Introduction to the Commons

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.

  • Lets Reclaim the Commons: This is a brief, but comprehensive summary of the commons. It outlines two important principles: (1) the use of common property should benefit all community members; and (2) our use of a common resource must not diminish it's value for future generations.
  • State of the Commons: An excellent summary of the commons. The article distinguishes among key terms such as commons, common assets, common property, and common wealth.   It distinguishes between exchange value and intrinsic value.  Six key commons are discussed--sky, airwaves, water, culture, science, and quiet.  While it's examples are drawn from the U.S., the basic points apply throughout the world. It has been split into the following parts:
  • The Past is not another CountryThis brief article in an academic publication which suggests that historical research on the European Commons provides important lessons for the future. In particular, ordinary citizens have, time and again, demonstrated a self-organizing, self-regulating ability to protect the commons.
  • Commons Rising: This informative article notes that if economic growth is to create net wealth over the long term, it must not degrade the commons.  We often mistake value extraction in the commons for value creation in the private sector.  The article suggests that strengthening the commons requires: (1) new structures for commons management; (2) property rights for the commons; (3) government or public sector support; and (4) citizen involvement.
  • Imaging a New Politics of the Commons:  David Bollier's impassioned article suggests that the framework of the commons offers a new paradigm for considering human affairs and reframing societal values.
  • The Commons - Prosperity by sharing: Silke Helfrich, Rainer Kuhlen, Wolfgang Sachs and Christian Siefkes. An excllent overview of many different aspects of the commons that was first published at the International Conference on the Commons, Berlin, November 2010. From the introduction to this report: "This report attempts to explore the potential of the commons if they are used wisely and sustainably. It delves into the reasons why so many commons are threatened and examines the rules that can help protect the commons from ruin."
  • The Building Blocks of the Commons: The commons are made up of three basic elements: the building material, the people and the rules and standards that allow all elements to come together.

 

Lets Reclaim the Commons

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Building our common assets


What's your most valuable stuff? Not the house or car. It’s the things we share in common: gifts of nature, like air and water, and the sum of all human knowledge and experience, including science and culture. They form the basis of humanity’s common wealth, and without them we couldn’t breathe, drink, or create. We call them, collectively, "the commons."

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.


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Managing our sky as a common asset is the best way to reduce pollution. Look closely, our commons are still there for us to claim and protect. Now's the time.

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.

 


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Patents and copyrights ought to be used for growing our knowledge and culture.

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.

 


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The value of our Internet stems from its open design.

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.
 


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Public space furnishes the platform on which community and democracy flourish.

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.

 


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The key to meeting our water challenge is to once again recognize water as a commons.


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.

 


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Our airwaves can provide a bonanza of riches, if we will insist that they serve the public interest.

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.

 

SOURCE
Section Z - Making Our Economy Safe for People and Nature - http://www.sectionz.info/issue_5/content.html (retrieved on 16/09/2010)

 

 

Understanding the Commons

Sections:

 


WHAT IS THE COMMONS?

 

By the law of nature these things are common to mankind — the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shore of the sea.
        — Institutes of Justinian (535 A.D.)

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.

 


 

KEY FUNCTIONS OF THE COMMONS

 

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.

 

Basic sustenance
For most of human existence, the commons supplied everyone’s food, water, fuel and medicines.

Ultimate source
The commons is the source of all natural resources and nature’s many replenishing services.

Ultimate waste sink
The commons recycles water, oxygen, carbon and everything else we excrete, exhale and throw away.

Knowledge bank and seedbed
The commons holds humanity’s vast store of science, art, customs and laws, and is the seedbed of all human creativity.

Communication
Humans communicate through shared languages that are living products of many generations.

Travel
Humans use the commons for land, sea and air travel.

Community
The commons is the village tree, the public square, Main Street, the neighborhood and the Internet. Outside of families, it’s the glue that holds us together.

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.
— Pennsylvania constitution

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

THE COMMONS, THE MARKET & THE STATE

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

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The state’s role is to nurture both the commons and the market, and to maintain a healthy balance between them.

 


 

WHY THE COMMONS MATTER NOW

Our old Manifest Destiny was to carve up the commons. Our new task is to rebuild it.

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.



PRINCIPLES OF COMMONS MANAGEMENT

The fundamental rules for commons management are similar to those for private trusts.

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.

 

 

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The precautionary principle’s fundamental idea is that we prevent problems rather than clean them up afterward.

— Carolyn Raffensperger

 

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.


 

HOW MUCH IS IT WORTH?

