Good Reads

Some Welcome Hope for the Holiday Season

A lively look at the commons, that seldom appreciated, but hugely valuable, sphere of our lives that can potentially enrich us all.

By Sam Pizzigati

Jay Walljasper, All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. The New Press, 2010, 268 pp.

All That We ShareHaving trouble this year summoning up that old holiday cheer? A bit depressed by politics as usual — and an economy still wallowing in the pits? Expecting more of the same in the year ahead?

Then you need to get this book. Or give it. This new offering invites us all to hope again — not in a hero, but in ourselves, in what we can accomplish when we work together on behalf of what we share.

And we share, this upbeat collection explains, a great deal. We share the “commons,” a “dimension of property” that covers all the aspects of life that no single individuals — or corporations — can ever with a straight face claim as only their own.

The commons, environmentist Bill McKibben notes in the book’s intro, “can be gifts of nature” or “products of social ingenuity,” everything from fresh water and the airwaves to the Internet and language. A commons, suitably nurtured, can enrich us. But a commons can be exploited, too, and create wealth only for a few.

Over recent years, warns All That We Share editor Jay Walljasper, that exploitation has shifted into overdrive. Ecosystems, scientific knowledge, the cultural traditions of childhood are all “slipping through our hands and into the pockets of the rich and powerful.”

All That We Share offers a guide to emptying those pockets — and reclaiming the commons. We meet in these pages people and communities creating neighborhoods and nations where everyone, not just a wealthy few, can enjoy the resources — and opportunities — that by right and reason belong to us all.

These “commoners” come from all over the world, from locales exotic and familiar. A publicly owned brewery in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg. A shopping mall outside Seattle reborn into a community center that features a “giant-size chessboard” where kids push around bishops “almost as big as they are.”

An inner-city Cleveland church turned public square that encourages anyone to stop by to browse, pray, and “check their e-mail on the cathedral’s Wi-Fi.” An Indiana library that teaches belly dancing. A street in the Netherlands reclaimed by neighbors who plopped old couches on the roadway to slow speeding traffic.

The visionaries we meet here think both small and big. They’re redefining property rights to protect the commons, leveraging “public trusts” to maintain national assets that ought to be benefiting everyone, not just enriching the few.

Add in the book’s imaginative appendices, everything from a list of 51 “(mostly) simple ways to spark a commons revolution” to a rundown on “the best movies, novels, music, and art that evoke a spirit of sharing,” and you have a real winner here, a cheery antidote to the holiday blahs.

“People everywhere,” editor Jay Walljasper notes at one point, “are yearning for a world that is safer, saner, more sustainable, and satisfying.”

All That We Share makes that world seem achievable. In a troubled holiday season, what better message could we possibly pass on?

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online newsletter on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Too Much appears weekly. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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