The Stone Wall at Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York

Today’s note is inspired by a Google photosearch for an image to illustrate the word “commons”.

The Stone Wall at Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New YorkThe idea of a commons implies both freedom and its opposite. As we use the word, a commons is a place where the representatives of a free people meet in a rite of political comity. It is also however, an enclosure, a space secured by law and to which access is restricted. One might speak of a such a community as a community “bound by a commons”.

What is needed is a new understanding of the commons as being either “socialized” or “wild”. Looking at the problem in this light, a “wild commons” would be established by common agreement as beyond property limits, beyond the pale of “socialized” spaces. Such agreements should govern the oceans, the Antartic, the noosphere, outerspace and as much of a national territory as can be reasonably set aside. In short, we are speaking of creating “public parks” on a global scale, somewhat like Antarctica. What could be more important?

Such distinctions are already possible. We live in “socialized spaces” we consider “public” and cultivate intimacy in our “private spaces” and anything that is outside of “socialized space” is considered “wild”. The problem we face in the 21st century however, is that such “wilds” are no longer wild and are hardly self-sustaining.

A “wild commons” is needed to protect biodiversity, much as zoological establishments (“zoos” in plain English) today are focused on preserving and cultivating biodiversity. Such establishments for the promotion of biodiversity could not exist without agreement of the “socialized commons”, which is to say, without comity and collective authority.

Would a new authority be required to implement a “wild commons”?

I think not. Yet, if man has learned anything from his history it should be that authority cannot exist without enforcement and that the first requirement of enforcement is submission to a rule.

Submission entails surrendering the will to resist but it can also be understood as a negotiation whereby some rights are surrendered in exchange for the preservation of others. This is the art of compromise and it is more than ever necessary in promoting the stewardship of our public spaces. Acknowledging the necessity of a “wild commons” implies diversity and long term sustainability.

In order to return to the idea that enclosures are systems which produce “commons objects” (sic), perhaps what we need is to rethink the commons not as a space of shared activity but as a regulated space of non-activity.

If you are interested in exploring this further, you might have a look at the classic economics text The Tragedy of the Commons. Alternatively, a great deal of literature is currently being generated with respect to the strategy of developing networks of Marine Protected Areas. These are an absolutely indispensable first step toward the preservation of marine diversity and the safeguard of trophic marine systems.

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