Appreciating the Common Wealth

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.

In 1968, ecologist Garret Hardin wrote an essay for Science Magazine titled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” saying that overpopulation and self-interest would lead to depletion of natural resources. He wrote, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest.”

His title was inspired by the pamphlet of an 1833 British economist, who wrote that if everyone shared common land, there would be no way to curb overgrazing by certain farmers whose herds took more than their fair share. Solutions, Hardin indicated, included government regulation about who gets what, and giving private members of society the rights to own property and resources in order to incentivize the maintenance of long-term sustainability.

In 2009, political scientist Elinor Ostrom became the first woman awarded a Nobel Prize in economics, based on her revisiting of Hardin’s work in 1999. She indicated that the tragedy of the commons was not as difficult to solve as Hardin implied, since local communities are capable of cooperating to solve problems themselves and do not need the management of governments and private owners.

The Commons All Around Us

Between 2001 and 2019, The Commons Magazine and website conveyed the potential of the commons. Essays focused on the value of parks, libraries, public schools, community centers, and coffee shops to connect and inspire members of a community. Several Minnesotans were part of the compilation of stories, which conveyed the collaborative capacity of everyday people to shape their own communities to make the places they live better for everyone.

Rev. Tracey Lind, now-retired dean of an Episcopal cathedral in Cleveland, is quoted in the magazine and website about how sacred places — temples, burial grounds, pilgrimage paths — are open to everyone. “The famous Gothic cathedral of Chartres did not belong to just priests and bishops. It was a part of the whole community,” she said. Lind created the Trinity Commons on the grounds of the cathedral in her inner-city neighborhood, which includes a coffee shop, art gallery, and public square.

The Portland-based Village Building Convergence annually creates place-making and place-justice initiatives. The book “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating a Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World” offers the examples of a group of neighbors in Oakland who tore down their fences to create a commons and a block of neighbors in Baltimore who converted their alley into a public space.

Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, is quoted in another article as saying that wealthier citizens have long had access to places that not everyone else has, including large backyards. In 1976, Colombia is largely considered to have birthed the “open streets” concept, when certain avenues are temporarily closed to cars so that pedestrians, bikers, skaters, and runners can have better access, alongside musicians, fitness instructors, and food vendors.

“Public spaces create a different type of society,” Peñalosa said. “A society where people of all income levels meet in public spaces is a more integrated, socially healthier one.”

The Organized Commons

Sometimes the commons is about authentic democracy in action. It is people who demand that governments and industries cannot pollute public water and lands. It is groups in Brazil, Indonesia, Maine, and Michigan rejecting the appropriation of waters for Nestlé’s bottled brands. It is neighborhood organizers in Minnesota currently fighting legislation that gave Verizon rights to erect powerful 5G towers on any neighborhood street corner. It is the rights of nature movement.

In New York City, starting in the 1960s, community gardens grew out of trash-filled, city-owned vacant lots that the private real estate market considered worthless. “Green guerrillas” began to take over the sites, creating more than 600 gardens, leading to economic and social revival of neighborhoods. In 1999, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani proposed selling 115 of those garden lots to raise money from private investors. Neighbors protested, and 69 of those gardens were retained by the Trust for Public Land for $3 million.

German feminist Marie Mies also spoke of the value of communal gardens. Refugee women in Göttingen, Germany, knew that what they needed for a sense of belonging and agency were plots of land on which to grow food and create public space. In a short time, 70 gardens developed.

Mies articulates that “commodity production” is the goal of capitalism, whereas “subsistence production” directly satisfies human needs. She pointed out the joys of mutual aid often develop in the most oppressed communities. “It is something very positive to discover,” she said in a translated interview from 2005, “that we are entirely capable of collectively producing and organizing our lives with others.”

In short, the commons movement helps us see that “systems” are many pockets of people linked together. People are not merely commodities used in labor transactions to produce goods, or passive tax-paying voters who need politicians and judges to make boundaries.

When basic needs are not met (accessible housing, healing trauma, public safety, body autonomy, healthy food sovereignty), it is people in relationships who create the answers they need.

Caregiving in the Commons

In her 2012 essay “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons,” Silvia Federici writes that capitalism tends to reject the power of communalism. She indicates that institutions accumulate water, seeds, and even our genetic code and privatize them.

“Capitalist accumulation is structurally dependent on the free appropriation of immense quantities of labor and resources … like the unpaid domestic work that women have provided,” she writes. “Urban gardens … are far more than a source of food security. They are centers of sociality, knowledge production, and cultural and intergenerational exchange.”

Federici’s book “Caliban and the Witch” (2004) outlined how women led the struggle against land enclosures during the first phase of capitalist development in England and the early days of the United States. In Peru, after Spanish conquistadores took control of villages, women recreated collective life in the mountains.

Today, she writes, “women are the main social force standing in the way of a complete commercialization of nature, supporting a non-capitalist use of land and subsistence-oriented agriculture. In Africa, they produce 80 percent of the food people consume. In India, the Philippines, and across Latin America, women have replanted trees in degraded forests, joined hands to chase away loggers, made blockades against mining operations and the construction of dams, and led the revolt against the privatization of water.”

Federici also writes of the formation of autonomous, self- managed, women-led banking systems, credit associations, and tontines — “money commons” — from Cambodia to Senegal “that provide cash to individuals or groups that have no access to banks, working purely on a basis of trust.”

