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Giving Thanks for All We Share


The Sharing Ethic of the Commons, Like Thanksgiving, is Woven into American Traditions

by Jay Walljasper

Last November’s hopes for the United States moving in the direction of a commons-based society are being challenged now in fierce debates over health care reform, increased social spending, tougher Wall Street regulations and other progressive measures that once seemed inevitable.

But commons thinking did get a small boost this fall in an unlikely setting—a hit television series. The acclaimed Ken Burns PBS documentary declared national parks as “America’s Best Idea”—a ringing endorsement of the commons as a deep-seated American ideal seen by millions of viewers. National Parks stand as one of the most beloved symbols of what we share together.

Ken Burns’s “The National Parks” is not just an upbeat footnote to what feels like a disappointing political season. It is significant for showcasing Yosemite, Yellowstone and other cherished national treasures as an inheritance belonging to all citizens. Upon first hearing of the commons, many people immediately see it as something alien to American life—an ethic better suited to tribal communities in the rainforest or the social democracies of Europe. As long as hopes for people working collaboratively to leave a better society for future generations can be dismissed as a betrayal of our national character (as tea party-goers, talk radio jocks and Congressional Republicans charge) then real economic and social change will remain an impossible dream in the United States.

This week offers another example of how the commons is weaved into our collective imagination as a nation: Thanksgiving. I consider it another of America’s best ideas—a harvest feast celebrating the bounty of our land and indigenous food traditions, which evokes the rich communal culture of our Native Americans as well as the community-centered life of New England settlers.

Furthermore, the festive Thanksgiving holiday vividly illustrates the joys of commoning—a newly minted word describing how the commons is put into practice. Commoning, which happens all around us all the time, counters the widespread assumption that privatized actions are the key to our prosperity, security and happiness.

Think of the typical Thanksgiving morning in a typical American household. A team of cooks and hangers-on bustle in the kitchen: slicing, dicing, spicing, baking, broasting, whipping, tasting and talking. Every guest coming through the door contributes something more to the meal—their special cranberry or sweet potato dish, vegetables out of the garden, a jug of home-brewed beer, dinner rolls from their favorite bakery, chrysanthemums, or a bottle of wine saved for this special occasion. Oftentimes, at least in my experience, the neighbors are called to bring over a couple more chairs so every one can sit at the table while the turkey is carved.

Even more important than the food is the conversation, covering everything from family updates and college football to community issues, personal aspirations and the season’s new movies.

This year, as Obama’s triumphant message of “Yes, we can” from last November bumps up against an angry chorus of “No,” the commons would be a timely subject to bring up over pumpkin pie. Or even in the blessing when we count all the things we are thankful about.

Photo credit: Serj Buss

Jay Walljasper’s forthcoming book is What We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. He is a Fellow at and writes extensively about travel, cities, sustainability, politics, culture and social initiatives. His website is:

This piece originally appeared in On The Commons

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Hey there!

I just wanted to say thanks for using one of my photos on this article. It's truly an honor for me.

The article is sooooo great and well-written. It was a pleasure reading it.

Best wishes from Brazil

Posted by: Sergio SERJ Buss on 25 Nov 09

Well put, Jay. I think it's really important how you suggest just having the conversation about what we already share. That's the place to start. I'm excited to read your book and hear what you offer for more sharing solutions. There is a lot of innovation happening in the sharing space right now, hopefully this post and book move the conversation forward.

Posted by: David on 27 Nov 09

People who want to do something positive - - Channel your energies in a
positive way. Here are some suggestions, build a web page,
phone your congressman, attend meetings in your local area
with like minded people to form or support freedom coalitions,
email your local representatives, call Washington, have group
viewings videos that have verified information pertaining to
amendment rights...

Posted by: Ray on 30 Nov 09

"Commoning, which happens all around us all the time, counters the widespread assumption that privatized actions are the key to our prosperity, security and happiness."

Contrast this with the *lessons* from the *real* story about thanksgiving:

Posted by: Edgewise on 1 Dec 09

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