A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Understanding the Commons

by David McCarthy   

Last month I was fortunate to attend an excellent conference at Omega Institute entitled Building the Collaborative Commons. I came away both inspired and informed about the whole concept of the commons and its importance in helping us address local and global issues. It is a vast and important subject, and my goal here is just to get it on our radar and encourage further study and involvement.

The Charter of the Forest designated English pastures as a 
commons, granting ordinary people access.
David Bollier is an author and activist who has been focused on the commons for many years. He spoke at the Omega conference, and his recent book Think Like a Commoner is an excellent, accessible introduction to the subject. In the book, he tells of trying to explain his work to a person he was sitting next to on a plane. He was worried he might have overwhelmed her with all sorts of details and examples. But after he finished, she simply said, “Oh, I get it. The commons are things that no one owns and are shared by everyone.”

That observation is certainly a good starting point. As simple as it is, it also raises all sorts of questions. Is this some sort of philosophical attack on private property? Is it a covert socialist agenda? Or maybe it’s just a highly impractical, idealistic dream that has no bearing on today’s world. Actually, none of the above. The commons has a long and interesting history in human culture, and it is moving forward and evolving in striking new ways. Of course, many indigenous societies treat land and the natural environment as a commons just as a matter of course. In European society, attitudes and practices about private property have been closely tied to the power and dominion of the aristocracy, a situation that in many ways is little changed in our present era.

There have been, however, longstanding efforts to challenge the abuses of privatization and exclusion, such as the Charter of the Forest, enacted in England in the year 1217, which was a companion document to the more famous Magna Carta. The charter guaranteed certain rights of access and use to ordinary people. (It is interesting to note that, in England, they are called “commoners.”) Many of those rights were in effect for centuries. Then during the Industrial Revolution, countless commoners were pushed from the land in England when the aristocracy started to view themselves as landowners and decided that they could make more money grazing sheep on the land than letting people use it. That is called enclosure, and it is a continuing pattern to this day. Today, we have enclosure in areas like the patenting of genetic information, GMO crops, and many other areas.

One reason we have difficulty understanding the whole topic of the commons (at least in our public discourse) is that we think only in dualistic terms of private property or governmental control. There is no consideration of a third option. But commons-style governance is an important inspiration for the “third way” that I have long advocated, namely an economy guided by civil society.

What really came into focus for me at the Omega conference is that a system like a fishery, a reservoir, or the atmosphere of the planet itself, is not a commons until we recognize it and create agreements that allow it to function in that way. In other words, a commons is a social construct; it is not something that naturally exists as such.

Economist Elinor Ostrom, who in 2009 became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics, dedicated the majority of her life’s work to studying the commons. In particular, she observed local commons systems firsthand all around the world and drew many parallels as to how they are governed. It is encouraging to think that perhaps we will take inspiration on how to managw the global atmospheric commons from how rural farmers in the Philippines have governed their irrigation systems for generations.   

The commons relates to many of the key issues of our times. We see it in local struggles like the proposed water bottling plant in Kingston, in wider issues like fracking and fossil fuels, and with the existential challenge to civilization that climate change represents.

Commons-style governance also opens new doors to innovative approaches regarding economic justice—specifically extreme poverty and the wealth divide. Therefore, the increasing awareness of this topic is truly a bright spot in today’s world. It is one that is most worthy of our attention.
To contact David, email neweconomics@countrywisdomnews.com