The assets we share are worth more than the assets we own privately.
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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 VALUE OF SKY

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.


 

AUTHOR

The Tomales Bay Institute is developing the commons as a new model of politics, economics and culture. Our work is rooted in the belief that many forms of wealth -- nature, knowledge, public institutions-- belong to us all. The Institute seeks to identify new policies and community-based strategies to protect and extend this common wealth. Begun in 2001, our national network of fellows and allies is managed by a parent organization, Common Assets, and connected online via onthecommons.org.
SOURCE
OntheCommons -http://onthecommons.org/sites/default/files/stateofthecommons.pdf  (retrieved on 16/09/2010)
LICENSE
This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic

The Past is not another Country

The long-term historical development of commons as a source of inspiration for research and policy

 

Tine DeMoor

Research Institute for History and Culture University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. 

Managing co-editor, International Journal of the Commons

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.

 


For Further Reading :

 

AUTHOR

Tine DeMoor-  Managing co-editor, International Journal of the Commons 

SOURCE
Digital Library of the Commons - Indiana University - The Past is Not Another Country  (retrieved on 29/09/2010)
LICENSE
This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - 

 

Commons Rising

 

Like the tide, the commons ebbs and flows over time.

In our time, it's rising again.


 

Sections:

 

 


 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.
— Bill Moyers

 

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Volunteers come together to beautify a public square in St. Louis, Missouri.

The idea of the free market has become so widespread it’s hard
to remember when public stadiums weren’t named for private
corporations. But evidence is mounting—from catastrophic climate disruption to unprecedented disparities in wealth—that our present corporate-dominated economic system is leading to ecological and social disaster. There must be an alternative.

In fact, there is an alternative, and it’s on the rise. That alternative is an emerging economic sector we call the commons. It won’t replace corporations, but it will complement and temper them. In so doing, it will provide benefits corporations can’t supply: healthy ecosystems, economic security, stronger communities and
a participatory culture. And it will curb the corporate invasion of realms we hold dear — nature, our minds, our food and our democracy.

When most people hear about the commons, they think of a meadow where peasants graze sheep. But the commons of the 21st century is quite different from its medieval predecessor. It embraces everything we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children: air and water, ecosystems and habitats, arts and the Internet, public spaces and soundscapes, our free time and social safety net, and much more.

The trouble is, our current management of the commons is deeply flawed. For several centuries, the trend has been to enclose and privatize commons, rather than to manage them sustainably as shared assets. In recent years this trend has accelerated. The result is that private corporations, with government help, are invading and depleting our commons at a perilous rate.

The rationale for corporate enclosure is that it’s essential for economic growth.
In reality, however, much of what passes for growth these days doesn’t create net
wealth, but rather diminishes it by diminishing the commons. To put it bluntly,
we’re squandering our children’s inheritance and calling it growth.

Similarly, much of what passes for private wealth nowadays isn’t, in fact, privately created; it’s privately taken from the commons. To speak bluntly again, the rich are rich because, through corporations, they get the lion’s share of common wealth; the poor are poor because they get very little.

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,
the commons isn’t the cause, it’s the victim. But that needn’t remain the case. It’s
possible to reverse these tragedies by nailing down what’s in the commons now,
and steadily adding to the commons from this day forward.

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.

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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


â–  Assure sustenance for all


â–  Represent nature and future generations in the marketplace


â–  Nurture arts and sciences for their own sakes


â–  Promote diversity, community and democracy

 

 

AUTHOR

The Tomales Bay Institute is developing the commons as a new model of politics, economics and culture. Our work is rooted in the belief that many forms of wealth -- nature, knowledge, public institutions-- belong to us all. The Institute seeks to identify new policies and community-based strategies to protect and extend this common wealth. Begun in 2001, our national network of fellows and allies is managed by a parent organization, Common Assets, and connected online via onthecommons.org.
SOURCE

OntheCommons - http://onthecommons.org/sites/default/files/Commons_Rising_06.pdf  (retrieved on 12/09/2010)

LICENSE
This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic

 

A Path Ahead

 

Sections:

Let the world know what we know:
the commons belongs to everyone.

 

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 A family purchases

light rail tickets in Portland,

Oregon.

 

 

 

 

W H AT  Y O U  C A N  D O

Take a walk in your neighborhood. Notice what’s missing: a community garden?
A bike path? A wi-fi hot spot? A food buying club? Make it happen!

If there’s a river, creek or wetland near you, fall in love with it. Learn everything about it. Then join or build an organization to restore it.

