On the commons: reflections on sustainable community

When I was nine years old, my family travelled to England to visit the extended tribe. Mum and Dad had emigrated from England to New Zealand in the early nineteen sixties. It was the first time that my siblings and I – Kiwis born and bred – encountered the full contingent of British grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins to whom we were biologically related. It was the summer of seventy six and England put on her best weather – a heatwave in fact. We travelled through Dorset, Surrey, Devon, and Cornwall. I will never forget it.

England, for me, was a sweltering dream. It was like a fantasy novel full of rolling landscapes, verdant forests with horses and deer, thatched roof cottages, stone circles, Roman roads and castles. And the commons. I remember fishing for Sticklebacks with my cousin Helen on Broadstreet common. I had never been on a commons before. All I knew about the commons came from episodes of The Wombles. Helen, a hardcore tomboy, brought a bag of maggots for us to use as bait. I let her bait the hooks. The weather was perfect. We sat tending our lines as I marvelled at the untamed landscape about us and wondered how a commons continues to be. [Read more…]

Commoning is making common

How do we make a commons?

One answer is: through law. King Henry III granted commoners rights to use the English forests in the Charter of the Forests. When people have a common right to use some good, and a law that defends this right, we have a commons. As historian Peter Linebaugh argues, there is a cultural process presupposed in this – a process by which a group of people agree that such and such a set of goods and resources should be held in common, and act together in a way that preserves the commons. Affirming the plenitude of their shared stock, and inspired by the goodwill that they receive from others and feel eager to return, they contest the limits of public and private ownership and demand a law that secures their common rights to sustain themselves, to live with dignity, and to assemble with their peers. [Read more…]