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March 23, 2013

Our Common Wealth: Jonathan Rowe's Collected Writings on the Commons

An author/activist showed us the hidden economy that makes everything else work

I can remember the moment I first recognized the commons as a powerful tool to heal the Earth, reverse economic inequality and strengthen our communities. This article by Jonathan Rowe lit a fire in my head when I first read it in Yes! magazine. It’s the reason I am now doing what I do. And reading it again in Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy that That Makes Everything Else Work —a just-published collection of Jonathan Rowe’s writing from Berrett-Koehler Publishers—rekindles my excitement.

Jonathan Rowe helped found On The Commons (known then as the Tomales Bay Institute) in 2002, and became both a Paul Revere and a Thomas Paine of the budding commons movement, spreading word that “privatizers are coming” but also articulating the common sense in recognizing, protecting and nurturing what belongs to all of us together.

I first encountered Jonathan through his smart, profound and fresh thinking in the Washington Monthly when I was editor of Utne Reader magazine. We had reprinted his articles on topics as varied as Ralph Nader (for whom he worked as one of the original Nader’s Raiders) and Cuban baseball. As soon as I finished his eye-opening introduction to the commons, we rushed it into print as part of our issue responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At a time when U.S. leaders were counseling Americans to either hunker down at home to protect our safety or to go shopping to revive the economy, I appreciated his insistent voice that what we do and build together is important for the future.

The concept of the commons was much more unfamiliar then than it is today. But Jonathan continued to write about this idea and all the possibilities it opens in our lives and society for OnTheCommons.org, Harper’s magazine, The Ecologist and Yes!, which enlightened many people around the world about the importance of what we share.

Our Common Wealth, edited by Jonathan’s friend, neighbor and colleague Peter Barnes gathers his crucial insight on topics ranging from the myopia of money and the cost of commercialism to the importance of alleys and the pleasures of neighborhood hangouts.

An elegant spirited writer capable of bringing complicated ideas vividly to life, Jonathan did not just simply comment about the world—he also rolled up his sleeves to make it a better place as a Nader Raider, a Congressional aide to Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, and as co-founder of the West Marin Commons, a grassroots campaign to enliven the commons in and around his adopted home of Port Reyes, California.

Jonathan Rowe died in 2011, and is missed by all of us who knew him either in print or in person. Our Common Wealth is his legacy. (Read his longtime On The Commons colleague David Bollier’s tribute here).