The Wisdom of the Commons

by Ray Grigg

Heather Menzies explains in the Preface to her remarkable book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good: A Memoir & Manifesto, how her creative life as an academic and promotional speaker was brought to a halt by a painful awareness of the local and global ecological disasters unfolding around her. “I’d identified the impasse of an overheated and dysfunctional global economy on a collision course with an increasingly distressed planet,” she writes, “yet had no alternative to offer.”

That alternative slowly became apparent to her, initially at Idle No More rallies where First Nations chiefs were speaking of “our sacred covenant with Creation” and “our sacred responsibility” to the land. It was their powerful sense of belonging that called Menzies to explore her ancestral roots in Scotland and to search for the meaning of the single word “Tullicro”, the only clue she had to her history.

This word led Menzies to discover and explore her family’s origin in the Tullicro Commons of the Tay River Valley in the Highlands of Scotland, a place that nourished many generations of her forebears until the 19th century. These traditional commons, she soon realized, could be a model for how we might reconnect to our environment in a sustainable way, and how we might find the necessary awareness and caring we would need for living harmoniously with our natural surroundings.

“Common”, Menzies explains, “originally meant a way of living on the land.” But it also meant “together-as-one”, “shared-alike” and “bound-together-by-obligation, ” and that “this togetherness was not only with each other, but with the land itself.” Essential to the idea of the commons, then, is the notion that the land and the people who occupy it are linked together in a sacred bond only to be broken by death — if the land suffers, they suffer; if the land dies, they die. Deeply imbedded in the root meaning of common is the belief that the people belong to the land, not that the land belongs to them.

One of Menzies’ first tasks in her book was to correct an erroneous impression of the commons. Over the course of a century, from about 1750 to 1850, public use of the common lands in Scotland and England were systematically eliminated by the British House of Commons — ironically named after the same democratic and egalitarian commons that they legislated out of existence. Justification was based on the misconception that the competitive character of people would cause the land to be abused and exploited to the point of exhaustion. This fallacy, popularized in an 1832 pamphlet by the Oxford mathematician, William Forster Lloyd, was abetted by the new thinking about the economic merits of private ownership, capital investment, industrial agriculture and market competitiveness that were forming the basis of modern capitalism. In reality, if anyone had bothered to check, they would have found that the commons in Scotland and England were operating sustainably, cooperatively and democratically, just as they had been doing for centuries.

Our present system of managing the public domain — the common resources we identify as soils, water, air, forests, fish, wildlife, minerals and the like — reveals a system that is dysfunctional because the focus is on the production of wealth rather than the maintenance of the commons. Our trust is placed on the competitive relationship between people and nature rather than the sharing, cooperation and symbiosis that keep all the components alive and healthy. Governments routinely entrust the development and supervision of the resources of the commons to individuals and corporations based on the mistaken assumption that the affluence of individuals and corporations is synonymous with the wellbeing of the public. The result is the production of wealth that is fatally disconnected from nature, from sustainability and, ultimately, from the collective public good.

The political trend of late has been to distance public scrutiny and management even further from the use of the commons, thereby increasing the disconnection between people and the environment on which they depend. The success of the traditional commons, Menzies explains, was that people lived “in direct relations with the land” within a set of agreed limits — only so many sheep or cows could be grazed, only so many fish caught, only so many trees felled. In the commons-based economy, the limit was set by an intimate knowledge of the ecology, not by the amount of wealth to be derived from it. The only projects allowed were those that were compatible with the capabilities of the commons.

Modern civilization has been doing the opposite. Governments have been granting progressively more authority to private and corporate interests to devise their own profit-making strategies, while expecting the commons to adapt to the consequences. While the profits soar, the commons are degraded. This abandonment of limits, care and supervision results in devastated forests, depleted fisheries, exploding rail tankers, collapsing tailing ponds, leaking pipelines, fracking hazards, acidifying ocean, ubiquitous pollution, uncontrolled carbon emissions and a litany of other environmental affronts. The abuse is now beginning to threaten the stability of the global commons.

As Heather Menzies makes clear, the commons is us — not just the smaller “us” but the larger “us” also. It’s the fish and flowers, the birds and trees, the soil and animals, the clean water, gentle winds and nourishing rains all linked “together-as-one”, all “shared-alike” and all “bound-together-by-obligation” . Our task as people is to remember this sharing and togetherness, to know our local landscapes and ecologies, to imagine the consequences of neglect and failure, and then to engage in the obligatory stewardship. As the old Scottish commoners knew, our very lives depend on it.