The surplus of the commons

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

In a world of plenty, taking as much as you can for yourself makes a certain sort of sense.

From this, we get the notion of owning things — of property.

In a world of scarcity, taking as little as possible for yourself makes just as much sense.

From this, we get the notion of sharing things.

As the well-known “Serenity Prayer” with which this post opens says, it’s about acceptance and making changes in the face of new information.

We do not live in a world of abundance as we used to. Our numbers and our own greed has seen to that.

I think of a street, where each house has a hedge. All the hedges need to be trimmed periodically.

One hedge trimmer would do such a street. Even then, it would mostly be unused.

Instead, every house buys its own. All of them soaked up energy and materials to be constructed. All of them must be given space for storage. All of them are used far less than the one would be.

Yes, when you own your own, you can use it whenever you want. There’s no discovering that your neighbour has decided this is the morning he’ll trim his hedge, and the trimmers are in use.

But is it a difference that is meaningful?

Notice here I am not talking about altruism or collectivisation — I am talking about cooperation and sharing by choice. Sharing, in this case, makes everyone wealthier, now and in the future.

Well, unless your business is selling hedge trimmers — or making them. But that, too, is a form of the same problem: instead of making many things, we think making millions of one thing is better.

But it’s not, because that way we sacrifice quality (if I must make and sell millions, I must encourage you to throw away your old one and buy a new one often enough to keep me afloat) and we sacrifice community (hedge trimmers become more important than the long-term health and welfare of people, who are now subordinated to the proprietary interest in hedge trimmers).

As we look at the coming descent from our free-wheeling days of the twentieth and early twenty-first century into lives that can keep us going with less energy, less materials, etc. the rise of a new commons becomes apparent.

We already see this. Tool “libraries” where you can borrow a tool — not rent it, but simply use it, clean it, put it back. Community gardens where many can come together to share one water feed, one set of tools, one delivery of compost and use pockets of otherwise derelict land to grow things. Housing developments (the “Not So Big House” series of books by architect Sarah Susanka illustrate these) where yards are held in common, where there’s one large patio, one barbeque installation, etc. that serves six to ten homes.

These are not commons that suffer “tragedies of the commons”, as was found in times of perceived abundance: they’re not Grand Banks being fished free of cod, or pastures being overgrazed. They’re ways for a community to have more — by each person having less that’s their own.

Finding the balance between spaces and things that should be owned individually, and things that would actually work better in cooperative ownership structures, will be a daunting (but not impossible) task. It will begin in overcoming our expectations. We will need both serenity to accept the necessity, and courage to make the change, and the wisdom to know it can’t all be done in one day, and that not everyone is ready to begin at the same time.

It will be an ongoing, open, dynamic process, not an event. This is why it can begin now, with just a few.

After all, happiness, health and prosperity are wonderful attractors.

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