What is the Commons? by Darryl Birkenfeld

Anyone could make a list of things we cherish in our lives: home, family, heritage, community, jobs, etc.  But would your list also include water, a public library, a second language, the air that we breath, or parks?  If so, then you have an inkling of what we mean by “the commons.”

The notion of the commons at least goes back as far as Roman times (res communes), was recognized in medieval England (the Charter of the Forest) and well known in colonial America.  Most people viewed the commons as a resource that all had a share in.  An example would be the communal pastures around the village where any resident could graze their livestock.  In the Hispanic Southwest, the commons took the form of the acequia: the irrigation ditch that transported stream water into a network of fields, so that families could grow food and fodder for their livestock.  No one person owned the grazing lands or the surface water or the irrigation ditch, rather, these assets were managed communally so that everyone could have access to something that was essential to life.

In a society where we spend so much time and effort on owning and acquiring things, it may be surprising to realize that many “essentials” are gifts that we have been given, not something we can buy, sell, or earn.  Ultimately, can anyone really own the water or the air?  Who owns education, the arts and culture, history, or the soil & mineral cycle?  In fact, these gifts belong to all of us—to humanity and to other species that share the planet.  As Jonathan Rowe states, “the commons is a collection of many shared natural and social assets…We hold them jointly and hold them in trust for those who come after us.” (Our Commonwealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work, p. 14).

What are examples of the commons that you recognize?  Would the examples mentioned above be on your list of what you cherish most in life?  There are many things that we enjoy, but can do without.  Social and ecological capital that make up the commons are the true essentials that make life possible.


Darryl irrigating his raised beds with water from the rainwater collection tank

The Republican River flowing through downtown Wray, Colorado

Visiting the Historical Center at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation

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