OnTheCommons.org Resources

By SamuelRose, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 12 years 28 weeks ago.

On The Commons is a great resource and blog for understanding what a "commons" is.

On The Commons defines a commons this way:

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 of 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, water, the oceans, wildlife and wilderness, and shared “assets” like the Internet, the airwaves used for broadcasting, and public lands. The commons also includes our shared social creations: libraries, parks, public spaces as well as scientific research, creative works and public knowledge that have accumulated over centuries.

This is our common wealth, or the commons. The strange thing is, we have forgotten how to recognize the commons and act like the rightful owners of our own riches. Too many people blindly accept the “enclosure” of our commons, which transforms shared resources enjoyed by all into private commodities available only to those who can afford them. Part of the problem is the narrow version of economics that dominates in the United States today -- a version that presumes that the only important wealth is created through market exchange. We, the commoners, know otherwise.

Their key concepts are also worth looking at as well:

Published on On The Commons (http://onthecommons.org)

Key Concepts

Common assets. Those parts of the commons that have a value in the market and which are appropriate to buy and sell (see “inalienability”). Radio airwaves are a common asset, for example, as are timber and minerals on public lands and, increasingly, air and water. By recognizing certain resources as common assets, it is easier to ask: Are the common assets being responsibly managed on behalf of the general public or a distinct community of interest? Is the capital being depleted?

Copyleft. A license that allows free re-use and modification of creative work so long as the derivative work remains available on the same terms. Copyleft — formally known as the “General Public License,” or GPL — was initiated by computer programmer Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. [link] By protecting the creativity and energy of the commons from private appropriation, the GPL has made free software and open source software possible. A related set of licenses for other types of creative works has been devised by the Creative Commons. [link]

Corporation. A self-perpetuating legal entity whose mission is to maximize short-term return to shareholders. In its aggressive pursuit of this mission, the corporation not only produces new innovations and efficiencies, it also displaces costs onto the environment, our communities and our personal lives (see “market externalities”).

Gift economy. A community of shared purpose, such as an academic discipline, whose members give time and creativity to a defined community and reap benefits in return. In gift communities, money is an unacceptable “currency” because relationships are rooted in personal, particular and historical experiences of each individual, and cannot be converted into cash or any other fungible unit.

Enclosure. The conversion of a commons into private property. Enclosure entails not just the privatization of a resource, but the introduction of money and market exchange as the prevailing principles for managing that resource. Enclosure shifts ownership and control from the community at large to private companies. This in turn changes the management and character of the resource because the market has very different standards of accountability and transparency than a commons. (Contrast a public library with a book store, or Main Street with a private shopping mall.) Because of its compulsion to extract maximum short-term rents and externalize costs, market enclosure often results in the “tragedy of the market.”

Externality, or illth. A social or ecological cost that is not paid by its creators. As the scope of market activity expands beyond a certain point, engulfing more of nature and daily life, it yields less and less happiness and well-being even as it generates more and more unintended problems. By the premises of market logic, the expanding output must be regarded as “progress” and “wealth.” In fact, the accelerating pace of the market machine is producing more “illth” — the opposite of wealth. Author Peter Barnes (Who Owns the Sky) has popularized this term, coined by John Ruskin in the 19th century, to describe the unintended but increasing destruction of nature, social disruptions, health problems and other (unacknowledged or disguised) costs of market activity.

Inalienability. The principle that a given resource shall not be freely bought and sold in the marketplace, but shall remain intact, in its natural context. Inalienability derives from a social consensus that certain things and behaviors are so precious and basic to human identity that they are degraded by allowing their purchase. “Goods” that have traditionally been regarded as inalienable include votes, babies, bodily organs, sex, genes, living species and most aspects of nature, but market forces are increasingly challenging long-standing norms of inalienability.

Public goods. Resources that, because of their “public” nature, are difficult or costly to exclude anyone from using. Examples include lighthouses, city parks, broadcast programming and the global atmosphere. In the lingo of economists, these are “nonrival” and “nonexcludable” resources. Government often steps in to pay for public goods because it is difficult to get individual beneficiaries to pay for them. But in the networked environment of the Internet, it is increasingly feasible for self-organizing groups to create and pay for public goods. Open source software is a prime example.

Public trust doctrine. A legal doctrine that says that the state holds certain resources in trust for its citizens which cannot be given away or sold. Public trust doctrine has its origins in Roman law, which recognized that certain resources such as fisheries, air, running water and wild animals belong to all. Under the doctrine of res communes, the king could not grant exclusive rights of access to a common resource. The point is that there is a clear distinction between common property (which belongs to the people) and state property (which can be conttrolled and mismanaged by government).

Trust. A legal institution for protecting the commons and managing any assets that may arise from them. If the corporation is the preeminent institution of the market, the trust is the premier institution of the commons. The managers of a trust, the trustees, have clear legal responsibilities to manage its resources on behalf of the beneficiaries. This includes strict fiduciary responsibilities, transparency and accountability.