From nature to culture and even to the marketplace, common threads make us strong -- provided we keep them from fraying.
Here's some great news in these tough times. Everyone has a long lost aunt who's leaving us an inheritance of incalculable value: clean water, public services, the Internet, parks, scientific knowledge, fashion styles, and much more.
The name of our aunt is "the commons." While she is metaphorical, the commons is as real as Lake Itasca, Excelsior Boulevard, the University of Minnesota, public hunting lands, the National Weather Service, hot dish recipes, Ole and Lena jokes, the local police force and the latest dance steps.
The commons means everything that belongs to all of us, and to future generations. Although few of us ever stop to think about the commons, it runs right through the center of our lives -- from the tap water we use to brush our teeth in the morning to the fairy tales we tell our kids at night.
The natural commons makes life itself possible -- air, water, biodiversity and DNA. The cultural commons makes civilization possible through the sharing of knowledge, language, inventions, stories and art. The social commons makes our modern way of life possible through educational institutions, medical expertise, engineering know-how and communications tools.
Even the market economy depends on the commons for the natural resources and human capital that drive its profits, as well as the legal and regulatory systems without which it would fall apart.
Anyone can use the commons, so long as there is enough left for everyone else. Finite commons, such as natural resources, must be carefully managed. But many other forms of the commons can be universally tapped.
Today's musicians, for instance, can freely adopt the style of soul singers, jazz swingers, blues wailers, gospel shouters, punk screamers, rap masters, hillbilly pickers and balladeers going back a long time -- and we are all richer for it. That's the greatest strength of the commons. It increases in value as people draw upon its riches.
While this may sound like an arcane concept for social philosophers to ponder, the commons actually offers a practical toolkit to address problems like rising social inequity and environmental damage. It also can help heal widespread disillusionment about the future that's accelerating as citizens feel locked out of decisions made by both government and the private sector.
Here are some examples of how the commons concept can be applied in the real world.
• Neighbors eager to maintain open space, affordable housing or to protect environmentally sensitive areas are setting up land trusts, a form of commons-based community ownership distinct from both private property and government management.
• The immense collaborative possibilities of the Internet, which was created with public money and functions as a commons where ideas and information are widely shared, has pushed innovation forward in many fields by emphasizing cooperation over competition. Indeed, many observers credit the rise of the World Wide Web with sparking a new appreciation of the commons in the off-line world, especially among young people.
• What if we look at the looming threat of climate change from a commons perspective? Since the sky belongs to all of us, we all should benefit as much as possible from any proposed legislation to curb greenhouse gases. But the cap-and-trade climate bill proposed by the Obama administration raises energy prices for American families, with our money going directly into the coffers of polluting companies, which will buy and sell carbon permits under the new plan. It's hardly surprising Congress has taken no action.
Peter Barnes -- an entrepreneur and cofounder of the Minneapolis-based commons strategy center On The Commons -- proposed a commons-inspired climate bill, which was introduced in Congress by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Maria Cantwell, D-Washington.
While adopting the same buying-and-selling approach as cap-and-trade, his cap-and-dividend plan would distribute profits from carbon permits to all Americans on a per capita basis, providing relief for everyone struggling with higher energy bills.
If the idea of paying dividends to all American citizens sounds radical, consider that one of America's most conservative states, Alaska, does something similar with oil revenues from public lands, a policy enacted in 1976 by Republican Gov. Jay Hammond. Acknowledging that natural resources on public lands rightfully belong to all citizens, the Alaska Permanent Fund distributes a share of the profits every year to each of the state's families.
• Another promising commons-based solution is already in place in one of the brightest red Midwestern states. North Dakota, reliably Republican in presidential elections since 1964, operates a state-owned bank to serve the common good, which some economists cite as one reason the state is weathering the recession better than almost any other in the union. Lawmakers in Louisiana, Virginia, Arizona and Illinois and eight other states are considering starting their own.
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That's the good news. The bad news is that the commons is now under threat as never before.
In some cases, what belongs to all of us is being privatized -- pickpocketed, really -- for the benefit of a few.
We see this in the broadcasting industry, where since the 1980s owners of radio and TV stations have shouldered almost no responsibilities to the public interest in return for the fortunes they reap from our public airwaves -- a free ride now being sought by Web providers who want to shred rules that ensure everyone equal access to the Internet.
In many places around the world, private firms are gaining control of public water systems. But when rewarding shareholders prevails over serving the public as the chief aim of a utility, the price of water goes up and the quality of service goes down.
According to Maude Barlow, a former advisor to the United Nations secretary general on water issues, a growing list of cities -- from those in Argentina and Australia to New Orleans, Atlanta and Stockton, Calif. -- have ended experiments in water privatization after experiencing disastrous results. In June, Italians voted decisively to overturn Premier Silvio Berlusconi's plan to privatize public water supplies.
In other less dramatic but no less consequential cases, the commons is simply neglected until it becomes less valuable for everyone. The branch library shuts down, for instance, and the recreation center at the park is only open two days a week.
This trend is unfortunate any time, but especially in the midst of a wrenching recession when many families can't afford private Internet service, new books, gym memberships or special training for their kids.
More suffering is in store with each new round of budget cuts as essential elements of the commons like education, law enforcement, health care, social services and transportation are chipped away.
A rich tradition of the commons played a key role in what has been called the Minnesota Miracle -- the economic and social success of a state that prided itself on quality public services, good education, a clean environment, hard work, strong communities, high public participation, an ethic of cooperation and a sense that every kid growing up here deserves a fair shake.
Government and civic leaders long understood that many people write off Minnesota because of our chilly weather and remote location. Compared to other states, we need to do a better job across the board from schools to business development to quality-of-life to attract newcomers and to keep homegrown talent.
But this is at risk now, as our legacy of mutual support and populist fairness seems to be fading. We've been warned for decades that the Twin Cities without pro sports would be a "cold Omaha."
But unless we take steps to recover our spirit of the commons -- the idea that "we" matters as much as "me" in public policy -- Minnesota could wind up a "Frostbitten Arkansas."
Jay Walljasper, editor of www.OnTheCommons.org, is author of the new book "All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons."