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Commons Rising

on Fri, 08/27/2010 - 20:46


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

In our time, it's rising again.





 There Is an Alternative, and It's Rising               

O U R  T H R E AT E N E D  C O M M O N S

From public schools and universities to public lands and other natural resources, from the media with their broadcast and digital spectrums to scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs, a broad range ofthe American commons is shifting from public responsibility to private exploitation.
— Bill Moyers



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.











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




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 -  (retrieved on 12/09/2010)

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