8 Ways to Find Wellbeing in a Community Commons

The community commons plays a vital role in social wellbeing by knitting together the fabric of society and helping the interdependent individuals within it to thrive. Here are 8 ways to get the most out of commons-based relationships.

wellbeing tip 101: contemplate communal support (hands in a pile)

Tip #101: Contemplate Communal Support

Last week I wrote about how the concept of reciprocity improves current research on social support, which is dominated by psychological studies of individual giving and receiving. But what about communal mutual support, like what I found in Srisa Asoke, the intentional Buddhist community where I did my research? 

Reciprocity is still relevant, yet a different process is also at work. A larger dynamic is what economic anthropologists would call contributing to the community commons. The commons is a community’s shared physical resources and products as well as intangible resources that help sustain members’ livelihoods. The act of contributing to the commons serves community needs while at the same time reinforces identity as a community member. The key element in any community commons is the social relationships that create, maintain, and share it.

So think about that a bit: are there any physical resources near you that require collective care? Are you a part of a commons community responsible for those resources, either knowingly or unknowingly? Could you build more wellbeing for yourself, others, and the environment by more intentionally engaging in that community? What might that look like for you?

wellbeing tip 102: organize for the commons good (gears)

Tip #102: Organize for the Common Good

The question remains: how can these commons-oriented relationships contribute to the collective wellbeing of individuals, communities, and the environment? We tend to doubt this is even possible. The well-circulated “tragedy of the commons” theory says that individuals prioritize self-interests over the common good and will thus inevitably spoil everything (the classic example being cattle overgrazing common land).

But since political economist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009 (the first woman ever to do so), we now have more hope for the commons. Ostrom’s extensive research showed that people can in fact collectively manage shared resources. And they can do it sustainably and equitably for the good of the group. The trick is to organize locally, with the knowledge, skills, rules, customs, and practices that emerge from that specific physical and social context.

Here’s a great example. Shepherds in the Lake District of Great Britain benefit from ancient rights to graze their sheep on communally owned land, a relic from the feudal system. But with those “commoner” rights come responsibilities to give time and talents so that all the sheep prosper from one year to the next.  One old timer can read the signs that indicate the right moment to bring the sheep down from the fells to shear. The group waits for his call to say: “Tomorrow is the day. Meet at the gate at 5 am.” Another is the best dog handler. A third is fastest with the sorting gates, ensuring that all the sheep return to their rightful owners.

In this way, the commons is not just shared land; it’s a shared good life. 

wellbeing tip 103: co-create a commons identity (red thumb print on aqua background)

Tip #103: Co-create a Commons Identity

We typically associate commons with physical resources, but the intangible aspects of the commons are just as important. These include the shared knowledge, skills, practices, laws, rules, customs, beliefs, and the like that guide social interactions within the community. If this looks like “culture” to you, you’re largely right. I would say that the difference is that culture is a more expansive concept, while a commons’ intangible resources are more specific. They’re locally constituted to organize and govern a specific collection of physical resources and social relationships as well as the livelihoods and products that emerge from it.

By associating oneself with the commons–both tangible and intangible elements–and the community that forms around it, a powerfully positive identity can emerge. This identity is reinforced every time we participate in the community commons by contributing, maintaining, and sharing it. But for this identity to be positive, we ourselves must keep our focus positive. Just like karma, the law of cause and effect, when we put good out into the world, good returns to us in spades.

wellbeing tip 104: care for commons resources (ocean wave)

Tip #104: Care for Common Resources

Back to the more concrete aspects of the commons: the physical resources. One of our most vital responsibilities as a member of a commons community is to care for it. Take my own town of Laguna Beach, for example. The most obvious tangible shared resource is the ocean. We all use it freely, and if we don’t do our part to maintain it, we won’t be able to enjoy it as we do now.

“Doing our part” might mean picking up trash along the beach and minimizing pollutants that end up in storm drains and contaminate the water. More skilled contributions might include monitoring the ocean for conditions that are unsafe for both human and marine life.

We must also fortify our commons against external stressors like tourism and climate change. “Doing our part” might then require more concerted effort, like joining the City Council Environmental Sustainability Committee (like I did) to advocate for stricter regulations on plastic waste, toxic chemical usage/disposal, greenhouse gas emissions, and other factors that affect long-term sustainability.

