The Commons, our Commons


Empire’s prized public beach is considered an example of the Commons. We all use it and cherish it. But who should pay to maintain it? Just those in the Village of Empire, or citizens everywhere?

By Anne-Marie Oomen
Sun contributor

I can’t quite believe what I’m hearing when the 17-year-old football-playing poet leans forward and says, “We have to take care of each other. We are not just responsible for ourselves, but ourselves all together, and for the stuff we need to live the good life, the earth, and all that we share.” He leans back. He knows he’s said the important thing. I’m impressed. From where I sit, I see mountains through the spacious windows, aspen trees tossing their lovely quaking shadows against the glass. Others in the room, equally as young, nod. There are more voices, young and older, each taking turns, speaking seriously about what is good. What is the good? The shadows quiver, reflected against the mountains.

I am not in Michigan. I am in this airy room with eight students recently graduated from high school and seven adults who are either teachers or program administrators—from all over the country. Among the young people are four National Young Poets, (selected by the President’s Commission on the Arts), a Scholastic grand prize winner, and three slam poetry winners from Chicago’s now famous Southside gathering for slam poets, Louder than a Bomb, including a 15-year old ordained minister—a prodigy who writes poetry as part of her sermons, and this young man who boldly introduces himself as a football-playing poet. And we are talking, together, in common and without apparent hierarchy, about the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s idea of the good. We are talking seriously about what it means to seek the good, to live the good life, to address Aristotle’s question on the purpose of being human. I am in Aspen, but all this is making me think about things in Michigan.

I tend toward practical thinking, so it’s rarified air for me and if, at my age, I sometimes hold a certain amount of cynicism about discussions like these, I do not when it comes to young people who are honestly grappling, who are forming their ideas about their commitment to do good, who are asking what and how they will contribute to our world. Their work is all ahead of them, and they are shaping a sense of what is the good before my eyes. I’m not cynical about that. I’m in it. I’m affirmed and humbly rethinking my own commitments. I am thinking about what this young man has said about “… stuff we need to live the good life, the earth, and all that we share.” The commons, the stuff that no one owns but we all share, what we hold in common, this good stuff. We are talking basic resources here.

We might even be talking about the beach.

That was the Aspen Institute for young poets, arts strand, a seminar on Leadership, The Arts and the Good Society. Heady stuff in thin mountain air. When we completed the marathon of 36 intense hours of varied readings and discussion, we dovetailed into the Aspen Ideas Festival, a gathering of some of the world’s finest idea makers, watching a rich exchange about economy, science, environment and culture. The Arts. Most of the time, I had to pinch myself and wondered what I was doing there, but as a mentor teacher whose expenses were paid because one of my students was a National Young Poet, I was trying to get as much in my small brain as possible. So I was thinking about what is the good, and how we hold in common the “good stuff.” I was thinking about what this football playing poet was saying, and I was thinking about the recent discussions here at home: about the care and feeding of our beach in Empire, of the new bike trail, of water use issues in our state. All issues of the common good. The commons.

Some of my earlier cynicism comes from my troubled history with one particular article I encountered about the commons when I was my football poet’s age. I remember reading Garret Hardin’s piece, “Tragedy of the Commons” in my first college science class—though the article is usually assigned in economics classes. The heart of the piece is a parable about a “commons”—a public pasture that is open to all local herdsmen. Each herdsman owns his cattle, but nobody owns or controls the commons. Each herdsman is free to use the commons at will, and each herdsman is free to choose the number of animals that he will graze on it. Hardin predicts the following:

“It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.… each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component… ”

The positive component, Hardin tells, is the money to be gained by raising and selling the additional animal—and all that money will go to the herdsman in question. The other herdsmen will get none of it. The negative component is the damage that will be done to the vegetation and soil of the commons if the commons is overgrazed. But the economic impact of this damage will be shared by all the herdsman, so only a fraction of the impact will actually be borne by the herdsman who owns the extra animal.

Hardin continues: [T]he rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another, and another … But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Read the essay here.

Well, what to think about that? That’s what our instructor asked us. Hardin’s has become an often misinterpreted and misused article, and I’ve had to leave it behind. It is, to say the least, a mostly depressing view of the issue of the commonly held resources that support the good life—all of us, all together. Because of course, now we are at the limit of so many things. And neither his ideas about population control nor mutual coercion have been successful in saving resources.

The parable of the pasture and the herdsman becomes not just the pasture, but water and air, and many other resources that are now clearly limited. So when I hear this young poet claim so precisely what I would like to believe, I am also wondering about the complications: the use of various resources we consider commonly held. I am also thinking with concern (and gratitude!) about our public lands, great beaches, abundant lakes, fish in the sea, the air we breathe. What is the good in our use of those resources? Isn’t all that part of the good life? Will we lose it all to the tragedy? How do we make sure it is there so that my young football-playing poet friend can have his chance to live the good life—and to be responsible for “…ourselves all together.”

