This section is a collection of articles we hand-picked for those who want to get an overview of what the Commons is, its history, and an introduction to where it is now.
Despite their importance, we've forgotten how to recognize the commons and act like the rightful owners of these riches. Our ancestors saw more clearly. The stewardship of our shared inheritance is embedded in our religious traditions, and laws about the commons date back to Roman times. Some early American states called themselves "Commonwealths" and made the government responsible to care for that common property for "generations yet to come."
But these days our commons are threatened as never before. Some are being run into the ground, and others are being swallowed up as private property. But if welook closely, our commons are
still there for us to claim and protect. Now's the time.
Think our wealth is made on Wall Street? Think again. Markets do a great job of putting dollars in our pockets. That's income. But much of the capital, the basis for our wealth, lies elsewhere: in the commons. When we log trees on our public lands, we are cashing in some of our naturalcapital. And when we utilize math theorems or chemical equations, we are drawing upon our human knowledge capital.
There are two principles for managing this portfolio of assets. The use of common property should benefit all owners. And our use must not diminish the value of our property for future generations. But the dollar value of our common assets is only part of the story. What price shall we place on a sunset? On community or democracy ? Each of these depends on our commons as well.It will take skill and sound judgment to bring the commons back under good management. In some cases, we can change the rules so that the market pulls in the same direction as the common good. In others, we need to reconsider whether we've let too much of our common property be "enclosed"for private use. If we manage the commons well, the payoff willbe prosperity for ourselves and for our children. It's just common sense.
We depend on the sky -- our air and atmosphere -- for services that few in the past could have imagined. The sky protects us from ultraviolet light, helps to regulate our climate, and much else.Unfortunately, it's mostly when pollution from Earth starts to foul up these systems that we begin to notice them. As problems accumulate, it's worth noting that the Western legal tradition as far back as Roman times declares the sky to be our common property. That makes air pollution nothing less than an infringement upon our property rights.
Ironically, the best way to protect our sky may be to rent out limited rights to pollute it. We're already trying something similar to control sulfur dioxide (SO2) -- a cause of acid rain. Here's how the rules work: Power plants obtain a permit for each ton of SO2 that they want to belch into our atmosphere. Each year we reduce the number of permits available, but since the power plants may swap them amongst themselves, those who cut their emissions most can profit by selling their permits to the more stubborn polluters. The result: anextremely efficient way of reducing acid rain. The only problem is that we launched the program by "grandfathering" the pollution -- giving away the initial permits. A study of similar programs by the think tank Resources for the Future shows
that selling the permits at auction would be twice as economical to society as handing them out. That's the bottom line. And after all, it's our sky.
Who owns the writings of Plato or the equations of Einstein? We all do. These strands in the tapestry of human learning are part of our "public domain." Countless generations have contributed, each building upon the efforts of thosewho have come before. It's no exaggeration to say that all of humanity's progress rests upon this knowledge base. Concerned that the public domain continue to grow, our nation's Founding Fathers instructed Congress "to promote the progress of science and the useful arts" by offering short-term monopolies as rewards. These are the tools that we know as patents and copyrights. They offer financial incentives for inventors or creators to continue their work.
But these days, monopoly protections have gotten so far out of hand that they are interfering with our common goals. Patents have been extended to realms like DNA, where they are likely to hinder, not stimulate, progress. And the copyright term has been extended 11 times since 1960, from 28 to up to 95 years, "to such ludicrous proportions that it now often inhibits rather than promotes the circulation of ideas," writes The Economist. A roster of Nobel Prize-winning economists agrees. We need to reconsider recent patent and copyright madness to strike a better balance between the rights of creators and the public interest.
Years ago, did you ever think you would plug a computer into the phone line? Until the 1960s, it would have been legally impossible -- AT&T had amonopoly on the lines and no one else could use them. What we've learned is that keeping our systems -- hardware like phone lines and software like computer code -- open to innovation is crucial. Take this example: hyperlinking between websites. It seems basic to us now, but it wasn't invented until years after the Internet itself. The norms of the Internet were wisely designed to allow people to connect easily with each other and to build freely on what had come before. As a
result, the Internet has become the modern town square, helping to bring about the greatest technological, and economic, revolution of recent times.
Today, however, threats to our open Internet commons abound. We take our Internet mobility for granted, but picture being steered by companies to one website over another. It would be like not being able to call Southwest for a reservation because your phone company had a deal with United. Just as in other media, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is looking to allow a greater concentration of corporate control. That might lead to a very different Internet from the open access commons we've come to know.
Public spaces have played a crucial role in American life since the days of the Revolution, when patriots gathered on Boston Common and militias drilled to greet the British.
These days, though, much of our world is enclosed as private spaces, with rules enforced by the owners of shopping malls, office parks, and gated communities. You can be banned from holding a rally, gathering signatures, or even handing out literature there. But public spaces, where people of all kinds interact, follow the laws of the Constitution: they are where we express our freedoms of speech and assembly.
And public spaces aren't just for politics. They are also the places -- the parks, the libraries, the sidewalks, the lightly trafficked streets -- where a community knits itself together. One example emerging in cities all around the nation is the rebuilding of vacant lots as community gardens, often on pieces of land that had been considered without value. The San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners operates gardening education classes and a transitional employment program. We need our public spaces.
