What country is the world leader in the commons?
It’s a question that can’t be easily answered. It all depends on what indicators you use to measure the commons.
Wealthy societies with strong government services and highly developed civic institutions—the social democracies of Scandinavia, say—might top the list in some people’s calculations. Other folks might give the nod to nations of the developing world, where centuries-old informal commons traditions still shape daily life.
Indeed, a commons-based society arises from a complex assortment of social, cultural and natural factors. Comparative statistics on everything from income equality to levels of creative expression to the prevalence of streetlife would be important in gauging the vitality of the commons in various nations.
But let me throw in one more significant measure, for which I have some reliable data: the amount of time people spend eating meals.
While that may sound frivolous, I believe it’s at the core of what makes the commons thrive or shrivel. A strong commons-based society grows out of natural and continual interaction between people. All around the globe, sitting down together to eat is the fundamental mark of human engagement—a nourishing ritual where we connect in conversation. This is a basic act of commoning.
So it only figures that a society where people wolf down their food will come up short on key indicators linked to the commons.
But let’s see what the numbers show.
According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—a pillar of the “establishment” that encompasses the world’s most wealthy market economies—the French spend nearly twice as much time eating each day as Canadians: 135 minutes compared to 69.
It’s no surprise that France is the winner, but few would guess what country found its leisurely way to second place: New Zealand. (This information came courtesy of Monocle magazine , a savvy, fashionable, hopeful chronicle of global affairs published from London).
Here are the rankings for 16 select countries based on minutes citizens spend eating each day on average:
New Zealand 130
South Korea 96
Now, of course, there is nothing definitive in this (and indeed it excludes the developing world and a number of OECD nations). Although I think it’s not a coincidence that Fast Food Nations at the bottom like the U.S., Canada and the UK are also societies where privatization has made deep inroads in both public policy and people’s lives.
Mostly it’s just fun to look at the list, but I think it offers us the glimmer of a beginning for a more comprehensive study of nations where the commons is strongest and weakest.