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Think Like A Commoner

This is excerpted from David Bollier’s new book Think Like A Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society Publishers), an engaging and illuminating look at the role of the commons in our lives and the promise of the commons as a way out of many current problems. Bollier, founding editor of OnTheCommons.org, now works on a variety of commons projects with international and domestic partners. The American Academy in Berlin awarded Bollier the Berlin Prize in Public Policy in 2012 for his work on the commons. His wide-ranging commentary can be found at Bollier.org.

David Bollier (Photo by Joi Ito)

The Commons as a Crucible for Localism

A great appeal of the commons is its promise of local self-determination. People are gravitating to the commons because they see it as a way to celebrate and protect their particular local circumstances. A community’s identity is inevitably entangled in its geography and its buildings, its history and its leaders. It is the place where people learn and develop a fuller sense of humanity and ecological responsibility.

Wendell Berry, the poet and ecologist, has put it this way: “Only the purpose of a coherent community, fully alive both in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve, not in opposition but in affirmation and affection, all things needful to make us glad to live.” Or as Berry said on another occasion, quoting Alexander Pope, “Consult the genius of the place in all.”

This approach resonates so deeply with commoners because global commerce has diminished so much that was once distinctive and fecund about individual places. A shopping mall in Bangkok is now the same as ones in Qatar, Germany and the US. Millions of people have gotten so accustomed to getting food from supermarkets, which are supplied by huge corporations with heavily advertised, brand-name foods, that it is sometimes hard to imagine that food was once filled with rich, homegrown, local variety. If you went to Nebraska, you once got Nebraska baked beans. If you went to Georgia, you might get possum and taters. Alabama kitchens would serve up oyster roasts, and Montanans considered fried beaver tail a delicacy. In the West, our relationship to the biological origins of food has been nearly lost.

The Slow Food movement is an attempt to recover some measure of local control over food production and distribution— and in so doing, to recover some of the social satisfactions and stability of living locally. The commons is often invoked in these conversations as a way to help reassert and reconstitute everyday community. The same impulse drives the so-called Slow Money movement, which seeks to make flows of finance more responsive to long-term community needs. The Transition Town movement, which aims to anticipate possible catastrophes stemming from Peak Oil and global warming, also seeks to mobilize local cooperation and citizen innovation to take steps that neither markets nor states seem capable of doing.

Fortifying the local has far-reaching political implications. Again, Wendell Berry said it well: “The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth — that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community — and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and practical means.”

We should not romanticize the local as an easy or automatic solution to the problems caused by global markets, however. The need for responsive “top-down” structures remains. Some collective-action problems can only be solved with appropriate high-level policies or infrastructures. Centralized bodies are often needed to assure a rough equality of opportunity and resources, or to oversee redistributions of wealth. It doesn’t make sense for every community to replicate functions that might be performed effectively (and without harmful externalities) at a state or national level, or even by larger markets. On the other hand, a certain redundancy and inefficiency are essential to a system’s long-term resilience.

For the time being, however, we don’t really have a rich typology of larger-scale commons infrastructures. We don’t really know how to design or build them. Such functions are usually considered the province of government. But I think it is time for commoners themselves to imagine how infrastructures and large governing protocols should be engineered. This could be politically difficult. Governments are jealous of their sovereignty and are not generally predisposed to understand and support commons. The idea of letting bottom-up, network-driven decisions emerge and prevail is threatening to traditional institutions of control. Yet that may be the only way that the energy, imagination and social legitimacy of commoners will be available to solve our myriad problems. We’ve already seen in countless ecological and social crises that the state and market, as constituted, are not up to the job. Let’s begin to acknowledge this simple fact.

The Commons as a New Vision of Development

The capacity to honor the local through commoning suggests that there are better ways to achieve “development” than through economic growth. In this sense, the commons constitutes a new vision of human development. It begins to recognize the failures of conventional economic development strategies, and it takes seriously the idea that people can use commons-based systems to advance their long-term interests. There is currently a great deal of innovation and intellectual ferment surrounding the commons as a new development paradigm.

One example is the role of seed-sharing in helping emancipate traditional farmers from the clutches of volatile global markets. The System for Rice Intensification — an international community of farmers who advise each other on improving yields from organic non-GMO varieties of rice — is another example. The Oaxaca Commune in Mexico, which is forging new ways of communally managing land and other resources in the city of 600,000 people, and the Zapitistas’ innovations in self-government in Chiapas, Mexico is also noteworthy.

The Guassa Community-Based Conservation Area in Ethiopia, managed by the Menz indigenous people, has served as a grazing commons for more than four hundred years. The Menz still collect grass for thatching and wood for cookstoves there. Even though the region does not have any formal protection status, the Menz community has successfully combined its subsistence needs with a respectful coexistence with wildlife, including the most endangered carnivore in the world, the Ethiopian wolf.

These and many other innovations show that the commons can provide a “scaffolding” for exploring realistic alternatives to the (failed) neoliberal vision of development. Commons-based models are not just “policy mechanisms” that are inserted into a situation to “solve” a problem; they generally embody a very different vision of life than that of Western industrialization and consumerism. In Ecuador and Bolivia, buen vivir — “good living” — is a discourse that attempts to name a different development vision and way of being in the world. Buen vivir honors the ideas of community autonomy, social reciprocity, respect for natural ecosystems and a cosmic morality. In various ways, indigenous peoples, traditional cultures and commoners caught up in market systems are trying to express a worldview beyond the rational instrumentalism and economic mentality of market capitalism. In this sense, the commons is not just about managing resources; it’s an ethic and inner sensibility.

This inner conviction ultimately empowers people to take responsibility for the Earth’s resources and to nourish their own sense of stewardship. People discover that it is not only personally enlivening and culturally wholesome to participate in a commons; it is a way to encourage people to set and enforce sustainable limits on markets. Commoning provides a credible alternative to the growth- and consumer-based visions of development peddled by the World Bank. It provides a path for reducing inequality and insecurity in marginalized nations while highlighting the vital role of local ecosystems and commons-based governance.

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