to vote."

The Presidential Debates Are a Scam

Have you wondered why the presidential debates don't present any serious ideas or encourage any substantive exchanges about policy and political philosophy? Have you noticed that the events resemble a whirring jukebox of familiar sound bites -- a highly produced, tightly scripted affair with with no surprises and little passion?

There's a reason. Both candidates and their political parties want it this way. The debates are not the production of some independent third party like the League of Women Voters, the host university or news organizations. They are co-produced by the Democratic and Republican Parties themselves, who have ingeniously disguised their actual roles by nominally delegating control to the Commission on Presidential Debates

The Commission sounds like some venerable group of eminent graybeards and experts. Not so. It is a group of party apparatchiks whose express goal is to broker the terms of the debate in order to advance and protect each candidate's interests. For the 2008 debates, the Commission negotiated a 31-page memo of understanding that lays out in precise detail the rules of stagecraft, questioning, follow-up, audience deportment, and other conditions. The contents of this memo, however, have not been disclosed despite requests by citizen groups.

We do know the upshot of the memo, however: a series of carefully orchestrated PR events that pretend to host a wide-open, vigorous debate.

The truth is, no one can really learn much about the candidates or their ideas when the format has such rigid time limits on answers and predictable questions from mainstream news anchors. The moderators are constrained from asking tough follow-up questions, and the audience is forced to sit like zombies in a funeral parlor. Even with the so-called "town hall meeting" format, there is no genuine back-and-forth dialogue between candidates and citizens. Nor are there any direct candidate-to-candidate exchanges. Third-party candidates have been summarily excluded, so there are no disruptive questions that might expose the limited vision of the two major parties. (Ralph Nader was famously excluded from the 2000 presidential debates because his citizen support was deemed too insignificant to make a difference in the election.)

In short, the presidential debates are shams if they are to be considered debates. They are meant to simulate honest, spontaneous exchanges of ideas but in fact, their real goal is to prevent any spontaneity, depth, complexity or worrisome surprises.

A more open format would give candidates greater latitude to express themselves at length and with nuance. But that's apparently what the two parties really don't want. An open format leaves too much room for candidates to be caught off-guard or exposed as superficial. An open format would require candidates to be able to go beyond repetitious talking points and rehearsed accusations and one-liners.

In 1998, former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite wrote, "The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud that our political campaigns have become ... the candidates participate only with the guarantee of a format that defies meaningful discourse." It is a testament to the state of mainstream journalism that leading news anchors happily agree to participate in these farces. It's great PR exposure, after all.

One of the best debunkings of the modern presidential debates is George Farah's book, No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates (Seven Stories Press, 2004). Farah charges that the Commission on Presidential Debates "acts as an effective screen for the two parties to evade citizens' most pressing questions, and absorbs the political costs that would otherwise accrue to the parties. This function of the CPD, as an arms-length organ of the parties, amounts to a shocking institutional rigging of the electoral process that degrades our democracy and signals worrying bipartisan contempt for transparency in this country's highest elected office."

This year, however, an insurgent citizen coalition is arising to challenge the rigged presidential debates. The Open Debate Coalition, led by Professor Lawrence Lessig, has sent a letter to the Obama and McCain campaigns asking them to change the ground rules for the debates. The coalition spans a broad left-right political spectrum. It includes Craig Newmark of Craiglist; Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post; filmmaker Robert Greenwald; Mindy Finn, a Republican strategist; Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia; Patrick Ruffini, a former Republican National Committee eCampaign Director; and many others.

The Coalition has asked that the debate moderator have broad discretion to ask follow-up questions after a candidate's answer, and that the public be able to use the Internet to vote on which questions shall be asked. The Coalition has also asked that, as a stipulation of the next debate, the media pool must release all 2008 debate footage into the public domain.

This is an issue because on at least two occasions, TV networks have invoked copyright law to prevent candidates from using footage from the debates. Bloggers and other commentators should not be constrained from using video snippets from the debates because the host TV network asserts copyright control over its footage. The event ought to be available to every citizen, especially now that citizens have their own video-production and -publishing capacities.

Despite promising responses to the Coalition's letter from both candidates, it remains to be seen whether the media pool will put their video of the debate into the public domain and whether moderator Tom Brokaw will use any citizen questions that citizens have voted on at Google's website.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether the Commission on Presidential Debates will reform its practices in the future. Right now, the "debates" use a format that is deliberately designed to minimize actual debate, maximize positive PR for the candidates, and deflect any criticism of the debate format away from the two major parties. It's time to open the closed debate structure to citizen voices and a more open format. The two parties should not be able to enclose democratic debate. Citizens, not parties, ought to reclaim the debates. If the United States hopes to recover its moral authority as a champion of democracy, it needs to start walking the talk. What better venue than the presidential debates?

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Would Thomas Jefferson Refuse To Recycle?

One of the things that most baffles me about America (and I have lived in the middle of it my whole life) is how the word "independence" is so narrowly defined.

People's economic well-being can be held hostage by oil companies, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, HMOs, and other powerful multinational corporations, yet in political debates independence generally mean just one thing: the absence of government regulation, or any kind of joint citizen effort.

I was reminded of this by a headline in the New York Times citing the "independent streak" of Houston residents for the city's miserably low recycling rate: 2.6 percent, worst in the country, four times less than some others at the bottom of the list like Dallas and Detroit.

