In his posthumous book, Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work, Jonathan Rowe writes:
"To get to San Francisco from where I live, I usually drive through the hamlet of Nicasio. It's just a scattering of wooden structures around a community baseball field. The hills beyond are mainly ranches, not much changed from a century ago.
"Recently, a sign appeared by the road there. 'SOON TO BE BUILT ON THIS SITE,' it said, and my insides went code red. I thought of bulldozers, asphalt, a mange of houses with glandular disorders.
"Then I saw the [sign's] smaller print: "'Thanks to your help, absolutely nothing.'"
That story makes me smile, because it so Jon Rowe. A close friend and idea co-conspirator, Jon tirelessly challenged the American anthem, "more, faster, bigger, louder." For years, in one article and column after another, he asked that we pause our relentlessly self-centered, materialistic spree long enough to consider where it might be leading us.
If one thing most defined Jon's work, which appeared in The Atlantic, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Monthly and other publications, it was his ability to help us better see ourselves, our lives, and our culture -- with clear, simple, oddly beautiful prose.
"Life was once rich in occasions for spontaneous interaction. People shopped on Main Streets, visited on front porches, attended political events in public venues. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had their famous debates in county fairgrounds and town squares all over Illinois, and farmers and townspeople sat for hours in the heat and dust to hear.
"Today most Americans live in suburbs conceived as staging areas for consumption. They move about in the enclosure of cars and shop in the anonymity of malls from which community activities are largely excluded. Politics consists mostly of negative ads shown on television screens. Then people wonder why they feel lonely and depressed, and why the sense of community has vanished."
Over the course of his life, Jon was and did many things -- he worked in government, in journalism, he lived in several of the nation's biggest East Coast cities and ended up as an activist and radio host in a tiny West Coast town. Along the way, he discovered that our definition of "progress" was seriously misleading, because our statistical indices, such as the Gross Domestic Product, count almost everything business does as progress: i.e., each tree cut down is counted as a plus, while the downside of all those trees lost is not taken into consideration.
He also saw that what we share in common is more important than the things that divide us or put us into constant competition. This wasn't just some abstract notion. It was about real things you inhale, stand under, stroll upon.
I remember whenever Jon visited me in New York, he would register genuine joy at all the things that make this metropolis seem so human-scaled: the small businesses with the owner on the premises, the vest pocket parks, the walking, the corner interactions -- how I could descend from my apartment onto a street teeming with opportunities to eat, read, and immerse myself in the passing parade.
Jon died unexpectedly before he had a chance to fully explain and implement his ideas concerning the little-understood concept of "the commons" -- and certainly before enough people got to learn of them and of him. Indeed, when I looked up "The Commons" on Wikipedia, I found a number of commons advocates listed (including Peter Barnes, Jon's close friend and collaborator), but Jon's name was not even included. That's why a group of his friends got together after his death in 2011 and pledged to help spread his ideas in his absence.
The result is Our Common Wealth, a collection of his writings from 1993 forward.
Commons: An Uncommon Concept
The commons, simply put, is everything not claimed as private or governmental property. It is the multitude of wonderful things we all share, but rarely consider. The commons includes things you can see and touch, as in beach and mountain, but it is also conceptual. It exists when we decide to work together for a common interest rather than in pursuit of individual gain. Some of us, in our own battles in our communities, have long been fighting for the commons -- and didn't even know it.
The term "commons" dates back to medieval England, when it referred to certain rights that everyone had, even on land owned by the aristocracy, for example, to graze their animals. Over the years, the term has evolved. The basic notion, though, is much older -- Roman law actually declared certain things intrinsically common property, notably air, wildlife, and navigable waters. As Jon noted:
"Government does not own these and therefore cannot privatize them, even if it wants to. Much like trustees of an estate, governments are legally obliged to maintain these assets for the benefit of all, including future generations."
But the commons is under constant assault.
"Inch by inch, Jefferson's vision for America is turning upside down. Centuries ago the concept of private property emerged as a means of liberation. It helped break the shackles of royal power and served as a bulwark against the state. But as Jefferson intuited, taken too far, private property becomes another version of what it once opposed."
In fact, we've become so enamored with the promises of privatization that we've permitted it in almost every sphere, no matter how illogical or inequitable. Take water, "a gift of nature" traditionally available to all save the drought-stricken. This common resource is now under threat from developments like the disappearance of public water fountains and the growth of a humongous bottled-water industry.