Picture this future: the supply of fresh water becomes so valuable that a large segment of the world's population simply can't afford it. In fact, the United Nations predicts that by 2025, nearly two -thirds of the world will face water shortages. Can something like water -- so vital to life itself -- be regarded as nothing more than a commodity? It wasn't always this way. Societies through the ages have considered water a resource to be shared, not to mention a blessing and a sacrament. But these days the World Trade Organization (WTO) and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are redefining water in commercial terms. One result is that a California company is suing Canada for its refusal to allow bulk exports of water -- a restriction that may not be permitted under the trade rules.
In the U.S., we are facing a water crunch as well. Half the population depends on underground aquifers, and for every five gallons we pump out, nature replaces only four. While honoring the history of water rights, we need to adapt to changing times. Markets for water transfers can be designed with social and ecological goals in mind. Our best guide is to recognize that water is, after all, a commons -- and to manage it as a "public trust," for the good of everyone.
Our airwaves have been a valuable asset ever since the first radio station went on the air, early in the last century. Back then, we handed out licenses in exchange for promises that broadcasting serve "the public interest." There was only so much of the broadcast spectrum to go around, and we set public service as the price of using the public's airwaves. Today, much has changed, and although broadcasters have shirked their public service responsibilities, there is good news as well. The proliferation of wireless gadgets -- everything from global positioning systems (GPSs) to cell phones -- has made our airwaves more valuable than ever. And new technologies will allow us to maximize our use of the spectrum, freeing up new space for other channels.
This windfall of newly available spectrum has everyone scrambling. American broadcasters want to be "grandfathered" so they can sell it themselves. Not so fast, pardner. Estimates for the commercial value of the U.S. spectrum run as high as $770 billion. The government should auction some of that itself, and put the rest to other uses. One small piece of unlicensed spectrum is creating a boom in wireless computing called Wi-Fi. We need more space for that. And imagine an FM dial with a range of voices as diverse as our people. If we manage the spectrum as a public good, that's a real possibility.
|Section Z - Making Our Economy Safe for People and Nature - http://www.sectionz.info/issue_5/content.html (retrieved on 16/09/2010)|
In this report we use the terms commons, common assets, common property and common wealth. They all refer to the same thing in slightly different ways.
Commons is the generic term. It embraces all the creations of nature and society that we inherit jointly and freely, and hold in trust for future generations.
Common assets are those parts of the commons that have a value in the market. Radio airwaves are a common asset, as are timber and minerals on public lands. So, increasingly, are air and water.
Common property refers to a class of human-made rights that lies somewhere between private property and state property. Examples include conservation easements held by land trusts, Alaskans’ right to dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, and everyone’s right to waterfront access.
Common wealth refers to the monetary and non-monetary value of the commons in supporting life and well-being. Like stockholders’ equity in a corporation, it may increase or decrease from year to year depending on how well the commons is managed.
The commons itself is as old as the earth, and the concept of the commons goes back many hundreds of years.
The Romans distinguished between three types of property: res privatae, res publicae and res communes. The first consisted of things capable of being possessed by an individual or family. The second consisted of things built and set aside for public use by the state, such as public buildings and roads. The third consisted of natural things used by all, such as air, water and wild animals.
In the United Kingdom during the Middle Ages, the commons were shared lands used by villagers for foraging, hunting, planting crops and gathering wood. In 1215, the Magna Carta established forests and fisheries as res communes, resources available to all. (Prior to the Magna Carta, the king could grant or sell exclusive usage rights.)
In America, four early states — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky — called themselves ‘commonwealths.’ Several states declared in their constitutions that natural resources belong to the people and that government acts as the people’s trustee.
The most useful way to understand the commons today is as the sum of all we inherit together and should pass on, undiminished, to our heirs.
In this way of viewing things, the economy is divided between the market and the commons. The market encompasses private things (which we mostly manage for short-term monetary gain), while the commons comprises shared things (which we manage, or should manage, for shared long-term life enhancement).
The boundaries between the market and the commons shift over time. Redefining those boundaries is a task each generation undertakes anew.
Ultimate waste sink
Knowledge bank and seedbed
Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
Conventional thinking divides the world between the market and the state. The market is responsible for productivity, while the state is responsible for control.
In reality, the economy has another sector that’s as valuable as the market and its necessary complement as well. This sector is the commons.
The commons precedes and surrounds the market, is the source of most that enters it and the sink for all that leaves.
At one time the commons was vastly larger than the market. Today, however, the commons is in grave danger because the market relentlessly attacks it.
The market assault comes from two sides. With one hand, the market takes valuable stuff from the commons and privatizes it. Historians have called this ‘enclosure.’ With its other hand, the market dumps wastes and side-effects into the commons and says, ‘It’s your problem.’ Economists call this ‘externalizing.’
Much that is called ‘growth’ today is actually a form of cannibalization in which the market diminishes the commons that ultimately sustains it.
The state’s role is to nurture both the commons and the market, and to maintain a healthy balance between them. This balancing role is essential to prevent humanity from devouring its own nest. Unfortunately, in recent years, the state has abandoned a balancing role and become a single-minded champion of the market
The state’s role is to nurture both the commons and the market, and to maintain a healthy balance between them.
Both the idea and the reality of the commons have been declining since the 18th century. Why now, at the beginning of the 21st century, should we revive them?
The simple answer is that we have to.
Despite the many benefits it brings, the market is like a runaway steam engine. It has no internal governor to tell it when to stop depleting the commons that sustains it.
To put this another way, we’ve been living off common capital and we have to stop.
In the beginning, America was a vast commons. The original inhabitants lived off the commons and shared it with other species. They took what they needed and left the rest alone.
