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Why the Commons Matters to Me

Jay Walljasper, a newcomer to OntheCommons.org, explains how the commons framework helps him understand the world and inspires him to change it

by Jay Walljasper - 11 Apr 2008

Dear Fellow Commoners:
I’m Jay Walljasper, the newest member of the OntheCommons.org editorial team. We’re excited to share all the changes to our website, now filled with more inspiring stories and probing commentary on issues related to the commons. You’ll also find new opportunities to become involved in this emerging global movement, in which people are coming together to rethink how modern society relates to nature, culture, and the future.

I am a writer, and through the years have been lucky enough to cover the commons as editor of Utne Reader and executive editor of Ode magazine as well as author of The Great Neighborhood Book and numerous articles for publications as varied as Mother Jones, Australian Financial Review and Rock ‘n’ Roll Confidential.

But for most of that time, I did not realize I was covering the commons. I thought I was writing about the environment, social justice, community empowerment, corporate globalization, cultural diversity, urban revitalization, music, travel, food, and other subjects that matter dearly to me. Only recently, thanks in part to OntheCommons.org itself, did I connect the dots showing how these issues (and many more) are woven together into one crucial whole called the commons.

This was an inspiring revelation, which instilled me with new hope that everyday citizens can work together to create a greener, peaceful, and more equitable planet. I see the commons as a powerful tool that can spark a flurry of political and social initiatives aimed at offering every human being dignity, comfort and faith in the future. It strengthens the resolve of activists already tackling the problems of our times and encourages other people to step forward to make a difference in their communities and the world.

The commons as I understand it simply means the things each of us hold dear—from stories and games we enjoyed as children to the natural landscapes we love today to scientific and cultural advances that will shape our future. These things touch every aspect of our lives—from where we live and the ways we make a living to how we raise our children and what we do for fun. The commons is a vast inheritance bequeathed to all human beings—treasured and useful resources that benefit us greatly and which we want to protect, improve and pass on to the next generation.

But everywhere I look—around my home in Minneapolis, on my travels to research articles or simply in keeping up with the news—I see growing threats to the commons. The glorification of the market, in particular, as the guiding principle for all human endeavor poses huge problems for society today. When every aspect of our lives is slapped with a price tag that is supposed to convey its value, it seems to me that we are in deep trouble.

But thankfully the commons is now emerging today as a corrective measure to the free market fundamentalism that has engulfed our world. While the market is a valuable framework for achieving certain social goals, it by no means represents the only method of determining what matters to us. The commons stands as a critical counterbalance to the market—a way we can preserve and promote those elements of being human that cannot be understood in the cold calculations of a dollar sign. It is part of who we are, deeply rooted in our traditions and offering great promise for the years to come.