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Finding the Commons in Your Community

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A new culture of generosity and cooperation is evolving, and invites our participation.

By Robin Jacobs Posted Apr 9, 2015

People in a park
We live in a world of “mine” and “yours” — a culture built on fierce individualism and the notion that ‘good-fences-make-good-neighbors’. Yet within us, we still carry vestiges of interdependent values of our ancestral tribes and villages. Humans have not prospered in isolation; we like to live in groups, dividing tasks according to our specialties, offering the best of ourselves to the group in exchange for the support and skills of others. Even the capitalist “free market” is based on the fair exchange of what each individual can provide. But communities have always needed a space outside of the marketplace, a place where the give-and-take of human connection is unstructured and un-monetized, where we can come together with trust to promote the well-being of the whole. We need the Commons.

History books may mention the historical commons of England as an example. Just a few hundred years ago, most land in England was considered to be held in common, and the right to use the land for agriculture or resources was upheld by tradition: if previous generations of your family farmed or hunted there, cut wood or peat, or drew water, you could assume the same uses. Livestock roamed freely over un-fenced public pastures. These customs matched the understanding of tribes the world over — how could an individual claim ownership (and exclusive use) of a river, a hillside, or a forest? But inevitably, promoters of private property rights gained power, and wealthy landowners began fencing off vast tracts of commonly used land. They drove the resident farmers out of their ancestral homes to seek another life in the city — if, that is, they did not wish to become tenants, compelled to farm in accordance with the landowner’s wishes, and allowed to keep only a fraction of what they grew.

Today, the sanctity of private property has become as central and “self-evident” in our culture as the rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Driving through many of our cities and towns, it’s a challenge to identify any truly public space, where all are welcome to use resources as needed and contribute as they are able. Many have lost faith in the Commons, resigned to the cynical belief that everyone is out for his or her self-interest: the “dog-eat-dog” world. If we can find our way back to the Commons, maybe we’ll discover the seeds of much-needed hope, generate new energy through collaborative thinking, and access the tools to implement solutions to some of our most pressing shared difficulties.

Public bathing

Where are our Commons – and why should we care?

Fundamentally, reclaiming the Commons marks a return to “we’re all in this together.” Despite the isolated and fragmented nature of modern society — we move around sealed in our 1-passenger cars from the secured parking garage of our offices to the secured garage outside our single-family house, ordering groceries and other household needs via the internet to eliminate any necessity for interaction with the public — we cannot escape our common fate. The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat are all in peril, and though we may likely escape the worst effects of environmental degradation and climate change, our grandchildren will not.

Many believe building community connection is the key to mobilizing real change. Both small-scale lifestyle changes and bigger-picture activism and legislative change start with talking together, sharing ideas, and generating a sense of togetherness.

Where are your Commons? Start with a walk down your town’s main street, if there is one: the place where you might see pedestrians with baby strollers, wheelchairs, dog walkers, people rushing to work or strolling aimlessly. Are there comfortable, safe park benches where an elderly person could rest? Is there a public bulletin board where a young parent could find an announcement for a local playgroup, or a teenager could find a free class on African drumming or hula hooping? Are there chance meetings of friends, or passersby sharing a nod or a smile as they window shop? If so, you’re lucky: these are part of your Commons. If not, you’re not alone. The trend toward strip malls linked by busy, pedestrian-unfriendly arterials has been strong in recent decades. In many American towns the old core of small shops, town offices, and local resources has disappeared or become neglected in favor of convenience shopping at big-box chains. But the Commons still exists, you might just have to look a little harder.

Library
Stop in at your public library. Browse the new releases, read the newspaper headlines, chat with a librarian about local events. Sit down at a table with other community members and take advantage of the research possibilities, from the archive of periodicals and reference books to the free wireless internet libraries generally offer. Many libraries also host children’s activities, lectures, or discussion groups initiated by motivated volunteers. Community centers are another place for connection and welcome, perhaps offering an exercise class for senior citizens, a parent/toddler drop-in center, or a job-finding workshop. And how about a community garden? In these inclusive green rows, not only are experienced gardeners offering their hard-won wisdom to newcomers, but real food is being grown sustainably, enjoyed by families without their own garden space, and shared with those in need.

