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September 30, 2005

A Path Forward

A brief commons manifesto.

The vision of a healthy commons is an alluring one. The trick, however, is getting there from here. At the moment, the prospect for change of this magnitude seems dim. But history, like evolution, doesn’t proceed in straight lines; it takes big, often unexpected leaps.

I think we’re approaching the end of an era. Either there’ll be a major catalytic event (collapse of the dollar, a series of devastating hurricanes), or so much pressure on existing ideas that they’ll crack. The question is, will we be ready for the discontinuity? Will we know what to do when the historic opportunity arises?

At this moment, I fear we’re not ready. Our economists have been too narrowly focused and unimaginative. The same can be said for our politicians, our media, and most of our single-themed advocacy groups. So here’s what I propose:

  • Our organizing principle for the next 20 or 30 years should be: reinvent and rebuild the commons. This needn’t be done all at once; it can be done brick by brick.
  • We design institutions to manage commons at local, regional, national and global levels, and road-test these institutions wherever possible.
  • We challenge the divine right of capital in the media, the universities and the courts. And we promote every citizen’s right to an equal share of some common wealth. We won’t win at first, but we keep chipping away.
  • We nourish institutional seeds. For example, land trusts, watershed councils, air quality districts and similar entities already abound. What they lack, largely, are property rights and steady revenue streams.
  • We make polluters pay into trusts. After all, they’re trespassing on our common inheritance.
  • We build alliances with religious groups and reframe the debate about morality. Many religions believe that nature is a gift of God that humans must respect and preserve. Many are also concerned about the effects of commercialism and materialism on children and families.

If we do these things, we may avert planetary disaster and make ourselves happier. Let us try, I say.