Commons Sense

As many as 300,000 people marched in New York on Sept. 21 to call for the United Nations to take action on climate change—four times the number that organizers predicted. In the interfaith bloc, behind a wooden ark on wheels and a giant inflatable mosque, I marched and sang with nuns and seminarians, friends and strangers, sharing our love for the planet we all have in common.

The Book of Acts talks twice about the early church holding “all things in common,” in the second chapter and in the fourth. Both times, the phrase “signs and wonders” comes right before. Sharing things followed a shared experience. There is some kind of connection, it seems, between holy spectacle and how we treat the world around us. Like how falling in love makes us see miracles all around us, or how a wedding binds families together, signs and wonders help us share what we once kept to ourselves. September’s climate march was certainly a wonder. I hope world leaders will also take it as a sign.

But what does the phrase “in common” mean? Cold War shudders might arise in us: Are we talking communism or capitalism? Was the climate march some kind of plea for an Earth-worshiping politburo?

I hope not. Heeding the scientific consensus and the cries of people enduring climate-induced floods and famines, popes from John Paul II to Francis have spoken of inaction on climate change as a pressing moral crisis for Christians. An environmental encyclical is in the making. In New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote on his blog, “It would be wonderful if there were a strong Catholic presence at the march, to indicate our prayerful support of God’s creation.”

What the apostles were doing, and what we should be doing to protect the planet, falls on neither side of the Cold War binary. Acts is not talking about a state bureaucracy any more than about a stock market; it is talking about the ancient practice sometimes called “commoning”—that is, treating the means of livelihood as the common birthright of everyone. The whole world, after all, is ultimately God’s. Thus Gratian understood that by natural law omnia sunt communia—all things are common—and thus St. Thomas Aquinas held that poor people’s right to necessities trumps the property rights of the rich. Thus, alongside England’s Magna Carta came the Charter of the Forest, which ensured that the landless masses would have the right to sustain themselves with the fruits of common land. Thus Leviticus required that farmers leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that the poor could live off the remains—and so, to protect the health of the land, every seven years it was to be left fallow.

Commoning was the original bulwark against poverty, an economic system built around meeting the needs of the poor and sustaining the environment. It was a natural fit for early Christians, many of whom were on the fringes of society. The medieval church went on to maintain churches and land for common use; it was no accident that with the Reformation came a surge in the enclosure of land into private estates.

Throughout history, commoners have had to fend off the urges of the wealthy to enclose common resources. “The pre-eminent challenge is to assure the greatest integrity of the commons, so that the fruits of commoning are not siphoned away by clever, covetous businesses and governments,” writes David Bollier in his essential new introduction to the commons, Think Like a Commoner. While commoning might coexist with a market or state, it is neither. Commons are governed by the customs of the poor, not the bureaucracies of the rich.

Today, movements framed around the commons are resisting attempts to privatize such essentials as water, seeds and medicines. Climate change itself results from a kind of enclosure—an economic system that allows polluters to treat the atmosphere as theirs to disrupt and profit from. That is why, the day after the big march, I helped to organize another event: Flood Wall Street. Following a call to action from poor and indigenous communities, several thousand people wearing blue filled the Financial District. One hundred were arrested in a peaceful sit-in near the stock exchange.

First, we must see a God-given commons like the climate for what it is. Next, we must organize to protect it. Third, may we find the grace to become good stewards of it again.

