All That We Share

Jay Walljasper, USA

Writer and editor, chronicling stories from around the world which point us toward a better and more enjoyable future.

Welcome to the Commons.

The term may be unfamiliar, but the idea has been around for centuries. The commons is a new use of an old word, meaning “what we share” – and it offers fresh hope for a saner, safer, more enjoyable future.

The commons refers to a wealth of valuable assets that belongs to everyone. These range from clean air to wildlife preserves; from the judicial system to the Internet. Some are bestowed to us by nature; others are the product of cooperative human creativity. Certain elements of the commons are entirely new – think of Wikipedia. Others are centuries old – like colorful words and phrases from all the world’s languages.

An inheritance shared by all humans
Anyone can use the commons, so long as there is enough left for everyone else. This is why finite commons, such as natural resources, must be sustainably and equitably managed. But many other forms of the commons can be freely tapped. Today’s hip-hop and rock stars, for instance, “appropriate” (quote) the work of soul singers, jazz swingers, blues wailers, gospel shouters, hillbilly pickers, and balladeers going back a long time – and we are all richer for it. That’s the greatest strength of the commons. It’s an inheritance shared by all humans, which increases in value as people draw upon its riches.

At least that’s how the commons has worked throughout history, fostering democratic, cultural, technological, medical, economic, and humanitarian advances. But this natural cycle of sharing is now under assault. As the market economy becomes the yardstick for measuring the worth of everything, more people are grabbing portions of the commons as their private property. Many essential elements of society – from ecosystems to scientific knowledge to public services - are slipping through our hands and into the pockets of some.

Taking back the commons
The good news is that people all around us are beginning to take back the commons. Neighbors rising up to keep their library open, improve their park, or find new funding for public schools. Greens fighting the draining of wetlands and the dumping of toxic waste in inner-city neighborhoods. Digital activists providing access to the Internet in poor communities and challenging corporate plans to limit access to information. Indigenous people instilling their children with a sense of tradition and hope. Young social entrepreneurs and software engineers seeking new mechanisms for people to share ideas.

Not all of these people think of themselves as commons activists. Some may not even be familiar with the term. It’s not necessary that everyone adopt the word commons. What matters is that people understand that what we share together (and how we share it) is as important as what we possess individually.

The nature of ownership
Growing interest in the commons today resembles the origins of the environmental movement in the 1960s. The commons offers the same promise of uniting people concerned about the common good in many forms into a new kind of movement that reshapes how people think about the nature of ownership and the importance of collaboration in modern society.

A toolkit for fixing problems
More than just a philosophical framework for understanding what’s gone wrong, the commons furnishes a toolkit for fixing problems. Local activists eager to revitalize their community and protect open space are setting up land trusts – a form of community ownership distinct from both private property and government management. Savvy Web users use the cooperative properties of the Internet to challenge corporations who want to undermine this shared resource by fencing it off for private gain. Villagers and city dwellers around the world assert that water is a commons, which cannot be sold, depleted, or controlled by anyone.

These kinds of efforts extend the meaning of the commons beyond something you own to a bigger idea: how we live together.

David Bollier, one of the leading theorists of the commons on the international stage, has defined the term as a social dynamic. “A commons arises whenever a given community decides it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, and now is on the rise”, he wrote in the Bristish journal Renewal.

A commons-based society
Growing numbers of people are taking steps that move us, gradually, in the direction of a commons-based society – a world in which the fundamental focus on competition that caracterizes life today would be balanced with new attitudes and social structures that foster cooperation. This vision is emerging at precisely the point we need it most. Deeply held myths of the last thirty years about the magic of the market have been shattered by the implosion of the global financial bubble, creating both an opening and an acute need for different ways of living.

At this historical moment, the commons vision of a society where “we” matters as much as “me” shines as a beacon of hope for a better world.



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