These resources thrive most when fully utilized in both directions. Ideally, those who need support can easily access it, while those who are thriving donate a little of their energy towards offering to teach a skill, organize an activity, or simply sit and chat with a neighbor. Similarly, public parks, squares, playgrounds and green spaces are most vibrant when well-used by a broad cross-section of humanity. A deserted plaza is uninviting even on a beautiful spring day, but when seeded with some lively kids, a couple of friends catching up over take-out coffee, and even a drop-in chess game — suddenly it’s a space that draws us in to linger and relax.

Student

The virtual Commons – from local to global

The Internet itself is a new-millenia Commons. Of course the web is widely used for profit-making ventures, both legitimate and shady, but look behind the commerce and you’ll find an immense wealth of information and resources, freely shared. This online Commons is different from the old village-based model: sharing takes place across all cultures, without regard to geography. Individuals who offer their time, knowledge, and hard work to the online Commons never see the majority of people who will benefit. To make such offerings takes a new kind of global spirit, and the ability to conceive of a common good that goes beyond food, shelter, and clean water for all. The modern problems we are faced with are complex and abstract. Luckily, some of our brightest minds are dedicated to investigating solutions in this new collaborative, open, and accessible medium.

Most of us enjoy access to these shared resources without even thinking about it. We turn to Wikipedia for accurate and detailed answers to a bewildering variety of questions from ancient history to current events to the identification of dinosaurs, pop stars, or mushrooms. We use Craigslist to look for a job, a used couch, a childcare provider or bridge club. If we need to brush up on a technical skill, learn a new language, or delve into art history, we might enroll in a MOOC, a free or low-cost online course offered by top professors in well-known universities. The technically-inclined extoll the virtues and virtual riches made available by the “open-source” software movement, in which programmers allow others to freely use their code creations, simply out of a desire to improve others’ experience and make the web a better place. Such household names as the browser Firefox and the Linux operating system have emerged from the open-source platform, and remain free to all.

Narrowing in on environmental issues, the EPA maintains a useful list of “Green Apps”, most of which aim to provide sustainability- or health-related education, easy communication, or quick-reference facts at your fingertips. There are recycling apps, carbon-tracking apps, home-energy-saving apps, birding apps, and much more! Most of these apps are free. Browse the list and plug in — let the convenience of mobile technology support you in being a more responsible environmental steward. Then share your findings via social media!

Though often run by for-profit corporations, popular social networking sites do provide a valued (and hugely popular) Commons for reaching out to those we don’t see every day. With some mindfulness about privacy and the ad-laden pitfalls of the internet, we can safely navigate the online seas and benefit from the new global community found it its depths.

Camels
Many of us remember “The Tragedy of the Commons” from some long-ago history class. In this famous 1968 essay, Garrett Hardin uses the example of the common grazing land to argue that individuals will naturally exploit the commons for maximum personal gain, thereby ruining the resource (in this case by overgrazing, overcrowding, and lack of care and nourishment). Hardin’s idea supports the tenets of capitalism and private property and has gone largely unchallenged — but modern trends, as well as many historical examples, prove Hardin both right and wrong.

In the case of the environment, the earth’s Commons (the air, water, and soil upon which we all depend) have been freely appropriated by private corporations to the fullest extent of their legal ability. The relentless pursuit of wealth has led to widespread devastation and brought us to the brink of catastrophe. Overfishing of our oceans, unchecked carbon emissions into our atmosphere, seemingly unstoppable deforestation and pollution tell a sad tale: the consequences of allowing unlimited access to such precious shared resources are indeed tragic.

But in the midst of our grief and widespread cynicism, a new culture of generosity and cooperation is evolving. The Commons is now being reincarnated as part of a grassroots movement: bringing people together to work toward collective goals. In our new public spaces (both literal and virtual) what stands out is the hard work and dedication offered freely by so many individuals for no obvious personal gain. How, for example, has Wikipedia become such a respected and authoritative reference, curated by experts in thousands of fields, if none of its contributors are paid? These contradictions to our traditional free-market logic invite our curiosity.

Visiting a much-loved swimming hole, we may feel inspired to collect some bits of trash washed up on the shore. Participating in an online forum on our favorite political cause, we may choose to be kind and informative in a response to an opponent, simply to set the tone for civil discussion and tolerance of difference. The healthiest Commons, like the open pastures of another era, are nourished and groomed by their own community.

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Robin Jacobs grew up in the “back to the land” movement in rural Maine, and then made her way to the west coast where she now practices some of the same values of simplicity and sustainability with her husband and daughter. She holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology, with special interests in holistic nutrition and community systems.
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