What are the commons?

Commons can be understood from different perspectives, but several principles are mainstays. Author David Bollier describes Commons as a shared resource, co-governed by its user community according to the community’s rules and norms. Things that can be managed as a commons include natural resources (land, water, air), and created assets (culture, knowledge), and can be either inherited or human-made, but “The Commons” refers to the process as a whole — the synergy between the elements of a community, a resource and the rules for its co-governance.

The following four perspectives, according to commons scholar and activist Silke Helfrich, offer ways to both perceive and interact with Commons, which can be seen as:

  1. Collectively managed resources, both material and immaterial, which need protection and require a lot of knowledge and know-how.
  1. Social processes that foster and deepen thriving relationships. These form part of complex socio-ecological systems which must be consistently stewarded, reproduced, protected and expanded through commoning.
  1. A new mode of production focused on new productive logics and processes.
  1. A paradigm shift, that sees commons and the act of commoning as a worldview.

It is said, “There is no commons without commoning”. This means that resources (or “gifts”) by themselves do not constitute a Commons. These must be activated by community action and governance. Again, the Commons is neither the resource, the community that gathers around it, nor the protocols for its stewardship, but the dynamic interaction between all these elements.

An example is Wikipedia: there is a resource (encyclopedic entries), a community (the authors and editors) and a set of community-harvested rules and protocols (Wikipedia’s content and editing guidelines). The Wikimedia Commons emerges from of all three. Another example, but in a radically different context, is the Siuslaw National Forest, in Oregon, USA. Managed as a commons, we also find a resource (the forest), a community (loggers, environmental scientists and forest rangers comprising its ‘watershed council’) and a set of rules and bylaws (the charter for sustainably co-managing the forest).

No master inventory of commons exists, as they arise whenever a community decides to manage a resource collectively. The Commons as a whole thrives on the vast diversity of individual commons worldwide, ranging from fisheries to urban spaces, and many other forms of shared wealth.