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Discovering and inventing the commons as a way of life

on Sun, 02/13/2011 - 20:44


Julie Ristau is the Co-director of On The Commons and part of the organization’s leadership team that works to apply commons-based approaches to real-world problems.  

She helped launch Utne Reader magazine and acted as Publisher and Co-Chair. She held the endowed chair in Agricultural Systems at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) where she taught, conducted field research and did enterprise development aimed at building social capital in communities. 

Ristau is currently Co-chair of Homegrown Minneapolis, an initiative launched by the mayor of Minneapolis to expand local food and sustainable agriculture in the region and is a board member of MISA.

Julie wrote:

“At a recent meeting of a common security club in Boston—one of many groups around the U.S. where people come together to discuss ways to help each other get along in these insecure economic times—someone raised the idea of a tool exchange. Neighbors could take inventory of who owns a snow blower, jigsaw, wheelbarrow, extension ladder, hedge shearers, shop vacuum, various drills, shovels, rakes and other gear that folks could share.

One man in the group who had grown up in the Virgin Islands said that if he knew that a neighbor back home owned a ladder, he naturally assumed he could use it. No one would think of buying something new if someone they knew already owned one.

This is an example of “commoning”, which means putting the ideas of the commons into practice in your community and the world.

The people of the Virgin Islands are poorer than those of Boston in economic terms, but because of traditions of sharing they enjoy a sense of abundance and security missing in even wealthy communities.

But today, people across North America and Europe are beginning to look around their neighborhoods and say—“well, no one is using that vacant lot, we could plant a community garden there” or “I think we can solve this crime/environmental/social/economic problem if a bunch of people pitched in to help.”

This represents a swing in the direction of commoning, and it reflects a broader shift in thinking from the prevailing YO-YO ethic (“you’re on your own”) to WITT (“we’re in this together”). At the center of this trend is people joining together to “co-creator” the world they want to see. They aren’t waiting for someone else to take the initiatives that are needed. Commoning represents a “third way”—not locked into the profit-driven mechanics of the market nor dependent on distant government agencies—that enables everyday citizens to actively make decisions and take action that shape their future of their communities. (Although most of those who do it, don’t call it “commoning”)

Commoning is built upon on a network of social relationships (based on the implicit expectation that we will take care of each other) and a shared understanding that some things belong to all of us and must be used in a sustainable and equitable way—which is the essence of the commons itself.

Commoning has Always Been With Us

The term “commoning” has been popularized by historian Peter Linebaugh, whose book The Magna Carta Manifesto shows that the founding document of Anglo-American democracy repeatedly affirms people’s right to use the commons for their basic needs. A majority of English people derived at least part of their livelihoods from the commons before the brutal onset of the Industrial Revolution. They were known as “commoners.” Hence the word “commoning” describes people living in close connection to the commons.

“I use the word because I want a verb for the commons,” Linebaugh explains. “I want to portray it as an activity, not just an idea or material resource. This brings in the essential social element of the commons.

“Commoning has always been with us,” he adds, “although we seem to notice it only when the commons are being taken away from us.”

The loss of the commons robs people of their autonomy to meet our basic needs for sustenance, economic security and social connections. Thus, commoning involves taking your life into your own hands rather depending on corporations and other outside forces to sell you what you need.

It’s a way to resist the dominant paradigm of modern life, which insists that what’s bought and sold in the market economy provides fundamental meaning to our lives. It’s a way to tap into hidden chamber within our imaginations, which harbor vivid images of different ways to live.

“Much of commoning depends on memory,” Linebaugh offers. “We are resurrecting some forgotten traditions and cultural practices.”

But he is quick to note, “We are not just discovering the commons, we are inventing it is as well. We are learning how to interact and take responsibility in ways that are both old and new…discovering more elemental ways of interacting and organizing social and economic life.”

Source: P2P Foundation



Rev. Alia Aurami's picture


Thank you so much, Julie (via George for reposting this.) I didn't just like this blog  I LOVED it! So clear ! The examples and approach, I so resonate with!!!! And it all seems to be about culture and attitudes, rather than systems and structures, which is interesting. It surely DOES start there, and after reading this with the examples and history and explanation, I have a much clearer notion of what commoning is about.

I did differ on only one point:

and a shared understanding that some things belong to all of us and must be used in a sustainable and equitable way—which is the essence of the commons itself.

First of all, IMO very little ALREADY belongs to "all of us" as that concept really doesn't include "publically-owned" (= government-owned) IMO. The phrase "belongs to all of us" in my mind opens the door to certain kinds of non-voluntary ownership arrangements. My version of the thought would be that some things OUGHT to BELONG to NO one and ought to be STEWARDED by "all of us."