The Commons

The Commons refer to shared resources yet maybe more importantly to a new perspective.  The commons are diverse; they include knowledge and water, software and cultural works as well as the social fabric of our society. Furthermore, the commons refer to a domain that is different both from the market and the state.

When we take the commons perspective we start to see that the commons underlie everything we do. All human activity, including all our economic activities, relies upon the world’s natural wealth as well as our inherited knowledge and social norms. The perspective of the commons makes us conscious of the interdependency between people, as well as the dependency of people on social structures and nature that are in principle, all shared. It leads one to consider the world as having a set of resources that are to be shared equitably while all bear a responsibility for their governance.

A new balance favoring the common good needs to be found. Our current economic culture has focused on the advantages of privatization and the incentives for wealth creation that it brings. However, the excessive privatization of the natural world as well as human-made resources such as ‘knowledge’, have led to the depletion of the commons. Increased social inequity seems to be an inevitable result of the current economic system. At the same time many of our common life support systems like water, rainforests and the atmosphere are under deathly threat. In the knowledge sphere, intellectual property protection such as patents and copyright, designed to provide incentives for the production of knowledge, also create scarcity. This has resulted in people being excluded from access to for example research or medicines when priced out of their reach.

The commons perspective suggests other ways of complementing and moderating those centered on private property to organize our world. Environmental sustainability, equity and fairness are core values and not just externalities to be dealt separately with end-of -the pipe solutions. Commons-based solutions are distinctive innovations and policies that help people manage resources cooperatively and sustainably, while ensuring equitable access. These solutions can be small or large scale across many spheres of our society. They can concern the way we organize pharmaceutical research, how we manage our water, how we manage our local parks and schools or elderly care. The prime commons example of our time is the Internet where all can take part and co-produce, although increasingly colonized by private parties.

The commons approach is not only an economic perspective about fair distribution; it embraces community as a goal in itself, small or large. Citizens’ initiatives like collaborative consumption, sharing initiatives and time banking where people engage with their local community, as well as global initiatives such as open access publishing and open source software all embrace the commons.

Institutional space needs to be created for the development of these new ways of organizing economies and societies. There is a role for governments to establish institutions and implement laws that facilitate the creation and maintenance of our commons. Clearly governments already do this to a certain extent, in providing public goods like education and healthcare just as they play a large role in protecting private property. The challenge is to create political will and to design appropriate laws and institutions. The commons approach allows for comprehensive way to confront this challenge – leading us to a society favoring participation and cooperation as well as sustainability and equitable access to common goods.

  • “It is he who erects fences around his property who destroys civilization; the natural civilization of Man”

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau