Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Book Review: Think Like a Commoner

Think Like a CommonerGarret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” essay made an indelible impression on me when I read it many years ago. The idea that selfish individuals would inevitably abuse a resource to destruction, (and to society’s detriment), embedded itself deeply in my psyche, dimming whatever hopes I had that humanity might naturally be inclined to stewardship.

Think Like a Commoner picks up where the Tragedy of the Commons left off. Bollier pushes back hard on privatization, (also known as “enclosure”), as an inevitable or appropriate stewardship tool. The author reminds us that perennial debates over whether assets should be owned by the public or privatized are incomplete without inclusion of a powerful third option; resources can be managed as commons.

Commons are more numerous, more successful, and more expansively defined than I had previously appreciated. Bollier’s slender volume prompted me to see examples all around. Strict definitions of commons are slippery, but a prototypical commons, (also known as a “community shared resource”), entails three things: a resource, a community, and protocols for that community to exercise stewardship.

A resource might be tangible, such as an Amazon rainforest, a Wasatch canyon, or irrigation water in New Mexico. A resource might be an institution, such as the Salt Lake City Library, or even the Bailey Building & Loan. The resource might even be information, such as that contained in Wikipedia or open-source software. In each case, a community is committed to sustaining and defending the resource, not for immediate benefit alone, but also as a legacy to future generations.

Commoning is ancient, predating private or public ownership. In fact, a commons may sidestep the idea of ownership entirely. Think of the air, or the oceans. It’s easy to imagine shepherds sustainably grazing herds long before a legal infrastructure was constructed to designate land as property. Bollier reminds us that privatization is relentless, even commodifying community resources not previously conceived as own-able. (Think of clean water, wilderness access, or the an agricultural crop genome.)

A frequent feature of a commons seems to be that those who support it do so in a spirit of generosity, less a calculated short-term investment with a monetary rate-of-return, and more an expression of long-term community values. I’m reminded of Arcata Community Forest, owned and managed by that city. Piece by piece, that Northern California city has assembled a contiguous block of more than 700 acres of redwood forest on the edge of town, managed for recreation, watershed protection, and ecological sustainability. Balancing these competing objectives is complex and potentially contentious, but the essence of a commons is that those decisions are guided by active community debate. Commons are participatory. Not a panacea, and maybe not the best tool for every situation, but a useful complement to private and governmental alternatives.

Closer to home, environmentalists, recreationalists, corporations, and government entities recently hammered out the Mountain Accord, a roadmap for the future of the Wasatch Front. It’s too early to see the fruits of that process, but the collaborative approach is a promising start.

I hope that members of LDS Earth Stewardship will read this book, and then do something common in 2016.