The Commons Offers Us a Chance to Revise the Political Debate

These are uneasy times for anyone who believes that "liberty and justice for all" still has meaning in modern America.

Triumphant Tea Partiers don their work gloves in anticipation of dismantling three generations of hard-won social progress on Capitol Hill and in the nation's statehouses. The drumbeat throughout the media is that we have been recklessly profligate in social spending, and simply cannot afford to help the poor, heal the environment or invest in anything besides the Pentagon.

Progressives are understandably dazed. Some, starting at the top of the Democratic party, seem willing to trim back their values in the name of pragmatism. Others hesitate, but wonder how to express a message about our country's future that resonates with everyday Americans.

Although political optimism appears hard to come by right now, I have found plenty of it in the course of writing and editing a new book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons in collaboration with the commons movement strategy center On The Commons.

The commons--which means what we share together and how we share it, encompassing everything from water to the Internet to your neighborhood--is generating excitement among otherwise beleaguered activists. It offers a compelling new way to tackle familiar problems like economic inequity, environmental devastation and social alienation.

When seen through the lens of the commons, public services cannot be dismissed as "waste" nor basic matters of fairness reduced to "entitlements," And it becomes clear the market is not the ideal framework to govern every aspect of human activity. The commons offers a fresh approach for understanding the most appropriate roles for government, civil society and the market in the complicated mechanism of today's society.

Practical initiatives based on the principles of the commons hold promise for inspiring citizens (a/k/a commoners) to re-engage in social action as they seek common-sense solutions and opportunities. Even in fallow political times like these when we can't expect much positive out of Washington, D.C., the emerging emphasis on what belongs to all of us can spark powerful projects at the grassroots level.

Here's just a sampling of examples from All That We Share that point to a better future we have in common. The good life means more than private property--all of us have a stake in what we share together.

  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr. describes how working-class families living along the Hudson in upstate New York, angry about pollution, banded together to enforce a forgotten law that allowed them to save the river.
  • A Guatemalan immigrant living in the rural Midwest launched a sustainable-chicken co-op that has turned out to be a win-win-win for his small town: boosting Latino families' income, providing affordable healthy local food for local folks and easing tensions over immigration.
  • Internet enthusiasts realize the worldwide web is itself is a commons, and have championed new visions of sharing both on- and off-line.
  • Leading water activist Maude Barlow shows how communities around the world have embraced the commons as a tool to protect their water supply from being taken over by foreign corporations. She is now part of a joint Canadian-U.S. effort to declare the Great Lakes a commons.
  • Entrepreneur Peter Barnes took the commons as his model for climate change policies that would reduce carbon at the same time as protecting low- and middle-income people from huge spikes in energy prices. It has now been introduced in both houses of Congress.
  • Winona LaDuke notes how indigenous people across the globe always lived according to the principles of the commons.
  • The commons thrives even in dark-red states. Alaska taxes oil revenues, which are then shared equally by the state's citizens. Texas taxes off-shore oil revenues, which is devoted to public education. North Dakota operates a state-owned bank, which confers many benefits to citizens.

Jay Walljasper, editor of the, is the author of The Great Neighborhood Book and the former editor of Utne Reader.