The Commons

What are the commons?

The commons are our shared wealth without which people cannot survive and thrive. This wealth is comprised of common goods which we have inherited or created, are entitled to use, and are obliged to restore and pass on to our children.

Are there different kinds of commons?

Yes. There are several types of common goods. These include social, cultural and intellectual commons, which are all replenishable resources. There are also solar, natural, and genetic commons, which may be either replenishable or depletable. A third type of commons is material, which are mainly depletable resources.

What are some examples of common goods?

Social, Cultural & Intellectual – indigenous culture and traditions, community support systems, neighborhoods, social connectedness, voluntary associations, labor relations, women and children’s rights, family life, health, education, sacredness, religions, ethnicity, racial values, recreation, silence, creative works, languages, words, numbers, symbols, holidays, calendars, stores of human knowledge and wisdom, scientific knowledge, ethnobotanical knowledge, ideas, intellectual property, data, information, communication flows, airwaves, internet, free culture, sports, games, playgrounds, roads, streets, sidewalks, plazas, public spaces, national parks, historical sites, museums, libraries, universities, music, dance, arts, crafts, money, purchasing power

Solar, Natural & Genetic – solar energy, wind energy, tides, water power, oceans, lakes, springs, streams, beaches, fisheries, agriculture, forests, wetlands, ecosystems, watersheds, aquifers, land, pastures, parks, gardens, plants, seeds, algae, topsoil, food crops, photosynthesis, pollination, DNA, life forms and species, living creatures

Material – the elements, rocks, minerals, hyrdocarbons, technological hardware, buildings, inorganic energy, atmosphere, ozone layer, stratosphere

What is the interrelationship among these various commons?

The vital link is that all are necessary for our

• sustenance and livelihood
• individual expression and purpose
• social cohesion, quality of life and well-being

What distinguishes common goods from private and public goods?

• private goods are produced and sold by businesses to consumers
• public goods are regulated by governments for their citizens
• common goods are preserved or produced for the use of everyone

Why are common goods unique?

Unlike private and public goods, common goods involve

• peer participation, inclusion and cooperation
• equal access, free and fair standards, and transparency
• social creativity and innovation, mutual benefit and long-term sustainability

Where do commons exist?

Common goods may be local, regional and global in scope — and, of course, many resource areas overlap.

Should every commons be managed?

• Many commons are best left ungoverned, but an absence of management can lead to the overuse and depletion of resources — a ‘tragedy of the commons’
• Although a variety of commons are owned and operated by the private and public sectors, in many cases they are not managed effectively
• Various commons — seas and seabeds, atmosphere, outer space — are beyond the legal jurisdiction of the private and public sectors with no one to administer them

Why aren’t common goods more widely recognized in society?

The commons are essentially everywhere — all around, between and within us — yet we take them for granted.

What prevents us from immediately seeing or understanding our commons?

Since common goods are not part of our modern frame of reference or worldview, society is grappling now to understand their meaning. Although we often perceive them, we have lost the specific language for acknowledging and defining our traditional commons. And even for emerging commons like the internet, we are still developing new concepts and vocabulary.

How did we lose the meaning of the commons?

During the past few centuries, as physical space became increasingly quantified and commercialized, our mental categories for resources and goods were gradually oriented to that new social and economic system. Common goods were devalued and shrouded through

• private enclosure of property and legal enforcement
• commodification into private goods and accumulated wealth
• domination by — and dependence on — the private and public sectors

Is this changing now?

Yes. Although common goods still represent an evolutionary challenge to the economic and political status quo, humanity has begun to think differently about its commons. We are reorienting our perception of the world and developing new ways of understanding resources, interrelationships, governing structures, values and standards. This is creating a new consciousness around our commons.

What are the main variables of a commons?

• a resource (replenishable or depletable)
• the people who share this commons (users, managers, producers and providers)
• the rules governing people’s access to — and benefit from — these common resources
• the value created through the preservation or production of these common goods

How can a commons be reorganized and revalued?

The reorganization and recovery of a commons is a long-term process. There appear to be three developmental stages, including

• co-governance and co-production — communities of interest or stakeholders manage and create value from a commons
• social charters — stakeholders of a commons make a formal declaration of their rights to protect, use and produce these common goods
• commons trusts — trustees appointed by the stakeholders undertake legal and fiscal responsibility for the long-term preservation, use or production of a commons

So is this a new paradigm?

Yes. It’s the story of how we have forgotten our traditional commons and are now taking responsibility to reclaim and restore them. The story also involves the rapid development of different types of commons, many of which are driven by technology and social innovation. Full recognition of people’s rights to their commons requires a new system of economic exchange in which both streams of common goods — traditional and emerging — are preserved or created independent of commercial and financial pricing. In such a system

• common goods are protected to the extent possible for future generations
• some portion of these resources are rented to businesses for the production and consumption of private goods by the present generation
• taxes attached to the usage of a commons are redistributed by the state as public goods, to provide an income for those who have been negatively affected by the extraction and production of their common resources, and to repair and restore the depleted commons