March 7, 2012

Why I Call Myself a Commoner

A Day in the Life of Harriet Barlow

Each day I walk out of my Minneapolis house into an atmosphere protected from pollution by the Clean Air Act. As I step onto a sidewalk that was built with tax dollars for everyone, my spirits are lifted by the beauty of my neighbors’ boulevard gardens. Trees planted by people who would never sit under them shade my walk. I listen to public radio, a nonprofit service broadcast over airwaves belonging to us all, as I stroll around a lake in the park, which was protected from shoreline development by civic-minded citizens in the nineteenth century.

The park, like everything else I have mentioned so far, is a commons for which each of us is responsible.

Frequently I visit the public library, where the intellectual, cultural, scientific, and informational storehouse of the world is opened to me for free—and to anyone who walks through the door. My work requires me to constantly keep up with new knowledge. My best tool is the Internet. The library and Internet, too, are commons.

Returning home I stop at the farmer’s market, a public institution created by local producers who want to share their fare. The same spirit prevails at our local food co-op, of which I am the owner (along with thousands of others), and at community-run theaters and civic events. These commons-based institutions provide us with essential services, the most important of which is fun. Living in the commons isn’t only about cultural and economic wealth; it’s also about joy.

Candido Grzybowski, the Brazilian sociologist who co-founded the World Social Forum, advises, “If we want to work for justice, we should work for the commons.” Protecting and restoring precious gifts from nature and from our foreparents for future generations is one the greatest privileges of a being a commoner.