Book of the Week: All That We Share – A Field Guide to the Commons

As soon as you realize that some things belong to everyone—water, for instance, or the Internet or human knowledge—you become a commoner, part of a movement that’s reshaping how we will solve the problems facing us in the twenty-first century.

* Book: All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, by Jay Walljasper. New Press, 2010

This book is an excellent introduction to the Commons, for a sample chapter see here. Yes Magazine has distilled 51 practical recommendations from it, see here.

Shareable writes that:

“Shareable.net contributor Jay Walljasper is a fellow and editor of onthecommons.org, editor at large for Ode Magazine, and the longtime editor-in-chief of the Utne Reader. His new book hits the Shareable bullseye: “In an accessible field guide format—replete with illustrations, charts, and other visual materials—Things We Share offers an engaging entrée into a broad range of key topics and concepts from the commons movement, which touches everything from natural resources, art, and the environment to technological knowledge, the digital realm, economics, and politics. Veteran progressive journalist Jay Walljasper frames each chapter around a single idea, with additional contributions by other distinguished activists, politicians, and writers.”

“All That We Share covers the full spectrum of the commons around the world from water and wikipedia to streets and public spaces.

Chapters focus on:

  1. What is the Commons
  2. Why the Commons Matters Today
  3. First-Person Tales of the Commons
  4. How the Commons had Endured Through History Down to the Present
  5. Economics
  6. Politics & Social Justice
  7. Our Communities and Public Spaces
  8. Our Environment & Health
  9. Information
  10. What We Can Do to Restore the Commons
  11. A Future Scenario of a Commons-Based Society

Here, author Jay Walljasper responds to three questions about his book:

Please tell us about All that We Share. What inspired you and what did you hope to accomplish?

After many years of writing about social movements and reading all I could about strategies to bring about political and economic reform, I came across an idea that lit up my brain with huge “A-Ha.” It was the commons, which means all that we share—and all the ways we share it. The world is full of priceless things that belong to all of us together—air and water, parks and streets, the Internet and Social Security, recipes and dance steps, on and on. The worldview of the commons offers a fresh new way to think about the importance of social equity, environmental sustainability and community vitality. Eventually I got involved with On The Commons, a strategy center promoting the commons as source of solutions for 21st Century problems, and agreed to edit an introductory guide to the subject—which I envisioned as one big Utne Reader cover story that examines the commons from many perspectives, and includes humor, lists and stories as well as meaty analysis and thorough reporting. All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons is a book that I want to reach out beyond the usual activist crowd to show people from all walks of life how important the commons could be to making a better world. I hope it helps propel the emerging commons movement into becoming a powerful force in the world.

Were there any surprises along the way? What did you learn about the issues, this kind of work, or the movement that you didn’t expect?

The biggest surprise in editing All That We Share was how much people’s understanding of the commons is evolving these days. When I started the book all my colleagues at On The Commons were discussing the subject exclusively as a noun—commons were things like national parks or Wikipedia. But in the two years I worked on it, the commons also became an adjective (as in “commons-based solutions” and “commons-based society”) and a verb (as in “communing”, a way of living based on sharing what we all own together). Somewhere in there, the word “commoners” also came into use to describe people who draw inspiration from the commons and who work to protect it. It was exciting—and occasionally frustrating to try and capture the spirit of a movement that was taking off.

After working on this book, what would you say is your long term vision for a new economy? Any thoughts on how we can get there and ways New Economy Network members can get involved?

This book crystallized for me the understanding that a healthy economy, like a healthy ecoystem, is based upon rich diversity. The economics chapter of All That We Share enthusiastically points to worker cooperatives, state-owned businesses, capitalism 3.0, privately-run trusts, government-run trusts, regulation in the public interest, and entrepreneurship in the public interest as models of the commons in action. The political history of the last 150 years was a battle over who owns the means of production—but the new economy will be focused instead on who benefits from the outcomes. People of all background and incomes must be involved in the decisions that affect their lives and their communities—which rules out systems ruled by corporations or Soviet-style Politburos. But that leaves a lot of room in the middle within which to work, running the gamut from social democracy to socially-responsible business.