"We have an independent streak that rebels against mandates or anything that seems trendy or hyped up," declared Mayor Bill White, a Democrat who favors expanded recycling in the city. (Actually there's no law in Houston or anywhere else in the U.S. forcing people to recycle -- although San Francisco, ranked at top with 68 percent recycling, is considering one.)

This is surely not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he penned the word "independence" in his immortal Declaration. Jefferson embodied a true "independent streak," working collectively with other American dissidents to "rebel" against the tyranny of the British crown.

Jefferson and his compatriots would be amused (or more likely dismayed) to see that what passes for independence today is a peevish resistance against "trendy and hyped up" chores that might result in a tiny bit more work on trash day. Independence for them did not mean a privatized, selfish focus on individual convenience over the common good.

Although influenced by John Locke and other British philosophers stressing the pursuit of property and the rights of individuals, they still understood the commons as part of the social dynamic that allowed societies to progress.

From communal cattle grazing on the Boston Common (which continued until 1830) to the community cooperation that allowed white settlers to survive on the frontiers of Pennsylvania and Virginia, the commons was central to American life at that time. And for anyone paying attention, the commons-based culture of Eastern Indian tribes, whose Iroquois Confederation influenced the U.S. Constitution, provided another example of the power of the collective cooperation.

No one of that era, including capitalism's fervent champion Adam Smith, could conceive of a world where the market drove all economic, political and moral decisionmaking. Social bonds created outside the marketplace by people working together to solve common problems is what kept communities together then (and now). To refuse to join a cooperative effort to make the local environment healthier would not be seen as "independent," but rather as foolish and lazy.

The same is true today.

Why the Hype About Local Food May Be More than Just a Trend

Now that the New York Times has splashed it on the front page (July 22), consider it an official trend: locally grown food is all the rage. It is being avidly sought out by Manhattan's Upper East Side, the glam crowd in the Hamptons, the merely affluent of Mill Valley, California, and even by the rest of us who live in less celebrated locations with few boldfaced residents.

It is tempting to dismiss locally grown food as just another elite fashion, as many people surely will. But it is also true that wealthy households are often the first to validate broader market trends.

Consider it another chapter in the ongoing dance between the commons and the market. The commons lovingly advances a new ideal -- in this case, the ecological virtues, social satisfactions and great taste of locally grown food. And then, after years of hippies, homesteaders and eco-evangelists beating the drum for this new ideal below the radar screen of mainstream culture, entrepreneurs suddenly get hip to what's going on and swoop in to make money from a grassroots trend.

Some things never change. We are at that special inflection point in the evolution of social attitudes that are mysteriously propelling the rise of a new market niche. Its customers, the aficionados of local food, even have a name -- "locavores." There are also novel sorts of new businesses.

As the Times reports, Trevor Paque has made a business in San Francisco planting vegetable gardens for affluent suburbanites who want to eat garden-grown food, but who don't like to garden. So Trevor does the planting, weeding and harvesting. A company called FruitGuys will deliver boxes of locally grown, sustainably raised or organic fruit to people in San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Soon mega-millionaires like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh will rail against the trendiness of local food. That's their schtick, after all -- to invent elite foils for themselves so that they can cast themselves as Main Street populists. Real Republicans only eat red meat and potatoes, it would seem.

This is just a shell game in the culture wars, however. I am convinced that local food is going to become a steady, long-term growth market. For its taste, cost and eco-friendliness, local food has already become a symbol of social virtue. People are starting to realize that it is not so good for the planet to haul meat from New Zealand, wheat from South Dakota and fruit from Caifornia. Social demand and sheer economics are starting to buoy local growers, and supermarkets are looking for new ways to call attention to their local produce. The trend lines are clear.

The spending of local money for local produce is surely a virtuous cycle for local economies. It is also likely to promote greater personal connections among people locally, stronger commitments to one's local community, and a more stable and diverse local economy.

Two days after filing the local foods article, Kim Severson, the same Times reporter who wrote about the elite embrace of local foods, had another piece about the upcoming an upcoming festival called Slow Food Nation. The event, to be held in downtown San Francisco over Labor Day weekend, will feature pavilions devoted to foods like pickles, coffee and salami. A quarter-acre patch of the lawn in front of City Hall has been ripped up to grow a garden.

Slow Food Nation is an ambitious attempt by Slow Food USA, the American spinoff of the Italy-born Slow Food movement, to establish itself as a recognized political and cultural force. Organizers hope the festival will be, in the words of Severson, "the Woodstock of food, a profound event where a broad band of people will see that delicious, sustainably produced food can be a prism for social, ecological and political change."

I am sure that certain elements of the Slow Food world will behave like effete connoisseurs and fawn over the local argula and goat cheese. But really, is that so bad? Why shouldn't people start to express their affection and appreciation for local food? If cultural snobs and the wealthy can embrace a populist trend without coopting it -- validating it with their presence and boosting it with their dollars -- I say, bring 'em on. Let everyone celebrate the taste of local food -- and then move on to the political and economic realities that sustain it.

If local food is going to be a victim of identity politics, let it be a politics of localism: "We all live here together, so let's find the way to support the farmers who are our neighbors."

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