Celebration of the Commons

February 22, 2024

The Garden

In the class of “better late than never” — or hopefully in that class anyway — I spent some time planting this week. Last weekend was about 30°F warmer than February averages. On Saturday, I peeled the snow off of the bed that runs along the back door garden path to let the ground thaw in the near 60°F warmth. On Sunday, I put the bulbs that never got planted last year into the ground. I don’t know if this will work, but I wanted to try. At worst, they’ll just rot in the ground, giving the soil a little nutritive burst. But I think they might actually grow. I’ve had them sitting on my unheated back porch, so they’ve had plenty of chill hours. They are also still hydrated and firm. So I may have daffodils and ornamental alliums to brighten up what is the main entrance to my house (the front door being rather difficult to access even when there isn’t two feet of snow on the ground).

On Sunday, I also brushed off the cold frame and planted greens and radish seeds. This too may or may not work. If we go back to dismal grey skies and normal-ish February temperatures, it might not be warm enough even under the glass. But if it stays above normal, which seems likely, then I don’t want to wait too long to plant the cold season veg in there. Come the equinox, it may be too hot and the plants might just bolt to seed without producing yummy leaves or roots. Now, I am staring at the dark soil every day, mouth watering in anticipation of spring — please, something other than stew! In fact, I am already starting to crave strawberries. It is way too early for that, but both the planting and the craving gives me something to look forward to.

This week, I also did my annual refocusing on the garden goals before ordering any new seeds or plants. This last is mostly just going to be herbs for the mound. I have definitely decided to go with perennials and a few dwarf fruit trees. I have been slowly stomping through the snow trying to prune the bank on the south side of the mound. This is proving dangerously difficult. There is no way to keep safely perched on the steep incline, especially with sharp loppers in my hands. I’ve slid down the hill more than once, luckily with nothing harmed but my pride. (Though I’m sure the resultant swearing burned the ears of those within audible range…) I am not doing this again. I need to get rid of what is on that bank and most of what is at the bottom of it.

To that end, I am going to plant gourds and ornamental pumpkins on the bank as well as deeper in the jungle. I may also put in some aggressive things like applemint, catnip, and lemon balm. I would rather these short spreaders ramble all over the bank than the virgin’s bower, speckled alder and male sumac. And if the spreaders also wander into the jungle, this wouldn’t be a bad thing. Maybe they can take out the fruitless wild plum (or whatever it is). In fact, when I had an orchard, I planted these strong smelling herbs under the fruit trees to deter rodents, deer and pest insects, attract the pollinators that love the sweet flowers on these herbs, and inhibit tall growth that would shade the sapling trees. Mint, in particular, is one of the few plants that ticks will avoid, and ticking off the ticks seems a good goal out there.

In any case, I’ve refocused on my goals again, and remembered that the key thing is that I want this refashioned jungle to provide for more than me. It is good to bear that in mind… Last summer was so much fruitless work, I almost decided to just give up, let it revert to a tangle of invasive plants that benefit nobody. Not even themselves… because nothing is particularly healthy out there and it seems to be supporting less and less life each year. Except for the pestilential squirrels and ticks and a prolific groundhog family. So it’s good to remember, that I’m building as much for the future and for other beings as I am for myself. I am building a common, in the broadest sense of the word.

I believe deeply in the commons. I believe it is the only true economic expression of all this interconnected biophysical reality. Those who call my views naivety are either being intentionally misleading or they are missing out on some fundamental features of both our current economic structures and the biophysical world.

Followers of Garrett Hardin and his upside-down “tragedy of the commons” want us to distrust the commons. They raise the specter of the “freeloader” who comes in and takes and takes and takes until the system collapses. With a perfectly straight face they tell us that privatization prevents this tragedy — as if we can’t plainly see that the lords of enclosure are the freeloaders.

Our current system of ordering the wealth of the world is built on freeloading. For starters, we have this large group of people who do all the work and produce all the wealth. Then we have a smaller group that takes all the productive rewards. That’s sort of the definition of freeloading. And that is capitalism. That is what privatization does by design. A freeloader comes in and declares it his right to take from a healthy, productive and pre-existing system — whether it be a forest, a field of fertile soil, an oil deposit, or any other functional part of the body of this Earth — until there is nothing left to take and the system collapses. That, in a nutshell, is what enclosure has done to this planet — taken from the system until it has collapsed.

And then remember that there is no actual privatization that is not drawing on commonwealth. There is no undertaking that does not depend on the air and water that all beings and all places on this planet share. There is no draining the fertility of the soil that does not draw on nutrient cycling from far beyond the farm’s bounds in place and time. There is no knowledge that does flow from the wisdom of billions of nameless others. There is no work done that does not utterly depend upon the care work given freely to each new generation. Private wealth is a lie. It is not a thing. It is a biophysical impossibility. And we all know this.

I don’t know if Hardin was trying to divert attention away from these fundamental flaws in capitalism with hand-waving and projection, or if he really couldn’t see. I suspect he’s a bit too aware to be unaware of the distortions he created. I think his logical errors were probably intentional lies. In any case, it doesn’t matter because we know he’s wrong and there’s no reason to pay him any further attention.

But there are still squawkers claiming to be “realistic” and “pragmatic,” shoving that damned freeloader in our faces every time someone dares to prominently point out that commoning works and works better than anything in our current system. They stand to lose too much if we take away their free and privileged access to the planet’s wealth. When we declare all to be held in common — as it actually is in reality — then we take away their private privilege. So they squawk on about how society will all fall apart, collapsing into a nightmarish, social-Darwinian dystopia.

