Commons

 

"if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child's; or like some girl's breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers." - Robinson Jeffers

Imagine an ethical philosophy that extends the scope of its rights and obligations to include the natural world. Such an philosophy is nothing new. The majority of time that human beings have walked the face of the planet they have engaged in an animated dialogue with nature. Only within the last ten thousands years or so has mankind become sufficiently dissociated from the natural environment to seek to objectify it.

Even relatively recent human societies, such as the Athenian Democracy of Ancient Greece, which so inspired the American constitutional philosophy, attempted to incorporate respect for the natural world into their system of rights and obligations. They believed that citizens had both rights and obligations designed not only to protect their personal interests but also to promote the general welfare, which included the health of the natural world.

The later Romans clarified this insight when they distinguished between three types of property: res privatæ, res publicæ, and res communes. The first consisted of individual possessions, the second of public buildings, works, and roads; while the third was a common right of access to natural resources.

In 1215, the Magna Carta established forests and fisheries as res communes, and all through the benighted Middle Ages the idea of the Commons persisted throughout Europe as the shared lands reserved and sustained for the use of all those known as "Commoners".

The authors of the American constitution were inspired by this spirit when they expressed their desire to "promote the general welfare". "Commonwealths" were established in early America, and cities large and small kept a central area called "The Commons" reserved exclusively for cultural celebration and public demonstration.

Today, the spirit of the Commons still thrives in the power of our civic imagination. It reflects a time before private ownership became the touchstone of all human affairs- a time before commodification turned us all from “citizens” into “consumers”.

Like the common environment for which it stands, the idea of the Commons is a fragile inheritance. It can survive only as long as there exist the values and practices necessary for its cultivation and preservation. If it is to survive, human culture must articulate those values and cultivate those practices.