Long ago, the ‘commons’ simply meant the place we villagers shared and the resources of which we all partook. Here we pastured our small flocks, gathered herbs and mushrooms, and hunted game. And we were protected by an unspoken and unwritten understanding. No individual or group could draw down the resources of the commons to the detriment of the community. It was a simple but binding covenant.
Inevitably, perhaps, wealth and power intruded. What had long been regarded as a basic right of ‘the people’ began to be eroded by the process of ‘enclosure’ as first kings and then modern nation-states claimed the commons for their own use. From the manor house on the hill came the decree that the village commons was to be walled off, that the forest was to become a preserve, and that ancient rights no longer prevailed. One can, for example, trace the history of British law against the backdrop of the enclosure movement and the diminishment of the commons. On the other hand, however, it’s now possible to discern—as a counterpoint to the long, sad tale of enclosure—the emergence of a modern paradigm of cultural evolution.
Today a new virtual community is taking shape. Its goal is the definition, declaration, and defense of the global commons—the shared physical, economic, cultural, and spiritual heritage of humankind. While the concept may yet be largely unfamiliar to many, it has most certainly arrived. The awarding of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences to political economist Elinor Ostrom was a clarion call for born-again ‘commoners’ everywhere. Her demonstration that communities can indeed sustainably share common resources was a powerful rejoinder to the naysayers who have long insisted that selfishness must always triumph over communalism and lead to the “tragedy of the commons.”
Jim Kenney is the Executive Director of the Interreligious Engagement Project (IEP21), working with global religious communities to address the world’s critical problems through cooperative partnerships with government, business, education, media, intergovernmental organizations, and civil society.