When it comes to resource management, there are two dominant forces that exert tremendous influence on who gets what: the market and the state. Sometimes these two entities compete or conflict. Other times they collaborate, and even conspire—to the great detriment of communities. Either can result in environmental exploitation, extreme inequality or poverty, erasure of culture and place, and invite an alienation that is generated by people having limited say in what happens to their communities.
Yet there remains a resource management system whose history runs deeper than either the market or the state—and that is the commons. Distinguished by its clearly demarcated membership, it is fiercely democratic and practices a more locally-oriented governance regime. A given resource is apportioned and stewarded by members according to norms they determine within their community. For the most part, neither the market nor the state are expected or encouraged to intervene. One is either a contributing member of the commons or they are not.
But if commons have such a rich heritage, then why have they become less prevalent in the United States and in what are considered “developed countries”?
Jeffrey Howard speaks with Neal Gorenflo. He is the executive director of Shareable, an award-winning nonprofit news outlet, action network, and consultancy focused on the latest innovations in resource sharing, the commons, and the solidarity economy. He is also the author of Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons (2018). In addition to the state and the market, he proposes the commons as a way to foster small-scale experiments to see what works best in any given community. This pragmatic approach to solutions is geared toward addressing needs more than trying to satisfy any particular ideology. As the saying goes, ideologies divide us, while needs unify us.
Now, looking further into the twenty-first century, what would it take for the commons to become a prevailing paradigm for resource management? What does a Sharing Cities approach to urban development look like? And what prevents a commons from being co-opted or captured by market or state forces?
A Year of Living Locally by Neal Gorenflo (2020)
Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons by Neal Gorenflo (2018)
Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons by David Bollier (2014)
“Coops in Spain’s Basque Region Soften Capitalism’s Rough Edges” by Peter S. Goodman (2020)
“A Land Value Tax Fosters Strong Community” by Matthew Downhour (2020)
“The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin (1968)
“All the Lonely People: The Atomized Generation” by Willow Liana (2020)
“Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action” by Elinor Ostrom (1990)
“A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems” by Elinor Ostrom (2009)
“Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms” by Elinor Ostrom (2000)
“Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems” by Elinor Ostrom (2010)
“America Needs to Build Strong Towns, Not More Infrastructure” by Jacqueline M. Kory-Westlund (2020)
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Jeffrey is the founder and editor-in-chief of Erraticus. He is a former mental health professional and educator, whose research interests center around localism, American pragmatism, and bioregionalism. He covers, education, philosophy, psychology, and religion. He lives in Southern Appalachia.