Then new settlers came. They filled the continent with cities, highways and shopping malls — more stuff than the earth had ever seen. They built a great multi-cultural nation. But as they did so, they turned forests into plywood, wetlands into parking lots, the atmosphere into a dump.
If our old Manifest Destiny was to carve up the commons, our new task is to rebuild it. We must do this to protect the planet, enhance our quality of life, reduce inequality and leave a better world for our children.
Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, led many people to think that all commons are self-destructive. But Hardin’s essay was misleading.
Hardin assumed there’s only one kind of commons, the unfenced pasture or waste dump with no management system. In such a situation, overuse can lead to destruction.
What Hardin overlooked is that there are many kinds of commons and many ways to run them. For example, you can have a fenced commons with a gate-keeper, or fishing limits with licenses, or a cultural commons with infinite possibilities. There’s no tragedy inherent in these and many other commons. (See page 27 for a sampling of successful American commons.)
Still, the proper way to manage a commons isn’t always obvious. So let’s explore some basic principles, beginning with a look at standard business management.
There are two sets of rules for managing private assets. One applies to corporations, the other to trusts such as pension funds, charitable foundations and family estates.
The goal of corporate rules is to maximize short-term return to capital. The goal of trust rules is to preserve assets for the long term and assure that beneficiaries receive their due. It’s these latter rules that merit attention here.
Over centuries, several principles of trust management have evolved. These include:
• Managers have a fiduciary responsibility to beneficiaries. If a manager fails this obligation, s/he can be removed and penalized.
• Managers must preserve the principal. It’s okay to spend income, but don’t invade the corpus.
• Managers must assure transparency. Information about money flows should be readily available to beneficiaries.
A university endowment is a private trust that is managed for long-term preservation.
As with private trusts, the goal of commons management is to preserve assets and share benefits. Hence, the basic principles of commons management are similar to those of private trusts.
Commons managers must, first and foremost, protect shared assets for the long term. They must also assure that the benefits flowing from the assets are widely shared.
Beyond these basic principles, specific rules for commons management vary from one commons to another. Broadly speaking, they depend on the level of use society wishes to allow or encourage.
If a commons needs to be off limits to all but the most non-invasive use — a wilderness area, for example — the guiding rule is, ‘No trespassing.’
If a commons has no inherent limits on use — like the Internet or the cultural commons — the guiding rule is, ‘The more the merrier.’ Use should be as free as possible, and management’s main job should be to minimize private toll booths.
If a commons can be used up to, but not beyond, some physical threshold — fisheries, aquifers and the atmosphere are examples — management’s job is to set and enforce sustainable use limits. In economic terms, its challenge is to live off income without diminishing capital.
In managing physically limited commons, it’s often desirable to cap total use and charge users a fee. Such caps and prices assure preservation, let markets sort out competing uses, and generate revenue for social and environmental needs.
Setting a total usage cap can be controversial. If the physical threshold is uncertain, a critical question is, “Which side should we err on?” Under the precautionary principle, if the potential harm from overuse is substantial (e.g. the polar ice caps could melt), the cap should be set with safety as the guide.
The process of protecting and sustaining a commons involves several steps. The asset must first be identified and given a legal and/or institutional structure. In some cases, usage caps and new kinds of property rights may be necessary. It may also be necessary to appoint trustees and acquire pre-existing property rights.
Once a commons is protected and and given a proper management regime, markets can come into play.
It’s impossible to give an exact answer. Many of our shared inheritances are simply beyond pricing. Others are potentially quantifiable, but there’s no current market for them.
Nevertheless, based on numerous studies, it’s possible to get an order of magnitude. It turns out that the assets we share are worth trillions of dollars — more in fact than the assets we own privately.
Which raises an obvious question: why is so much attention paid to the management of private wealth, and so little to the management of common wealth?
One answer is that it’s easier to study things that can be measured precisely. Another is that we have a direct personal interest in private wealth. But the main reason is that economists don’t think the commons is important. That belief must change.
The sky does a lot of valuable things for us. It shields us from asteroids and ultra-violet rays, regulates the earth’s temperature, replenishes our fresh water and delivers oxygen to our lungs and machines. Such services are worth a lot of money.
Exactly how much is, of course, impossible to say. And it’s important to distinguish between the sky’s intrinsic value, which is truly beyond knowing, and its exchange value, which is what markets understand.
In our calculations we use the estimated exchange value of just one vital sky service, carbon dioxide absorption. This represents real income that could be earned from the sale of carbon emission permits.
According to recent government studies, this could range up to $400 billion annually, depending on many variables. This means the value of the sky as an income producing asset easily exceeds $1 trillion.
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Many negative effects of human use of resources do not become visible until after lengthy periods of time, often even centuries. One could assume it therefore to be obvious to integrate long-term historical developments into case-studies on common pool resources, in particular when we’re trying to understand how the regulation of the use of common pool resources worked and what changes of that regulation could bring about. However, whenever a historical perspective is integrated in the commons studies this is mostly restricted to the 19th century. The distant past seems to be - for many commons-researchers- another country. At the same time historians, tending to be rather descriptive and often hardly inter- ested in the theoretical implications of their research, hardly search to benefit from the models and frameworks repetitively tested by sociolo- gists, economists, and others. This is a missed opportunity. After all, in the period we can study because of sufficient inheritance of written documents (from the 10th century onwards), the homo sapiens did not change to such an extent that we couldn’t compare his behaviour over long periods of time. Seen from a world history perspective, whether this homo sapiens be- haved as an economicus or reciprocans is more a matter of circumstances –ecological, economic, social, cultural- than of human biology or evolution. I believe that part of the limited mutual interest between historians and other social scientists is due to the rather negative and static view of the pre-1800 village common that was created in the 1960s. In this short article I will try to start correcting that image. Europe, being the area of the world with the most extensively studied history of the commons –from common arable to common woodland- will hereby play an exemplary role in this, but other regions could be at least as interesting to test the possi- bilities of cooperation between disciplines.
