Fanfare for the Commons

The atmosphere and oceans, the air waves and sky, public squares, peace, quiet, open space, the Internet, the genetic substrata of life itself; these are the things that we all own, our inheritance as residents of planet Earth

| January/February 2002

My wife grew up in what Western experts call a 'developing' country. The social life of her village in the Philippines revolved largely around a tree. People gathered there in the evening to visit, tell stories, and just pass the time. Some of my wife’s fondest childhood memories are of playing hide-and-seek late into the evening while parents chatted under the tree.

The tree was more than a favorite meeting place. It was a productive asset, if we can reclaim that phrase from the economics profession. It produced strong bonds between neighbors, a lively exchange of information, and an opportunity for kids to experience something scarce in the United States today—an unstructured setting for play. In modern society, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on everything from sports stadiums to intricate computer networks trying to replicate such essential social functions, generally with less positive effect.

Yet most Western economists would regard this tree and the community that gathers around it as a pathetic example of underdevelopment. They would urge 'modernization,' which ultimately means replacing the tree’s function with an assortment of new activities in which money changes hands and commercial messages prevail. People would stay at home and watch television. Corporate-produced entertainment would displace local culture. Kids would gather at a fast-food place or video-game arcade.

The result would be celebrated as 'economic growth.' Money would be made. Yet side effects would gradually appear: debt, the sex and violence of commercial entertainment, a weakening of community bonds, a growing distance from the natural world, the obesity and disease that come from a lifestyle hailed as progress.

This tree in a remote village symbolizes the richness of the commons, which is the inheritance that we all share as inhabitants of this Earth. Modern society overlooks the commons as a source of human and ecological well-being. Almost everywhere today, it is subject to degradation and abuse. A whole set of problems facing the world, from environmental destruction to the breakdown of community, arise in large part from the relentless but unrecognized destruction of the commons.

The idea of the commons often evokes a puzzled pause. You mean the government? The common people? That park in downtown Boston? The commons is the vast realm that lies outside of both the economic market and the institutional state, and that all of us typically use without toll or price. The atmosphere and oceans, languages and cultures, the stores of human knowledge and wisdom, the informal support systems of community, the peace and quiet we crave, the genetic building blocks of life—these are all aspects of the commons.

Some are gifts of nature; others are the collective product of human creativity and endeavor. Some, such as the Internet, are new. Others are as ancient as folklore and cooking. But they all 'belong' to all of us. No one has exclusive rights. We inherit them jointly, and they are more basic to our lives than either our economic system or the government. One can imagine life without a Commerce Department or, but not without a shared language and clean water. This implies a large responsibility. We are 'temporary possessors,' wrote statesman Edmund Burke, and we 'should not think it amongst [our] rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance.'

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