Vision: Fighting Privatization and Corporate Control By Taking Back the Commons

A new book, 'All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons,' asserts that protecting the commons can help save the environment, the economy and democracy.

In an age of privatization in which a handful of large corporations are seeking to divvy up control over vast resources, a new "commons" is emerging with potential of generating a sharing revolution. From the worldwide web and scientific knowledge to public lands, parks, language, institutes and dot.orgs, the things that we share in common connect us with the broader community. The idea of returning to a commons-based approach is the subject of a new book, titled All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, edited by Jay Walljasper. How big is the commons revival? And what is its promise?

Maria Armoudian: All That We Share suggests on its cover that through an expanded commons, we can "save the economy, the environment, the Internet, democracy, our communities and everything else that belongs to all of us." That's a heck of a lot to promise.

Jay Walljasper: I know, but I truly do believe that the commons is a breakthrough idea. It offers us a new lens, a new way of looking at the world that suddenly can change what we see as possible and what we see as impossible.

MA: Although you say it's a revolutionary idea, almost as if it's new, in fact it's as old as civilization, going back to the Romans when it was one of three types of property. Why do you think it's a new concept?

JW: Obviously, it's as old as the hills, really, and in fact indigenous societies through the centuries lived by the commons, and so there is nothing new about it, but unfortunately we've lost sight of its importance and how it affects our lives since the Industrial Revolution and particularly over about the last 30 or 40 years.

MA: Backing up to the general broad strokes, when you say "the commons," what do you include and what do you exclude?

JW: My definition that actually tries to distill it is "all that we share," but it's also the ways that we share it. And really the "commons" is everywhere. If you look around, it's hard to think that you'd be anywhere where there wouldn't be some aspect of the commons visible, whether it's just the sky, the environment, the streets, where the Internet is going. The commons is also not just a set of things but a kind of spirit of cooperation that infuses most of human activity. Clearly there are things that aren't the commons too.

A bunch of us were sitting around in Germany trying to come up with a list of things that we would definitely not want to be commons. And we decided that at the top of the list was underwear and toothbrushes. So there is certainly a place for private property, and sometimes private property is the very best way to get something done. But in our western culture over the last three or four decades, we have come to believe that private property is the solution to almost any problem. That's just simply not the case. I think there's an awful lot of commons things that we depend upon every day. Do you really want to create your own water filtration system for tap water in your house? Or have your own energy sources, rather than having it come in through the power grid? There are a lot of things that just are more efficient, more equitable and just more commonsense if they're dealt with cooperatively rather than individually.

MA: In political science, we have a very famous piece that Bill McKibben noted in your introduction, called "The Tragedy of the Commons." The idea behind it is that many people take advantage of the commons by not contributing their share, so say a shared body of water that many think they can pollute or take from. So how do we deal with the tragedy of the commons?

JW: The tragedy of the commons exists. One of the biggest tragedies of the commons is the fisheries. Because anyone can fish at any time outside of 20-mile borders, stocks of fish are being depleted. It's amazing to our grandparents that cod, which was once seen as the most common fish in the world, is now an endangered species. But the tragedy of the commons is not universal, and the woman who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009 -- Eleanor Austin, who is also a political scientist -- her lifelong work has been to show how in culture after culture around the world, when given the chance, ordinary people figure out ways to ensure that the commons aren't destroyed.

She did work in Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, Switzerland and right in Los Angeles, where she grew up. In every case, she found that people aren't stupid, and people aren't competitive to the point of lunacy. And with a small group of people they will come up with the solutions to maintain the commons and not deplete them. She looked at grazing land in the high pastures of Switzerland, a place that if everybody put their cows out to pasture, would soon be destroyed. It would end up being a worthless, almost desertified place. But people realized the carrying capacity of that land, and they came up with systems to measure that.

In Guatemala they did the same kind of thing with pastureland. In fact, throughout the American Southwest, particularly New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado, there is a 400-year-old tradition, which is essentially communal irrigation ditches that are managed by the community as a whole. They were put in by the first Spanish settlers but really drew on Native American traditions and technologies. They're still in many places, still functioning, and they're the lifeblood of these communities.

And I love that each year in a lot of the villages in northern New Mexico, they elect a mayor who has two important functions, one of which is to make sure that the water is equitably distributed to all members and secondly, to make sure that there's enough water for the next year and the next year after that and for the succeeding generations.

