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by Joni Carley, DMin
In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete. That, in essence, is the higher service to which we are all being called. – Buckminster Fuller
Omega Institute’s 2015 Forum on the Commons focused on literal and philosophical seeds and also on developing the civic soil for bringing all seeds to their fullest fruition. Extraordinary people including Vandana Shiva, Maude Barlow, Ralph Nader, Winona LaDuke, John Todd, Will Allen and others talked about successes and challenges of a commons-centric systems, programs, policies, traditions and technologies.
I came home inspired and also mindful that the commons conversation often overlooks the invisible commonalities that ultimately drive us. We’re not likely to make deep systemic changes in how we manage our tangible commons if we don’t more accurately factor in our intangible commonalities.
The 200 people who gathered at Omega are a small fraction of an emergent international group of diverse citizens who are discovering and re-discovering ways to seed the common ground our children’s children will walk on. Transformative projects and policies across the globe confirm the necessary public will and know-how for a more compassionate and just common existence on this planet. It’s important that we tend to the invisible ground that underlies our commonality.
There is a metaphysical commons of intangible essentials that help make the commons common. Using an essential commons lens helps factor metaphysical commons, like values and the human spirit, together with literal commons, like vegetation, air and water. Commons-oriented people often assume they all want the same things but, without establishing ground for invisibilities like values, aspirations and motives, the Commons Movement risks political pitfalls that mirror the status quo.
The essential commons lens accounts for essential drivers of our engagement with commons causes – drivers like vision, soul and purpose.
The essential commons is where the fundamental, intrinsic essence of our commonality is distilled into words and actions and also refracted into visions for conscious evolution. The intangible essentials can be broken into three types of commons: civil, spiritual and universal commons. Let’s focus on the civics.
Nader suggests that when we meet up with people, rather than asking about jobs or favorite sports teams, we should ask, “How’s your civic life?” Nader and others say we have a human right to good governance and, conversely, that the quality of a government can be determined by how well human rights are going. Twelfth Century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote that the “noble seed” of all sentient beings requires a royal soil to grow in. Eckhart illuminates human rights-based civics by recovering the concepts of “royalty” and “nobility” from meaning domination, excess and bad behavior to meaning compassion, courage, justice and vitality. The civil commons concept is a lens on building soil that’s rich enough to support the nobility of all beings.
Human rights flourish when the commons do because general wellbeing requires a robust commons. The commons flourish in accordance with natural law. Too often, however, natural and civic law don’t square well with each other. The civil commons lens dilates the civic space by recognizing the dynamic equanimity between civil and natural law. The civil commons is a domain of inquiry where policy and practice meet nature and soul.
Modern privatization and monetization of the commons is based on civil law that prioritizes corporate profits over natural laws like all species wanting their offspring to go to sleep safe, fed and warm. Recent news about Exxon demonstrates the current civil/natural law schism: Exxon scientists and corporate strategists engaged in extensive organizational and financial planning for the reality of global warming during the decades that the company was paying lobbyists, their own executives, and friendly politicians to deny it. Exxon gamed the current paradigm’s natural/civic law misalignment to the detriment of common good all over the world.
The civil commons lens reflects a global shift toward political coherence around values for the rights of the born and unborn to be well and happy; and around values for the rights of resources to be respected. Commons-conscious civics embrace indigenous wisdom, including the understanding that commons, like water, are not just a human right but are themselves entities with inalienable rights to purity and good use.
Like the more tangible commons, the civic space is its own entity with an inherent mandate for its own vitality. Nader reminds us, “Democracy is not a spectator sport… It requires civic time, dues, commitment, and action.” And, we make civic choices by way of daily decisions that are based from entrenchment within a civilization where “consumerism crowds out civics.”
The civil commons is not the domain for arguing against consumerism but rather a paradigmatic displacement of consumerism’s centrality. The civil commons lens holds greatest good, rather than profit and growth, as the essential standard.
Even really good social programs often miss the mark because they don’t account for the things people value most. For example, as Shiva states, we’re “kind of dumb about our Smart Cities initiative.” That’s because it focuses on digital connectivity without regard for the thing that studies and traditions throughout time have determined to be our most essential human need – a sense of personal connectedness.
Smart Cities offers a glimpse into the powerful impact that privatization has on the invisible commons. It awards our common spectrum of bandwidths, in the form of licensing, to corporations who get to say just what it is that we’re unconsciously wired to. We all own the airwaves yet every band of the spectrum barrages us with corporate-centric stories that often go against human and environmental nature.
Despite its growing presence on the cultural landscape, commons-consciousness is not well represented online, in media or by politics. Many new paradigm early adapters are averse to politics and, at the same time, shut out of media because commercial and political gatekeepers are averse to new paradigm messaging. However, as Nader warns, “If you don’t turn on to politics, politics turns on you.”
Commons-conscious decision-makers represent a demographic of moral suasion that doesn’t fit neatly into standard sociological slices like gender, race, income or even political leanings. The “herd of cats” demographic that’s inclined toward commons consciousness is challenged by its incoherent political voice. Nader proposes that a coalition come together, similar to how the NAACP did, as a unified agency of agencies with collective capacity to hire the lobbyists and professional staff needed for monitoring and impacting politics.
The civic domain is where initiatives like Will Allen’s Milwaukee-based Growing Power are enriching the literal soil with compost and care to support the noble seeds of dignified, healthy and productive lives for transitioning prisoners and at-risk youth. The urban pockets that have been transformed by Growing Power are microcosms that expose Eckhart’s macrocosmic truth: noble seeds grow best in royal soil.
Spiritual Commons & Universal Commons
The spiritual and universal commons are beyond the scope of this article but are critical domains for evolving a new cultural narrative. Scientists agree that we only understand about 5% of the universe and that 95% is mostly mystery that we call dark matter and dark energy. Our commonality lies not just in our tangible and intangible interdependencies, it also lies in the 95% uncharted territory that is our universal commons.
We can put all the known elements of a seed into a lab dish but we can’t generate a seed. Even the most genetically engineered seeds aren’t assembled in lab dishes because we don’t have the metaphysical capacity to manufacture the essential bio-force that sparks life. No faith tradition has ever been able to nail down exactly what that seed of life-force is, but they all seek to understand and nurture it. The spiritual commons is where we seek alignment of souls, our most noble seeds, toward commons-conscious evolution.
In order for the seeds of our loins to thrive, the seeds of our consciousness must yield the conditions for thriving. Taken together as essential commons, the civil, spiritual and universal commons account for natural laws of physics, cosmology and biology; as well as for principles of human nature like soul, happiness, and wellbeing; and for universal forces like love, truth and joy. The essential commons is a domain of inquiry into building fertile soil for the noble seed that is unique in each of us and common to all.
As an expert in progressive leadership, Dr. Joni Carley, DMin co-authored Stepping Stones to Success, Vol 1, with Deepak Chopra, Jack Canfield and Dr. Denis Waitley. She has offered talk and workshops at the United Nations. Learn more here.