You and I, and our children, and their children all inherit some things simply because we were born humans on this Earth. Beyond the particulars we get from our families, we all inherit language, stories, air, and water. We inherit mountains and rivers and oceans, and a wealth of scientific, cultural, technical knowhow that has accumulated over the ages.
None of us created these things; these commons are either a natural heritage or the product of many people's efforts over time. We didn't create them, but without them the things we value most would be impossible — community, democracy, culture, even life itself rest on these treasures we've inherited and, by rights, will pass along to future generations. Despite their importance, our commons are being enclosed and degraded at a rate that would have been unimaginable just 100 years ago.
The most familiar example of the enclosure of the commons happened in England between the 15th and 19th century. Prior to its enclosure, almost everyone, poor and rich, had access to land where they could graze animals, hunt, gather food and fuel, or raise crops. With increasing demand for wool to supply export markets, large areas were enclosed for sheep. There were other reasons as well that individuals, with the sanction of government, appropriated land that had been in common use. Whatever the reason, those who lost access to land had to seek a livelihood elsewhere — many in cities, where they became the workforce for the industrial revolution, or in the colonies, where they in turn appropriated other people's commons.
Commons were appropriated in the former Soviet Bloc by the government, purportedly for the good of all. In capitalist countries, the corporate sector lays claim to mineral resources, seeds, rangeland, forests, and broadcast spectrum. It seeks to name civic buildings and events, teach the value of consumerism to our youth, appropriate water, pave over the land, own our genes, extend copyrights and patents. It also uses our air and sky to dump its effluents and the free services of our water to dilute and wash away pollutants.
This appropriation of the commons is clothed in arcane language of public benefit or economic determinism. But the reality is often much simpler. Those who have the ambition and power use law, military or police action, covert action, “aid” to compliant
governments and other means to take what had formerly been available to all. What had been a commons is transformed into a scarce resource available only at a price and only to some. Abundance turns into scarcity.
Losing our commons is no small matter. For millennia the commons have provided food, water, fiber, fuel, and fodder. Each culture's commons provided stories, knowhow, beliefs, and values that imbue life with meaning. Thriving communities have their common spaces, whether its a town square or a chat room. In recent years, we've gained access to some new commons, like the broadcast spectrum, space, and the genetic code, but just as quickly, these commons are being appropriated.
Fortunately, there are efforts throughout the world aimed at reclaiming the commons. The growing movement against corporate globalization, the many environmental movements, the alternative media movement, the efforts to stop the private ownership of our genes and our water, the efforts to keep commercialism from dominating our children's lives, and many other efforts are aimed at reclaiming commons that are being appropriated or degraded.
This struggle may be the defining one of our times. If we can reclaim the rights to the commons and accept the responsibilities of stewardship, we can not only regain our own birthright, we can protect the living vitality of planet Earth and pass along to future generations their birthright, intact.
Sarah Ruth van Gelder