Rethink, reclaim The Commons

by Bruce Mason

• Much is now being written on the Commons, including two new books outlined below from New Society Publishers, which prides itself on providing “tools for a world of change and books to build a new society.” (


Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons

by David Bollier

Think Like a Commoner book

The challenge is to learn to see The Commons and more importantly, to think like a commoner. For years, David Bollier has explored The Commons as a policy strategist and an international activist. He has spent his time writing and collaborating and editing 12 books as well as founding and blogging at

“It’s no exaggeration; it’s taken 15 years to write this book,” he says of Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of The Commons.

“There was no easy introduction to give to my mother, students or my friends. After an odyssey of reading, debating, conference-going and reflecting, I decided to circle back, in short chapters, exploring political and economic implications, dozens of activist fronts, working projects and the international movement.

“We know the dismal performance of corporate capitalism and government, the alarming privatization of countless public resources. Real-life Commons provide a vital counterpoint.

“When people decide to manage and steward a resource collectively for the benefit of all, Commons are created. But when users start behaving as consumers and producers – rather than collective managers – it’s the beginning of the end.

“Not just a resource, Commons include the community that manages them and rules, values and practices. They vary immensely world-wide. That’s what makes them so durable and hardy – adapted to locality, ecosystem, resource and culture.”

The wealth we the people own together is inestimable, something corporations seek to commercialize or control: public airwaves, public lands, our genes, trillions of dollars of knowledge and R&D paid for by taxpayers.

Bollier cautions that vigilance of constant threats is essential. Existing and emerging Commons are perceived as very serious threats to investment and business interests, disruptive to markets and revenue flows. And political parties can’t or won’t jeopardize cozy, even corrupt relationships.

In the meantime, the market/state drools over the almost unimaginable wealth acquired through “enclosing” the Internet, public lands, drug research, the human genome and other Commons. Microsoft doesn’t like free Linux operating systems. Monsanto wants to bury seed exchanges.

Bollier thinks Commons and markets can co-exist, if great pains are taken to ensure relationships and resources aren’t monetized, destroying social solidarity and collective stewardship. “We need social understandings, technological systems and legal protections,” he explains.

Learn the language, he advises, understand Commons – no matter how small or seemingly isolated, they are related, despite national boundaries or differences. Internationally, Greece, Spain, the Arab Spring and Occupy share beliefs and concerns that democratic, representative government is a sham.

Start with your passions and talents, he adds. Commons function best with care, engagement and the desire to protect a resource by participants. Love the natural world? Put energy into land trusts or open-space preservation. Digitally savvy? Participate online.

Ralph Nader picked Think Like a Commoner as number one in his list of 10 Books to Provoke Conversation in the New Year. “A brilliant distillation.. to take control of what we own, to transform our economy, our posterity and the planet. You’ll tremble with the excitement of what we all own… that somehow escaped our notice,” Nader notes.

“Among the most important and hopeful concepts of our time… read this book to understand why!” writes climate change activist Bill McKibben. Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians adds, “Our world is in need of reviving an ancient wisdom to survive. I Love this book!”

For people who want to inquire further, there are web-based notes, leading websites, footnotes and recommended reading. Also a definitive, three-page section, “The Commons, Short and Sweet” and a useful chart, “The Logic of The Commons and the Market.”


Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

by Heather Menzies

Reclaiming the Commons for the Common GoodLike so many of us, Heather Menzies yearns and searches for a vital, viable alternative to the “financialization” of everything, deepening inequalities, desperate dependency on jobs, jobs, jobs and looming environmental collapse – for a new core regulator, strong enough and real enough to inspire action, sustained through a movement for genuine change, something beyond more bad news about our dysfunctional and dying planet.

Her book invites us to come home to ourselves, our communities and habitats. She contends that it’s possible – but not easy – to re-establish common good. “The word common originally meant ‘together-as-one,’ ‘shared alike’ and ‘bound together by obligation.’

“It’s time to reclaim The Commons, first as memory and heritage, then as practices, to build capacity. Not only is another world possible, but is on her way. People’s thinking has become so weighted by what’s cheap, fast, self-serving, cost-effective and convenient that concepts like social justice and common good elicit little more than tax-deductible donations.

“I knew what I was against, but not what I was for. I was part of the impasse. I needed to break out of it, but how?”

Reclaiming the Commons opens with Menzies’ road trip to reconnect with her ancestral heritage in Scotland’s Highlands, to the heart of the tragedy of lost Commons. “I had only understood it intellectually,” she recalls.“It was my first inkling of what it feels like to be a colonized person. My forbears and their neighbours didn’t just lose their together-as-one connection to the land. They lost all that these ties meant to them economically, politically, socially, culturally and even spiritually.”

Isaac Newton observed, “In Gaelic culture, people belong to places, rather than places belonging to people.”

Drawing on her roots, Aboriginal history, movements like Idle No More, international environmental and social justice activism, the Internet, Gabriola Commons and other inspiring and informative examples, Menzies interprets the significance of her discoveries, identifying myriad forms of all important capacity-building.

She likens growing Commons consciousness to Joanna Macy’s “Great Turning… a cognitive revolution and spiritual awakening that amounts to a shift in our sense of identity.”

According to Menzies, “The legacy of The Commons offers a way out… a healing ethos of connection, not disconnection, of implicated participation, not remote control and management.”

Implicated participation is key: ongoing connection, mutual obligation, mutual self-interest and common good. Showing up, being present, ready and willing to be implicated, here and now, are critical to a habitat-centred society, a parallel path and new social contract.

To survive, we must become “ecoliterate” and learn to read the land with empathy, as one reads a friend’s face, knowing through relating over time, as apprentices in a living classroom, in affirmative action, unlearning deep-seated habits and re-building real and do-able knowledge.

Menzies offers what she “cheekily” calls a “Commoning Manifesto,” a framework with numerous examples. “I recognize it now as a possible path of reconnection, a place to stand in confronting the crises and impasse of our times. It might be too late. But it might not, if a place to stand outside modern economistic thinking can be found.”

Hereditary Nuu-chah-nulth chief Eugene Richard Atleo (Umeek) writes, “The fabric of reality is damaged and torn… known by many names and phrases: climate change, war, genocide, colonization, environmental degradation and perhaps most appropriately as the tragedy of The Commons.”

David Suzuki adds, “A book made for today. An inspiring and pragmatic contribution toward meeting the greatest spiritual challenges of our time.” Noam Chomsky agrees, describing the book as “…an admirable, even noble, vision, eloquently expressing what will have to be done if humanity is to escape the current race towards disaster.”

May 21: 7PM, Heather Menzies reads at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch, 350 West Georgia, lower level.

May 23: Menzies reads at Gabriola Commons, Gabriola Island, tentatively set for 5-8PM.

Leave a comment