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JR Cosgrove
6 years 3 months ago
Commoning was the original bulwark against poverty
If you want more poor, then institute commoning. It is guaranteed to reduce the common areas to squalor. Institute private property and the property will flourish. This is the social and economic organization that has essentially eliminated poverty in the West in the last 200 years. Getting rid of the commons in England was one of the ways that led to England's economic domininance during the 18th and 19th century. Given that, there is certainly things that a prudent society will try to control for the common good. Water, sanitation, safety are some that come to mind but certainly not seeds and medicine. This latter may seem harsh to some, but because of the incentive to innovate, medicine should not be left in the hands of the common. The commons destroys incentives for betterment. Designing a system which encourages innovation and allows access to a minimal of benefits for all is one that will move the world forward. Demanding that things be shared, guarantees that the pie will get smaller and smaller instead of bigger.
David Bollier
6 years 3 months ago
If J Cosgrove were right that commoning results in poverty, then how does he explain the fruits of such non-proprietary collaborations as Linux, Wikipedia and its offshoots, scientific research, academic scholarship, and the flourishing commons sector of life around the world? Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom was honored in 2009 -- in the aftermath of the squalid financial crisis of 2008 driven by private property maximization -- by demonstrating with extensive fieldwork that commons are entirely sustainable regimes for managing natural resources and other things of value. It's the "tragedy of the market" that leads to over-exploitation of resources beyond their natural carrying capacity because markets know no limits, especially when the state colludes with them in promoting an impersonal market order of individuals and economic growth at all costs. By contrast, intact communities of self-provisioning develop committed relationships among people and with nature. (In his famous essay of 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin was not describing a commons when he spoke of the "tragedy of the commons"; he was describing an open-access, free-for-all that more resembles the laissez-faire market of profit-maximizers.) The enclosure of seeds, medicines, scientific knowledge and other essential resources means that the state gives monopoly privileges to corporations (via patents, for example) to invent artificial chokepoints to extract unearned rents from the consuming public. Innovation is generally modest because industry looks to government (i.e., taxpayers) to finance the more risky research breakthroughs. NIH, not Big Pharma, is the real innovator. Meanwhile, the social inequities resulting from the system of private innovation are becoming crushing, as Thomas Pikkety has documented. As Jeremy Rifkin demonstrates in his latest book, "The Zero Marginal Cost Society," the Internet is blowing apart private property and proprietary business models because collaborative commons are often more efficient and innovative in generating new value. That's why most software companies build business models around open source software, why drug companies do more research via open collaborative networks, why open platforms are eclipsing most closed, proprietary platforms, and why more firms look to social participation with "prosumers" as the way to build their brands. Incentives for "betterment" do not come only or even primarily through markets. Belonging to a community of peers and shared ideals is a tremendous catalyst of value-creation. Finally, when private interests and market values are too pervasive, they suffocate the very humanistic and moral values that most need protecting. Economists accustomed to trafficking in abstract, fictional models of homo economicus have a lot to learn about real human beings.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 3 months ago
What about monasteries, monastic communities? Everyone gives according to ability and receives according to need. No lack of health insurance or food amongst the monks, yet they continue to thrive with creative endeavors and innovations.
JR Cosgrove
6 years 3 months ago
Beth, There are lots of great examples of groups/organizations who cooperate with each other internally and sometimes externally and are beneficial for society. The most conspicuous one is the family and it becomes bigger than Mom and Dad and sister and brother when it is extended. Another is sports teams who are the ultimate in cooperation to be successful. Another is a corporation or other organization which is most successful when there is a fair amount of cooperation and sharing of resources. Monks would fit into this scenario and the Church in general. Unfortunately that model breaks down when there is no close association with each other. Even in small communities it breaks down. I once had an economic professor who said socialism or sharing things in common only last as far as the horizon. I am not sure it lasts even that far in a typical world society that is much smaller.
Nathan Schneider
6 years 3 months ago

This is a great point to raise, Beth—and the connection between Catholic monastic tradition and our own possible economic futures is a subject I plan to come back to in future columns. And I think J Cosgrove raises a very real concern, also—that practices of commoning often depend on strong community ties.

On the one hand, a question we might ask is whether there are ways we can better strengthen community ties today? Can technology help? A lot of the new "sharing economy" initiatives (like Airbnb and Couchsurfing), for instance, claim that they can use the Internet to restore lost trust relationships (and large venture capitalists believe them). Others are more skeptical and argue that technology fundamentally gets in the way of strong community ties.

I think monastic tradition points toward a middle way. Monasteries, after all, were not built around just close community ties; they were built around shared vows, traditions, beliefs, and rules. A traveling monk could feel immediately welcome in a monastery far from his own, thanks to these shared values. Religious communities have explored many other ways of fostering trust and sharing that might not otherwise have seemed possible.

This past May I spent a week with a group of secular hackers who turned to monasteries as an inspiration for building a network of commons-producing communities across Europe. (Read my report in The Nation.) They saw monastic rules as a kind of technology, and I think there's truth in that. They would think you're both right.

