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June 17, 2013

Learning to "Commonify" Your Mind

Breaking free of the belief that the market rules everything in our lives

How can we organize ourselves for human and ecological survival? And what solutions do the commons, both historic and emerging, offer toward survival?

These are two of the most urgent questions before us today

My work with On The Commons focuses on water and water governance from a commons perspective in the Great Lakes bioregion. That work has surfaced deep questions about what it takes to reactivate the understandings, practices, patterns of relationship, and arrangements that enable a commons to thrive, especially where, as James Quilligan puts it, “citizens have lost their direct understanding and connection with the commons.”

This work includes reconstituting a direct connection with our waters, fostering a sense of ecosystem-based community, deepening citizen involvement in water stewardship, and formulating a set of water governance principles not bound to a fundamentalist market worldview.

In my work on the Great Lakes, I see the commons as a useful and radical idea in the sense that it gets at the “root,” or the nature of our relationships to the living world and to one another. It “re-implicates” us in an ecosystem—or in other words, it gives us a role within an ecosystem, and asks us to take on the responsibilities that come with our role. It is an idea that makes new strategies and solutions possible in a diminished environmental advocacy arena.

As Ben Yahola, a Native American partner of ours in the Great Lakes Commons, says, “If we take care of the water, it will take care of us.” This deceptively simple statement requires us to understand our reciprocal relationship to the water, as well as to whomever else is included in the “we.” It requires us to grapple with the responsibilities for protecting the water for generations to come.

I recently attended the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin, where commoners from across the globe met to discuss questions like those posed above. I’d like to share a few insights from our conversation.

In her opening address, Silke Helfrich, co-founder of the Commons Strategy Group, said, “We need to ‘commonify’ our minds. [If we are going to create a commons-based economy] we must challenge, bypass, and undermine the market mindset and market/state.” During a time when the market paradigm informs not only our economic understandings, but also many of our social and cultural assumptions—even our vocabulary—Helfrich’s challenge is great. And it’s more important now than ever.

But how exactly do we “commonify” our minds?

Here are some ideas. Perhaps we should not refer to living ecosystems as “resources,” or even “commons resources,” and instead affirm them as “sources” of life? Perhaps we should challenge even the subtle suggestion that we humans exist outside of ecosystems, a perspective that has historically justified exploitation of nature? Instead we could begin to think of ourselves as members of a commons ecosystem with specific responsibilities, as we do in our Great Lakes work.

I think commonifying our minds begins with an inquiry about the nature of the relationships we want with one another and our commons. This is crucial work because without it, we will continue to justify commons approaches through a market framework. And this means the commons will continue to be marginalized. As we express the value of these kinds of relationships, in contrast to the much narrower value system put forward by the market, we help legitimize forms of value connected to right livelihood, culture, identity, historical relationship, spiritual connection and preservation of a way of life—all of which highlight the values of the commons.