I enjoyed the holidays in an old farm house nestled on a pastured hillside in the western part of the Catskill Mountains. The state park is our neighbor and offers wonderful spaces for hiking, camping, hunting and fishing. We're also part of a home owners association that helps to maintain trails, open spaces, stretches of a near by fishing stream, a small general store and an ice hockey pond for the community to share. And very recently, I was one of many in the area who fought for a moratorium on hydro-fracking, a way to extract natural gas that is highly polluting of precious underground water systems, many of which feed NYC's reservoirs. We won by the way.
I've always appreciated this wonderful little corner of the world, and been grateful for all who have been involved in preserving it for our common use. But it wasn't until I started to read a Christmas gift I received, a book by my friend Jay Walljasper, titled All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, that I realized just what we had here - a commons made up of shared blessings and responsibilities, "some bestowed to us by nature, others the product of cooperative human creativity."
All that We Share revels in the many commons that enrich our lives - from FM radio and free content on the internet to libraries and artistic traditions, to wetlands, oceans and the sky. "Anyone can use the commons," Walljasper writes, "as long as there is enough left for everyone else. This is why finite commons, such as natural resources, must be sustainably and equitably managed."
Which is not the case for many natural resources, the atmosphere foremost among them. As Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and best selling author, notes in the foreword to the book: "Our atmosphere has been de facto privatized for a long time now - we've allowed coal, oil and gas interests to own the sky, filling it with the carbon that is the inevitable byproduct of their business."
But "the atmosphere is ours" writes Peter Barnes, who co-founded Working Assets and contributed to the book. It's a commons - providing many vital planetary functions including maintaining a livable climate. And we've got to stop polluting it. We've got to break with the current economic system - the "first come, first served, no limits, and no prices" system that is clearly dysfunctional - and reclaim the sky.
If we're able to move from corporate ownership of the sky to common ownership, then rather than our "subsidizing" industry to dump carbon freely into the atmosphere, we'd be able to collect "rent" from polluters and share it among all of us. Such a proposal was before Congress in 2010, but was shelved along with all other energy/climate proposals. It will be good to get it back on the table for discussion, since the breadth of the benefits and the beneficiaries of this commons-based approach to climate change ought to make it popular among conservatives and progressives alike.
I'm back in the city now, sharing sidewalks, parks, and the subway, listening to public radio, sending in my contribution to the public theatre and putting in my application for the CSA that serves my part of town. It just never occurred to me how many commons there are and how much they have enriched my life. It makes me that much more committed to taking back our atmosphere and our oceans, and the water in our rivers and aquifers. Even our streets. I think I'm becoming a commons activist, or as Harriet Barlow, another contributor to this wonderful book, likes to call herself, a "commoner."
This post first appeared in OnEarth.org.