Like the tide, the commons ebbs and flows over time. In our time,
it’s rising again. Not in its ancient form, but in new, 21st century forms.

The first swells can be seen around us. The models exist. The possibilities are endless. Now, we need to scale up.

To do this right, we first need a large vision. In that vision, the commons is as strong and vibrant as the corporate sector. It’s managed according to its own rules and in the interest of its own beneficiaries, future generations and all living citizens equally.

Second, we need to create common property rights that protect many of nature’s gifts. These rights should be managed and defended by trustees, bound as much as humanly possible to future generations.

Third, we need to build commons management institutions at every level, from local to regional to global.

Fourth, we need to dedicate steady revenue streams to art, science, public spaces and public transportation. We need these streams to create zones of knowledge, culture and daily life that are shielded from corporate intrusion.

A strengthened commons sector can tackle several major problems long unsolved by corporations or government:

-   Protecting the atmosphere, the ocean and other threatened ecosystems;
-   Ensuring that, in the richest country on earth, no one is destitute;
-   Providing simple, affordable health insurance for people of all ages.And there’s no end of work to do locally.

The key is this: wherever you are, claim your birthright to the wealth we jointly inherit or create. Claim it in living rooms, at church, in chat rooms and hair salons. Let the world know what we know: the commons belongs to everyone!

And when times are dark, remember that there is an alternative. It’s rising now, and we can lift it faster.

 the commons, n., gifts of nature and society; the wealth we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children; a sector of the economy that complements the corporate sector.

 

 

AUTHOR

The Tomales Bay Institute is developing the commons as a new model of politics, economics and culture. Our work is rooted in the belief that many forms of wealth -- nature, knowledge, public institutions-- belong to us all. The Institute seeks to identify new policies and community-based strategies to protect and extend this common wealth. Begun in 2001, our national network of fellows and allies is managed by a parent organization, Common Assets, and connected online via onthecommons.org.
SOURCE

OntheCommons - http://onthecommons.org/sites/default/files/Commons_Rising_06.pdf  (retrieved on 12/09/2010)

LICENSE
This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic

Assuring Security for All

 

Sections:

 

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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


Under Alaska’s constitution, the state’s natural resources belong to its citizens. Jay Hammond, Republican governor of Alaska in the 1970s, took this provision seriously. When oil began flowing from state lands on the North Slope, he pushed for the royalties to be shared among Alaska’s citizens. Many battles later, the legislature agreed to a deal: 75 percent of the state’s oil revenue would go to the government as a replacement for taxes. The remaining 25 percent would flow into a Permanent Fund, which would be invested on behalf of all Alaskans equally.

Since 1980, the Permanent Fund has grown to $30 billion and paid equal dividends to all Alaskans (including children) out of the income earned from its investments. Annual dividends have ranged from $800 to nearly $2,000 per person, depending on the performance of the stock market. In effect, the Permanent Fund is a giant mutual fund managed on behalf of all Alaskan citizens, present and future. Even after the oil runs dry, it will continue to benefit everyone. Economist Vernon Smith, a Nobel laureate and libertarian scholar at the Cato Institute, has called it ‘a model governments all over the world would be well-advised to copy.’

 

An American Permanent Fund

Entrepreneur and author Peter Barnes has taken Alaska’s model a step further. He’s proposed an American Permanent Fund which would pay dividends to all Americans, not just those who live in Alaska. Revenue for the nationwide fund would come from several sources, the most significant of which is the auction of permits to emit carbon dioxide. Gas, oil and coal suppliers would be required to buy enough permits to cover the CO2 emitted by the fossil fuels they sell.

‘Just like oil for Alaskans,’ Barnes explains, ‘the air is a shared inheritance of immense value to all of us. At present, we let polluters dump their trash into our asset for free. The result is far too much pollution. If, instead, we charged polluters for diminishing our common wealth, we’d gain in two ways: first, there’d be less pollution, and second, there’d be income for everyone.’

For the average person, dividends from the fund would offset the higher prices they’d pay for fossil fuels; people who use car-pools or public transit would come out ahead. Everyone would gain from cleaner air, a more stable climate, and less dependence on foreign oil.

 

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I T ’ S  O U R  W E A LT H
Nature’s gifts, wrote Tom Paine in 1790, are ‘the common property of thehuman race.’ When they are privatized, citizens must receive payment in exchange.