MA: You've also implied through this book that there's a new crop or a new growth of commons-related efforts. Which ones are really compelling?

JW: The Internet itself is, of course, a commons. It's not owned by anybody and was created by our tax dollars, so we are in some sense all the owners of the Internet. And there's a generation of young people that have really grown up with the Internet always there for them, so it has become a bit of an organizing operating system for how they look at the world. So it just seems natural to them. There doesn't seem to be anything odd or overly idealistic about it. So when they shut off the computer, they are looking for ways in the world that they can have a similar kind of commons system. And the Internet is great for sharing. Like that old phrase, "information wants to be free."

MA: You had a few other examples that I thought were particularly interesting. One was in Germany, the state-owned brewery.

JW: Yes, and in fact there's nothing new about this. It has been owned by the state of Baden-Württemberg since about the mid-19th century. There's a tradition in all countries that important public services are best taken care of in a more cooperative rather than a private manner, and I guess in Germany, beer may be considered essential public service. There are two fascinating things about this story: One is that the brewery is owned by what is currently the most conservative state of all the German states. It has had a conservative government since World War II, and yet they've never privatized this brewery. In fact, the brewery has even acquired a certain cache value particularly among the young hipsters in Berlin and Bremen and Hamburg and other cities like that. It's kind of the cool beer to drink. When I was in Berlin at a commons conference, it really was the beer that I noticed the coolest looking people in the room were drinking.

MA: And the new crops of community gardens like the one in north Philadelphia?

JW: Community gardens are a great example of the commons. In many cases particularly in New York City, L.A. and other big cities around the country, when there was an empty vacant lot that was full of rubble, people said, "This is a travesty, a terrible thing for our neighborhood. Let's brighten things up and plant some flowers and vegetables, and put in some public art." That was the beginning of the whole community gardening movement. In many cases, these community gardens later became parks. You can see a commons movement bubbling up.

MA: While there is a commons movement, we're also in an age of privatization in which corporations are trying to privatize water and other resources. In Los Angeles, there is discussion about privatizing public parking structures. Other cities have already done that and are considering selling off their parking meters, highways and turnpikes. Is one moving more rapidly than the other?

JW: I think the two trends are probably a little bit symbiotic in the sense that people are seeing that the commons, which are very important to their lives are being privatized, and that's creating a new awareness of the commons and a new determination to protect the commons. The financial collapse of 2007 has had a huge impact on our culture. A lot of us bought into the idea that you can just buy your way out of your problems, or argue that we don't really need the commons because we'll just buy a bigger house with a bigger yard and forget about the park that's falling apart. Or we join a health club and forget about the recreation center that's only open five hours each week.

But after the sudden screeching halt that the economic crisis put on many people's spending, some people said, "Thank goodness that public library is there." Or "Thank goodness I can send my kids to the public schools because I can't afford private tuition anymore." People realized that they need to depend on the public realm and depend upon one another to get their needs met. It can't all just be done by spending more money. At the same time, we've seen tax revenues decrease, not only in Washington DC, but in our counties, states and cities and so very important public services are being cut back and sometimes eliminated. So I think people are more and more aware of the acute crisis of the commons.

MA: You've mentioned in the book about a kind of "do it yourself" (DIY) movement with neighborhoods and small groups that can do a lot. Give us some sense of what they can do.

JW: One example that I think is pretty surprising is in Detroit. This is a really hard-hit city from racial tensions that have dominated that place for 50 years and the crash of the auto industry. There is a park in downtown Detroit that essentially had been reduced almost to the size of a concrete traffic island. But a number of civic leaders in the community said, "This is a shame; this is really sad that no one would actually dare go to this park anymore because it was just an unsightly place." They expanded the park. They closed off streets to expand the park. They've put in a music band shell; there's a skating rink there in the winter. There's a café, public art, and it's a little oasis, a little gem of a place, a little slice of what we think of Paris, right in the heart of downtown Detroit. That was something that was done outside the realm of government or the private sector. It was just a group of citizens that wanted to give their city a birthday present for the anniversary of its founding.

Another great example, which began in San Francisco and now is taking off all over the world, is kind of a symbolic thing, but it really says a lot. It's called Parking Day. It began when an art group in San Francisco looked around downtown and saw that San Francisco gave over about 40 percent of all the space to the automobile. And for a short while, they plugged the meter and turned the parking space into a park. They rolled out some Astroturf, set up some barbecue grills and some chaise lounges and said, "This is our park now." The cops came by and said, "You can't do that, this is a parking space." But they had plugged the meter, so the cops had to agree that made sense. It's a reminder that the streets themselves are common.

