The Commons (again)

The Road to Resilience


“This land is your land, this land is my land…….”  Well, not exactly.  There are public parks, streets, and walkways, but don’t try to actually live in those places, that is, don’t try sleeping there or doing any of those private things that you normally would do in your home.  Aside from these designated public spaces, all the usable land has been bought up, so, if you are to live here, you will need to come up with some cash—a lot of cash if you want your own exclusive place and a considerable steady sum if you want to rent from somebody else.  Unlike other life forms on the planet, your birthright does not presently include the right to live here.

The concept of private property as we understand it today is only about 200 years old.  The aristocracies had their fiefdoms, but the rest of the land was the “commons” managed by local communities for mutual benefit.

The process called the Enclosures began in England around the mid 13th century.
At that time, the subsistence model of rural living was giving way to a more entrepreneurial agriculture to feed the burgeoning city populations.  The term enclosure refers to the enclosing of the commons into parcels with fences and windrows.  They were sold or just appropriated by wealthier farmers that needed larger scale farming operations.  The small subsistence cottagers were ceded their cottages and a small portion of land around them, but their way of life required the larger commons to make ends meet.  They could not keep a cow on a small parcel.  They needed the commons forests for firewood, hunting, forage, and building materials.  With the commons, these people could make or grow what they needed, and, unlike what is said about the commons, they were generally well managed by the community and were not trashed.  They had little need for money as they could easily barter for the things they couldn’t make.

The privatization of land also led to the specialization of manufacturing and what the poor rural folk couldn’t make for themselves, they had to buy.  Voila!  We now have consumers that need to find a source of cash.  Many of those abandoned their cottages to work in the city.  There are pros and cons about industrialization, but a self-sufficient way of life very gradually disappeared in England.  The Enclosures more or less ended in the 19th century when the last of the practical commons was bought up.

The commons still exists in many so-called underdeveloped countries where you can almost always find a place to build the beginnings of a home and, if you stay there and keep building and adding on, you can have a decent place for your family and the cost  to you beyond a lot of work is for materials.  Even that, in the case of a wattle and daub house is sticks and mud that cost nothing.  There is milled wood and often sheet metal that has to be bought, but nothing like premanufactured windows, doors, and such.  These houses are “crude” by our standards, but warm and dry and way better than a dumpster.

I first became aware of this way of life during my time in the Peace Corps in Venezuela.  In Spain and its colonies, the commons lands were called ejidos (ay-HEE-thos). The intelligence and practicality of this practice left an indelible mark on me and largely informed the way that I proceeded to provide for myself here on Vashon.  I did have to buy my land but everything beyond that I built myself and mostly out of materials I salvaged or things I found on the land.  The old high school that was torn down around 1980 was a rich vein of gold for me.

How do we rebuild the commons when we have already sold it off to the highest bidders?  I’m afraid there is no going back to the past, and that may be for the best, but I think there are ways that we can bring some of the best aspects of the commons back, and, once again, make the dream of owning  your own home and garden a reality for all.  We as a community will have to buy back land.  One of the most efficient ways to do that, as I’ve said many times before, is with a community land trust.  We already have the example of the very successful and appreciated Vashon Maury Island Land Trust, which conserves natural land and the life thereon in perpetuity.  We can also maintain housing stock that is affordable to our lower income neighbors in perpetuity.  The VMILT has already expanded beyond preserving natural areas to preserving agricultural land use at the Matsuda farm.  We can do the same for housing. Vashon Household has already built the Roseballen  CLT, but we need to do this on a much larger and more flexible scale.  Only this kind of paradigm change is going to put everybody in their own home, the way it’s “s’posed to be.”