The Invisible Commons

By Dale Olen

As a society we have been blind to the elephant in our midst (and I don’t mean Republicans).  The blind spot in our societal space is the Commons.
Our society, like most modern societies, contains three parts:
·      Government
·      Corporations/Business
·      Commons

Today we see only government and business. In fact, they are partners in making life very good for a few people in the world community. They don’t much care about the rest of human or nature-kind.  But this is where the commons dwell. In fact, governance and industry/business stand upon and grow because they rely on the resources of the commons.

So, why don’t we see the commons?  Because we give power to what we focus on.  The media, corporate ads, and the stories they tell make us notice them. When did you ever see a TV ad on air or water or land?  When did the commons ever have a lobbying voice to fight for the ear of a representative or senator?   

The commons are invisible mostly because our political language attends to capital and government. The commons are only acknowledged as “externalities,” that is elements that don’t count. Corporations, supported by government, see resources which they think are free to be extracted and used for their own profit. “Resources” are the stuff of the earth, the materials, the species of plants and animals, especially the human species.  Everything in this great biosphere has become a “resource” for business and government used to make products that keep corporate execs and elected officials at the top of the financial pyramid. 

Because corporations/government disregard the commons as an essential part of the society and economy, they continue to direct our focus away from the commons and always back to the government and the free market.  Because they have confused resources and commons, so have we. All the natural resources that they extract and use to make their profits achievable end up hurting us on the ground and our future generations.

The commons, on the other hand, are the people’s interaction with each other and with the natural resources in such a way that we use the resource in moderation and in sustainable ways, that we apply rules for how people interact with each other and with the resource, that we cooperate with each other to best live and work in the commons for the good of all.  The commons are what we have been given by our parents and elders. After we use the resources of the Earth, we will hand them over to our children. As good commoners, we will not hand over business/corporate finances or democratic/republican governance, but the resources/commons of the whole biosphere. 

To get focused on the Commons, think first about all the resources you engage day after day. Certainly your home is a resource; the park you play in and your kids swim in is as well; the streets you drive/bike on are a resource; the sidewalk is a resource; the rivers and lakes are resources; in fact, all water is a resource.  The air, the woods, along with the heat and energy of the sun are resources. They all become a commons when we relate to those resources together and under simple, often unstated rules about how to cooperate with each other and how to treat those resources. They also become commons when we fully realize that we, not the government, are the trustees of these commons.

A resource becomes a commons when we realize that no corporation or government owns or is responsible for the resource, but when we accept that the resource is simply part of nature and we are too.  Now we are responsible for the good of that resource.  We cannot continue to accept the narrative that government should regulate corporations on pollution or that corporations should not pollute.  That generally will not happen.  Remember, they are partners with one another, the government helping corporations in most ways to enhance the financial goals of the companies.

Once you see how the commons are ignored and set aside by the big players in society, then you realize that we the people must recognize and value the commons as an equal player with the corporations and government, and get on with assuming responsibility for the good of the commons.  We do need government to recognize the commons and support them, just as they do the corporations. The commons that we work on and support need financial assistance from the government, as the corporations now derive financial and regulatory relief from that same government.

I write this to you now because I am trying to take the commons blinders off my own eyes and wish the same for you. It is transformative to see again the great world of commons that we live in. So, here’s a project for you:

Please go outside for a walk by yourself or with a friend and notice all the commons you enter. They can be material, like water, air, land, park, etc. They can also be social, like a book club, a band or chorus you belong to, your family, and so on.  And they can be service commons, like volunteering at a hospital, or cleaning up a river with others, or tutoring kids.  As you notice these phenomena, note too how interactive they are with various people or other animals or plants, trees, and so on. Underneath those interactions lay rules and guideline you assume with others on how to manage the resource you are in.  That’s what makes a resource a commons.  While you cannot take responsibility for every commons you enter, you can for some of them, especially those that government and corporations disregard.

Join with me in noticing and studying with fresh eyes the commons we share. The more we notice and experience ourselves as commoners, the more likely we will take responsibility for using and enjoying these generous gifts we received from our past commoners and are already handing over to our children.


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