Think of the word ‘commons’ and you may well imagine a patch of land where one might have grazed one’s sheep in centuries past. Or perhaps you think of the House of Commons. The commons has a broader meaning however, and it is a largely forgotten but highly relevant term. Put simply, the commons are the things that we share, things that are accessible to all, and owned by everyone.
The air, for example, is a commons, and so are the oceans. Nobody owns democracy, folk music, or culinary traditions. Public spaces, libraries, and government services are commons. So is the internet, built from the outset around the idea of freely passing on information. (See ‘ten things you didn’t know you owned‘)
All That We Share is ‘a field guide to the commons’. It is put together by journalist Jay Walljasper, but there are numerous contributors, including Bill McKibben, Jeremy Rifkin, Ivan Illich, and DJ Spooky. The book is made up of articles, sidebars, profiles of various thinkers, cartoons and real life examples. It draws from the environmental movement, identity politics, art, activism and economics. It includes the history of the commons, various ways they are threatened, and how the concept has been applied to problems such as climate change or polluted waterways. Walljasper has also worked hard to bring in alternative viewpoints. Black economist Marcellus Andrews explores the commons and race, Winona LaDuke shares the perspective of indigenous people groups. It’s quite a tour, taking in both the theory of common ownership and its practical applications.
For those who haven’t come across the notion of commons before, this is a great place to start. Once you tumble down the rabbit hole, there’s a whole world of commons out there, new ways of seeing things, fresh approaches to shared problems. The commons are actual things of course, but it’s also a philosophy. Most importantly, the authors suggest, it’s an alternative to private property that doesn’t come freighted with ideological baggage. For many economists, the most obvious solution to managing a resource is to privatize it and turn into a commodity. If someone owns it, they’ll look after it. Those who oppose privatization generally favour government control instead, and that drops these crucial resource management questions into the cleft stick of old left vs right politics. The idea of the commons transcends those stale political categories – the commons are things that we have a right to, just by being alive.
Unfortunately, the word ‘commons’ is usually preceded by the words ‘the tragedy of…’ in current discourse. For that we have Garrett Hardin to thank, and his 1968 article of the same name. The phrase has entered the language as a one-sentence dismissal of the idea of common ownership, but it’s entirely unwarranted and even Hardin himself is misconstrued. There are hundreds of examples of functioning commons and traditional ways of managing shared resources, and the book has dozens of case studies. It also profiles Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for her lifelong investigation of cooperative behaviour. In short, it’s about time the commons were re- instated.
All That We Share is a fascinating introduction to the philosophy and practice of the commons. It is diverse, inspiring, and suitable either for dipping into or reading cover to cover. It’s a book that opens up a vista of possibilities. As Jay Walljasper writes, “the commons is not merely an assortment of things – natural resources, cultural treasures, public places – but also a way of sharing and working with others to create a better future.”
- Originally written for Positive News