Reclaiming the Commons

By Jarret Schlaff

2012 was a year for the record books. The U.S. saw over 34,000 record setting temperatures, drought worse than the Dust Bowl era, super storms like Hurricane Sandy, and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than we’ve had for the last 800,000 years. Last year made climate change a front porch reality that now demands our attention and action to challenge the systems and institutions causing it. The constant pursuit of growth, power, and profit, also creates an environment that fosters the very ‘isms’ that reinforce oppression by elites. Naomi Klein put it best when she said, “we are witnessing a transfer of wealth of unfathomable size. It is a transfer of wealth from public hands, from the hands of government, collected from regular people in the form of taxes, into the hands of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the world.” Biodiversity, quality of life, and even life itself have crept onto the auction block to be sold to the highest bidder. Left unchecked, greed will morph into destruction of our species. What we need to co-create are the lunch counter moments for this movement of movements and the mental space that allows people to clearly see that we can either continue to value a “free market” that is leading half the species on this planet towards extinction by the end of the century, or transition into a space that values “resources” for what they are: systems that give life and connect us to our wild past, present and future.

We need to challenge the corporate influence over democracy and move from passive consumers towards a conscious citizenry that values people and planet over profit and material things. The globalized marketplace is structured to increase and maintain private wealth, and break community solidarity apart. In contrast, the commons are built on the idea of valuing, sharing, and protecting common assets such as clean air, water, healthy local food, shelter, public spaces, public health, public services, public education, arts, the internet, and non-carbon based energy systems that don’t jeopardize our future. The idea of “reclaiming the commons” was discussed at length during the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in 2010. It’s working towards a way of living that can sustain life and works for everyone – an idea that goes against just about everything coming out of Lansing.

Thanks to laws passed in the Michigan legislature in 2008, 90 percent of Michiganders cannot produce more renewable energy than the average amount they consumed the previous year, and are not allowed to purchase energy from anyone other than DTE and Consumers Power. That means it is illegal in Michigan for neighbors to build a small solar array in their community to produce enough renewable energy to transform their energy bills into energy income. These laws stand in the way of innovation and our ability to move beyond our reliance on dirty energy derived from burning fossil fuels towards local clean energy independence.

If a law or institution is unjust and not serving the best interests of the people, do we have the moral responsibility to exercise civil disobedience to confront it? The civil rights movement was a response to racist and misogynist laws and social norms. The sit-ins, marches, and bus boycotts demanded the attention of the masses and expressed the power of the oppressed. Think about the transformative r{e}volutionary power that could be demonstrated if neighbors and their surrounding community stood together to challenge the fossil fuel energy monopoly or refused to let any more of their schools, libraries, or homes be reduced to blight because of banks and corrupt institutions. Fighting for the commons is fighting for our brothers, sisters, neighbors, and future.

The good news is that communities across Detroit are reimagining how we can live and co-create models that challenge these destructive systems. Models of “New Work”, like those being discussed and acted upon at the Boggs Center, Makers Spaces and Fab Labs across the City envision expanding the use of tools like 3D printers to revolutionize and localize manufacturing. We could see communally produced and installed solar panels, windmills, etc. to support local electricity grids that would challenge the antiquated systems and the laws on the books that protect corporate interests.

With the converging of storms in Detroit, there is no better place to clearly show the world that alternative forms of living, working, and being are not only possible, but necessary.

We can expand ways to grow together and answer each other’s calls for support for large actions, dissemination of information, and global actions of solidarity. There is a moral obligation to move beyond the exploitative and destructive systems that have gone on too long, fueled by dirty energy and the insatiable pursuit of profit, power and growth, towards a way of living that works in harmony with nature and each other, and doesn’t jeopardize the planet’s ability to sustain life. Our efforts to reclaim the commons must remain grounded in the work to transition away from a market-dominated society toward one aligned with community resilience, racial/social equity, and ecological stewardship. A new narrative is being written across the globe as part of the resistance rising to move past partisan politics and ideology and return to the idea that we the people have the right to determine our own future. What that future looks like is entirely up to us.

Jarret Schlaff is a resident of Southwest Detroit and an activist and community organizer with PlanIt4Planet and the Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands (D CATS). You can find them online at or on Facebook as Planit4Planet.

Flickr photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video