 

 


E M P O W E R M E N T,  N O T  D E P E N D E N C Y

The late John Rawls, one of America’s leading philosophers, distinguished between predistribution and redistribution of income. Under redistribution, money is taken from‘winners’ and transferred to ‘losers.’ Under predistribution, the playing field is leveled byspreading ownership of property. The property itself then distributes income to all.

According to Rawls, while redistribution creates dependency, predistribution empowers. Tom Paine would have agreed.

B R I TA I N ’ S  T R U S T  F U N D  B A B I E S

Every child born in Great Britain after 2002 has a trust fund. The government kicks in $440 to start the funds (children in the poorest 40 percent of families receive $880). It makes an additional gift at age 7. All interest earned by the funds is tax-free.

Parents, family and friends can add up to $2,000 a year to children’s accounts. At age 18, the children can decide how to use their funds.

 

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YA N K E E  W E A LT H  R E C Y C L I N G


If wealth recycling sounds un-American to you, consider professional baseball, football and basketball. Each league shifts money from the richest teams to the poorest, and gives losing teams first crack at new players.

Even George Will, the conservative columnist, sees the logic in this. ‘The aim is not to guarantee teams equal revenues, but revenues sufficient to give each team periodic chances of winning if each uses its revenues intelligently.’

A grubstake for every child

Though America thinks of itself as a land of opportunity, not everyone gets the
same chance to succeed. One out of five children is born into poverty, while afew inherit millions. One way to even life’s odds is to give every baby a trustfund. Britain has done this, and America should do it, too. Here are two ways.

Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) have sponsored legislation to create tax-free savings accounts for all newborns. The federal government would deposit $500 into each account ($1,000 for children in
low-income households). When they turn 18, the children could use their savings for further education, home purchase or continued investing.

Yale professors Bruce Ackerman and Ann Alstott have gone further, proposing
‘stakeholder grants’ of $80,000 to nearly all American children when theyturn 18. Use of the money would be unrestricted, but there’d be two conditionsfor receiving it: a high school degree or equivalent, and the absence of acriminal record. The grants would be financed by a small tax on existing wealth.In effect, wealth would be recycled from those who have succeeded to thosejust getting started.

Sharing life’s risks

Nowadays, people face a multiplicity of risks: suffering a costly illness or disability,
losing a job, failing in business. These and many other calamities can strikeanyone more or less randomly. Even longevity can become a misfortune if oneoutlives one’s savings.

There are two ways we can approach these risks: one is to individualize them, the other is to share portions of them so that no one is destitute. The first says,
‘Every person for him or her self.’ The second, as embodied in Social Security, says, ‘We’re all in this together.’

Social Security was America’s answer to one of the harshest side-effects of industrialization: millions of unemployable older people who couldn’t rely on their families, as they had in the past. Franklin Roosevelt’s ingenious solution was.....

........an intergenerational compact in which one generation of workers supports a
previous generation’s retirement, and in turn is supported by the next. Thanksto this pact, America has all but eliminated extreme poverty in old age.As it turns out, pooled risk sharing — sometimes called social insurance —has several advantages over individualized risk. One is universality:everyone is covered and assured a dignified existence. Another is efficiency:social insurance costs less than private insurance. The reasons includeeconomies of scale, simplicity of options, and lower costs for marketing,claims management and profit.

 

Health care, Canadian style


Nothing better illustrates the advantages of pooled risk sharing than a comparison of Canada’s health insurance system with America’s. The 1984 Canada Health Act guarantees pre-paid medical care to all Canadians. Every province now runs its own insurance program in accordance with five principles:

–  Each plan is not-for-profit.

–  All medically necessary services are covered.

–  All residents are covered.

–  Premiums are affordable.

–  Coverage continues when a person travels.


Canada also bans extra billing by medical practitioners. As a result, the system is incredibly simple. For routine doctor visits, Canadians need only present their health card. There are no forms to fill out or bills to pay. The system is supported by a combination of federal and provincial funds. The bottom line is indisputable: Canadians enjoy better health care than Americans, at about half the cost and a fraction of the hassle.

 

 

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AUTHOR

The Tomales Bay Institute is developing the commons as a new model of politics, economics and culture. Our work is rooted in the belief that many forms of wealth -- nature, knowledge, public institutions-- belong to us all. The Institute seeks to identify new policies and community-based strategies to protect and extend this common wealth. Begun in 2001, our national network of fellows and allies is managed by a parent organization, Common Assets, and connected online via onthecommons.org.
SOURCE

OntheCommons - http://onthecommons.org/sites/default/files/Commons_Rising_06.pdf  (retrieved on 12/09/2010)

LICENSE
This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic

Building the Hometown Commons

 

Sections:

Public spaces: America’s new frontier

We humans are social creatures. And for eons, our settlements reflected this. We built houses close together, and used public spaces to connect with neighbors.