For any community, think about what makes that community special, and there you’ll find the commons as well as the motivation needed to care for it.

wellbeing tip 105: shop at cooperatives (retro shop painted on brick wall)

Tip #105: Shop at Cooperatives

Let’s shift our focus from physical resources to businesses that are are commons-like, such as cooperatives. For example, when I lived in Minneapolis during graduate school, I did my grocery shopping at the Rainbow Food Co-op. There, I found the most affordable organic options. I also packed my own purchases in their left-over delivery boxes (long before plastic bags were banned).

Food co-ops are formed, owned, and operated by community members who want access to healthy, yummy food with reduced environmental impact and less waste. Extending the benefits outward, food co-ops benefit the wider community by providing a market for local farmers and producers and by partnering with local food pantries and nonprofit organizations. All told, food co-ops help to create a fairer food system. 

In the US, there are 42,000 cooperative businesses ranging in size from small local buying clubs to Fortune 500 companies, with a combined worth of nearly $3 trillion. If you buy Land O’ Lakes butter or shop at ACE Hardware, you are patronizing a co-op. The advantages of cooperative businesses for the owners include a smaller investment burden, ability to make large purchases as a group, collective bargaining power, and pooled risk. In these ways, co-ops build strong social support networks for their members. 

wellbeing tip 106: form a community co-op commons (chickens in a coop)

Tip #106: Form a Community Co-op

It’s not necessary to formally incorporate and obtain a license for a cooperative business to reap similar collective benefits. You just need a group of people with a common goal and the will to make it happen.

For example, if you’d like to grow squash but don’t have the land to do it, simply form a community cooperative like the folks in Totnes, UK did. A community co-op shares risks and gains equally among all members. The Totnes group worked together on weekends on the many tasks involved. Together they propagated seeds in a greenhouse, gathered manure from equestrian centers, watered, and composted dead vines after harvest. Always with tea and cake, because it is England, after all. Each member would then be “paid” a share of the squashes based on the number of hours worked. And they celebrated the end of the season with a post-harvest potluck. The Totnes group published step-by-step instructions for running a community squash co-op for anyone wishing to set up their own.

If nothing else, this community squash co-op an inspiring example of community-based support.

wellbeing tip 107: check out the sharing economy commons (parking spot for car sharing)

Tip #107: Check out the Sharing Economy

It seems like social support naturally declines due to our modern way of life that distance us from others; yet like so many social problems, there is often a market-based solution. Enter the sharing economy. This industry originated to facilitate sharing resources among individuals, particularly those who lack a ready social network to share with. True, the goods and services offered on commercial sharing platforms like AirBnB come at a price. But ideally it is more affordable—and more personal—than a straightforward market exchange. 

Besides house sharing, two other growing niches are car sharing and skill sharing. Forget Uber (which is really just a taxi service). A better example is Getaround. Getaround allows individuals to rent cars from private owners on an hourly or daily basis, more conveniently and often less expensively than going through a car rental agency. Then there is Task Rabbit, which started with assembling Ikea furniture, but quickly expanded to other tasks around the house. 

What’s so clever about these peer-to-peer industries is that they’ve had to manufacture mechanisms for trust. In these new sharing industries, ratings become king. Ratings and comments allow others to make decisions based on the collection of real experiences. This is necessary for something as intimate and risky as inviting strangers into your home or lending them your car. Trust ordinarily exists in established social relationships, but not so in the marketplace.

wellbeing tip 108: share for transformation (caterpillar on a branch)

Tip #108: Share for Transformationj

Sharing economy innovations like these provide a platform for practical support while promoting positive social relationships in surprising ways. Yet part of me questions, is this really sharing? Or is it just a slightly more social “business-as-usual”?

Critics say that these companies do no more than bring underutilized assets into the market. In fact, Neal Gorenflo of Shareable distinguishes between transactional and transformational sharing. Postgrowth explains that transactional sharing is driven by profits as well as resource efficiency and cost sharing. Transformational sharing adds the critical element of a power shift. This means “who owns and controls the processes by which sharing occurs, who benefits, and whether it is strengthening the commons or resulting in the commodification of our lives.”

Truly transformational sharing systematically strengthens social relationships and community resiliency through sharing. And that is something I’d truly like to see.

Next Week…

We’ll get a bit philosophical by considering 5 principles of mutuality that promote truly supportive social relationships.


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