Discussion Guide: Reclaiming the Commons

 Welcome to the YES! Discussion Guide Series

We're delighted that you've decided to take up some of the issues explored in YES! magazine in your class or discussion group. When people gather in groups to talk with mutual respect and caring about the critical issues of our time, they create a powerful avenue for constructive social change. The staff of YES! magazine has prepared this guide to help you get started. We hope you'll find it useful.

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Reclaiming the Commons

This guide is designed to provide a starting point for your discussion of some of the issues explored in the Summer 2001 issue of YES! magazine. There is no one correct way to approach these issues - please use this discussion guide to provoke conversation, not to limit it. Invent your own questions. Try different processes: open-ended discussions, or round-robin discussions where each participant has a certain amount of time to explore his or her own responses and views. Try relating these questions to your own experiences and asking individuals in the group to make presentations on relevant topics.

Jon Rowe "The Hidden Commons"
David Bollier, "The Cornucopia of the Commons"
Jim Merkel, "What's Your Share of the Global Commons?"

Places as commons

Jon Rowe begins his article, "The Hidden Commons," by describing the village where his wife grew up: "My wife grew up in what western experts call, not without condescension, a "developing" country. The social life of her village revolved largely around a tree. People gathered there in the evening to visit, tell stories, just pass the time. Some of my wife's warmest childhood memories are of playing hide and seek late into the evening while the parents chatted under the tree - or on a neighbor's porch, which was another version of the same thing."

· Do you have childhood memories connected with a similar place? Was there a meeting place for the kids in your neighborhood-a tree house? a park? Did your neighbors get together on a porch or under a tree? Share your favorite commons memory with the group. What happened to that place?

Is there a space in your community today that functions as a public gathering place? What sorts of experiences have you had there? Are there downsides to this sort of space

Has the invention of the automobile changed public spaces for the better or for the worse? How? How about television? Mass marketing? What other social changes have impacted public spaces?

In a famous essay written several decades ago, Garrett Hardin argued that without rules, each individual who uses a commons (as a pasture for grazing sheep, for example) is motivated by self-interest to overuse it, and as a result, the commons inevitably becomes degraded. This process, which Hardin named "the tragedy of the commons," has been used to argue that private ownership is the only path to careful stewardship of resources. (A private owner, the argument goes, is motivated by self-interest to preserve his or her property.)
· What are the benefits of common rather than private ownership of natural resources to the individual and to the community? What are the benefits of private ownership?
· Do you agree that a commons always comes to a tragic end? Are there ways for informal communities to prevent a commons from being degraded? Consider some commons you are familiar with (or ones from the issue of YES!) and consider what it takes to keep a commons both available to all and in good condition.

In Oregon, the state rather than private landowners owns the beaches. In Washington state, private owners claim rights to beaches but a budding movement exists to take back the beaches for everyone's use. Which, if any, natural treasures such as ocean beaches, vistas, forests would you return to the people as a commons? Where do you draw the line?

There must have been a time before the notion of private property when the whole earth was a commons. But today, virtually all land, especially in western countries, is owned -by an individual, a local, state, or federal government, a corporation or nonprofit. Does that mean that there are no more common spaces, or is it possible for a privately owned place to be a commons? Think of an example. What is there about it that makes you think of it as a commons?. Are there important differences? (Shopping malls, for example, are places where people gather.) What crucial differences do you see between a government-owned "commons," a privately owned "commons," and a commons "owned" by no one but accessible to all people?

The Global Commons

The US is among the wealthiest countries in the world, yet many people feel that they don't have enough time, enough room, enough peace and quiet, enough stuff. Other people have far less stuff but also have less of a sense that they always more. Is there a relationship between having access to commons and a feeling of abundance?

Try taking the test "What's Your Share of the Global Commons" by Jim Merkel (as homework) to determine the size of your ecological footprint. Compare the size of your footprint with those of people around the world.

Most of us would agree that the disparity in footprint size should be shrunk. But how? The authors say it would take two additional planets to provide all the people of the world with a lifestyle like that of the average American. If you were in charge, what would you do? Since no one is in charge (and thus, we are all partly in charge) what will you do?

In May 2001, the US lost seats on both the UN Human Rights Commission and the International Narcotics Control Board. The New York Times reports that many nations - including U.S. allies in Europe - are angry at the Bush administration for its rejection of the Kyoto greenhouse gas accord and its plans to push ahead with a new missile defense system. President Bush has also refused to ratify the treaty creating an international criminal court, and the US Senate refused to ratify the nuclear test ban treaty. What should the US role be with regards to the various international commons that these treaties seek to address - peace, the rule of law, a viable global environment?

Consider this traditional nursery rhyme. How does it apply today? What commons do you think people 100 years from now will have? Which ones will be lost? What new ones may emerge?

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

In what ways could commons today provide means for people to make a livelihood, just as the pasture once provided "commoners" with space to graze their sheep and cows, and places to hunt and gather?

The human-made commons
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possess the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.-Thomas Jefferson

In this letter to Isaac McPherson written on August 13, 1813, Thomas Jefferson was confident that an idea could not be owned. Yet today we witness disputes about owning everything from software to music to story characters. In the end, do you think we will conclude that these things cannot be owned? Or is ownership necessary in order to provide a livelihood for creative people?

"The commons" is notoriously hard to define. Jon Rowe describes it as is neither government nor market, but something "more basic." It is, he writes, "the vast realm that is the shared heritage of all of us that we typically use without toll or price." Within that realm he includes language, culture, the internet, stores of human knowledge, peace and quiet, the human genome. (Your group will undoubtedly be able to add others to the list.) Taking the commons your group lists one by one, decide whether, how, and by whom each is being "enclosed" or expropriated by individuals or other entities. What are the consequences?

David Bollier suggests in "The Cornucopia of the Commons" that a gift economy generates wealth and abundance that would otherwise not be available. He uses the example of Linux and other open-source software developed by a global community of programmers who each contributed their piece to the whole. What examples of a gift economy have you noticed in your own life? When does it work and when does it not work?  If you want to explore further ...

The resource guide will help you find additional materials about the aspects of these questions that you'd like to explore further, along with information on solutions that are working and avenues for action.


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