There is no single, unified economic theory that holds the commons in its hands. The commons strategy is to (ironically paraphrasing Mao) let a thousand flowers bloom, some finding fresh opportunities within existing structures that can push in the direction of genuine change, others confronting what’s going wrong.

I think hope for a new economy depends on people seeing the world a little differently, imaginiong new possibilities, finding some hope in collaborative action and rolling up their sleeves to get to work on whatever project that inspires—which may likely be right in their community.”

The following Twelve Principles of the Commons serve as a good summary of its message:

1. The commons simply means, as the book title notes, all that we share and how we share it.

It describes valuable assets that belong to all of us. This includes clean air and fresh water; national parks and city streets; the Internet and scientific knowledge; ethnic cuisines and hip-hop rhythms; the U.S. Weather Service and blood banks. But it’s more than just things—it’s also the set of relationship that make those things work. When you stop to think about, many essential elements of our lives exist outside the realm of private property.

2. The commons is not just history, it’s central to our lives today.

The commons touches our lives throughout the day from tap water we use to brush our teeth in the morning to the fairy tales we tell our kids at night. While the phrase comes from the medieval era, describing lands that were open to commoners for grazing and foraging, the bigger idea of the commons—all that we share—never went away; we just forgot about it. Today, people are yearning for something more meaningful than the greedy, harried, disconnected life they see around them. They want to restore common decency, common sense, the common good—a different way of thinking about how the world works. The Internet, for instance, showed a generation of tech-savvy youth how creative and valuable it is to freely share information and culture. For other folks, concern about environmental devastation, mounting poverty or social isolation spurred them to search for new ideas embodied in the commons.

3. The commons offer practical solutions to our daunting economic, environmental and social challenges.

Our constricted focus on what belongs to us privately and our neglect of all that belongs to us together plays a big role in ecological destruction, economic inequity and social breakdown. In looking to the commons, we can find practical solutions to these problems. Cap-and-Dividend, for instance, applies the principles of the commons to the climate change crisis, offering a remedy that curbs CO2 emissions without imposing burdensome energy costs on low- and middle-income people.

4. A growing commons consciousness represents the beginning of a shift from “me” to “we” in modern society.

The current economic crisis shows the foolishness of promoting selfish individualism as the operating system for society. People today are rediscovering the value of what we share in common. Everyone’s net worth includes a number of valuable jointly-owned assets—from air and water to public parks and the Internet—that enrich our lives just as much as what own privately. Public services like libraries, recreation centers and there for us when we can no longer afford new books, health clubs or another car.

5. The commons is under more threat than ever.

The commons are under threat in two serious ways. First is the rampant growth of privatization, which takes these valuable assets away from us and put them in someone’s pocket. This can mean an individual finagling mineral rights on public lands for almost nothing or a corporation taking over essential public services in the name of profit rather than the greater social good. Second, many commons are now grossly neglected or mismanaged because it’s assumed that anything that does not make money is not worth caring about. That’s why so many school buildings are in disrepair, and why a lot of public spaces are rundown and empty.

6. A new commons new movement is emerging to create a brighter future for everyone.

Here’s the good news. More and more people are realizing this, and seeking new cooperative ways to solve problems and seize opportunities. Not everyone doing this thinks of it as commons work, but they are all “commoners”. Bolivians poured into the streets to successfully demand that deals leasing their water supply to foreign companies be scrapped. Facebook users quashed the company’s sneaky plan to claim copyright on everything posted to the site. And folks everywhere are pioneering new ways of sharing with one another, from open source software to public bike programs to informal arrangements with the neighbors. New networks dedicated to protecting and expanding the commons are popping up, including On the Commons (www.OnTheCommons.org).

7. The commons is not an abstract idea, but rather a central element of human civilization.

The commons is more than just a nice idea, it encompasses a wide set of practical measures that offer fresh hope for a saner, safer, more enjoyable future.

At the crux of the commons are four simple goals:

1) serving the common good;

2) ensuring equitable use of what belongs to us all;

3) promoting sustainable stewardship so that coming generations are not left out;

4) creating practical ways for people to participate in shaping their future.

