The commons is an old, simple idea but one that we have never needed so urgently. It’s whatever a community of people shares and manages together. A commons can be anything from a lake that has been fished for centuries to a folk song no one owns to a neighborhood garden to the planet itself. Commoning goes back as long as human history, and it was a basic assumption of the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s legal code and the Magna Carta. It forms the basis for a kind of economics run by neither state nor market but rather by community relationships in which everyone has a personal stake in a shared property or project.
Now, after centuries of being obscured by industrial smoke and no-trespassing signs, people are learning to recognize the commons again. I saw this firsthand at a historic conference last weekend at the Omega Institute — a retreat center in Rhinebeck, N.Y. — called Building the Collaborative Commons.