Friday, May 02, 2014

My “Commons Sector” Roots

I was born and spent my early years as the scion of generations of Idaho ranchers.  While I didn’t grow up to be a cowboy, both this heritage and my now concluded career will be the future.

These were homesteader entrepreneurs who had shaped small family businesses growing horses and cattle along with related feed in the coldest corner of Idaho where that state presses up against the Tetons and Yellowstone.

They were extremely independent and conservative Republicans, but  probably more moderate by the standards of today’s “wannabees.”

They practiced a hybrid form of capitalism, a fusion of government,  private market and Commons, when they formed an association in 1906 with other ranchers and farmers to dam and create Upper and Lower Arcadia Reservoirs eight miles above our ranch.

Using right-of-ways granted on public lands, and leveraging government backed market capital, these homesteaders created these impoundments in the Commons up where forests spilled out of what would in a few months become Targhee National Forest.

They also created a system to distribute the collected water over more than 2,000 acres.

Self-governed, each participant drew “shares” of water commons just like Swiss Alpine pasture commons had been run for centuries before some of my ancestors migrated to America in the 1600s and still are.

Just north in the Island Park part of that county, non-Mormon Swiss homesteaders and ranchers imported these practices as well.

But my Mormon ancestors learned to apply it to irrigation from the observations of missionaries returning from the Holy Land, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

Returning Mormon Battalion members also reported similar techniques being used by Mexicans as they marched passed Santa Fe during the U.S.-Mexican War.

I remember being greeted with awe on the first day of school because schoolmates were already familiar with a story of how my grandfather, using a 30-30 rifle, had fired a warning shot over the head of a church bishop.

He had been out stealing more than his share of water while members of his congregation were busy attending Sunday school.

I knew, however, that the rifle never left the rack of my grandfather’s Jeep.  He was soft-spoken and gentle and a noted horse whisperer but he was certainly no Jackass Whisperer.

The Commons are very effective at self-governing, including meting out penalties as detailed in a book published shortly after I moved to Durham by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. Elinor Ostrom entitled, Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.

Dr. Ostrom was also an expert in incentivizing sustainability and it was her studies that confirmed for me that polycentric regions of distinct and separate communities such as the one co-anchored by Durham, where I live, can be much more productive and efficient separated than if centralized.

Ironically, it is a hybrid of governance, including the Commons similar to what those Idaho settlers used, that many experts feel will be the “Capitalism 3.0” of the Third Industrial Revolution now percolating.

Come to think of it, my entire career in community destination marketing was spent in the prototype of what economists such as  Jeremy Rifkin and others now call the “commons sector,” a term coined by the entrepreneur Peter Barnes.

They predict that instead of over-reliance on “the corporate-dominated private sector,” our evolving economic system will have two engines, “one geared to manage private profit, the other preserving and enhancing common wealth.”

Community destination marketing organizations may be a prototype for this future.  They are funded by a government levy paid by visitors, which in turn funds DMO marketing, in part to fuel the business climate and to also offset the burden on local residents for public services.

But at their heart, DMOs function to foster and preserve, as do Commons, the unique sense of place upon which genuine, place-based visitor-centric or demand-driven economic development is fully reliant.

As I understand from reading the book by Peter Barnes entitled Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons, hybrids such as DMOs will flourish in the coming economy as will “social entrepreneurism” for which my adopted home has also long been a center.

We see societal commons at work when we use Wikipedia or open source software, such as used by this blog.  We also experience it when we set aside our property in conservation easements to preserve forests, and especially in the infrastructure evolving to support the Internet of Things.

Many areas now monopolized by the private sector, especially after so much of the Commons was surrendered during the “privatization” movement which gave us “globalism,” are rapidly falling to where both margins and barriers to entry will be near zero.

They will then revert to Commons again.  The transition is already visible in communications but according to Rifkin, who helps cities, regions and countries prepare master plans for this transition, we will soon see it in areas such as power distribution, manufacturing and many others.

His group TIR just completed a master plan for Nord-Pas-De-Calais, the region of Normandy from which my ancestors sailed with William the Conqueror nearly a thousand years ago to change the course of history.  Remember, the nexus of our current economic system is only 130 years old.

Linked is another “Third Industrial Revolution” master plan, this time for San Antonio.  If you wonder what all the fuss is about 3D Printing (a form of manufacturing,) or micropower, microgeneration and nanogeneration plants, or the Internet of Things, I highly recommend Rifkin’s books.

I became aware of Peter Barnes in the mid 1980s when I transferred my long distance telephone service at the time to his newly formed social enterprise called Working Assets where part of my bill went to support various causes.

Little did I realize reading his book Capitalism 3.0 in 2006, that the Second Industrial Revolution would effectively end in 2008. 

Believing the sky is also a Commons, many years earlier Barnes had proposed that polluters fund a “sky trust” for the right to do so and like the Permanent Fund enacted when I was in Alaska, pay dividends to each and every American.

Of course everything from the bottoms of the oceans to the stratosphere is part of the Commons, the market-driven economy just hasn’t been paying rent.

Barnes and Rifkin tend to see a future in which “markets and the Commons operate on parallel tracks, provision each other, or collaborate on joint management structures, generally with government involved in establishing regulatory standards, codes and financial incentives.”

Think of the Internet and World Wide Web as an example.

One thing I do know, things will not be the same.

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