What is a 'Commons' and how is this transformative?

“Currently, common property — that, which by its nature, cannot be owned by an individual–is without protection. Yet, preservation of common property, such as air and water, are essential to life and especially to those yet to come.” 
– Walter Bressette, Anishinaabe

What Is A Commons?
A commons names everything that belongs to all of us and that we must share, care for, and pass on to future generations undiminished. Water is one of the most essential commons we have — water belongs to all of us and is owned by no one. It is a living eco-system unto itself on which the biodiversity of the watershed depends. And like any commons, if it is to thrive, it needs people who step up to act as stewards and protectors.

Why The Commons?
The commons paradigm is a powerful and alternate framework that humans have used to take care of and equitably share resources for centuries. Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom has shown it to be a highly effective form of stewardship whose governance, in accordance with commons principles, is deeply collaborative, egalitarian and focused on ecological responsibility and social equity. The commons redefines the term wealth as all that we share rather than what we own individually. It is thereby rooted in a very different understanding of relationship, belonging and value, and a different approach to stewardship and governance than that of the dominant society.

A Commons Charter For The Great Lakes
A Charter is a formal declaration that outlines the rights and incentives of a community in the use and protection of a commons. The average person thinks little about their relationship to the waters or their responsibility for them. And yet there is a deep love of the Lakes that is evident in the people of the region, but rarely is tapped politically or socially. Support the Great Lakes Commons Charter.

Commons Governance Structure
A commons-based governance structure is not singular or one-size-fits-all. A true commons honors the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations and Indigenous peoples’ right to self-governance. At the same time, it honors shared commons-based governance and collaboration to ensure that the bioregion is treated as a whole.

The commons paradigm is a powerful and alternate framework that humans have used to take care of and equitably share resources for centuries. Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom has shown it to be a highly effective form of stewardship whose governance, in accordance with commons principles, is broadly democratic and focused on ecological stewardship and social equity. It is rooted in a different understanding of relationship, belonging and value, and a different approach to stewardship and governance.

Ostrom’s studies were based on Indigenous societies. Indigenous knowledge informs the logic of the commons. While commons is not a term used in Indigenous communities, commons philosophy, principles and practice are alive today, offering concrete examples, as Ostrom found, of commons-based social, economic and governance structures.
 

“The Commons is a system of governance by which communities of varying sizes and kind assert their commitments to manage shared resources, allocate them fairly and preserve them unimpaired for present and future generations. When the nature and scale of resources so require, the State shall act as a trustee for commoners to protect and maintain their common asset.” 
– D. Bollier/ Burns Weston, Regenerating the Human Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment in the Commons Renaissance

The failure of Great Lakes governance to fully protect the waters and the interests of the living beings who depend on them is deeply troubling. While there is no simple or single answer to this problem, the commons offers an alternative set of criteria and governance propositions that could provide a greater locus of power for “commoners” and commons interests. 

Commons governance can take a variety of forms and involve multiple tiers of governance that are “nested” in order to cope with different scales and to assign appropriate decision making to the right level. The decision-making honors a principle of subsidiarity – an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.

Throughout history, community rules for many kinds of commons have been set up to prevent resource overuse while ensuring fair access. For the most part these rules were customary and gained acceptance through practice. In our current period there are efforts to codify commons protections and the clout of commoners through public trust law, the establishment of commons trusts, the enforcement of treaty rights, the establishment of rights of mother nature, and so on. “The point is to create a participatory culture of stewardship that can persist and cherish the resources that need to be protected” (from Bollier/Weston). And to enable and protect those entrusted with the stewardship with the necessary legal and political standing.

  Photo by Daphne Randall

 

Photo by Daphne Randall