In our forthcoming book, Living Green: Communities that Sustain, we describe ten principles, derived from our research, that are key to making a community sustainable: We call these the Ten C’s of Social Sustainability. One of these is the principle of the commons.
The model of the commons understands the Earth and its resources as shared gifts, rather than private property. Perhaps the most practical and specific lesson we learned about what makes a community sustainable over time is the way that sharing resources enables each person to live higher quality lives with less of an environmental impact. From shared spaces and car shares to clothing swaps and shared infrastructures, the possibilities for commons abound and the impact on people’s everyday lives can be profound.
We found this video on YouTube and it inspired us to investigate a bit more the ways activism around the idea of the commons is emerging at different sites.
Many of the planet’s natural resources--water, forests, wildlife--have traditionally been commons, shared resources. Historically, in Europe, the commons were shared agricultural, grazing and open lands and they were steadily enclosed and privatized over the course of many hundreds of years. The privatization of public resources is not new, but it is expanding through regressive politics and policies and as new technologies enable different kinds of enclosures: patenting seeds, genetic materials, claiming parts of outer space and cyberspace and probing more deeply into the earth’s core.
Protecting the water commons has become a particularly intense site of activism. Many believe that as a non-renewable, essential resource, water should exist outside the realm of private property. But, as the planet’s water supply dwindles, private sector interest in it grows. The Blue Planet Project asserts that over one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and more than one million children die each year of diseases caused by unsafe water and lack of sanitation. In response, the organization and others like it around the world are working to protect water from commodification and maintain free access.
For an excellent articulation of the water commons, the group On the Commons has published an extensive report which you can download here. In it, they describe some of the ways private interests have encroached upon the water commons. One of these is the bottled water industry which has taken, virtually without limits, from the water commons and then sold it back to us at enormous profit. Also at a signifiant environmental cost. Another pathway to privatization is through the industries that have emerged around cleaning and reclaiming water--these provide an expensive and easily privatized solution to the water crisis, which might also be addressed by stopping pollution and ensuring the safety of the water commons for all.
Champions of the commons argue that if we see water as a commons, we are more likely to feel shared ownership of it and be invested in keeping it clean or cleaning it up. This is evidenced in the many victories of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an alliance of organizations that empowers citizens to get involved in protecting lakes, rivers and streams in their own communities.
The air we breathe, the atmosphere, the sky, outer space can be seen as another commons. In his recent book, Who Owns the Sky, Peter Barnes proposes the idea of a “sky trust” to protect this commons. The Sky Trust would require companies to pay for the right to release their carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The money would then be placed into a Sky Trust owned by all citizens--thus providing financial incentive to reduce emissions. The money from the sky trust would belong to the public to be used for common benefits.
Perhaps the most powerful example of protecting the commons can be found in the work of Vandana Shiva and her organization Navdanya (which literally means, nine seeds). Central to their work has been protecting the rights of farmers to freely use seeds, protecting seeds from patents and privatization at the hands of large corporations and in the process, protecting farmer’s rights to earn their livelihood as well as protecting all of our rights to biodiversity.