Over the last half century, this social ecology has been disrupted. Development has taken forms that keep people isolated in cars. Big, box stores have ended the familiarity between shoppers and merchants. Political debate has shifted from town squares to the costly enclosures of television.

 

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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.

C I T Y R E PA I R .ORG

A revival of public spaces and local commerce is underway in America.

From Bryant Park in New York to Pioneer Square in Portland and Copley Square in Boston, urban plazas are coming back to life. Even Detroit, which was built by the automobile, is reviving its downtown by rerouting autos around a new publicsquare called Campus Martius Park. The park bustles with life in both summer andwinter (when there’s a skating rink), and has attracted some $500 million in newinvestment to the area.

Not all the place-making is by government. In Portland, Oregon, informal groups of neighbors have reclaimed street intersections. They paint vivid designs on the pavement to mark the place as their own. They also add rustic structures, such as produce exchange stands, play areas, and even a 24-hour tea stand.

In Boston, people in the Dudley Street neighborhood formed a land trust in1988 to buy vacant land and determine how it could best serve the community. Today there are 600 new and rehabbed homes — all with a cap on resale prices — plus gardens, a common, parks and playgrounds. These efforts revitalized the neighborhood without displacing local residents, as would have happened through gentrification.

 

 

 

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

The Internet is the sidewalk of the 21st century; it’s where people and businesses
connect. So it’s not surprising that cities are starting to build high-speed wirelessnetworks the way they once built streets.

Many operate wireless ‘hot zones’ that offer free access over dozens of blocks. Others, like Philadelphia, are rolling out low-cost service city-wide. In San Francisco and New Orleans, city-wide access may even be free.

As of early 2006, nearly 150 U.S. cities were deploying or planning public wi-fi networks. That’s a 50 percent rise over 2005. And it excludes countless hot spots set up voluntarily by citizens and local businesses.

 

Meanwhile, in Washington,
a bi-partisan group of senators hasintroduced legislation to open unusedTV channels for wireless broadbandaccess. These vacant channels reachfarther and penetrate buildings betterthan the ‘junk band’ currently allottedto wi-fi. If they are made available,urban and rural wi-fi networks couldbe set up quickly and at low cost.

B R I N G I N G  D E M O C R A C Y  T O  M A L L S

Local merchants aren’t the only ones hurt when a Wal-Mart comes to town — civic life
suffers, too. When people congregate in private shopping centers, the First Amendment no longer applies. Owners can — and do — ban leafleting, petition drives, and other forms of grassroots democracy.

But California, New Jersey and Colorado have ruled that shopping malls are like public squares, and must be open to free speech, even if they are private property. Voters in other states are demanding similar rights.

 

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Two friends enjoy wireless Internet access in Bryant Park in New York City, one of many free hotspots around the country.

 

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A berry good day at a farmers’
market in Seattle, Washington.

 

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Democracy grows hollow if citizens don’t have places to rub shoulders with one another.

— J AY  WA L L  J A S P ER

A renaissance of farmers’ markets


Until the Civil War, most American cities had public markets. In the 1940s, therewas a brief resurgence, as farmers sought better prices and shoppers soughtfresher food. Then came interstate highways, and the market for seasonal localproduce collapsed.

Now the tide is turning again. From Union Square in New York to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, city-dwellers are rediscovering the pleasures of meeting each other and the people who produce their food.. There are now nearly 4,000 farmers’ markets in all 50 states, double the number ten years ago.

 

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For many, a visit to the local farmers’ market (like this one in Madison, Wisconsin) is a festive activity.

Raising community along with tomatoes

Economists say people will care only for what they own. If that’s so, how do they explain the green oases that have risen from vacant lots in New York City? Rubble became garden plots. Street sculptures and shrines appeared. People built sheds for tools they shared — all of this on land they didn’t own or lease. Today New York is dotted with 700 community gardens. About 150 of these will eventually give way to housing, but the rest will stay.

And it’s not just New York. The American Community Gardening Association counts 70 major cities with community gardens. In Seattle alone, more than 1900 families raise food in these neighborhood spaces.

These gardens yield significant amounts of food. In Philadelphia, gardeners save an estimated $700 per year on food bills. The Food Project in Boston produces over 120,000 pounds of vegetables on 21 acres; most of it goes to people in need. Just as importantly, the gardens turn strangers into neighbors.

