Open Future NZ "Be the change you want to see in the World"

Discovering the Useful Common

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Extending the useful common will improve the quality of community life without "growth".

50 years ago I discovered that the stream flowing behind the local shopping center had no living things in the water, and only round threadworms in the soil on it's banks. No plants grew in the water. I understood that this stream was polluted, but no adults I spoke too about it, seemed to show any interest. The stream is a "common", it ran through the valley, from farms, through an industrial area, past an commercial area, then through farmland again before reaching the sea.

Garrett Hardin, in 1968, wrote a very influential essay called External Link"The Tragedy of the Commons". In this essay he talked about the incentive of each individual to make more efficient use of the common for his or her own purposes. The effect was to make more demand of that particular pasture, sea, or river than could be sustained, with the end result of destroying the quality of the common. Who should bear the cost of depleting the usefulness of the common to everyone? The most glaring example is what's happening to our oceans, both the general inability to restrict over-fishing. and pollution of the oceans with land sourced waste and chemical pollution.

The oceans also give us some evidence of the ability of the environment to recover if there are strong enforcible rules against over-fishing. Only partial success perhaps? Too recent for good data to prove the case, but surely moves in the right direction. We have trouble recognizing a commons unless we are also members. Around the world tribal communities typically have a land commons. Governments and commercial interests have devised both legal and illegal ways to alienate those people from that land, creating some sort of private title or claiming government ownership "for the nation".

A Common for Architectual Design

After training as an architect, Cameron Sinclair (then age 24) joined Kate Stohr to found Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit that helps architects apply their skills to humanitarian efforts. Starting with just $700 and a simple web site in 1999, AFH has grown into an international hub for humanitarian design, offering innovative solutions to housing problems in all corners of the globe.

Whether rebuilding earthquake-ravaged Bam in Iran, designing a soccer field doubling as an HIV/AIDS clinic in Africa, housing refugees on the Afghan border, or helping Katrina victims rebuild, Architecture for Humanity works by Sinclair's mantra: "Design like you give a damn."

2006 TED Prize winner Cameron Sinclair is co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit that seeks architecture solutions to global crises

For some 10 years now, I've been promoting the idea of a Localfile"Useful Common". I've been thinking about all the free, or almost free public services that are available to citizens in your community. For instance, access to public parks and reserves, safe streets to walk on, free public library services. In New Zealand we can also claim to have an almost free public health system. My argument is that with a little bit of effort we could easily enlarge the common in ways that are useful to people, that have minimal or only a small cost. For instance senior citizens in NZ have just been "given" free access to public transport services between 9am and 3pm every day. During this time period the buses and trains run almost empty. The marginal cost of picking up new passengers is minimal. The benefit to the community is significant.

There are natural commons, that people easily recognize. Rivers, roadways and lakes for instance. Protection of the quality of those resources requires enforceable rules. Too often those rules are written to be ineffective, deliberately so, because powerful forces (money) influences the lawmaking process. This is not an effective way to do things.

There are many commons that we can create by agreement.  For instance freedom of access to information on the Internet.  We could agree that the data produced by government departments for reporting processes should be available to the public at no cost.  There are many steps that make an "Open Future©" more likely.  

The system of Law in any country should be a common. Sadly the system is too often biased in favour of people with money and power. The Law should apply equally regardless of power and status.

If the resources of a country are imagined as a commons, the value of controlling the rate at which those resources are depleted immediately becomes apparent. In some cases the effective change would be minimal, but in situations where scarcity can be imagined, the use of the resource should be capped and rationed. Proper policy decisions would allow the market to create prices that reflect the true value of the resources used.


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