Portland, Oregon is getting a lot of attention as a very progressive city in terms of livability issues. One of the things that you'll see is that a lot of people have put up basketball hoops at the edge of their curb and the kids shoot baskets on residential streets. It's very symbolic but yet a very real way of claiming that the street is shared property. It's not just the exclusive domain of the motorist but belongs to everyone. I've seen bicyclists and even kids who want to shoot hoops. My son has taken that idea here in Minneapolis where I live, and he and his pals now stage all their football games in the street outside of our house. And obviously they go away when a car is coming by, but the rest of the time they feel like the street is theirs, so it's essentially a commons for the use of all.

MA: That's a little reminiscent of the Ciclovia/CicLAvia phenomenon where they actually shut down streets for an entire day and turn them into a park.

JW: Yeah, and in fact there's a lot of great commons ideas coming out of Latin America, particularly Bogotá.

MA: I was hoping you would talk about Bogotá.

JW: The Ciclovia began in Bogotá, where 200 kilometers or something of streets are closed every Sunday morning from about 6 am to 2 pm, and on a nice sunny day, there are sometimes as many as one and a half million people that come out into the streets. There are street performers; you can ride your bike. It's kind of like having a state fair every Sunday. And Bogotá has done some amazing things. They have the largest urban bikeway in the world, something like 26 miles long and runs through the entire city. When Penalosa was mayor, he built hundreds of new parks, refurbished parks, built new schools, libraries, and recreation centers because he actually had the very idealistic notion that fits very well with the commons that while it's hard in this day of global economies to redistribute income, there's no reason why we can't redistribute happiness. Everyone ought to have an equal share of being happy. He thought, how can I make my constituents happy? And he decided to give them a place to hang out together and give them things so their kids can play, things that people can buy with money but that everybody ought to be able to have access to as well.

MA: The other two models I'd like for you to address are cooperatives and trusts.

JW: People often mistakenly think that the world is divided into the commons, which is what the government is responsible for, and the market which is what private investors and owners are responsible for. But actually there's a whole middle realm between those two worlds that are not under government ownership. They are what you would call civil society. Two great examples of those are cooperatives and trusts. Cooperatives are technically not exactly a commons because they don't belong to everybody, but they do belong to the people involved, whether it's a food co-op or a labor co-op or something like that, but it's the idea that everyone working in an organization ought to be able to share in the profits.

One of the examples was developed in Minnesota by an entrepreneur in a small town called Northfield. There were a bunch of INS raids, immigration service raids, and it was really awful because parents were being thrown into jail, and their kids were coming home from school, and there was no one home. And so he came up with a plan to address what would happen in his community if this happened.

He asked, "How do we create a climate where there's less animosity toward immigrants?" And he came up with was this idea of cooperative grazing chickens because these people, particularly from Central America and Mexico that lived in those communities, have great skills as small farmers, but don't have the opportunity to do that in American agriculture. And through this co-op, they're able to raise chickens again, and it's a win/win. It's an economic bounty for the immigrants themselves but also for the people in the community. They're getting locally grown, sustainably raised chickens at a far lower cost than it would be if they were buying them at the grocery store or the food co-op, and at the same time, it's creating the situation where the townspeople are seeing that immigrants aren't taking things away; they're contributing to the community, economically and in terms of wholesome foods. It's a way that the cooperative becomes a great model for seeing that we're all in this together.

Trusts are a different method of ownership. It's neither government ownership nor private ownership. A trust is people that trust one another to take care of a bit of property. Much of the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land and things like that work in the realm of trusts. They take a patch of land that has some great scenic value, or maybe in a city it could be affordable housing, a neighborhood business or something that's important to that community. The importance to the community may be far higher than the actual assessed valuation of this land, and they want to protect it. They place it into a trust. Oftentimes the owner can have a house on the land but doesn't actually own the land itself, which keeps it more affordable. This is used in many different varieties -- affordable housing, historic preservation and ecologically sensitive landscapes.

MA: Give us the Web site for people who want to read more.

JW: I wrote this book with an organization called On the Commons, which is a commons movement strategy center that is really trying to raise awareness for the commons. Our Web site is called


Maria Armoudian is a fellow at the Center for International Studies at USC and host of the Scholars' Circle and the Insighters, which are heard on KPFK and WPRR.
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