Jonathan Rowe Profile

Keeper of the Commons

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Jonathan Rowe has been thinking and writing about the commons throughout his career—indeed, long before he even realized this was the 'mother idea' of his many journalistic interests. Even when writing about baseball, like his 1985 article, 'Bring Back the Havana Sugar King,' reprinted in Utne Reader, Rowe was pondering the idea of common ground; in that case baseball fields, which he believed could soothe tensions between the United States and Cuba.

Rowe, 56, who worked for Ralph Nader in the early ’70s, says that while in Washington, D.C., he became interested in the social value of institutions other than corporations and centralized government. Over the years, this third realm—the commons—has become harder and harder to locate in American life. Now, Rowe says, 'if the commons is going to be reclaimed, it has to start in our own lives. Not as an idea, but as an activity.'

So in 2000, Rowe—along with Peter Barnes, co-founder of the socially responsible long distance phone company Working Assets, and author of the new book, Who Owns the Sky? (Island 2001), and Harriet Barlow, a respected social and environmental activist—created the Tomales Bay Institute, a small 'thought farm' currently focused on promoting the idea of the commons for the 21st century.

Rowe argues that the role of the commons today is to provide respite and refuge from the march of so-called progress: The commons extols quiet instead of noise, rest and stability instead of frenzied and often dubious innovation. Given the uncertainties of these times, Rowe says, 'I really think there is not just an opportunity here, but a necessity, of getting public debate and imagination out of this free-market straitjacket it’s been in for 20 years.'

Rowe, who works out of his home in Point Reyes Station, California, is originally from Massachusetts. A contributing editor at Yes! and The Washington Monthly, and a former staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor, he is co-author, with Edgar S. Cahn., of Time Dollars: The New Currency That Enables Americans to Turn Their Hidden Resource—Time—Into Personal Security and Community Renewal (Rodale, 1992). He’s currently writing a book on the disconnect between the way economists explain the world and the way people experience it.

—Karen Olson