Past and Future of the Commons - Notes 1

Reading Notes

About the commons

The commons is a new way to express a very old idea—that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good and all.

The commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as air, oceans and wildlife as well as shared social creations such as libraries, public spaces, scientific research and creative works.


  • biopiracy
  • cap and dividend
  • common assets
  • commons movement
  • copyleft
  • corporation
  • enclosure
  • externality
  • gift economy - blood and organ donation, open source, wikis
  • inalienability
  • land trusts
  • open source software
  • public goods - non-rival, non-excludable: lighthouses, city parks, broadcast programming, global atmosphere
  • public space
  • public trust doctrine
  • tragedy of the commons
  • trust or stakeholder trust
  • value

Discussion Topics

  • gather examples of the commons from personal experience
  • what traits or properties do these examples share
  • what is the origin and history of these commons
  • how are these commons controlled or governed
  • are any of these commons at risk - why, from whom, how

Class Discussion

FM - two examples of the commons

  1. the gay rights movement of the past 30 years has transformed the social commons that is available to gay people in the United States. Activities that were once unthinkable have become possible, see gay marriage amendment in CA.

  2. Nicollet Island in Minneapolis. FM told some anecdotes about working with the people on the island to preserve it against development of various kinds. “Ask permission after it’s done” as a key community activist nostrum.

K - environmental studies. Garret Hardin’s classic essay on the “Tragedy of the Commons” is required reading in multiple classes. The environment presents lots of challenges for the commons.

Some more examples - the atmosphere, City of Lakes land trust, senior housing in S Minneapolis, common areas for use in apartments or other living spaces, ExCo as a commons, the public domain vs. copyright extension, the Internet.

Possible traits -

  1. societal responsibility between generations - intergenerational ethics
  2. critical mass
  3. stewardship
  4. indivisible
  5. no or low cost to reuse - especially for cultural commons, and digital artifacts
  6. justice and the environment
  7. ownership
  8. volunteerism - e.g. distributed proofreaders, project Gutenberg, Wikipedia
  9. From geography - the converging influence of site and situation. Both need to be conducive for a commons to arise. Thus a small group can protect a small space, like Nicollet Island, and reach across multiple generations. For a larger site, like the atmosphere, the situation may be more difficult or require different participants. e.g. the Kyoto treaty or other international agreements (CFCs)

Other ideas that need development - gift economy, work around restrictions/barriers, Native American spirtuality and ethics.

So why are commons threatened? Because people are “as dumb as rocks,” see the Nicollet Island whirlpool. Another mill run seemed like a good idea at the time but proved disasterous. Greed and stupidity make people do things that destroy the commons. Lack of belief in the commons, lack of awareness about the commons, or too encultured to see the commons. Need to design solutions that emphasize the commons and make people part of the experience.