Practically speaking, there are antidotes to the tragedy right in our midst. One interesting antidote may be altruism. Beyond theology and hope, it seems a certain amount of altruism is also hard-wired into our behavior. Believe it or not, in the biology of life, those of us who behaved altruistically, for the sake of others, may have had better chances of survival in part because we bargained for reciprocity but more because it gave us better reputations and therefore made us appear trustworthy. That sort of offsets the apparent greed involved in overusing the commons but that isn’t necessarily required to survive today, or at least not consistently. Individual altruism alone doesn’t create reverence for the commons and it certainly isn’t enough to ward off the tragedy—much as I wish that was all it took.

Other antidotes are rising everywhere and despite appearances to the contrary, a whole new story about community behavior is slowly evolving in the way we think about our resources. Now, I suspect the greatest flaw in Hardin’s thinking is that he underestimates human beings. I think we are far more rational than his description. We can and do work together, we cooperate. We change. We respond to complex situations. Other thinkers discuss the commons this way: as an interaction of the resource, community, and a set of protocols. It’s not about government as much as governance. It’s about the what if and how a particular community is motivated to manage a particular resource. Can the community come up with the agreed upon norms and enforceable sanctions to make a system work that will preserve the commons for the good of all? Again, I think of issues at home in Michigan, where I will be in a few days, walking on a beloved beach.

Like I said, this gets complicated for a practical thinker like myself but I’m reassured, for example, by one case of a community of women in India who have saved themselves from the unpredictability of monoculture farming in a changing climate by accumulating and sharing the sturdy heritage seeds that had once been native to their region. Once they were growing harvests from the seeds, the protocols became that the seeds can never be sold, only given or traded in the community, and the fields need to contain a variety of plants from these seeds, so if one crop fails, at least some will survive, and there is a stockpile of seeds. That collection of seeds in that small community is their commons. More examples abound but the point is that there seems to a “rediscovered paradigm” for thinking about the commons. Come to find out, Hardin’s parable is just that, a parable and thus limited: in it there exists no community awareness of the tragedy—it’s a free for all. In the book, Think Like a Commoner, David Bollier writes, “What’s critical in creating any commons … is that a community decides that it wants to engage in the social practices of managing a resource for everyone’s benefit.” A true commons has “boundaries, rules, social norms and sanctions … A commons requires that there be community willing to act as a conscientious steward of the resource.” Ourselves all together. Of course it’s always more complicated when we dig in, but it gives me a lot to think about, especially as I think about my local communities and how they will come to take care of our beach. Or how we will manage a resource that if part of our tourism economy?

Back at Aspen Institute, I’ve written pages inspired by the readings, asking myself if I can make water ceremonies in community, asking myself how to use my writing for good. I stop when the director, Damian Woetzl, asks students in the room to band together to create a piece of language for a communal purpose. They’ve just met a dancer named Lil Buck, an amazing man who dances a cross between contemporary break dancing and ballet. Find a link to his performance here.

He will dance to a poem, not one poem by one of them, but a poem they create in community. I watch, awed, as they choose a form for the poem (the Asian renga), and then one student offers his cell phone to the group. This will be their page, and so the phone passes from hand to hand, eight verses times three, back and forth over lunches, between sessions listening to Alfre Woodard proclaim “We are art,” and Kate Levin’s command, “Think about content and mission.” They work on it for two days through all the ideas. When it is done, the boy who gave up his phone sends the poem to each student on their phones. They stand in a ragged line preparing to read from their phones, stand on the grass in the marble gardens, assigning lines, and choosing the verses they will say in chorus, reading it aloud off tiny screens. Then Lil Buck comes on. He listens to the poem first, and when they begin again, he steps forward in front of the fountain of water, moving, dancing with their words and jookin’ (yes, new word I had to look up) to the music of their voices. There they are: black, white, Latino, Asian, not caring which lines are whose, ourselves all together—they have written for the good. The final lines are:

…life don’t exist
in a vacuum. Here we stand:
writing for life’s sake,

finding poetry in the
beauty of a baby step,

rebellious teenage
footprints walking on language,
creating fossils,

creating something that lasts.
Building tomorrow, right now.

I can’t answer the general questions about the commons because establishing a commons is a process, an interaction, and a consciousness that people must bring to a table and begin to sort out, all together. That process, that strange wonder. So this whole thing about the poetry is a metaphor for watching a sort of commons happen—that poem, held all together. And inviting others to think about it too.