The Importance of the Commons

In an earlier post, Sacred Economics 2, I alluded to the commons. The commons refers to things we hold in common—things that belong (or should) to all of us. Many are nature-based: the oceans, rivers, air, and our topsoil, but public spaces and language are also examples of commons. According to On the Commons, “The commons is the essential form of wealth that we inherit or create together, and which must be shared in a sustainable and equitable way. Ranging from water to biodiversity to the Internet…the commons provides the foundation of our social, cultural, and economic life.”

Our Common Wealth bkThe reference to the commons in Sacred Economics made me pick up Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work, by Jonathan Rowe (his is a site well worth checking out—tons of interesting, challenging, and thought-provoking articles). I highly recommend this short book (123 pages) that so explicitly and clearly focuses on our commons. He refers to the commons as “the economic realm that promotes relationships rather than stuff.” And he was hopeful (he died in 2011): He cites examples of people working to resurrect and reclaim various kinds of commons as a growing trend:

Consider the World Wide Web, where people connect and share with a minimum of market-imposed restrictions. Social networks facilitate communication among friends. Creative Commons licenses allow creators to distribute music, photos, and other works without legal rigmarole. General Public Licenses keep open source software available to everyone. And of course there’s Wikipedia, the largest compendium of human knowledge ever assembled.

He also references the resurgence of commons in the food sector. For example, farmers’ markets have increased by 364% since 1994, and they continue to grow. From 2010 to 2013, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. increased 33%. That is not small potatoes! Farmers’ markets are rich on many levels:

They are about local food and the opportunity to deal directly with the people who produce it. They also are about the festive sociability of the market itself. People go to partake of the bustle and good spirits, something that doesn’t much happen at Safeway or even Whole Foods. 

Farmers marketCommunity gardens are another example of a growing commons that enriches a large swath of life.

Would it surprise you to know this is all coming from a conservative? It shouldn’t. At least if you think about the old-fashioned conservative. My dad was a conservative (I am more on the other end of the spectrum) but we often were able to find common ground. I know it exists, I constantly seek it out, and I love when I find it. Rowe:

Few things would shake up American politics as much as clarifying the term conservative. From the daily media one might surmise that conservatives are people who hate taxes and gays and love markets and religion. But the conservative tradition runs deeper than that, and in some ways contrary to it. 

Conservatism is, or at least used to be, a way of thinking about society as a whole and the qualities that help maintain it…. This view of society has large implications. For one thing, it means that people have a duty to support the whole with taxes…. For another, it means that humanity must take the long view.

And he echos a concern that I believe is felt by many conservatives:

In recent decades authentic conservatism—the kind that respects community, locality, tradition, and virtue—has been displaced by a phony kind that is politically expedient and cynical to the core. It channels the conservative impulse into a few red-meat issues—abortion, gays, school prayer—that pose no threat to the bankrollers of either party…. 

What this phony “movement” really professes is not conservatism but the opposite—a belief that it is okay to waste the patrimony so long as somebody makes money doing it.

This reminds me so much of my dad. He drummed “buy local” into me decades ago. And I will say he was also big on community, tradition, and virtue. And we found a lot of common ground through those values. Sigh. I miss my dad.

Rowe is not anti-market and has no pretensions to getting rid of it or having the economy run on commons principles. “The two realms are symbiotic, not mutually exclusive.” The view of the market will always be the short term, and the view of the commons is by necessity long term. In the last several decades, the market has grown while the commons have shrunk. Now it is time for the protected commons to be enlarged.

“It does what the market can’t do, and that is what nowadays most needs to be done.”

North Shore

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