Christopher Rushlau
6 years 3 months ago
the ancient practice sometimes called “commoning”—that is, treating the means of livelihood as the common birthright of everyone. it was no accident that with the Reformation came a surge in the enclosure of land into private estates. (end of excerpts) It is hard to take you seriously. Flood Wall St. "Common" comes from the Latin root "munus" meaning duty, obligation, service, a meaning preserved in "municipal", but even more clearly in "mean". Middle English, shortening of Old English gemǣne, of Germanic origin, from an Indo-European root shared by Latin communis ‘common.’ The original sense was ‘common to two or more persons,’ later ‘inferior in rank,’ leading to sense 3 and a sense ‘ignoble, small-minded,’ from which sense 1 and sense 2 (which became common in the 19th century) arose. The law is the great commons. To discuss the state of the law in this era of the Global War On Terror, its absurdities and depredations, as if Flood Wall Street was the high point of saintly engagement is, as I said, hard to take seriously. I agree generally with commenter Cosgrove that law has very few competencies when it comes to economics. Nuisance, under whose heading anti-pollution laws stem, has its limits, and society must balance its greed and its desire, as it were, perhaps banning tanneries but not horses in one age though both pollute in some sense. The essential common is the idea of law, the forum in which disputes are settled by argument and negotiation. I might add that the missing element in our Anglo-American legal tradition is taking account of the interests of those not represented in a given dispute. If we cannot allow for the widow and orphan who cannot reach our councils, we might live long enough to regret it. A law professor said that there is never an obligation under our legal tradition to do good, only to refrain from doing bad. Invading states because their population makes us nervous should come to be accounted among the forms of doing bad.
Joseph J Dunn
6 years 3 months ago
Nathan Schneider’s article is interesting. We all need to be aware of the environment and how our actions affect nature, today and into the future. Of course, nature itself includes some powerful and destructive forces—Ebola, influenza, blights, volcanoes and asteroids, just to name a few—that an open and charitable sharing of the commons will not deter. That’s what is so confusing and misguided about a demonstration such as “Flood Wall Street.” As Schneider states, “While communing might coexist with a market or state, it is neither.” And as he does not say, we need a commons, we need a market, and we need a state. We need a market (Wall Street, and it’s counterparts around the world) to do what Thomas Aquinas and the popes have acknowledged cannot be accomplished in and by the commons—the stewardship, preservation and prioritization of property in ways that promote the common good. A person, whether wealthy or poor, can gather and chew the bark of a wild aspen tree to alleviate a headache or thin the blood. Commoning will get you that. But if we seek the convenience and reliability of an easy-swallow pill with precisely 325 milligrams of aspirin, and perhaps a coating to protect the stomach lining, we need Wall Street. Gathering the investors who will risk their savings (already taxed, and not spent in some instantly gratifying pleasure) to build the plant, secure the raw materials, and hire the workers who will make and ship those pills, is the work of Wall Street. So it is with a thousand other conveniences and necessities, including many that serve the poor. Protesting an individual corporation for some actual offense against the commons may make sense. Protesting a market does not, any more than protesting a Commons. Yes, “The whole world, after all, is ultimately God’s.” The rights of poor people to necessities trumps the right of the rich to luxuries, though that suggest a simple, binary world in which a dollar taken from the rich directly and effectively aids the poor. But incentives such as profits play a role in bringing products and services to the world’s people, and that role is irreplaceable. Let’s recall that the Apostle Paul had to set the rule that “He who does not work, does not eat.” When those God-fearing venturers settled at Plymouth in 1620, they shared all things in common. All ground was part of the commons, all produce of the lands and waters to be shared equally, all sewing and other crafts to be brought to the common warehouse. That arrangement lasted until the colony faced starvation, which was avoided only when plots of land were allocated to households, and each could keep the produce of that land for their own use. That’s the testimony of William Bradford, the first governor. That’s the experience of modern-era communism, an experience that Schneider seeks to avoid. Next time he visits Wall Street, he might just thank one of those capitalists. Together, they can make a better world.
Nathan Schneider
6 years 3 months ago

Thank you for your plea for balance. Part of the appeal of the notion of the commons is that it is not all-or-nothing; commoning can, and perhaps should, co-exist with a state an market. Throughout history, markets have played an important role in ensuring the flow of not just goods but also culture and ideas. However, balance needs to go both ways. I do think that it is possible for a market as a whole, not just individual actors within it, to become too powerful and to become a serious threat to the commons. Pope Francis, for instance, has warned against "a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

It is of course a problem when a particular company profits from damaging the environment. But I think a more accurate description of the current situation right now is that the rules of the market are rigged in such a way that actually incentivizes environmental irresponsibility. Companies that profit from carbon-intensive industry (as well as other forms of pollution) are often not required to pay the actual price of the damage they cause. Further, companies are not only competing with each other to create marketable products, they are competing to influence politicians to pass favorable legislation (both in the U.S. and the U.N.). The result is a system in which the market is not taking into account the actual costs of its activities, and a political system that is unable to correct the market mechanisms because of the market participants' outsized influence. This is why a coalition of poor and indigenous communities called for Flood Wall Street; those people know very well how much less say they have in the political process than do those who have access to the markets that Wall Street symbolizes.