Over time, and in particular since the middle of the twentieth century, the term ‘commons’ has been used in many ways. Previously, in the historical documents ‘commons’ referred to common land, often in the form of pasture, or meadowland. Commons in the historical sense refer to land that was used and managed by several people or households during a certain period, in distinction to land that was used by only one person or household throughout the whole year. The variety of alternative namings in English (e.g., open field, common meadow, common waste) and in other languages (markegenootschappen, meenten (Dutch), Genossenschaften (German) to give just a few ex- amples) has over time led to considerable confusion and has for a long time prevented scientific comparison of the emergence and functioning of commons. In the middle of the twentieth century, the common as a physical phenomenon started to be used repeatedly by scientists from other disciplines to indicate collective property. Though he was not the first to ‘conceptualise’ the historical commons, Hardin’s ‘the tragedy of the commons’ can be considered as a bench mark in the evolution of the discourse on the commons.
Hardin caused considerable confusion by giving a false account of the historical functioning of the commons. The “common” Hardin described was land whereupon no property rights rested, thus making it very easy for everyone to overuse it. He asks the reader to ‘Picture a pasture open to all’. And then: ‘It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.’ However, the historical common was not at all open to all. On the contrary: all the commons had clear rules about the conditions to become a legitimate user, and on the do’s and don’ts if you had obtained membership. The European villagers started from the early 12th century onwards to formalise their cooperation in land usage and management by writing down regulations. These regulations were often highly sophisticated in their design, showing the awareness of the commoners in the dangers that lured in cooperation. They, for example, often used graduated sanctioning systems, not sparing those who didn’t report freeriding either. In trying to prevent the commoners being seduced by the market, it was often prohibited to put cattle on the com- mon summer pasture that had been bought on the early spring cattle market. The common was not a place to fatten up your cattle but it was an essential part of the mixed agricultural system as the manure produced by the cattle was indispensable for the arable land. This connection between the arable land and the common was vital for the pre-industrial agricultural system. As has been shown for several Western European countries the regulations of the European commons matched Lin Ostrom’s famous design principles pretty well. When putting these rules into practice, the commoners showed an often remarkable ability to guard the ecological bal- ance on their common and to adjust to changing social and economic circumstances. In plenty of occasions the number of cattle allowed on the common was restricted to the carrying capacity of the pasture, and if this number was not set in advance, the number of cattle could be regulated by using price mechanisms. Plenty of other examples of rules and practice could show that in their strive for a striking a balance between efficiency and utility the commoners autonomously designed an impressive set of rules they put adequately into practice. This allowed them to keep the ‘tragedy’ well at a distance.
Topics other than natural resources have emerged since the 1990s in the commons debate. Here again, inspira- tion can be found in a long-term perspective as in the same period of the emergence of commons we also find a sort of knowledge common emerging. Craft and merchant guilds –which Putnam considered to be pivotal in the development of democracy in Northern Italy (Putnam et al. 2003)- were set up to exchange and safeguard knowl- edge about trade, products and production processes. History here confirms what we find in the experimental anthropological research, that market integration can encourage cooperation, as was also recently shown by amongst others Herbert Gintis and Samuel Bowles. The emergence of commons and guilds happened in a period of increasing market integration: in some regions of Western Europe as much as 60% of the population had been active on the labour market, already during the late middle ages. At the same time historical analysis also suggests other factors that might have played a role in the population’s willingness to cooperate. There are juridical (for example the creation of the concept of universitas) and social factors (the particular marriage/ family pattern of Western Europe) that also may have plaid a fundamental role in changing the face of the history of cooperation. The evolution of cooperation over a mere 1000 years in Europe suggests a multitude of new paths of analysis for sociological and anthropo- logical studies of present day commons.
In the future, we –as commons-researchers from various disciplines- should try to close the interdiscipli- nary gap. Historians have for a long time primarily focussed on the dissolution of the commons, whereby external factors like industrialisation and population growth were considered as the motors of this process. In these stories, the commoners themselves usually play a passive role and are approached as a group, without much attention for the potential influence of the com- moners as individuals. Among 19th century commons- historians, there was also a clear interest for the origins of the commons, but here again the individual motiva- tions to own and use land collectively were largely ignored. And moreover, those motivations, whether individual or group-directed, were in the historical debate not linked to the causes for the dissolution of the commons. More attention should go to what lays in between origin (in Europe, mainly 11-13th century) and dissolution (in Europe, mainly 18th-19th century): the functioning of the commons, which has been one of the prime concerns of the other social scientists. Social scientists have used concepts as the prisoner’s di- lemma, free riding, and reciprocity to identify problem- atic relationships between individual aspirations and group dynamics, and have put less stress on external factors as causes for the malfunctioning or even dissolu- tion of a common. Sociologists and economists gener- ally put the main responsibility for the dissolution of the commons with the individual. This divergence in re- search traditions shouldn’t be a hindrance for more interdisciplinary commons research in the future. The sociological debate on individual responsibility of the commoners can be enriched by linking it to the influ- ence of external factors, which has been at the fore of historians describing the dissolution of the commons and vice versa. A solution to identify the links between the different aspects as discussed by commons-re- searchers, could be the use of an analytical framework that focuses on the main functions of a common, and the interaction between these functions: the common as a resource, as an institution and as a property regime.
