The Wealth of Nations
Kids playing in Chicago's Millenium Park. (Photo by Kymberly Janisch under a Creative Commons license)
When my long-time friend John became a father, he confided to me that the world suddenly was divided into two distinct camps: people with children and those without. This puzzled me; I figured it was his excuse for being out of touch.
Photo courtesy of PM Press
We’re losing the ground of our subsistence to the privileged and the mighty. With the theft of our pensions, houses, universities, and land, people all over the world cry, Stop Thief! and start to think about the commons and act in its name.
But what is the commons? Its 21st century meaning is emerging from the darkness of centuries past.
Not long ago Neal Gorenflo, co-founder of Shareable--an award-winning news, action and connection hub for the sharing movement--called himself an “unlikely voice for sharing.” An epiphany in 2004 spurred him to leave his job as a corporate strategist and become a strategist for the common good. Without question, it was the right move for him. Gorenflo says his decision led him to develop a more collaborative lifestyle that’s “nothing short of magical.”
Car ads are generally not the place you look for inspiration about a commons way of life. But a recent duel between GM and Ford offers a keen comparison of what’s at stake.
“Screw the company trying to take our river, and the government. If I die, I’m going to die defending life.” So said María Santos Dominguez, a member of the Indigenous Council of the Lenca community of Rio Blanco, Honduras.
Anchor institutions--hospitals, colleges, and other institutions deeply rooted in their communities--are a form of commons that is viewed as crucial to revitalizing low-income neighborhoods. Besides being major employers and big customers for local businesses, they have an intrinsic stake in making sure their neighborhoods thrive. Your local hospital, for instance, is not going to pack up its beds and move to Mexico.
Camille Gage: What drew you to become a poet, to follow that path?
Crystal Williams: Well, firstly: when I was young my mother and I went to the library every week. I read voraciously and wasn’t allowed to watch much TV, though I could watch The Electric Company, or Sesame Street, but other than that my life was really about playing with my friends, being with my mom and dad, and reading. I had an uncle who loved poetry. He taught me my first poem and a real love of language.
The recent rise of the commons and the sharing economy seems to suggest a growing recognition of the fact that our health, happiness, and security depend greatly on the planet and people around us.
Minneapolis will soon vote to shift nearly 180 privately owned bus shelters to public ownership following numerous complaints about the lack of maintenance and upkeep. When it does it will join the burgeoning ranks of cities who have discovered that when it comes to public services government knows best.
When an article about this appeared in the local Star Tribune newspaper many on-line comments echoed the conventional wisdom circa 2014. “It must be really, really bad if government can do it better.”
The origins of the Western higher education system go back to ancient Greece when religious institutions, hospitals, museums and individual scholars such as Plato and Aristotle founded schools where knowledge in many arenas was shared, sometimes with students simply gathering under a certain tree at a certain time.
Jutta Mason, a young mother in Toronto, faced a dilemma. She lived near Dufferin Grove Park a number of years ago but was afraid to go there with her children because it had become a hangout for kids who were viewed as the “local toughs.” Still, she didn’t want to stay home stuck in her house. Mason debated whether to endure boredom or confront fear? She chose to overcome her fear, and in the process made a great difference in her community.
But by 2020, with the success of the Victory Garden campaign, things fell into a new shape. Up through most of the teens, two futures had contended in popular imagination. Although there were brave evocations of our collective creativity and capability, mostly on the liberal-to-left side of the aisle we saw the end of the world approaching. Think of the we-can-do-it segment tacked onto Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth: after watching those animations of the coastlines receding, my 14 year-old friends and I sincerely doubted that recycling would save the planet.
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Centuries before someone first uttered the words “sharing economy,” the steady rise of cities embodied both the principles and promise of that phrase.
The reason more than half the people on earth now live in urban areas is the advantages that come from sharing resources, infrastructure and lives with other people. Essential commons belonging to all of us, ranging from transportation systems to public health safeguards to plentiful social connections, are easier to create and maintain in a populated area.
It’s hard to think of anyone who embodied the spirit and practice of the commons more than musician and activist Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94.
He devoted his life to folk music— songs and tunes and lyrics that have been passed along from generation to generation, neighbor to neighbor throughout human history. No one owns the rights to this music; it’s everyone’s priceless cultural inheritance to sing, to hum, to play, to adapt to their own tastes and to share with others.
Can Cities Lead the Way on Inequality?
It sounds like multi-tasking run amok. Tackling a slew of problems at once seems like a crazy idea. But when urban water utilities team up with rural neighbors to protect water sources, there’s an outpouring of positive outcomes. Elusive solutions fall into place. Among a cascade of benefits, you get:
When bikeshare systems started popping up across North America, I got excited.
I knew bikeshare had improved life in European cities by offering people a convenient way to get around town on short trips. “It’s like a whole new kind of transit system on two wheels,” explained a friend who’d used the system in Paris.
But I never imagined myself renting bicycles from automated stations. They’re for people who don’t own bikes, right? Why would I pay for bikeshare when I have several bikes of my own in the garage?
Is Congress inconsistent when they sometimes support using revenue offsets and indexing to inflation and sometimes don’t? Not at all. They’re actually very consistent. When capital comes asking for gifts Republicans act like Santa Claus. When labor is asking they conduct themselves more like Scrooge.
Consider the Republicans’ different approach to the estate tax, the minimum wage, and jobless benefits.