A huge part of our economy is invisible, invaluable, and under siege. This is “the commons,” a term that denotes everything we share. Some parts of the commons are gifts of nature: the air and oceans, the web of species, wilderness, and watersheds. Others are the product of human creativity and endeavor: sidewalks and public spaces, the Internet, our languages, cultures, and technologies. Jonathan Rowe illuminates the scale and value of the commons, its symbiotic relationship with the rest of our economy, its importance to our personal and planetary well-being, and how it is threatened by privatization and neglect. He unifies many seemingly disparate struggles—against pollution, excessive development, corporate marketing to children, and more—with the force of this powerful idea. And he calls for new institutions that create a durable balance between the commons and the profit-seeking side of our economy.
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About the Author
Jonathan Rowe was a Nader’s “Raider,” a US Senate aide, an editor at the Washington Monthly, and cofounder of OntheCommons.org.
Peter Barnes (editor) is a cofounder of Working Assets/Credo and the author of Capitalism 3.0.
Read an Excerpt
As Highway 1 winds north from San Francisco along the Pacific coast, a rusty road sign proclaims, “Point Reyes Station—Population 350.” That’s an understatement these days, but it aptly reflects the way Jonathan Rowe, who lived here for the last decade of his life, thought about the town. Sure, parking is sometimes hard to find on Main Street and the feed barn now includes an espresso bar, but Point Reyes Station is still a very quiet place, nestled amid nature and farms, with friendly merchants, a local newspaper (two, actually), and caring neighbors. Which is how Jonathan Rowe thought the world ought to be.
I met Jonathan long before either of us lived here. We first connected in Washington in the 1970s when I was a reporter for The New Republic and he, a recent law school graduate, was among Ralph Nader’s first “Raiders.” We clicked instantly and remained close friends (and eventually neighbors) until his sudden death in 2011.
Jonathan was a brilliant, complex, and somewhat quirky man. Other adjectives that could be applied to him include humble, deeply religious (in the best sense), and loving. He was both a thinker and a doer, with each activity enriching the other. And he was a wonderful, almost poetic, storyteller. He made his graceful paragraphs seem effortless, though of course they never were.
Jonathan grew up in small towns on Cape Cod. The arc of his life flowed through Boston, Washington, New York, and San Francisco, with a detour through Philadelphia, but his small-town roots never left him. After Nader he worked for a mayor of Washington (Marion Barry) and a U. S. Senator (Byron Dorgan of North Dakota). He wrote for the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Monthly, the Atlantic Monthly, and many other journals. His achievements are too numerous to list here, but one is worth special note: his slow and difficult ascent from stutterer to radio talk show host.
Intellectually, Jonathan journeyed too. At Harvard in the 1960s he was a Goldwater Republican. Gradually and somewhat reluctantly, he shifted to the left. Yet all his life he retained the temperament of a Burkean conservative, and one of his great disappointments was seeing the conservative movement taken over by billionaires, yahoos, and zealots. His writings covered many subjects. What unified them were lifelong preferences for small over big, local over distant, and nonmonetary over monetary relationships. These were the source of his passion for the commons.
Jonathan was what you might call a scalist, someone who thinks scale is really important, possibly more important than anything else, and that there are such things as enough and too much. Eat one cheeseburger and you feel great, eat two and you’re stuffed, eat three and you’re sick. The optimal scale for a human community is substantially greater than one, but never greater than the number of people who can sort of know each other, or so Jonathan thought. Similarly, the optimal quantity of many sorts of human activity is far short of infinity, yet we seemingly don’t know when or how to slow down.
Jonathan didn’t discover, or more precisely, name, the commons until late in his life. In the mid-1990s he moved to San Francisco to work with a now-defunct think tank called Redefining Progress. The group’s premise was that what mainstream economists call “progress” is in fact the opposite. Since the 1970s, the think tank argued, economic growth in the United States has led to less happiness, not more. In this spirit, Jonathan lead-authored a much-discussed Atlantic Monthly article called “If the GDP Is Up, Why Is America Down?”1 The group’s remedies for this dissonance were better economic indicators (down with GDP!) and taxes on “bads” like pollution instead of “goods” like labor.
Such remedies were not entirely satisfying to Jonathan; they felt more technical than human. What Jonathan wanted was to revivify a whole spectrum of human activity that was small, local, and mostly nonmonetary. He knew such activity was widespread, but it didn’t have a name. After much thought, he stuck an old but appropriate tag on it: “the commons.” Once he took this leap, a whole world opened up.
JONATHAN’S FIRST ARTICLE MENTIONING “THE COMMONS” was published in 2001 in The American Prospect.2 It was not about the commons per se, but about a time banking system invented by his friend Edgar Cahn. (See chapter 18, “Time Banking.”) In the system, members of a community provide services for each other at no cost. For each hour members help one another, they get credit recorded in a computer that they can draw on when they need help themselves. In the article Jonathan traced the system’s roots to colonial days when settlers built cohesive communities around a common pasture.
Soon Jonathan had constructed a larger narrative that saw the commons as a collection of many shared natural and social assets, including the Earth’s ecosystems, the ecologies of small communities, the Internet, and our collective achievements in a myriad of fields. This is a much larger vision of the commons than we are accustomed to. In it, the commons is a vast economic realm, comparable in scale to the market and just as important. “It is a parallel economy that does real work,” Jonathan would write later, “a counterpoise to the market that provides antidotes to many pathologies of the modern age.” Moreover, this broadly conceived commons is far from being a relic; in fact, it is needed today more than ever. “At the start of the industrial age, products were scarce and commons abundant. All the gears were arranged to produce more stuff. But times change and scarcities shift. Where once the products of the market were scarce, now it is commons that are scarce and also most needed.”