These goals foster a spirit of collaboration and cooperation that result in commons-based solutions to major problems, which work far better for us than remedies based upon ruthless competition and greedy self-interest.

One longstanding commons-based solution is the Texas Permanent School Fund, which devotes proceeds from offshore drilling to the state’s schools. North Dakota operates a state bank that stabilizes the state’s economy, supports worthy projects and saves taxpayer money. It’s one reason the state is enduring the current economic crisis better than any other. Commons-based solutions extend far beyond public policy. Wikipedia arose from a group of Internet activists who saw the potential of people sharing what they know. New Yorkers hungry for more greenery in their neighborhoods planted flowers and trees in abandoned lots, many of which flourish today as cooperative community gardens. A minister in Cleveland, Tracy Lind, opened up her church as a gathering place in a community that suffered a lack of public spaces. Last year more than 80 thousand people came for public events.

8. The commons is not a tragedy.

A famous essay of the 1960s targeted the commons as the cause of environmental and economic ruin because when no one owns a particular resource, no one takes care of it. But in reality—as the work of Elinor Ostrom, a winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics, shows—people devise ingenious systems to ensure that common use does not destroy cooperative resources. She found this to be the case in communities around the world from Kenya to Guatemala to Nepal to Switzerland to Turkey to Los Angeles.

9.The commons is not a new name for communism or big government.

Private enterprise can flourish alongside a healthy commons sector. Indeed, a market economy would be impossible without commons institutions such as the legal system, corporate charters and financial regulations. And government-run institutions such as schools, parks and emergency services comprise only part of the commons. Civic groups, non-profit organizations, community organizations, informal meeting places—indeed, any gathering of people for the common good are crucial elements of the commons.

10.The commons is a central ingredient to human happiness.

Happiness itself is a commons to which everyone should have equal access. That’s the view of Enrique Peñalosa, who is not a starry-eyed idealist given to abstract theorizing. He’s actually a politician, who served as mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. Peñalosa uses phrases like “quality of life” or “social justice” rather than “commons-based society” to describe his agenda of offering poor people first-rate government services and pleasant public places. Peñalosa is passionate in articulating a vision that a city belongs to all its citizens. “The least a democratic society should do,” he continues, “is to offer people wonderful public spaces. Public spaces are not a frivolity. They are just as important as hospitals and schools. They create a sense of belonging. This creates a different type of society—a society where people of all income levels meet in public space is a more integrated, socially healthier one.”

11. The commons thrives thanks to people engated in “commoning”.

At a recent meeting of a common security club in Boston—one of many groups around the U.S. where people come together to discuss ways to help each other get along in these insecure economic times—someone raised the idea of a tool exchange. Neighbors could take inventory of who owns a snow blower, wheelbarrow, extension ladder, hedge shearers, shop vacuum, various drills, shovels, rakes and other gear that folks could share.One man in the group who had grown up in the Virgin Islands said that if he knew that a neighbor back home owned a ladder, he naturally assumed he could use it. No one would think of buying something new if someone they knew that someone already owned one.

This is an example of “commoning”, which means putting the ideas of the commons into practice in your personal life. Commoning is built upon on a network of social relationships (based on the implicit expectation that we will take care of each other) and a shared understanding that some things belong to all of us and must be used in a sustainable and equitable way—which is the essence of the commons itself.

Commoning is built upon on a network of social relationships (based on the implicit expectation that we will take care of each other) and a shared understanding that some things belong to all of us and must be used in a sustainable and equitable way—which is the essence of the commons itself.

12. The commons needs our help. Here’s what you can do.

Start by noticing the commons all around you. This includes valuable assets we all need like ambulance service and the protection of watersheds. It also means recognizing the way people work together for the common good, such as Wikipedia or volunteer community groups.

The next step is to start talking about all that we share and how we share it. From there, it becomes natural to claim the commons, challenging threats to the common good in your community and around the world. After that you’re ready to strengthen and expand the commons in many capacities as a neighbor, citizen, activist, voter, parent, artist or social entrepreneur.”

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