Common Stories

Do you ride the bus? Use the library? Walk on the sidewalk? Congratulations—you’re already part of the commons movement.
commons silhouettes photo by Ian Brewer

Photo by Ian Brewer.

You—yes, you—are a commoner.

Not “commoner” in the sense of class. Think “communal.” Do you shop at a farmers’ market, visit museums, or take your kids to the playground? Do you ride a bike, hop a bus, drive a car, or walk along a sidewalk? Surf the World Wide Web? Those kinds of community spaces and services are “the commons,” and to be a “commoner” is to value these resources and the good they bring to society, according to author Jay Wall­jasper. Walljasper, a proponent of the commons movement and fellow at On the Commons, has compiled All That We Share, a series of essays (many his own) urging us to recognize, celebrate, and work to preserve the commons.

All that we share

All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons

by Jay Walljasper

The New Press, 2010, 268 pages, $18.95

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The essays are grouped according to themes such as economics, the environment, and the importance of protecting the commons in today’s society. Brief stories of “commons heroes,” lists of movies and music that “evoke a spirit of sharing,” and tips for being a commoner break up the text and keep it lively. The guide concludes with Walljasper’s fictional “State of the Commons 2035,” a somewhat tongue-in-cheek report on the success of the commons in unexpected places: rural and suburban communities in so-called red states.

Readers new to the concept of the commons will learn much from this book, starting with a definition. The commons is not, as Walljasper points out, a village green or campus cafeteria. The book reminds readers of the numerous commons encounters they have in a given day, some provided by governments or benefactors, others handed down, in spirit or in deed, from indigenous peoples, all frequently taken for granted. Read this book and start to see the commons all around.

Yet the book offers something new even to those who already call themselves commoners. Innovations in acronyms and vocabulary, for starters: “Glocal” (go local), “YO-YO ethic” (You’re On Your Own), “WITT” (We’re In This Together), and “commoning.” To accomplish the latter, contributors to All That We Share suggest a number of methods: extend the land-trust concept to watersheds and streets, support the arts through public trusts, save newspapers through reader pledges or the nonprofit model.

For inspiration, look to the efforts of Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, who established a Latino food cooperative in Minnesota; the anti-gang, reclaim-the-parks “Summer Night Lights” program in Los Angeles; and the legacy of Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia. Peñalosa’s achievements, from transit to education to pollution prevention, set a high standard for commons protection. Unfortunately for those who might want to replicate his efforts, the book says little about how Peñalosa—and his people—paid for them.

commons revolution illustration51 Ways to Spark a
Commons Revolution:

What you can do, alone and with others, to share life.

That is the book’s one shortcoming. After so many motivational essays, the question of “how” lingers. What’s missing from All That We Share is a map to All That Lies Ahead. Consider today’s political climate: Momentum is gathering to repeal health reform, not expand it. The tax-cut compromise revealed the obstacles to convincing the wealthy to pay more to finance collective programs. And cap and dividend? In this Congress? The ideas in All That We Share are clearly worth fighting for, but there is a lack of specific strategies for the coming battle in a nation that just made a significant electoral swing to the right. The book’s solutions rely on widespread acceptance of commons values and goals, but how will that be accomplished? Who will spread the word?

To that question, Walljasper has an answer. The commoners will. You will. Start small, start local. But start.

Kim Eckart

Kim Eckart wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Kim is a Seattle-based writer.




To deliver us from current economic and ecological calamities will require more than administering a few tweaks to the operating system that runs our society. A complete retooling is needed—a paradigm shift that revises the core principles that guide our culture top to bottom. At this historical moment, the commons vision of a society where “we” matters as much as “me” shines as a beacon of hope for a better world. ­—Jay Walljasper


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