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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2005
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Inventing Tomorrow
Can Technology Save the Planet?
Earth's Innovators
The Perfect Fix
Encore in Yosemite
The Common Good
Interview: Dan Chiras and Dave Wann
Let's Talk
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Hearth & Home
Hey Mr. Green
Good Going
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The Common Good
An argument for asserting our rights to quiet, community, a drink of pure water, and a breath of fresh air.
by Jonathan Rowe

What used to be ours now belongs to corporations; what used to be free we now have to buy.
To get to San Francisco from the coastal area where I live, I usually drive through the hamlet of Nicasio. It's just a scattering of wooden structures around a community baseball field. The hills beyond are soft and rolling and mainly ranches, probably not much changed from a century ago.

A while back a sign appeared by the road there. "SOON TO BE BUILT ON THIS SITE," it said, and my insides went code red. I thought of bulldozers, asphalt, a mange of houses with glandular disorders. Then I saw the smaller print. "Thanks to your help, absolutely nothing."

The sign was the work of a local organization raising funds to buy the land so that developers couldn't. The large type triggered something many Americans feel: a brooding sense of vulnerability and impending loss. This sense begins with wilderness and open space but doesn't end there. Everywhere we look, something we thought was off-limits to the market is falling prey to it: schools, the gene pool, children's imagination and play, urban water systems. Coalbed-methane development is decimating the natural ecology of the West, just as Wal-Marts are destroying the social ecology of Main Streets.

The environment isn't just about nature anymore. It has become a metaphor for a battle against market — and sometimes governmental — encroachment that extends to virtually every corner of our society. Everything is up for grabs. Everything is for sale. Politicians and the media are essentially oblivious, just as they were oblivious to the threats to the environment before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, about the dangers of the pesticide DDT. There isn't even a word for this encroachment and loss, except for the tendentious euphemism "growth."

It is significant, then, that an old term is reappearing to describe what is being threatened. It is "the commons," the realm of life that is distinct from both the market and the state and is the shared heritage of us all. Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist and environmental activist, writes about the commons of water and seeds. Lawrence Lessig, an author and lawyer, describes the innovation commons of the Internet and the public domain of knowledge. Others are talking about the atmospheric commons, the commons of public squares, and the commons of quiet.

People don't generally connect seeds and bytes, aquifers and silence. But the concept of the commons shows them to be aspects of the same thing, with political, legal, and environmental implications that could be far-reaching. The political drama starts to play out around a new question, in fact. It is not whether there will be more government or less, but whether the market will be able to expropriate everything. In an "ownership" society, what happens to the realms that belong to all of us together, as opposed to each of us apart?

If the atmosphere, say, is a commons, then we start to see that polluters are trespassing on something that is ours, and that we hold in trust for future generations. The same goes for the gene pool, cyberspace, the broadcast spectrum, the world's water, and the still of the night. If such things are commons, then we have rights regarding them — common property rights. And that changes everything.

Historically, the commons referred mainly to land and water. For centuries in England and much of the rest of Europe, ordinary people had rights to farm, hunt, fish, and forage on certain lands they did not own. Land was the source of sustenance; everyone needed access, and the commons provided it within the bounds of local custom. But the rise of commerce and industry made the commons an inconvenience. How could you run a big sheep-raising operation to supply wool for the new mills if a bunch of "commoners" occupied the fields with their subsistence herds? In England, Parliament solved

the problem by "enclosing" the commons. Over several centuries, culminating in the 18th, the government evicted commoners, abolished their traditional rights, and declared the commons private property. Land became a commodity and so did the commoners themselves, many of whom had to sell their labor to mill owners.

The enclosures were a mass eradication of a property right by government decree, often without compensation. But history is written by the winners, and so the enclosures generally have been portrayed as a great stride out of economic darkness toward the market. More, they have become the template by which economists have compared each successive wave of market expansion. Because the enclosures of the common fields in England were seen as a step forward, enclosure in all forms must be always and forever good. Like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, parading around the moldy table from her long-aborted wedding, economists cannot grasp that yesterday is not forever, and that yesterday's answer can become today's problem if carried too far.

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Illustration by Pete McArthur; used with permission.

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