Hidden Treasures You Didn't Know You Owned
Hidden Treasures You Didn't Know You Owned
By David Bollier / yesmagazine.org

Self-organized commons are undergoing a renaissance today as one of the most robust alternatives to modern-day capitalism.


Mention the commons and most people conjure up the image of a bucolic English pasture. The commons were the fields and forests where medieval commoners farmed, raised sheep, gathered firewood, and in other ways met their everyday needs. That was before aristocrats and landed gentry evicted millions of people from their traditional lands and began the large-scale, industrialized abuse of nature.

But commons are alive and well today—not at all medieval and not just about pastures. They most certainly do not result in a “tragedy of the commons,” the term coined by Garrett Hardin in a famous 1968 essay. He argued that any farmer who uses a shared resource like a pasture will have no reason to limit his use, inevitably resulting in the overuse and ruin of the resource.

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But the problem is that Hardin was not describing a commons. A commons consists of a community with rules, social norms, and accepted practices for managing a shared resource. Hardin was describing a free-for-all in which there is no community, no rules, no communication, and no punishment of “free riders”—in truth, something more akin to a free market. Commons are typically run by a group of people who choose to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use, and stewardship.

Self-organized commons are undergoing a renaissance today as one of the most robust alternatives to contemporary capitalism. They include such diverse endeavors as seed-sharing cooperatives in India, community gardening in major cities, open source software programming, D.I.Y. hackerspaces, FabLabs, scientific disciplines that publish their research in open-access journals, and local food initiatives such as community supported agriculture, Slow Food, and permaculture.

The “Invisible” Commons

Commons remain mostly invisible in modern life, at least in the United States, because our mainstream political language is so fixated on markets and government. Even though an estimated two billion people around the world rely on commons—forests, fisheries, farmland, water, and other natural resources—for their livelihood, introductory economics textbooks ignore the commons.

This “invisibility” makes commons highly vulnerable to outright theft and seizure by what I call the “Market/State”—the deep alliance between corporations and the investor class who work hand-in-glove with elected officials and bureaucracies. Both the market and state share a deep commitment to the premise of neoliberal economics that human progress is best served by privatizing and monetizing everything.

The idea that people may actually choose to cooperate with each other in managing important resources is “irrational” to economists.

This ideology has given rise to the private plunder of our common wealth: the privatization of groundwater for branded bottled water, the patenting of the human genome, and the replacement of shareable agricultural seeds with proprietary GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that must be bought year after year.

The conversion of our shared resources into private commodities is often called “enclosure”—a term that originated from the English gentry’s seizure, in the 16th–19th centuries, of village pastures, forests, and waterways for their private use and profit. Dispossessed of the resources they needed to survive, millions of commoners migrated to cities like London and Manchester, where they became paupers, beggars, and wage slaves in the emerging industrial order.

Enclosures are not a distant historical curiosity, however; they are a defining feature of our modern political economy. They can be seen in attempts by telecoms, cable companies, Google, and Facebook to control Internet traffic; in Big Pharma’s privatization of taxpayer-financed research to produce new drugs; in television broadcasters’ free use of our airwaves; and in construction on wetlands, shorelines, and other ecologically sensitive areas. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, investors and hedge funds are seizing vast areas of forests and farmlands from traditional communities that have managed them for generations—a savage replay of the English enclosures.

All of this is justified by economists as essential to “wealth creation,” as pursued through private property rights and markets. The idea that people may actually choose to cooperate with each other in managing important resources, and to reap their gains in nonmonetary forms, is “irrational” to economists. It flies in the face of the stereotype of human beings as homo economicus, a utility-maximizing, self-interested creature.

What we might call the Commons Sector is pioneering the idea of stewardship over ownership. Cooperative activity that bypasses predatory markets and centralized bureaucracies is developing a new vision of “development” beyond consumerism and capitalist “progress.” Here are a few examples of this diversified, alternative realm of “common wealth.”

Subsistence Commons

Traditional commons usually revolve around natural resources—gifts of the earth that must be actively managed for the survival and well-being of all. These are the commons of history and the ones most studied by contemporary academics.

The recurring question is, how should access and use of shared resources be managed? How can free-riding and abuse of a commons be prevented? What governance systems work best?

Specific communities have explored such questions through trial and error and active stewardship over long periods of time. This has produced socio-ecological systems that blend social customs and practices with the natural dynamics of a river, forest, or farmland. This is why commons tend to be so eco-friendly over time.

In New Mexico, native Hispanic Americans have managed community-based waterways known as acequias since the 1600s. This “biocultural” institution has shown how even in a very dry region such as the American Southwest, a commons can align community usage of water with ecological limits. Remarkably, acequias have the sanction of New Mexico state law. All acequia members are expected to participate in maintenance responsibilities—it is the community itself that manages and protects the water supply.

While nearby towns in New Mexico are plagued by unchecked suburban development and voracious demands for water, the acequias have succeeded in allocating their water allotments to meet people’s needs fairly while conserving soil and water, recharging aquifers, and preserving wildlife and plant habitat.

Subsistence commoners take only what they need while protecting the resource. To develop this ethic of sufficiency is a singular achievement in modern times.

