An Introduction to the Commons

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Photo Sarah Whiting

We have become so accustomed to thinking that everything is owned by someone.

In the 1990s, the Bush Administration was promoting the idea of the ownership society that would put more assets and choices into the hands of property owners. My husband Jay and I had long been involved with the Utne Reader, which ran a story by On the Commons fellow Jonathan Rowe. He wrote that our hidden wealth — our life support system — is in common spaces and communal actions. This is overlooked by media, which tends to focus on government and industry.

Rowe wondered why we had begun to define progress as replacing Main Streets with shopping malls. “Forests are worthless until they become timber. … Put commoners in charge of the air, let us charge polluters for using it, and we will see a lot less pollution than we do now.”

Reading that essay was a lightbulb moment for us. Jay and I became committed to the realization that our greatest joys are taken for granted and overlooked.

We learned that a significant shift began when more than 7,000 “enclosure” acts were passed by the British Parliament, over several hundred years, stripping commoners of their land, turning it into real estate for owners, and requiring the displaced to work as labor.

How could we rebalance that shift?

We began to work in earnest on building conversations around the commons. Jay began to write about what he was learning in European countries, where they are ahead of the United States in reclaiming the commons. I began to experiment with how to help people see what had become invisible to most of us. What I found is that by talking about water — the importance of clean flowing rivers and unpolluted drinking water — people began to understand the concept. Why were companies allowed to dump waste products in our water, or allowed to bottle it up and sell it back to us as drinking water in plastic containers?

Currently I am working with Minnesotans on recognizing our shared responsibility to give emerging generations access to healthy soils.

We have an upside-down narrative that seems to allow a few people and institutions to profit from the public spaces we care for.

Some things cannot be owned.