The longevity of many commons (several centuries) should be recognised as a sign for institutional flexibility. Adapting to change and the passing on of values and norms over hundreds of years is not easily done -but, as see in many commons- it can be done. Including the commons of the past would add abundant diachronical evidence of what is now primarily based on contempo- rary case studies. One of the difficulties of experimental research has long been the difficulty to repeat situations –over several generations- and to take into account reputational mechanisms. Notwithstanding the problem- atic aspects of historical research (e.g., the lack of oral sources), there is often sufficient written material left to analyse the behaviour of generations of commoners. And we can discover the pitfalls: where the self-governance of the commons was threatened, a tragedy could often not be avoided, as in contemporary examples. This information could help us understand and predict what happens on commons in villages in third-world countries that are facing levels of e.g. market integration similar to the villages in the European past. That past is not an- other country; they didn’t do things all that much differ- ently there. On the contrary.
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In our time, it's rising again.
There Is an Alternative, and It's Rising
O U R T H R E AT E N E D C O M M O N S
From public schools and universities to public lands and other natural resources, from the media with their broadcast and digital spectrums to scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs, a broad range ofthe American commons is shifting from public responsibility to private exploitation.
The idea of the free market has become so widespread it’s hard
A B A L A N C E D E C O N O M I C S Y S T E M
A protected and enhanced commons requires several things. First, it needs institutions that can effectively manage shared assets on behalf of future generations. Such institutions need to be transparent, free of corporate influence, and legally accountable to public beneficiaries. A good example is the fiduciary trust.
Second, it requires property rights. As capitalists know, property is power, and at this moment our common assets lack adequate property rights. Hence, they can be trespassed upon by private corporations almost at will. Common property needs to be shielded from such transgressions, just as private property is.
Third, a strengthened commons requires government support. This doesn’t mean government ownership or even regulation; the state and the commons are two different things. It does mean government should nurture the commons as zealously as it nurtures private corporations — indeed more zealously, to make up for decades of neglect. For example, just as government grants property rights to private corporations (think of land titles, rights of way, water and mineral rights, broadcast licenses, patents and pollution permits), so should it grant property rights to commons institutions.
Finally, a strengthened commons requires active citizens. There’s no lack of work to be done or roles to be played. The commons needs defenders, builders, restorers, entrepreneurs and donors. What will you do?
We must nail down what’s in the commons now, and add steadily to the commons from this day forward.
In these twin tragedies of squandering and misappropriating our shared wealth,
If you’re looking for inspiration, we hope to provide some here. We profile several active citizens who are enlarging and enlivening the commons. We also examine institutional models that have been proven to work. It’s these individuals and models that give us hope for the future.
The commons won’t replace corporations, but it will complement and temper them.
K E Y R O L E S O F T H E C O M M O N S S E C T O R
Let the world know what we know:
To do this right, we first
And when times are dark, remember that there is an alternative. It’s rising now, and we can lift it faster.
Private savings aren’t enough. We need universal trust funds and ways to share risk. In pre-industrial days, common pastures, streams and woods provided food and fuel for all. Then, the commons were enclosedand people moved to cities.
Writing at the time of these enclosures, Tom Paine argued that, since loss of the commons meant loss of sustenance, displaced citizens ought to be compensated. To do this, he proposed a ‘national fund,’ financed through a tax on private land, that would pay yearly dividends of roughly $2,000 (in current dollars) to everyone.
Paine’s prescription remains remarkably relevant today. Not just land, but water, air and other gifts of nature are being claimed by private corporations. At the same time, people need more dollars than ever just to survive. Why not use nature’s wealth to augment everyone’s wealth?
Instead of a ‘ownership society’ in which everyone looks out only for themselves, America could be a ‘co-ownership society’ in which many assets and risks are shared. The following models show how and why.
Since the Alaska Permanent Fund began paying equal dividends to each Alaska resident in 1982, the state’s population has risen by about 50 percent, the Permanent Fund has grown from $4 to $30 billion, and Alaskans have received more than $13 billion in dividend checks. Because distributions are based on 5-year average earnings, dividends are still depressed by the dot-com crash and 2002–03 recession.
The Alaska Permanent Fund
An American Permanent Fund
I T ’ S O U R W E A LT H
B R I TA I N ’ S T R U S T F U N D B A B I E S
YA N K E E W E A LT H R E C Y C L I N G
A grubstake for every child
Sharing life’s risks
Health care, Canadian style
Public spaces: America’s new frontier
Volunteers in Portland, Oregon, pause while turning a city intersection into a work of home-spun art that invites passers by to slow down and interact with one another.
A revival of public spaces and local commerce is underway in America.
Now Americans are pushing back. They’re building community gardens and farmers’ markets, reviving public spaces, and demanding that public buildings not be named for corporations.
Wi-fi for all
Meanwhile, in Washington,
B R I N G I N G D E M O C R A C Y T O M A L L S
Two friends enjoy wireless Internet access in Bryant Park in New York City, one of many free hotspots around the country.
A berry good day at a farmers’
A renaissance of farmers’ markets
For many, a visit to the local farmers’ market (like this one in Madison, Wisconsin) is a festive activity.
Raising community along with tomatoes
Is it Willie’s field, or AT&T’s?
A group digs space for a pond in Greene Acres Community
Our mental environment is a commons like air and water.
We need to protect it from unwanted incursions.