 

Is it Willie’s field, or AT&T’s?


In America, sports stadiums used to bear names that told you where you were.Today, stadium names are sold to the highest corporate bidders. But many fans are fighting back. In Green Bay, Wisconsin, the Packers wanted to sell the name of famed Lambeau Field. After a public outcry, the effort died.

In San Francisco, voters approved a referendum banning the sale of naming rights to Candlestick Park, where the Forty-Niners football team plays. Now they’re battling to name the stadium where the baseball Giants play. First it was PacBell Park, then SBC Park. When SBC became AT&T, many fans had enough: they’re asking the city in its signs to call it Willie Mays Field, henceforth and forever.

 

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A group digs space for a pond in Greene Acres Community
Garden, one of many in Brooklyn, New York.

 

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 The corporate name of the San Francisco Giants ballpark has changed so many times that fans are naming it Willie Mays Field once and for all.

 

AUTHOR

The Tomales Bay Institute is developing the commons as a new model of politics, economics and culture. Our work is rooted in the belief that many forms of wealth -- nature, knowledge, public institutions-- belong to us all. The Institute seeks to identify new policies and community-based strategies to protect and extend this common wealth. Begun in 2001, our national network of fellows and allies is managed by a parent organization, Common Assets, and connected online via onthecommons.org.
SOURCE

OntheCommons - http://onthecommons.org/sites/default/files/Commons_Rising_06.pdf  (retrieved on 12/09/2010)

LICENSE
This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic

Reclaiming Our Time and Quiet

 

Sections:

 

Week1CommonsRising_page24_image1.jpg

Fishing off a pier in Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

 

 

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.

When markets began, they were discrete events in time and space. Most of life occurred outside them, by different rules and for different ends. Until the middle of the last century, most stores closed in the evening and on Sunday. Families had time after work for Cub Scouts, PTA meetings and the like.

Today we move to the metronome of the market. Its needs demand our attention nearly every waking moment. Not surprisingly, that’s making many people overloaded. They’re telling corporations,
‘You can’t have everything. We need time for life!’

 

Hold the marketing!

Common space is freedom space. It’s there for us to inhabit, so long as we don’t interfere with anyone else. It’s not a space we have much of any more. We’re barraged by ads — over 3,000 a day and growing. Buses, airports and a host of other public places have become theaters for corporate want-creation. But a backlash is stirring.
–  The State of Maine bought out all billboards in the state, beginning in 1981. Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii also ban billboards.
–  Within three months after it was launched, the FTC’s ‘Do Not Call’ list had already enrolled 50 million Americans, and now includes half of eligible U.S. phone lines.
–  The future of TV ads is murky because a growing fraction of viewers use recording devices such as TiVo to fast-forward through commercials.

Got a minute?


Democracy requires a temporal commons, a pool of time available for community concerns. The market, however, claims so much of our time — both as workers and consumers — that we have little left for our families, let alone for our communities.

Americans work longer than medieval peasants, either at jobs that demand long hours, or at second and third jobs needed to make ends meet. They spend additional hours wrestling with the complexities of medical insurance and cell phone plans.

 

Now citizens are claiming more non-market time.


–  Hundreds of communities hold Take Back Your Time Day events to recognize the day in October on which Americans could stop working if they had as much time off as Europeans. TBYTD’s agenda includes paid leave after childbirth, limits on compulsory overtime, and making Election Day a holiday.
–  The Massachusetts Council of Churches, with support from the Atlanta-basedLord’s Day Alliance, has made the reclaiming of time a major focus.
–  The Slow Food Movement has become a force to protect traditional ways of growing, preparing and eating food. Founded in Italy, it has thirty-five chapters in California, six in Texas, and one in Alabama.

 

Putting time in the bank


Helping neighbors is a great American tradition. But as people relocate more frequently, it’s harder for them to trust that favors they do will be repaid.

Time Dollars you can bank are one solution. When you help a neighbor for an hour, you earn one Time Dollar. Then, when you need help yourself, you can spend your saved Time Dollars.

Some communities have harnessed Time Dollars for special projects. In Chicago, Maine and Florida, nearly 5,000 low-income kids have earned computers by tutoring younger peers for a hundred hours apiece. And in New York, members of an HMO for the elderly contribute 15,000 hours annually to help each other with home repairs, transportation and simple companionship.

Q U I E T, P L E A S E !


A wave of modern devices has turned our once-tranquil soundscape into a sea of noise. Now, people are demanding quiet.

