March 26, 2013

On the Commons Goes to College

Good questions from our recent campus visits

Q: How would you describe the commons, which can at first appear abstract?

This is one of many great questions I was asked on a recent mini-West Coast tour that took me to Portland State University and Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. It’s why On the Commons is hitting campuses across the country—to explain that the commons is not some abstruse intellectual construct but a useful set of ideas and practices that point us in the direction of new solutions for issues in our communities and lives.

The commons allows us to see the world in a fresh ways. There is so much around us that is not someone’s individual property but belongs to all of us—air and water, parks and libraries, knowledge and the Internet. Discovering what we own together can powerfully expand our worldviews, sparking new ideas and strategies to tackle problems like economic inequity, environmental decline and social dislocation.

But that’s not all. The commons means more than things we share—it involves the diverse ways we collaborate and connect to manage, protect, innovate, govern and expand what belongs to all of us to enrich everyone’s lives.

That’s the message that my OTC colleagues and I brought to Notre Dame, Boston College, Syracuse University, the University of Minnesota, Grinnell College, the University of Iowa, Michigan Technical University, Truman State University, Gustavus Adolphus College, Winona State University, Augsburg College, Northland College, Portland State and Whitman College. We’ve been invited by business, sociology, environmental studies, public affairs, communications, and design faculty as well as honors, community engagement, arts, and student service programs.

Q: What do you consider an important change or reform we could make to our government, society and/or economic system with an eye toward facilitating the commons?

This question came up in one form or another at nearly every talk I gave at Portland State and Whitman College, from faculty forums and informal sessions with students to a humanities courses and pubic talks. Moved by the spirit of each discussion, I will admit that I did not give exactly the same answer each time. In an environmental science course, I mentioned the Native American ethic of making all decisions based on what’s best for the seventh generation that follows us. In a leadership class I emphasized the importance of liberating our political system from the confines of big bucks campaign contributors. In the lively discussion following an evening lecture, I emphasized the necessity of the commons itself as an alternative paradigm to the prevailing belief that the market is the best means of determining the value of all human activities. Somewhere in there—I forget exactly when—I raised the point that we all own the sky, which should be the starting point for tackling global climate change. Along the way, I raised many other possibilities for how commons-based thinking could foster improvements large and small in people’s lives.

For more information about bringing a speaker from On the Commons to your campus or community, click here. And please consider OTC’s book, All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, for classes, book groups or other events in your community.