— K A L L E L A S N
Americans are tired of corporations’ demands on their time and attention.
Hold the marketing!
Got a minute?
Now citizens are claiming more non-market time.
Putting time in the bank
Q U I E T, P L E A S E !
Americans have less paid time off work than citizens of any other industrialized nation, with barely two weeks annually.
Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia written and edited entirely by users. In four years, it has amassed nearly one million entries and become one of the Internet’s most visited sites.
Citizen journalism is getting a try-out in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the online Twin Cities Daily Planet mixes contributions from community newspapers, independent journalists and engaged citizens.
Corporations want to own ideas and melodies. People want to share them freely. A fundamental battle is raging.
Extra! Extra! Read and write all about it!
Free and Open Source Software
Creative Commons: share and share alikeUntil recently, writers, artists and other creators faced a dilemma when
they released a work to the public. They could place it in the public domain and lose all control over how it was used, or they could protect it under copyright. If they chose copyright, anyone who wanted to reproduce their work would need their permission — but many creators want their work to be readily available for non-commercial use.
K E E P I N G T H E W E B O P E N T O A L L
We’re so used to patents that we forgot ways to discover drugs in the public domain. We need to rediscover them.
Crazy for Craigslist
Enjoying a concert in Chittenden Locks Park in Seattle, Washington.
Now, open source science
New ways to pay our pipers
Big pharmaceutical companies say patents and high prices are needed to fund cutting-edge research. In fact, most basic research is funded by government and non-profits, with private firms often walking oï¬€ with key patents.
T H AT I D E A S S H O U L D F R E E LY S P R E A D . . .
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a brave, decentralized movement on the march that is addressing these problems with ingenuity and patience. The focus of this movement is the commons.
The commons is still an embryonic vision. It will require time to evolve. But it is a vision with great potential, perhaps because it is not being advanced by an intellectual elite or a political party, but by a hardy band of resourceful irregulars on the periphery of conventional politics. (That’s always where the most interesting new things originate.)
These commoners are now starting to find each other, a convergence that augurs great things.
To be a bit more concrete: This proto-commons movement consists of environmentalists trying to protect wilderness areas and win fair compensation for the corporate use of public lands. It includes local communities trying to prevent multinational water companies from privatizing public water works and converting groundwater into over- priced, branded bottles of water.
The commoners are the hackers and corporate programmers who are building GNU Linux and thousands of other free software and open source computer programs. They
don’t want proprietary vendors to be able to charge them monopoly prices for inferior products, unnecessary upgrades and technical incompatibilities.
The commoners are artists, musicians, bloggers and scientists who use Creative Commons licenses to enable the legal sharing and re-use of their works on the Internet. These “free culture” advocates have adapted the CC licenses to the legal systems of nearly forty nations, with another thirty in the works. This network, in turn has given rise to a new international organization, iCommons, to promote the sharing economy of digital works.
The commoners are scientists building shared databases of research, and researchers trying to prevent corporations from patenting basic biomedical knowledge. There are thousands of academics who are bypassing commercial journal publishers and starting their own “open access” journals so that articles can be free in perpetuity via the Internet.
The commoners are farmers, especially in developing nations, who are trying to prevent biotech companies from replacing common crops with genetically modified, proprietary crops whose seed cannot be shared and whose ecological effects are troubling.
Ordinary citizens are rallying to defend the commons of public space by fighting intrusive commercialism in civic spaces, sports, public schools and personal spaces. Local communities are fighting “big box” retailers like Wal-Mart that are threatening independent businesses and Main Street culture.
What unites these various groups of people is their sense of the commons as a way to describe shared resources that are now being stolen by large corporations or imperiled by unchecked market activity. Put another way, the commons is a generic term for describing all those things that we inherit from nature and civil society, which we are duty-bound to pass along, undiminished, to future generations.
Don’t go looking for a definitive inventory of the commons. A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, but which is now on the rise.
“The commons” is a useful term because it helps begin to describe a nearly ubiquitous pathology of modern life, the enclosure of the commons. Governments throughout the world are conspiring with, or acquiescing in, the market plunder of our common wealth. This is the net effect of globalization and the neoliberal agenda.
Companies are taking valuable resources from the commons – spectrum , natural resources, deep-sea minerals, genetic code, public lands, and much more – and privatizing them . Once the cash value has been harvested from the commons, corporations tend to dump their wastes and social disruptions (primly known as “market externalities”) back into the commons, whereupon they declare to government and the commoners, “It's your problem ”.
The dynamics of enclosure are well known to British history. The landed gentry of the 18th and 19th centuries decided they could profit quite handsomely by seizing huge tracts of meadows, orchards, forests and other land that by custom were freely accessible to the commoners. With enclosure, resources that had historically been managed socially, through both formal and informal rules, were privatized and turned into commodities to be sold in the marketplace. There were gains in efficiency and innovation, to be sure – as well as the amassing of great private fortunes – but there was also massive disenfranchisement, ecological harm , poverty and suffering.
Enclosure means that people have to start paying for resources they previously got for free, or cheaply. It means that people need to ask for permission to use something that was previously theirs by right. Imagine a world of franchise bookstores, but no local libraries; of mega-shopping malls but no town squares; of private toll roads but no open highways.
Enclosure shifts ownership and control of a resource from a given community or the public at large, to private companies. This, in turn, changes the management and character of the resource, because a market has very different standards of accountability and transparency than a commons. It dictates a different set of social relationships in our dealings with each other and a given resource. Enclosure turns us into a mass of pay-per-use consumers in search of bargains and amusements; it makes it harder for us to become a citizenry with passionate commitments to something larger than our individual satisfactions, or even something collectively necessary (like dealing with global warming).