–  Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh have cracked down on boom box cars.


–  Suburbs across the country have restricted leaf blowers.


–  New York City has banned cell phones in theaters.


–  Amtrak added Quiet Cars on its northeast corridor trains. 

 

graph7.png

 

Americans have less paid time off work than citizens of any other industrialized nation, with barely two weeks annually.

AUTHOR

The Tomales Bay Institute is developing the commons as a new model of politics, economics and culture. Our work is rooted in the belief that many forms of wealth -- nature, knowledge, public institutions-- belong to us all. The Institute seeks to identify new policies and community-based strategies to protect and extend this common wealth. Begun in 2001, our national network of fellows and allies is managed by a parent organization, Common Assets, and connected online via onthecommons.org.
SOURCE

OntheCommons - http://onthecommons.org/sites/default/files/Commons_Rising_06.pdf  (retrieved on 12/09/2010)

LICENSE
This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic

Sharing Knowledge and Culture

 

Sections:

 

Week1CommonsRising_page16_image1.jpg

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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.

 

Week1CommonsRising_page16_image2.jpg

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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.

The commons of knowledge and culture are as old as humanity, and almost as vital to us as air. They rest on the fact that free exchange ofideas is indispensable to creativity. As Isaac Newton put it, ‘If I have seen further, it is because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.’

But our creative commons are under siege. Entertainment companies want to encrypt their content to prevent sharing. Drug companies want to lock up research. And media oligopolies want to charge tolls on the Information Highway.

 

The good news is that citizens are fighting back. They’re creating open source software, weblogs, online news sites and other freely shared content.

 

Extra! Extra! Read and write all about it!

While corporate ownership of TV stations and newspapers has been concentrating, there’s been an offsetting explosion of ‘citizen media.’ Weblogs, or blogs, that feature personal musings, reporting and commentary, have proliferated wildly. Some are among the first to report breaking news, such as the South Asian tsunami. Others correct errors and biases in the mainstream media. Still others focus on local news.

Cultural and social networks are also spreading. Ourmedia and the Internet Archive allow people to post and share their own films, writing and other creative works. Friendster, with 13 million monthly users, connects people with similar interests.

These efforts draw upon a wide array of talent at low cost, giving them an edge over commercial media. It’s unclear how all this will evolve, but trends suggest the biggest threat to corporate media isn’t ‘pirated’ works, but citizen-generated content.

Free and Open Source Software


Open source software is written by volunteers; anyone can read, modify andredistribute the code. The Linux operating system and Firefox web browserare prominent examples. So are many of the core programs running the Internetand the World Wide Web.

Much of this activity depends upon a legal innovation, the General Public License, sometimes known as copyleft. This license, created by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, gives everyone rights to freely use, modify and redistribute a software program as long as any derivative programs are disseminated just as freely. In this way, it enables people to participate in collective efforts without fear that anyone will profit from their donated labor.

 

Creative Commons: share and share alike

 

cc.png
Until 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.

 

To address this problem, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig and his colleagues devised a system that allows non-commercial users to share and modify creative works freely. Creators can affix a Creative Commons symbol to their works and thereby alert others that the works can be shared in specific ways — for example, only in non-commercial settings, or only if the author is properly credited. This helps creative works circulate more freely, while protecting creators from piracy.

Since 2002, creators have assigned CC licenses to more than 50 million works, and the CC logo itself has become a symbol of the sharing culture.

 

graph3a.png

 

 

graph3.png

 

K E E P I N G  T H E  W E B  O P E N  T O  A L L

 

Tim Berners-Lee was a programmer at CERN, the European high-energy physics lab, when he had an idea to greatly simplify the Internet. Instead of typing commands to fetch information from another computer, readers would simply click on a link and a new page would appear. The world’s computers would become one seamless information space, freely accessible to all.

Berners-Lee wrote the codes for Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). More importantly, he persuaded CERN to release them into the world with no patents, licenses or other strings attached. As a result, anybody could adopt them without fear of lawsuits or owing a penny in royalties. Within a few years, the World Wide Web was ubiquitous. Berners-Lee then moved to MIT to lead an international consortium dedicated to preserving the Web as a non-proprietary space.

At numerous points along the way, Berners-Lee could have started or joined a business, and he probably would have earned millions. Each time, he declined. ‘I wanted to see the Web proliferate, not sink my life’s hours into worrying over a product release,’ he explained.

 

 

We’re so used to patents that we forgot ways to discover drugs in the public domain. We need to rediscover them.