Federici, now 80, was born in Italy, came to the U.S. in 1967 to study with a Fulbright scholarship, and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She writes: “In a country where private property is defended by the largest arsenal of weaponry in the world, and where three centuries of slavery have produced profound divisions in the social body,” the commons is how we widen our autonomy.

Addressing caregiving needs is essential. “Despite the efforts that futuristic industrialists are making, we cannot robotize care except at a terrible cost for the people involved. No one will accept nursebots as caregivers, especially for children and the ill,” she writes. “Shared responsibility and cooperative work, not given at the cost of the health of the providers, are the only guarantees of proper care.”

The house is the oikos on which the economy is built, she says, so it is women “who must take the initiative to reclaim the house as a center of collective life, one traversed by multiple people and forms of cooperation, providing safety without isolation and fixation, allowing for the sharing and circulation of community possessions.”

Federici says the goal is not to naturalize housework as a female vocation, but is about “refusing to obliterate the collective experiences, the knowledge and the struggles that women have accumulated … whose history has been an essential part of our resistance to capitalism.”

Caregiving and volunteerism are not measured by anyone. Yet without it, economists tend to acknowledge that industry would fall apart. University of Massachusetts economics professor Nancy Folbre has said: “In our economic system, to go uncounted is to be undervalued. We have inherited an accounting system that measures the productivity of work by its rate of market pay. “

Media and Politics in the Commons

“All That We Share” (The New Press, 2010), showcases examples of how people and economies thrive in the commons. It also outlines what happens when we do not defend those rights.

The book opens with a futuristic scenario of a privatized community. We use Fastrak card machines to go through turnstiles to the sidewalk, operated by a corporation that has a city contract to maintain the system. People wear GPS monitors that charge $1 for every 20 blocks walked, claiming that monitors keep people safe and enable emergency services to track you if you need help. People who want fresher air wear oxygen masks featuring corporate logos. There are no free public restrooms or drinking fountains, but bottled water is available for $6.

In contemporary society, public airwaves have already been commodified. Federal requirements for presenting all viewpoints — the fairness doctrine in communications — were dropped in the 1980s. Radio talk stations, starting with Rush Limbaugh, more than doubled from 1987 to 1993. The new conservative majority in politics approved giveaways of airwaves to media corporations, the book notes, “nearly wiping out any acknowledgement that the airwaves belong to the people and should be managed as a public trust.”

One book contributor wrote: “75 years after the Federal Radio Commission declared there was no room on the public airwaves for ‘propaganda stations’ and denied a license renewal to a station that attacked Jews and law enforcement agencies, the airwaves are filled with propaganda and venom. Today the airwaves, stripped of commons rules, feed hatred.”

The book points out that we tend to forget how industry and generations of families benefit from the commons. In “The American Dream and the Power of Wealth,” sociologist Heather Beth Johnson found that most privileged people recognize the role that financial support from their parents made in providing them with advantages, but “still deeply believe that one’s station in life is determined by individual [not collective] effort.”

There is a reciprocal nature to the commons. It is not about entitlement, or keeping resources separated from others. We are mutually responsible for protecting what we share, and giving back in exchange for what we gain.

Industrial polluters have dumped waste into our natural commons without cost. One suggestion is that we require industries and individuals to pay carbon taxes based on how much fossil-fuel energy they use. The revenue raised could be earmarked for community-based programs, such as nonprofit housing, employee-owned firms, and community land trusts.

Tech entrepreneurs have profited from largely free access to the digital commons space that is the internet. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) reports that in 2020 alone, the internet economy contributed $2.45 trillion to the country’s $21.18 trillion gross domestic product. Much of this leads to small business and self-employment jobs, but the question also can be asked: are there other needs in the commons — such as independent local businesses — that could be supported by industries that have been entitled to generous profits because of public resources?

Alaska residents, for example, receive an annual dividend from the Alaska Permanent Fund, which shares a portion of the state’s oil wealth. This year, Alaska residents will receive $3,200 each, the largest annual payout yet.

Joy in the Commons

On the Commons co-founder Harriet Barlow (now living in California) summed up in “All That We Share” why she calls herself a commoner:

“Each day I walk out of my Minneapolis house into an atmosphere protected from pollution by the Clean Air Act. As I step onto a sidewalk that was built with tax dollars for everyone, my spirits are lifted by the beauty of my neighbors’ boulevard gardens. Trees planted by people who would never sit under them shade my walk. I listen to public radio, a nonprofit service broadcast over airwaves belonging to us all, as I stroll around a lake in the park, which was protected from shoreline development by civic-minded citizens in the nineteenth century.

“Returning home I stop at the farmer’s market, a public institution created by local producers who want to share their fare. The same spirit prevails at our local food co-op, of which I am the owner (along with thousands of others), and at community-run theaters and civic events. These commons-based institutions provide us with essential services, the most important of which is fun. Living in the commons isn’t only about cultural and economic wealth. It is also about joy.”

Recommended Resources

  • “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons,” essay by Silvia Federici,
  • “The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking” (Schumacher Center for a New Economics, 2021), and Frontiers of Commoning podcast,
  • “Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons,” published by
  • “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist,” by Kate Raworth (Chelsea Publishing, 2017),
  • “The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation,” about Elinor Ostrom’s work (Institute of Economic Affairs, 2012)
  • “Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice,” by Jessica Gordon Nembhard (Penn State University Press, 2014)