Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 6, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part I


What are the Commons?

The commons are all those spheres of life that are shared by communities, human or ecological. Natural commons include the various factors that life requires, such as air and water, and the cycles that support and distribute those factors to living things, such as the hydrological cycle. They also include the radiation of the sun, the soil, and the vegetation that supports all life. The human created commons include such things as the press, culture, the Internet, the use of the airwaves, and in some places and times, common pasture lands. Time itself is a common that stands between the natural and the cultural. A number of years ago Garrett Hardin wrote an essay on The Tragedy of the Commons. This essay was based on a false premise regarding the nature of the commons, as we shall see. The system described by Hardin was actually an open access system, and the commons were not treated as absolute open access systems. An example of an open access system might be the crash pads of the 1960s youth movement. They always deteriorated quickly into chaos because no one took responsibility for the upkeep of the living space. According to Friends of the Commons, a Marin County based non-profit dedicated to improving awareness of the commons the proper definition would be “all the creations of nature that we inherit jointly and freely, and hold in trust for future generations”



The History of the Commons

From the beginning of life on earth, the entire biosphere has been one great common. The very air of the last breath I just took contained molecules that once passed through the lungs of Alexander the Great, and indeed through the lungs of every other being. The water I consumed at breakfast once passed through the systems of dinosaurs. Those who say everything is “connected” may be speaking more literally than they ever thought.

The human defined commons are merely an extension of the natural commons, a place where human cultural adaptation matches reality in a positive way. It is logical that the farther back one goes in the history of Homo sapiens, the larger the area considered common. In Roman times the concept of the commons was codified into law. According to the Friends of the Commons:

“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.”

This concept of the commons survived the fall of pagan Rome and continued into the middle ages. It was only the development of capitalism at the onset of the protestant reformation that began the challenges to the commons that led first to physical enclosure, then to market enclosure, and finally to the cultural enclosure we are facing today.  If, as Edward Abbey surmises, unlimited growth is the ideology of a cancer cell, then the current world system, dominated by the ideology of the capitalist sect of the religion of economism is actually a species of societal cancer.  The dominant global culture consists of three synergistic parts: industrialization, capitalism, and corporate plutocracy that together form a system that make both ecological sustainability and social justice impossible.


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