Why do we even listen? As soon as anyone trots out those words — pragmatic, realistic — we can bet that the real goals are to protect privileged status and deeply inequitable wealth accumulation. Pragmatism, these days, seems to mean propping up the current system in all its impractical dysfunction at all extravagant costs. Realistic means sticking fast to the screen the privileged hold up between their sham ideas and the real world, never looking at the real world directly, but only looking at what they want us to see, what will enable them to remain in power.

I talk as though this is some sort of conspiracy, but really it’s not. It’s just a lot of stupid, selfish people acting as infants will, generally without malice. Perhaps most are even blinded by their own ideas and words. Blinded by the system that benefits them. Blinded by their comfortable privilege.

Whatever the truth of their intentions, the effects of their actions are to draw attention quite off what they are doing and the lies that support their lives. So it falls to those who are not fooled — and who have no interest in the system whatsoever — to draw aside the curtain. That is what this garden project is. My version of declaring commonwealth the true nature of the world, human and more than.

I’ve been warned that people will come in and take from the common garden until there is nothing left to take. To which I respond, “How?” Even if a guy figures out how to transport all that bulk by himself, the rewards of taking all the fruit are completely removed when fruit is a common. If there is nobody willing to pay the free-hoarder for stolen apples, for example — because everybody has apples for free — then there is no gain to hoarding the apples. He can’t sell them. He can’t even eat them all himself before they rot. He’s left with a large pile of deliquescing stink — that he had to work rather hard for! Piling up apples is hard and heavy work! Does this really sound like a realistic story?

And that’s apples. Apples actually do store fairly well. It might be possible to slowly work through the pile by eating them. However, the example that is more often trotted out is fish. This parable goes something like this: a fishing crew will take fish beyond what they need and well beyond the future sustainability of the fishery because they are rewarded today for taking more fish. Nobody ever points out that this story is predicated on the crew selling all the fish. If they can’t find a buyer for that fish, then the benefits of each additional catch very quickly become overwhelmed in stench. Taking fish over and above what can be eaten in your local market is just creating a huge mess for yourself — and working hard to create it.

(Note that there can still be fishing crews selling their catch in a commons system… they are not selling fish; they are selling their labor and skills.)

So this parable is completely, foolishly, baseless. Even in this capitalistic world, the commons are not raped unless there is a guaranteed market for the plunder. And we are that market… so… let’s not be?

Let’s grow apple trees everywhere, with fruit free for all. Then there is no market for apples. There is no reward to stealing apples. And nobody ever takes more apples than they can actually eat. Because excess apples are not a benefit.

Now, there are irrational crazies in every group of humans. It’s how we created this ridiculous system, after all. Some stupid human long ago had to take all the apples and then find someone even stupider to buy the stolen apples. And that’s been happening ever since, until now we think crazy is rational — though it’s obviously just stupid. But in other systems that didn’t accept the crazy we can see how crazy is kept in control.

The economist, Elinor Ostrom, showed us quite plainly that crazy, whenever and wherever it erupts, is immediately beaten with large sticks and hounded right out of the commonwealth. But you don’t have to take the word of a Nobel Prize-winning social scientist. You can experience commons culture yourself. There is the sophisticated acequia system of New Mexico that does a fine job of regulating itself and policing out all the crazy (sometimes a little too enthusiastically…). This system has been the functional way of dividing up water in the desert for hundreds of years. And it functions perfectly well — even embedded within the crazy logic of capitalism!

But to get a more common flavor of crazy policing, consider the fire hydrant in July. Anyone with a wrench and nominal biceps can turn on the flood of refreshing water. And this does happen occasionally — but only with common consent, when the whole neighborhood agrees to let it flow. Why not more often? The hydrant is not closely guarded by official law enforcement. The technology to get at the water is easy to use and ubiquitous. Why don’t we have flowing hydrants on every corner on every hellish Dog Day of the summer?

Because we police ourselves. We restrict ourselves. We do not act on our selfish instincts without limits. We police ourselves when old ladies dodder down the street, frowning at grandchildren, nieces and nephews, if any dare step a toe out of line into crazy-town. We police ourselves when mom reminds her youngsters that the hydrant can’t quickly and easily be used to douse a fire if it’s flowing when the firetruck shows up. We police ourselves when we recognize that the risk to ourselves is greater than the short-term pleasure we might get from opening up the tap. We police ourselves in knowing that such common goods, when squandered, become private bads.

And this is true of all common goods. It is only the crazy logic of a capitalist market that wrenches any benefit out of waste. Short-term gain is never a real gain. It never is anything but an inevitable hurt that even those who benefit today will suffer tomorrow. Maybe that hurt is a pile of stinking fish. Maybe that hurt is a biophysical system in collapse… But we know that hurt will come, and we police ourselves quite effectively against causing that hurt — when The Market isn’t causing logical distortions.

So my jungle remediation is a reminder of reality, a clearing away of the distortions. With a little effort and expense from me, there will be this common good that everyone can use. They can use it to meet their needs, and they can use it to escape the crazy logic. They won’t need to go to The Market to feed themselves. And this little patch of commonwealth will plainly show just how stupid privatization is.

Pay a freeloader for free apples? No thanks, we’ll say. Deal with that mess yourself, you “pragmatic” idiot. I have all the apples I want. Because someone practical planted these trees…

Imagine how quickly it will all implode if all we did was create commonwealth gardens!

©Elizabeth Anker 2024

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.