Economists and politicians have long assumed that there are really only two sectors for governing things and “adding value” — the state and the market. Markets are seen as the vehicle for economic progress while government is supposed to take care of everything else. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that there is another sector – the commons – that is at least as important to our lives and well-being.
A great many commons contribute value to our lives every bit as much as the market. The gifts of nature – “ecosystem services,” in the eyes of some economists – are fantastically productive. Civic institutions like libraries, roadways and the BBC produce value in ways that the market cannot.
The commons is not, however, simply another term for socialism or communism . Both of those systems of governance rely upon state ownership and centralized bureaucracies to manage the people’s resources, a scheme that may or may not work out so well. The commons has no quarrel with government per se. Indeeed, the commons would be in much better shape if it enjoyed half the government support that the “free market” enjoys, in the form of subsidies, protective regulations, government services and the legal system .
But the commons is not the same as government because, in its ideal form , it is about the commoners owning and managing resources as directly and locally as possible. It usually entails a significant measure of participation, transparency, decentralized control and accountability – factors that are not always present when the state is managing a resource.
It is also important to note that while the commons shares many values with traditional liberalism , particularly on matters of democratic process and social concerns, the commons has a different moral footing. Liberalism is often accused of “intervening” in the marketplace to re-distribute wealth, a role that conservatives regard as a “confiscatory” taking of their private property. This has been a heavy political burden for progressives to displace, especially as the neoliberal political order has become more entrenched.
The commons reverses this moral narrative about “redistribution-as-theft” by pointing out that markets routinely take from , and frequently despoil, the commons. The investor class enjoys many direct and indirect subsidies – cheap use of public lands, airwaves and civic infrastructure; copyright and patent monopolies; research and services to support commerce; public education; etc. In addition, companies are accustomed to making the government and commoners pay for their costly externalities – pollution, safety and health risks, illegal behaviors, community disruptions.
Commoners are merely seeking to own and control something that belongs to them in the first place. They are seeking a pre-distribution of benefits from their own equity assets and socially created value, rather than a re-distribution of wealth generated by markets.
This is a new grand narrative upon which we can build a politics of access, sharing, equality and social well-being. The Internet offers many rich examples of collaborating and sharing, from open source software to Wikipedia to digital archives. The commons narrative can also begin to assert – with greater systematic rigor than liberalism can manage – the need for proper limits on market activity. It can also propose new institutional forms, such as the stakeholder trust, to generate new streams of non-wage income for citizens by monetizing common assets, where appropriate.
Let’s consider a timely example – Who owns the sky? My colleague Peter Barnes, in a book whose title asks that question, points out that industrial polluters presume that they own the sky, and that their rights to pollute ought to be “grandfathered” into any future schemes to limit carbon emissions, a key source of global warming.
From the perspective of the commons, this is absurd. Morally, we all “own” the sky and ought to have roughly equal benefit from it. Why should any corporation or industry have a pre-emptive right to use the limited capacity of the atmosphere as a waste dump?
Peter Barnes’ Sky Trust proposal offers an equitable commons solution: Auction the right to emit carbon into the sky, and place the funds into a trust owned by every citizen. That trust fund can then be managed by publicly appointed trustees, with the utmost transparency and fiduciary responsibility, to yield dividends for every citizen. The dividends will help offset the higher prices that citizens will inevitably have to pay for carbon-based products and services (a result of the pollution-rights auction). But the monies deposited into the Sky Trust will generate a much-needed stream of non-wage income for all citizens, helping to reduce inequality.
The means for securing and managing the commons will naturally vary with the resource and commons. But the point in all cases is to enable the commoners to reap value from their commons, whether it is in the form of cash revenues or inalienable usage rights. Investors demand no less from their equity assets. Surely this principle ought to hold for the commoners and their assets.
The commons is something very new and quite ancient. Its newness can be seen in the huge variety of commons proliferating on the Internet: free software and open source software, Wikipedia, remix music, mashup videos, peer-to-peer file sharing, open science initiatives, the open access movement in scholarly publishing, social networking software, and on and on. The Internet that hosts this explosion of digital commons is itself a commons of open, shared technical protocols.
Yet as novel as these developments are, the commons is as old as the human species. The citizens of Great Britain know this history. The commons has always been rooted in communities of social trust and cooperation. It is a place that honors custom , history and the local. Evolutionary biologists, neurologists and geneticists are now confirming just how deep the commons is inscribed in our being. The impulse to cooperate and share; to manage resources as a community and punish free-riders; and to assert a community ethic as a gyroscope of social stability – there propensities are arguably hard-wired into the human species as the basis for our evolutionary success.
The real aberration in human history is the vision of humanity set forth by neoclassical economics. Homo economicus defines human beings as rational, a historical individuals who invariably seek to maximize their material utility through market exchange. It also asserts, astonishingly, that all of society should be organized around this vision. This fragile, unsustainable fiction is now being unmasked — by free software, by online communities, by the people of developing countries, by the workings of nature itself.
Competitive market individualism has many virtues, and can be a potent ethic for innovation and enterprise. But only economists and ideologues dare to presume that market individualism has no limits or that “there is no such thing as society,” as Margaret Thatcher brazenly asserted. The commons exists. Its sovereign needs cannot be simply dismissed by the market or the state.
