The Real History of the Commons and Today's Environmental Crisis

If we don’t teach students the real history of the commons, they’ll have a hard time recognizing what—and who—is responsible for today’s environmental crisis.

| May/June 2013

  • History of the Commons
    The growth of industrial capitalism has always been predicated on the private enclosure of the natural world. And these enclosures have always met with resistance.
    Illustration By David McLimans

  • History of the Commons

In the wake of superstorm Sandy and a presidential election in which both candidates essentially ignored climate change, it’s time that our schools begin to play their part in creating climate literate citizens.  

Hurricane Sandy, and the superstorms that will certainly follow, are not just acts of nature—they are products of a massive theft of the atmospheric commons shared by all life on the planet. Every dollar of profit made by fossil fuel companies relies on polluting our shared atmosphere with harmful greenhouse gases—stealing what belongs to us all.

Most U.S. and world history textbooks teach students to ignore the role of nature in history. But students need to know the environmental history of our current climate crises, including how nature was turned into a commodity to be bought and sold, and used for private profit. If we don’t, they’ll have a hard time recognizing what—and who—is responsible for today’s environmental crisis.


Raj Patel defines the commons in his excellent book The Value of Nothing:

A commons is a resource, most often land, and refers both to the territory and to the ways people allocate the goods that come from that land. The commons has traditionally provided food, fuel, water, and medicinal plants for those who used it—it was the poorest people’s life-support system.  

Jim Noord
4/23/2013 10:16:59 AM

Elections have consequences. The biggest problem facing this nation is voter fraud. ?If the "masses" votes were indeed counted, the problems would disappear. If ANYONE thinks DI-Fi is "voted" in, time to get a new brain. same with people like "dingy Harry Reid, Boehner, and most of the rest. President really doesn't matter. Checks and Balances can keep him at bay, or support him. Real problem is congress and it's lack of accountability to the electorate. Instead of immigeation "reform" we just need ot enforce the laws we have. deport the illegals, build facilities to HUMANELY help those with mental and physical needs, and require voter id at the polls (totally free cards or other to prove "one person one vote". Finally term limits per person and immediate family (parents / siblings / etc. Get rid of generatkional politicians. force them to skip a generatkion of people to give everyone a chance. AND limit of 2 terms for congress, 1 for senate. AND no lifetime "gravy train of benefits and retirement for ANY elected official. do that, and all will repair itself (Oh, also, make lobbying a Class 1 Feleony minimum 15 years prison, and accepting "bribes" same.

kate s
4/22/2013 9:55:32 PM

Also interesting is Jared Diamonds continuing research into tribes/groups in New Guinea. Everything is owned, just like here. Nature is owned and woe betide the trespasser. The difference seems to lie in the lack of an overarching power structure that claims all for itself. Because the inhabitants live so closely with nature, and know the production, they do not chop down the fruiting tree and expect it to be there next year. It is precisely because we are removed from this cycle that we can delude ourselves it will be there next year even if we chop it down.

kate s
4/22/2013 6:25:13 PM

How are young people to recognize this? Exactly. With the hindsight of 66 years, I now see that our history is what we don't live. Maybe why we continue to make war.

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