— S T E P H E N  M A U R E R ,

C O - F O U N D E R , T R O P I C A L  D I S E A S E  I N I T I AT I V E

Crazy for Craigslist

Craigslist began in 1995 as Craig Newmark’s informal effort to keep his circle of acquaintances abreast of events in San Francisco. It soon expanded to cover jobs, apartments and household goods, and became an underground hit. Now <craigslist.org> attracts more than 10 million users a month in over 100 cities.

Except for job listings in some cities, posting to Craigslist is free. Many observers wonder why Newmark hasn’t tried to wring more profit out of his site or sell out for millions of dollars. He isn’t interested. ‘We’re both a community service and a business,’ he says. ‘We don’t take ads — no banners, no pop-ups — basically as
an expression of values.’

Is it live? Or is it vinyl?

Sixty years ago, when radio stations started playing pre-recorded music on theair, musicians had reason to fret. Not only were their livelihoods threatened;so was the future of live performance.

To assuage these fears, the musicians’ union and the record industry created the Musical Performance Trust Fund. For every record and CD sold, record compa- nies pay a small royalty into the trust, which uses the money to sponsor free per- formances. Musicians get paid to play, and the public gets to hear live music.

In 2004, the Fund supported over 11,000 free concerts in parks, schools and hospitals, and paid more than $8 million to musicians. It’s a brilliant model of how commoditized, copyright-protected art can support free and living art.

 
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Enjoying a concert in Chittenden Locks Park in Seattle, Washington.

Now, open source science

Until recently, science was a ‘gift economy’ in which scientists pursued basic knowledge and freely shared their findings and ideas. Then, patents became the rage, and with them came secrecy and a tilt of research toward profit-making products. In response, many scientists are creating new scholarly commons.


–  The international effort to sequence the human genome placed all its results in the public domain.

–  The Public Library of Science publishes freely accessible, peer-reviewed journals in biology and medicine.

–  OneWorld Health, a not-for-profit pharmaceutical company, brings scientists and capital together to create low-cost drugs for the developing world.

–  The Tropical Disease Initiative, a Web-based community of laboratories, collaborates on research for similar drugs.

 

New ways to pay our pipers

Every civilization needs culture — statues and paintings, myths and stories, music and dance. But cultural workers need to eat, and if they share their work freely or cheaply, how will they make a living?

In many countries, national governments proudly support the arts. But in America, federal funding was never great, and recently it has declined. Fortunately, there are other mechanisms through which people can pay their pipers.

The Music Performance Trust Fund is one model: sales of copyrighted reproductions support live public performances. The San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund is another: it underwrites scores of community arts institutions, from the symphony to the Mime Troupe. Here are two other ideas:

–  For creators of music and videos shared on the Internet, Harvard law professor William Fisher proposes a system that compensates artists with public funds based on how frequently their works are downloaded.

–  Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research proposes a tax-credit-funded voucher system for paying artists who put their works in the public domain.

 

 

Week1CommonsRising_page19_image1.jpg

 

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 off 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 . . .
...from one to another , for the moral and mutual instruction of man, seems to have been benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space.— Thomas Jefferson

AUTHOR

The Tomales Bay Institute is developing the commons as a new model of politics, economics and culture. Our work is rooted in the belief that many forms of wealth -- nature, knowledge, public institutions-- belong to us all. The Institute seeks to identify new policies and community-based strategies to protect and extend this common wealth. Begun in 2001, our national network of fellows and allies is managed by a parent organization, Common Assets, and connected online via onthecommons.org.
SOURCE

OntheCommons - http://onthecommons.org/sites/default/files/Commons_Rising_06.pdf  (retrieved on 12/09/2010)

LICENSE
This document can be distributed under the Creative Commons License - Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic

Imaging a New Politics of the Commons

Sections


   By David Bollier 

One of the most stubborn problems in confronting the pathologies of the neoliberal political order is the limitations of our language. We do not have an adequate public vocabulary to describe the plunder of globalized markets. We have trouble highlighting the social inequities that are built into conventional econom ics and political discourse. We do not have a grand narrative with compelling sub-plots to set forth an alternative vision, one that can both stir the blood and show intellectual sophistication.

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 Enclosure of the Commons

“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).


 

The Commons as a Sector of Value-Creation

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.


 

Reinventing the Commons

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.


 

The Commons as a New Narrative and Worldview

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.

 

AUTHOR
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 david@bollier.org.
SOURCE
Published in Renewal magazine, December 17, 2007. Renewal is a Labour-oriented political journal dedicated to social democracy” published in London.