Getting to the heart of the permaculture ethic of fair shares, David Bollier's book provides an excellent primer on the theory and practice of the commons, a bottom-up vehicle for "social and political emancipation and societal transformation." In the process he expands our imaginations to reclaim the wrongly-maligned word, 'commoner', outlining a budding revolution which most of us are already part of, whether we realise it or not.
A commons, standing outside of the spheres of market and state, consists of "working, evolving models of self-provisioning and stewardship that combine the economic and the social, the collective and the personal." While many might associate discussion of the commons with historical events such as the enclosure movement, Bollier brings commons theory right into the present age.
From the life-sustaining common woodlands of medieval times, to wikipedia and the massively successful open-source software movement of today, rich examples abound throughout the book. Seed swapping initiatives, the conservation of culturally significant 'heirloom' crops, indigenous knowledge of the medicinal properties of wild plants, collective watershed management, even the gift economy of blood banks are drawn on as illustrations, with the author explicitly tying in permaculture on various occasions.
Bollier too sets out to dispel classic pop-culture myths of the commons, debunking the famous "tragedy of the commons," stemming from Garrett Hardin's confused essay, as well as the wrongful equation of all state run initiatives with the commons. Indeed, the main 'tragedy' of the commons is that the concept has hitherto been so misunderstood.
In a global (mono-)culture which places profit above all else, commons are perpetually under threat of enclosure, from 'biopiracy' of wild genetic material, to land grabbing of vast tracts of land incorrectly assumed to be unused by locals. "Enclosures," we are told, "are a special form of theft that attract little notice, in part because governments often play a key role in legitimising them." Quoting Rousseau, Bollier aptly reminds the permaculture-minded reader that "you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."
Released at a time when more spheres of life are mediated by money and the market, this gem of a book gives ample food for thought regarding the role permaculture initiatives can play in protecting our species' most time-honoured mode of self-organising – the commons. In many ways, the commons is itself a very permacultural process, operating along 'diversity within unity' principles, much like a well-designed garden. A commons, says Bollier, "co-evolves with its environment and context," acts very much like a living organism, and operates at its best when adapting to "local contingencies".
R. Buckminster Fuller famously enjoined that to change something you must "build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
As commons-based systems spread all over the globe, often outperforming market and state mechanisms, it's hard not to wonder if the commons, as so well outlined by Bollier, could render state run capitalism obsolete. Such a shift would pave the way to an infinitely more beautiful world of collaboration, co-operation and organic social processes. This short book is radical, solution-based and, perhaps most importantly, heartening. For this, it comes highly recommended.
Thomas Smith holds an MA in Sociology and Philosophy, a Permaculture Design Certificate, and lives at An Teach Saor (The Free House), a permaculture smallholding in Galway, Ireland.
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