Annie Leonard on the Commons

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= Annie Leonard, documentary-maker of the Story of Stuff talks about the commons to Jay Walljasper


' What strategies do you recommend for making more people aware of the importance of the commons?

Talking about the commons is a critical first step. We’re so indoctrinated in an individualist focused approach to stuff and private property that we need to be reminded—like my college class mentioned above—that there’s much more that we share and, that for a wide range of things, sharing is better. So, let’s introduce the term into public discourse, slip it into conversations, include it in letters to the editor and blog posts. Talking more about the commons will make it more visible.

It’s hard to love what we don’t see, so let’s bring the commons right out into the spotlight!

I also fear that I am not alone in having associated the “commons” with a sheep-filled pasture for too long. We need to think of more ways to explain what the commons is, to create a new frame for the word, so that the full richness of the commons comes to mind when we hear the term. I love the phrase “all that we share.” That’s clear, accessible and makes us feel good thinking about all that we share. That’s what we want people to feel when they think of the commons.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?

There are so many interrelated aspects of our current economic and social systems which undermine the commons. Some obstacles are structural, like government spending priorities that elevate military spending and oil company subsidies over maintenance of parks and libraries. Others are social, including the erosion in social fabric and community-based lifestyles. Actually, even those have structural drivers; for example, land use planning which eliminates sidewalks and requires long commutes to work contribute to breakdown of social commons by impeding social interactions. It’s all so interconnected!

A huge obstacle is the shift towards greater privatization and commodification of physical and social assets. Many things that used to be shared – from open spaces for recreation to support systems to help a neighbor in need – have been privatized and commodified; they’ve been moved out of the community into the market place. This triggers a downward spiral. Once things become privatized, or un-commoned, we no longer have access to them without paying a fee. We then have to work longer hours to pay for all these things which used to be freely available – everything from safe afterschool recreation for kids to clean water to swim in to someone to talk to when you’re feeling blue. And since we’re working longer hours and spending more time alone, we have less time to contribute to the commons to rebuild these assets: less volunteer hours, less beach-clean-up days, less time for civic engagement to advocate for policies that protect the commons, less time to invite a neighbor over for tea. And on it goes.

What is the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now?

In spite of real obstacles, we have a lot on our side as we advance a commons-based agenda. First, we have no choice. There’s a very real ecological imperative weighing down on us. Even if we wanted to continue this overconsumptive, hyper individualistic and vastly unequal way of living, we simply can’t. We have to learn to share more and waste less, to find joy and meaning in shared assets and experiences rather than in private accumulation, to work together for a better world, rather than to build bigger walls around those who can. And the good news is that these changes not only will enable us to continue to live on this planet, but they will result in a happier, healthier society overall.

There’s another shift emerging which offers some real opportunities for building support for the commons. People in the overconsuming parts of the world are getting fed up with the burden of trying to own everything individually. We used to own our stuff and increasingly our stuff owns us. We work extra hours to buy more stuff, we spend our weekends sorting our stuff. We’re constantly needing to upgrade, repair, untangle, recharge, even pay to store our stuff. It’s exhausting.

The shift I see emerging is from an acquisition focused relationship to stuff, to an access- focused relationship. In the acquisition framework, the more stuff we had, the better, as captured in the 1990s bumpersticker “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.” Having spent a couple decades being slaves to our stuff, we are rethinking. Now it is “He Who dies with the Most Toys Wasted His Life Working to Buy Them and Lived in a Cluttered House When He Could have been Investing in Community with which to Share Toys.”

Increasingly people want access to stuff, not all the burden that comes with ownership. Instead of owning a car and dealing with all that comes with it, we get one just when we want through city car share programs. Instead of hiring a plumber, we swap music lessons with one through skillsharing networks. Why buy something to own alone, when we can share it with others? Why signup for an even more crushing mortgage for a house with a big back yard, when we can instead share public parks? From coast to coast, there’s a resurgence of sharing, so much that it even has a fancy new name: collaborative consumption. I’m really excited about this. A whole new generation of people is realizing that access to shared stuff is easier on one’s budget and on the planet, then individual ownership. Now, that’s liberating." (