Indigenous Peoples’ Commons

A decade ago, Peruvians created the Potato Park as a “landscape conservation commons” so that indigenous tribes of the Andes could have full stewardship rights over a tremendous diversity of native potato species and varieties. This was a major achievement because multinational ag-biotech firms were eager to acquire patents on some of the 900 genetically valuable potato varieties that Andean tribes had developed over thousands of years.

Officially known as an Indigenous Biocultural Heritage Area, the Potato Park authorizes 7,000 villagers from six indigenous communities to jointly manage their communal land for their collective benefit—protecting their livelihoods from “development” (especially international patents and trade) while conserving the agro-ecological landscape.

India and Southeast Asia are home to another type of indigenous peoples’ commons, the many “traditional knowledge commons” (or “TK commons”) that protect and use highly specialized types of knowledge about local plants and medicinal treatments. Some multinational companies are attempting to appropriate this knowledge in order to patent it for genetically engineered crops or drugs—a type of enclosure often known as “biopiracy.” In India, there have been notorious cases in which multinational companies tried to patent neem seeds and turmeric. Such commercialization poses a serious threat to TK commons because people may be reluctant to contribute to a commons if they fear that their knowledge could be taken and sold for money.

Legal scholar Rebecca Tsosie has noted that indigenous peoples’ commons tend to reflect “a perception of the earth as an animate being; a belief that humans are in a kinship system with other living things; a perception of the land as essential to the identity of the people; and a concept of reciprocity and balance that extends to relationships among humans, including future generations, and between humans and the natural world.”

Indigenous peoples’ commons have been remarkably hardy precisely because they are socio-ecological models that focus on long-term social relationships, not impersonal market transactions.

Social and Civic Commons

Human beings’ natural propensity to cooperate is a powerful source of innovation that has given rise to a rich variety of social and civic commons. That is demonstrated by the many thriving commons of creative works and knowledge on the Internet.

Cities are an especially fertile environment for social commons because of their great diversity and density of people.

Besides the dramatic expansion of free and open source software, some of the most significant digital commons include hundreds of millions of document, video, and music files that can be shared under Creative Commons licenses; more than 10,000 open-access journals that are free to use and copy in perpetuity; the extensive music remix and video mashup communities; and collaborative websites and archives such as Wikipedia and its hundreds of offshoots.

The Internet is also spreading “collaborative consumption” as a new hybrid sector of the market economy. Artfully designed web systems let people coordinate the (cash-based) “sharing” of cars, rides, bikes, and tools. One of the more remarkable Internet-based gift economies is CouchSurfing, a free, informal system of overnight hospitality used by travelers (and the people who host them) in more than 97,000 cities and towns around the world.

Cities are an especially fertile environment for social commons because of their great diversity and density of people. San Francisco has been something of a leader. After Shareable magazine issued a policy paper, “Policies for a Shareable City,” Mayor Ed Lee appointed a Sharing Economy Working Group to explore ways to encourage a “shareable city.” Among the ideas: resource-sharing among citizens (ride sharing), co-production assisted by the city government (urban agriculture), and mutual aid among citizens (eldercare).

In Naples, Italy, Mayor Luigi de Magistris has appointed an Assessor of the Commons to take account of local commons systems and has rallied municipal officials throughout Italy to improve city government support for local commons. The city is also exploring an alternative to the public/private partnership—the public/commons partnership, in which the city contracts with self-organized collectives to manage such resources as parks and other urban amenities.

Gift Economies

The international “time banking” movement (sometimes known in the United States as “time dollars”), is a great example of a social commons. It’s a system that lets people earn “time credits” for providing services to others in their communities. Examples include mowing lawns, babysitting, providing household help, or driving someone to a medical appointment. People can then spend their time credits for other services provided by members of the community.

Blood and organ donation systems have often been likened to a “gift economy” in which people give with no expectation of direct personal benefit, out of a sense of social duty or as a tribute to loved ones. Some famous studies show that gift economies for blood and organs are more likely to avoid the ethical conflicts that can plague markets.

Academic disciplines are a significant, highly productive social commons. Researchers do not generally use cash or legal contracts to exchange knowledge; their universities and disciplines amount to hosting infrastructures for gift economies. A discipline advances through a community ethic of sharing, open debate, and peer review, not cash purchases among individuals.

Markets usually do not nourish elevated ethics because they typically focus on transactions. Relationships tend to be impersonal, fixed-term (or one-time) in nature and based on a strict “even-steven” exchange of value.

In gift economies, as Lewis Hyde noted in his classic book The Gift, social boundaries are blurred or even eradicated through gift exchange. There is no self-serving calculation of whether the value given and received is strictly equal; the point is to establish ongoing social relationships and sympathies. So long as gifts continue to circulate among people, without a clear reckoning of what one is “owed,” the social commons thrives.

This brief survey can’t truly do justice to the variety of commons in the world. But it can help us reimagine a working, inclusive society beyond neoliberal economics. A commons is quite literally something that money can’t buy. It is something that people—perhaps you and others—must make together; the seed for a very different kind of world.


David Bollier wrote this article for The Power of Story, the Summer 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. David is an author, activist, blogger, and independent scholar of the commons. This article is derived from his recent book, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society Publishers).

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Hidden Treasures You Didn't Know You Owned