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Jonathan Rowe's Meditations on Markets, Commons and the Human Condition

It’s been two years since my dear friend and commons activist Jonathan Rowe went to the gym, came down with an illness and unexpectedly passed away at age 65.  Jon was one of the cofounders, in 2002, of the Tomales Bay Institute, later renamed On the Commons.  Over the course of the next ten years I learned a great deal about the commons from my many conversations with Jon and from his unfailingly beautiful essays and blog posts.  It is a bittersweet experience to re-encounter Jon’s work in all its understated glory in a new book just published. 

Our Common Wealth:  The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work (Berrett-Koehler) consists of 22 short pieces that Jon wrote for various magazines and Onthecommons.org.  The book offers a series of meditations on various aspects of the commons, markets, property and the human condition.  Each of them is brisk, passionate and lucid. 

If you’re not familiar with Jon, you may want to sample his writings at the website established in his memory after his death, www.jonathanrowe.org. You should also read the book, which will stand as an elegant, sensitive introduction to the commons for years to come. 

I’m grateful to my commons colleague and friend Peter Barnes for foraging through Jon’s eclectic and diverse writings to edit this volume.  Peter, who worked with Jon and me, is the originator of the cap-and-dividend / Sky Trust proposal for curbing climate emissions.  (See his books, Who Owns the Sky? and Capitalism 3.0.)  Peter wrote the book’s introduction, and Bill McKibben and I have small cameos as writers of the book’s foreword and afterword, respectively.

While many publishers might be wary of bringing out what might be seen as a “tribute book,” Jon’s essays shine forth as underappreciated gems that will have a timeless appeal.  He was that good a writer. 

What impressed me about Jon was how he drew upon a rich well of political activism, Washington contacts and top-flight journalists while living a fairly simple life in the rural village of Point Reyes Station, California.  It gave him time to think and reflect on contemporary political culture, and it made his commentary that much more penetrating and deep.  For a fuller account of Jon’s life and career, you may want to read the appreciation that I wrote two years ago, shortly after his death. 

A Wendell Berry quotation that opens the book nicely encapsulates Jon’s personal philosophy:  “A proper community….is a commonwealth:  a place, a resource, an economy.  It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members – among them the need to need one another.”  Jon’s special gift was bringing an open and humane sensibility to bear on some of the most hard-bitten political and policy issues of our time, helping us to see the spiritual and ethical dimensions of the commons.  Yet he was never preachy or doctrinaire.  Like any great poet, it was almost as if what he didn’t  write on the page was as important as what he did write. 

It’s a joy to hear Jon’s voice again:

On the marketization of childhood:  “The culture of childhood is another commons that has been invaded.  Not long ago, kids played their own games.  They were weaned on centuries-old stories that spoke to them at a deep emotional level.  Storytelling in families established a bond between generations and provided a window to the adult world.  Today this cultural ecosystem is dying.  Kids are immersed in narratives constructed for the purpose of making them want things.”

On the disappearance of time:  “There is a symbiosis, and also a competition, between the market and the commons for our finite time as living beings.  In recent decades, however, the distribution between the two sectors has gotten seriously out of whack.  The market has been claiming more and more of our time, just as it has been claiming more of nature.”

On the deceptions of the pricing system:  “What is called economics today is the world as seen through the myopic lens of money.  If something is transacted through money it has reality; if not, it doesn’t exist.  It makes no difference that trees provide shade and neighbors provide comfort.  Neither is sold for money, and therefore they don’t count.  As a result, the more our economy displaces that which is free with commodities we have to pay for, the more the economy ‘grows’ and the better life gets, or so we are told.”

On the betrayal of traditional conservatism:  “In recent decades, conservatism – the kind that respects community, locality, tradition and virtue – has been displaced by a phony kind that is politically expedient and cynical to the core.  It channels the conservative impulse into a few red-meat issues – abortion, gays, school prayer – that pose no threat to the bankrollers of either party.  Thus, one does not often hear a Fox News commentator talk about the limits of the market, as opposed to what else should be given over to it.  What this phony ‘movement’ really professes is not conservatism but the opposite – a belief that it is okay to waste the patrimony so long as somebody makes money doing it.  Edmund Burke would be turning in his grave.”

One of the most moving pieces in the book is Jon’s account of how he converted an empty lot next to the town bakery into an ad hoc commons.  It was a simple idea:  fix up some old garden benches and move them, along with some tree stumps, onto the lot.  He writes:  “Without any marketing or hype, people quickly started using the benches, talking and sipping or just resting their feet.  I was hoping for something like that.  What I didn’t anticipate was how good I’d feel.  The people sitting there don’t know where the benches came from, but I do.  My son, who helped me paint them, feels great pride as well.  Part of the hidden narrative of the commons is the rewards it gives to those who make it better.”

The empty lot was privately owned, and so people were concerned that the owner might shut it down or “develop” it at some point.  Fortunately, the West Marin Commons, a group that Jon co-founded, formally leased the space after it became the de facto town commons.  It is now informally known as Jon Rowe Park.

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