There is a more affirmative way of stating this truth: the commons is hugely generative in its own right. It is a value-creating sector that rivals the marketplace, and therefore deserves protection. “Cooperative individualism ” of the sort seen on the Internet can be far more innovative, productive and socially satisfying than the market. Harvard Law School Professor Yochai Benkler has famously called this sector “commons-based peer production.” By this, he means a system of production that is “radically decentralized, collaborative and nonproprietary; based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either market signals or managerial commands.”
Even business is coming to realize the “power of us,” according to a Business Week cover story on corporate uses of mass collaboration for research, technology development and marketing. Forbes has profiled the “sharing economy” now arising on the Internet, and tech com panies talk about the efficiencies of “decentralized co-creation of value” – i.e., the commons. The U.S. Government’s many intelligence agencies have even created their own wiki – “Intellipedia” – to help its dispersed m inions efficiently share and sort their many fragments of distributed knowledge.
In the networked environm ent – which is increasingly the m atrix for organizing modern life – the commons is becoming an im portant new paradigm of production. In 2004, when I did a Google search on the word “commons,” it returned about eight million Web links. In October 2007, when I did the same search, 190 million links popped up. This is an admittedly crude bit of evidence for the growing appeal of the commons, but I believe it points to a profound transformation that is at once political, cultural and economic.
Look closely, just below the radar of mainstream media, and you will see a messy, uncoordinated, bottom -up movement in the throes of inventing itself. A teeming constellation of Internet users, environmentalists, librarians, academics, media reformers, software programmers, local currency fans, community gardeners, Slow Food aficionados, indigenous peoples, and others, are beginning to see the practical political value of the commons paradigm. The commons helps them express their personal and m oral connections to an endangered resource. It offers a positive vision and not just a reactive critique. It captures the moral high ground. Disparate battles against enclosure can be seen as related commons struggles. The com m ons invites people to participate, and to develop a sense of personal responsibility and initiative associated with ownership.
For all of these reasons, I believe the commons can play a profound re-ordering role of cultural and political issues, much as the meta-language of “the environment” did in the 1960s. It is helpful to recall that “the environment” is a cultural invention. The air, water, soil and wildlife had always been there, of course. But they were not conceptualized in a coherent, unified way until Rachel Carson and others began to popularize the idea of “the environment.”
Duke Law School professor James Boyle has pointed out that bird watchers didn’t realize they might have something in common with bird hunters until “the environment” helped clarify their shared interests in protecting it. Once the idea of the environment took root, people could begin to make mental connections am ong diverse phenomena that had previously seem ed unconnected. It turned out that dying birds were linked to household chemicals, and genetic mutations in hum ans were linked to industrial pollution.
The language of the environ ent not only gave us an overarching narrative, it helped galvanize a political movement by providing a new, accessible story. The vision, the constituencies, the science, the politics and the cultural worldview were not born whole. They all evolved together, interactively, over time. No one knew all the answers in advance. The way forward was an improvisational act of faith. Environmentalism enacted a politics of yearning and hope.
Our times do not require another bold policy crusade or “messaging strategy.” We need to expand our very sense of “politics.” We need to cultivate a profoundly different orientation toward our challenges – a worldview that can integrate the personal, the social and the political in new ways.
For starters, we must learn how to talk about market failure and excesses more systematically without lapsing into a facile anti-corporatism . We must offer some positive alternatives, including ones that harness the m arket in constructive ways, while protecting the value-creating capacities of the commons. The Internet is demonstrating the lim its of centralized expertise and control, and the under-leveraged power of distributed intelligence. One lesson: people must have the room to participate and develop their own innovative, decentralized grassroots solutions.
Reinventing the commons is still a fledgling vision, but its spontaneous embrace by so m any different constituencies suggests a deep human yearning to explore new modes of social connection and collaboration. It suggests a desire to assert a human solidarity and authenticity in the face of an intrusive, gaudy commercial culture. It suggests a desire to reaffirm the local and defend natural ecosystems in the face of a market juggernaut intent on monetizing everything in its path.
The denizens of mainstream politics may be forgiven for not recognizing the commons. It has been culturally invisible for a long time. Its wealth cannot be easily quantified. It has not been named, classified and extensively studied. Not surprisingly, the commons has not been taken seriously in public policy deliberations.
Yet the crises of the commons are becoming more evident day by day as global warm ing, depleted fisheries, expansive copyright claims, social dysfunction and other symptoms of market excess continue unchecked.
It will not be easy to build a new political and policy tradition of the commons while we are deeply enmeshed in a neoliberal political culture and a market-influenced consciousness. Many intellectual paradoxes and discontinuities are likely. Any quest for ideological purity will fail. Which is why I believe that any commons movement must exhibit a tolerant, ecumenical humanism . We are all irregular, self-contradictory creatures. Any political growth will require im provisation and learning. Fortunately, the commons is more of a template or scaffolding for building out a new politics, not a rigid ideology or fundam entalism .
In the end, any real movement will depend upon how badly people really want to reclaim our com mon wealth, re-connect with each other as human beings, and devise new political and legal structures for achieving this vision. My guess? The energy and desire are there, but diffuse. The vision is gaining currency. An inventory of commons-based solutions is growing. Diverse types of commoners are starting to discover each other. What’s needed is a surge of new leadership and resources to take the com m ons to its next, more interesting stage of development.
|David Bollier is the Editor of OntheCommons.org and the author of Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Commons Wealth (Routledge) and the forthcoming Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own (New Press). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.|
|Published in Renewal magazine, December 17, 2007. Renewal is a Labour-oriented political journal dedicated to social democracy” published in London.|