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The Art of the Commons

(This essay was originally published in Orion Magazine’s spring 2015 issue)

There is a growing recognition that the solutions to some of our greatest struggles are rooted in our relationships to one another. They are built by hand, often slowly, and begin in our communities. From the environment to the economy, conservation to culture, people are developing creative networks to tackle wicked problems at a human scale. New digital tools have helped catalyze many of these efforts, but this tendency towards cooperative, participatory, and equitable problem-solving has a long and rich history.

In his new book, Think Like a Commoner, David Bollier argues that, for too long, this history has been marginalized. His book is an effort to recover the legal, social, and even biological roots of the commons, to dismantle the longstanding myths that have threatened it, and to highlight the diverse peoples’ movements that are embracing it. “Think Like a Commoner” is an in-depth intellectual history of the commons, with real resonance for today.

The commons is most often referenced in terms of the economic and environmental framework of the “tragedy of the commons,” the concept that self-interested individuals will deplete a shared resource. For Bollier, however, the real tragedy is that this parable doesn’t describe a commons at all — it describes an “open-access regime, or a free-for-all.” A true commons is, in fact, defined by its “boundaries, rules, social norms and sanctions against free riders.” Most importantly, a commons is created intentionally by “a community willing to act” to protect and share it.

The process of building that community is the act of “commoning,” and Bollier argues, “there can be no commons without commoning.”

As such, the commons is situational, developing from the character of the resource, the experience of the people, and the unique natural, cultural, and institutional contexts it emerges from. “It embodies certain broad principles — such as democratic participation, transparency, fairness and access for personal use,” writes Bollier, “but it also manifests itself in highly idiosyncratic ways.” This quality of being both general and particular means one can find evidence of the commons in everything from those who share heirloom seeds to those who share software code.

Think Like a Commoner comes at an important moment when people across the political spectrum are increasingly disillusioned with both the market and the state. What is most exciting about Bollier’s book is how he locates groups of people embracing the commons on their own. “Not all of them espouse the commons discourse per se,” he writes. But they “embody its core values: participation, cooperation, inclusiveness, fairness, bottom-up innovation, accountability.”

Bollier positions the commons as a third-way between the free-market and the government, and as a community-driven alternative to the collusion between the two. However, he is clear-eyed about the very real threats of predatory markets that seek to exploit the commons — such as the privatization of water — and aware that government and the legal system have a role to play in enabling and expanding the commons. “The question is not so much whether markets or governments have some role in the commons,” he writes, “but rather to what degree and under what terms.”

The internet’s capacity to facilitate decentralized collective action and mutual aid online are helping inspire and facilitate commons in the physical world.

Think Like a Commoner is rich with ideas and examples, though it lacks stories that make the pragmatic work of building the commons come alive. Interestingly, while the commons is often associated with natural resources, Bollier’s most compelling and detailed stories explore digital and cultural commons. Bollier convincingly shows how the internet’s capacity to facilitate decentralized collective action and mutual aid online are helping inspire and facilitate commons in the physical world.

If the aim of Bollier’s book is, as the title suggests, to help us “think like a commoner,” then it is successful. In the face of a market culture that has “insidiously narrowed our imagination” Bollier’s project is an important corrective. The book is less helpful as an instruction manual to the act of commoning itself — but, Bollier suggests, the best way to learn that is through doing.

In the essay, “Building Arks,” Scott Russell Sanders writes, “A book may be an ark […] ferrying an ethical vision through stormy times.” This is as apt a description as I can imagine for Bollier’s project. “Think Like a Commoner” is an attempt to recover the history of the commons and reveal its potential as a critical response to the storms we are weathering today.


Josh Stearns is the Director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s Journalism Sustainabilty project. Follow him on Twitter: @jcstearns (Image by fakelvis on Flickr, used via CC)

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