Finally, when we think of the commons, we should not consider it a free-for-all. Commoning is a process that must be cultivated through generations, often, of custom and experience. It is a process that requires rules; Paul's admonition against free-riders is something every practice of commoning must take into account. As you'll see in such resources as David Bollier cites in another comment, commoning doesn't come out of thin air, which may be why the early Puritan settlers weren't able to do it successfully right off the bat. They came from communities in Europe that had been practicing forms of commoning for as long as anyone could remember, but they threw out many of those practices in the act of trying to design a utopian "city on a hill." One need only consider the differences when flying in an airplane over the European countryside—with clustered villages surrounded by farmland—and its American counterpart—with single-family homes spread out among carefully-divided plots—to see the consequences.

Richard Savage
6 years 3 months ago
Like the rest of the 125,000 ignoramuses who marched in the People's Climate March, Mr. Schneider has no idea what he's talking about. (The crowd attendance estimate is from the blog, using actual human counters.) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its SREX Report on Severe Weather in 2012. It found no evidence of increased floods, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc as a result of “climate change.” The finding has been confirmed by independent scientists, such as Prof Roger Pielke Jr of the University of Colorado-Boulder, who testified before Congress on the topic in December 2013. There haven't been any “climate-induced floods and famines.” One can easily find many similar reports on the lack of any increase of weather disasters if one troubles to look. It's not surprising there is no observed link to “global warming”, since there has been no warming for more than 15 years – another commonly admitted fact - which the Schneiders of the world find difficulty in admitting. Even Justin Gillis, a rabid warming advocate, admitted it (What to Make of a Warming Plateau, NY TIMES, Justin Gillis, June 10,2013. I no longer care if the US bishops and the Pope wish to make fools of themselves by following lemmings like Schneider. I do care that hundreds of millions of human beings who lack access to reliable electricity will continue to suffer hardship and early death (4 million children per year). The governments of China (#1 in CO2 emissions) and India (#3 in emissions) agree with me, as do Brazil, Japan, Canada, Germany, Poland and Australia. These nations all have competent scientists who recognize the “crisis” of global warming is a fraud. The earth is cooling, not warming. Polar ice – both poles – is increasing. World Mission Sunday is coming up. Cooling is going to reduce food production – in fact, it's already doing so. We are running out of time to save the poor of the world from poverty and starvation. Enough of Schneider and his ignorant nonsense. Richard C. Savage Ph.D., Meteorology
Nathan Schneider
6 years 3 months ago

I certainly agree with you that whatever response we make to shifting climate conditions should begin with securing necessities for the most poor and vulnerable among us. Thank you for making that point. I confess I'm not a meteorologist myself, but it is notable that the American Meteorological Society published reports linking extreme weather events in 2012 and 2013 to climate change. And although the U.S. government is generally unwilling to take significant steps to reduce the likelihood of further climate change, numerous government agencies, as well as a polluter as formidable as the U.S. military, have come to recognize carbon-induced climate change as both real and linked to extreme weather. Not sure where you're getting your information about the ice caps, but NASA says otherwise.

In any case, I hope we do care whether the church makes a fool of itself. Climate change is not fundamental doctrine, but stewardship of the earth does go to the heart of our faith, and there is an overwhelming outcry from the scientific community that climate change is indeed a case in which we are falling terribly short in that responsibility.

Chuck Kotlarz
6 years 3 months ago
Are you aware your neighboring state’s largest energy company already has 30% generating capacity from wind? Warren Buffet, owner of your neighboring state’s energy company, announced his intentions earlier this year to double his investment to build wind and solar power in the U.S. “We are running out of time to save the poor of the world from poverty and starvation.” Ernie Goss notes American agricultural exports have grown by 142 percent from 2009 to 2013. Goss is professor of economics at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb and is a research faculty member at California State University-Fresno.
Chuck Kotlarz
6 years 3 months ago
Alternative energy to reduce climate change has other less apparent benefits. For example, twentieth century US coal mining accidents resulted in over 100,000 deaths. Even today, mining represents 1% of the global workforce but 8% of the fatalities.

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