What unifies this extremely diverse sector are its operating principles. Unlike the market, which is organized to maximize short-term private gain, the commons is (or should be) organized to preserve shared assets for future generations and to spread their benefits more or less equally among the living. If government nurtured this sector as zealously as it nurtures the market, the modern world would be a healthier and happier place.
Along with David Bollier, Harriet Barlow, Julie Ristau, and myself, Jonathan cofounded the Tomales Bay Institute (named for a bay near Point Reyes Station) that later became a network called On The Commons. Together we cranked out reports and articles making the case for the commons piece by piece and as an entirety. In doing this work Jonathan pulled together all of his lifelong thinking. In his mind he’d finally found, if not a panacea, at least an antidote to the numerous failings of the market.
During these years Jonathan settled into small-town life again and started a family. He married Mary Jean Espulgar, a Filipina he met in San Francisco, and they had a son, Josh. Jonathan walked Josh to school every day, coached Little League baseball, helped the local newspapers and radio station, made countless friends, and was probably happier than at any time in his life. He also became familiar with village life in the Philippines and drew many lessons from that.
As always, he strove to combine practice with theory. With Elizabeth Barnet, he cofounded a group called West Marin Commons, which among other things created a town square, or zócalo, out of an empty lot, a community garden of native plants, and a website for sharing free stuff. This was of a piece with his fondness for traditional Main Streets and neighborhoods with places to sit. He also reported on local commons’ efforts across America—farmers’ markets, land trusts, municipal wi-fi networks, open spaces for pedestrians and bench-sitters, websites for sharing things, and so on. These stories convinced him that a commons movement is stirring, even if the stirrers don’t know it yet.
While the focus of Jonathan’s writing and engagement was local, he was fully aware of the larger-scale problems humanity faces. He appreciated that while informal, participatory commons work well in small communities and online, they are insufficient to deal with corporate power, environmental degradation, and extreme inequality. Bigger and more structured institutions are needed for those challenges.
To address these systemic problems Jonathan envisioned an assortment of trusts empowered to protect large commons from corporate invasion. Just as corporations are legally bound to protect the interests of their shareholders, so the trusts would be legally obliged to preserve the commons under their charge. To do this effectively, the lawyer in Jonathan understood, they’d need strong property rights, including the rights to charge rent and pay dividends to owners. “Put commoners in charge of the air, let us charge polluters for using it, and we’ll see a lot less pollution than we do now,” he wrote.
What particularly excited Jonathan about the commons is its potential to realign American politics. Jonathan himself was what linguist George Lakoff calls a “bi-conceptual”—he harbored conservative as well as liberal tendencies and was able to live with both. Because the commons is distinct from both the state and the market, Jonathan saw it as a way to bridge left and right. This may seem quixotic, but just the other night, as I watched Fox News at an airport, I heard right-wing commentator Bill O’Reilly opine with fervor (after blaming President Obama for high oil prices) that “we the people own the gas and oil discovered in America. It’s our land and the government administers it in our name.” Like-minded pundit Lou Dobbs then pitched a national version of the Alaska Permanent Fund that would return part of the value of America’s oil as dividends to every citizen.3
In the end, what Jonathan wanted was not a world without markets or profit-seeking businesses—that would be absurd—but a world in which markets and commons live in symbiosis. “The goal isn’t to replace the market with the commons but to build a durable balance between them.”
THE BOOK THAT FOLLOWS WAS WRITTEN IN BITS AND pieces between 1993 and 2011. If Jonathan had lived he would have finished it with more grace than I have. Under the circumstances, I’ve done what I could. I pored through Jonathan’s writings about the commons and tried to extract and blend the best. In doing this I edited ever-so-lightly to avoid repetition, bring up to date, and shape a symphony out of melodies composed years apart.
Like any fine writer, Jonathan would surely have quibbled with some of my edits, but I believe he’d be pleased with the book as a whole. It captures his thoughts, spirit, and style. It puts, as Jonathan did, roughly equal weight on theory and practice. And it makes a rousing case, as only Jonathan could, for defending, revitalizing, sharing, and preserving the wealth that is the ultimate source of our well-being and that rightfully belongs to all of us.
Point Reyes Station, California
Table of Contents
Foreword by Bill McKibben
Introduction by Peter Barnes
Part One: Theory
1: Our hidden wealth
2: How tragic is the commons?
3: A new commons story
4: A parallel economy
5: Stop the invasions!
6: The myopia of money
7: Human nature and the commons
8: Common property
9: Takers and givers
10: The community of goods
11: Conservative commoners, once
Part Two: Practice
12: Accounting for common wealth
13: Tollbooths of the mind
14: Subsistence from the commons
15: Build it and they will sit
16: Sidewalks of the information age
17: Reallocating time
18: Service banking
19: Who owns the beach?
20: From alleys to commons
21: New institutions needed
22: Seeds of a commons movement
Afterword by David Bollier
About the Author
About the Editor
About On The Commons
About West Marin Commons
What People are Saying About This
“It’s not too much to say that our future as a species requires grasping the ideas in this book.”
—from the foreword by Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature