February 7, 2022
Reframing the commons
A broad consensus is emerging that many of the systems that have served us well in the past (economic, environmental and political) are fast becoming either completely obsolete or at the very least, in need of radical overhaul and upgrade. They no longer appear able to respond to the multiple and existential challenges of our age (climate change, wealth inequality, pandemics, rise of populism etc). What we seem to lack however is any consensus around what the alternatives might be. The Wellbeing Economy Alliance suggests that the answer may lie with a concept that has been around for millennia.
Systems of resource governance set the rules for who controls every resource in our societies, including land, water, labor, knowledge, money, and, ultimately, the dynamics of our economies, including how we select our priorities, how we create value, and how we distribute it.
In our new WEAll briefing paper, Commons in a Wellbeing Economy, we examine the inadequacies of our two dominant systems of resource governance–the market and the state–and argue that a better model of resource governance lies in one of the oldest human systems: the commons.
In this WEAll Briefing, we invite you to explore the idea of the commons, a millenia-old concept which has recently gained interest as a potential foundation for a transition to a Wellbeing Economy. Because of the incredible range of ideas and systems that fall under this umbrella, we’ll start by offering three helpful ways to conceptualise what the term “commons” means.
1) The first way to think of the commons is as an alternative system of resource governance1, separate from the two currently dominant systems, the market and the state. Commons-based resource governance systems are designed by communities, democratic, non-hierarchical, and constructed specifically to share resources in ways that meet the needs of community members.
2) The second way to think of the commons is as an entity. This is what people mean when they refer to something like a park as “a commons.” When thought of as an entity, a commons has two pieces: a shared resource, and community governance structures created around the resource. No resource is a commons on its own – as the saying goes, there are no commons without commoners (Bollier, 2016).
3) The third – and most abstract – way to think of the commons is as an alternative social paradigm or way of thinking, which is based on the acknowledgement of our connectedness, shared heritage, and shared responsibility for ensuring the wellbeing of future generations (Weber, 2013).
Many commons scholars believe that commons thinking can not only help restructure our economy, but that it can redefine the way we imagine our relationships with each other, our communities, and with nature. In this paper, we’ll primarily focus on this first understanding of the commons – as a system of resource governance. We’ll explore how the commons differs from state or market-led resource governance systems and provide examples of different ways commons are being used today. Through this exploration, we’ll see how the commons can solve many of the problems inherent to other systems of resource governance and foster a more equitable, sustainable, and caring economic system.
Finally, we’ll put forth a number of actions communities, governments, and businesses can take to help expand and support the commons. “Resource governance” sounds dry and economic, but in reality these systems determine fundamental dynamics of our economy, including how we determine our collective priorities, how we create value, and how we distribute it.
We envision a Wellbeing Economy that uses commons to:
1) transition economic power from corporations and the state to communities and the people;
2) create value in versatile, non-hierarchical, and cooperative structures;
and 3) make our wealth of collective knowledge and resources accessible to all of humanity, rather than just the privileged few.