What is the Meaning of Being a Commoner

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Ogallala Commons, a Texas-based project that seeks to protect the famous aquifer as a key element of community development

This draft treatise is compiled from notes recorded at Ogallala Commons inaugural Commoners University on June 22-23, 2009 held at Casa La Entereza in Nazareth, Texas (sources of the notes were the participants: Andy Wilkinson, Father Ken Keller, Erin Hoelting, Darryl Birkenfeld, Julie Boatright, and Kim Barker).


Darryl Birkenfield:

I. What is the commons?

Concretely, the commons is our ground, our tethering. The commons is a home where we can live. More abstractly, the commons is an intermediate set of wholes within wholes. Any particular commons is not the only commons, but rather, it is a whole of smaller wholes connected to ever greater wholes into infinity.

Still, the commons is concrete and graspable, both personally and collectively, because the commons is a node: a stem cord of a web of relationships. The commons is a province that serves as a locus of our sustenance, and as a matrix of our wealth (our economy) as well as our symbolization of the universe.

The commons is a narrative, a story that we participate in with all creation, as well as with our past and our future that reveals itself in our unfolding present time. The narrative of the commons is ever new, ever recreating us. In the true articulation (the retelling) of the commons, we see the proper relationship of all things.

The commons is both a gift and a call to create. Our response/ creating is not a solitary action, but a communal chorus. Yet in this polyphony of voices, every voice is vital and unique. Knowing the narrative of the commons and embodying it, is key to the work of commons-building and integral to life as a commoner.

The commons, as the primary focus and matrix of life experience, is personal. Yet, the commons is foremost personal and experiential because it is what we belong to. Equally, the commons belongs to all of us, not to one of us. The personal experience of commons is the entry point to becoming a commoner. Then we can speak of natal landscapes.

II. What does it mean to be a commoner?

There is no formal membership in the commons...one is given their place and their call. We cannot buy our way into the commons. Becoming a commoner requires a recognition of the call, and then, a response. The response to the commons is predicated on abandoning a reductive worldview that divides the world into separate parts. Instead, a commoner's view involves seeing how all things fit together in their uniqueness and also recognizing the patterns of how all things fit in, no matter how desperate.

A commoner requires an ongoing, lifelong education in the commons. The commons is a classical education in itself-- in bringing together all the pieces, in seeing how they fit together, how they fit in. A commons education helps people find their place in the commons, as well as their pathway…their career(s)…their vocation.

III. How does a commoner live?

Commoners, while negotiating the Market Economy that pervades the modern world, seek to discern, to become aware of, and to make more visible the Gift Economy. The Gift Economy works by three simple rules:

-You have to choose to receive it.

- You have to husband it.

- Then you have to give it away.

Responsibility is central to membership in the commons and life in the Gift Economy. The commons, like responsibility, is a gift and a call…a call/response that we are free to accept or ignore. When anyone recognizes or chooses the gift/call as a personal message and makes a response, that person begins a conscious participation in the commons.

  • "The root of responsibility is an aural/oral metaphor: first one listens, then one answers. Greek philosophy, especially after Plato, was not strong on aural/oral metaphors. As the poets and storytellers were replaced by “thinkers', metaphors of sight and visual form overwhelmed other possibilities.”

- Gabriel Moran, A Grammer of Responsibility, p. 37.

The Creator God is the giver, the actor, the call maker. We are the receivers, the responders, those responsible. The key to living as a commoner is the recognition/ realization (call) and the practice (response) that we are being acted upon by the Gift(s). All our actions are a response to the Gift.

IV. How does the commons grow?

The commons is not about managed depletion. The process of the commons is a generative process. It is only depleted when it is bought, sold, and divided up…or when the members that make up a commons refuse to give away the best of what they receive. The role of human beings in the commons is to be manifold distributors of the gift, of the generosity…through four vital actions:

-to take

-to eat

-to give thanks

-to make a generous return

The commons thrives based on the law of generativity (Can you give away as much as you take?). When people are adequately invited and included in the commons, they can be equipped with and supported with this generative energy. That is the difference in living in the full measure of responsibility as a commoner. This is the key to overcoming the myth of the Tragedy of the Commons.

Ogallala Commons is a dodecahedronic web, with 12 key assets of one commonwealth. This is the economic foundation of the commons.

It is proper and necessary to fashion commodities from the commons wealth. What is destructive and unethical is an action, short or long term, that commodifies the processes that are the lifeblood of the commons. In other words, any action or enterprise that depletes the ecological, social, or economic capital of the commons wealth will eventually unravel its vitality and health.

Because the commons requires poetry (poesis) to come into being, the commons has to have ambiguity and paradox. There has to be diversity in the commons, but also a coming together, a harmony, a unity… or it will become a political construction...an adversarial conflagration like our American two-party political system."