A call to move from me to we

A conversation with Jay Walljasper about his new book, ‘All That We Share’

Even though temps were in the low teens, Jay Walljasper showed up for an interview riding his bike, exemplifying that he’s serious about applying his ideas to practice. Walljasper, an author, editor and thinker based in Kingfield, is out with a new collaborative book project, “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.” The book features a number of articles from Walljasper, who also serves as editor, as well as contributions from Jonathan Rowe, Winona LaDuke, Robert Reich, and many others.

“All That We Share” serves as a manifesto of sorts for On the Commons, a Whittier-based organization that serves as a “commons movement strategy center, connecting organizations, community leaders, and individuals with new ideas, practical solutions, and each other to create change.” Below are highlights of the interview with Walljasper.

SWJ: To begin with, let’s get clear about ‘the commons’. How do you define the concept?

Walljasper: It’s easy when you discover the commons to think of it as just being stuff. The park and the Internet [for instance]. But the commons is more than just material things. The commons, in essence, is a sense of cooperation and a way of looking at the world.

In reality, the commons is all that we share and the many ways we share it. Societies function at their absolute best when there is a natural, organic balance between ‘the me’ and ‘the we.’ And I think in American culture, even in Minnesota, over the past 50 years or so, we’ve radically shifted in the direction of me, me, me. And the commons is just a way to sort of bring things back in the direction of we.

What are some of the real-world problems you think a commons-centric style of thinking could help society deal with?

Well a big one is equity. We live in a society and world where the rich are getting way richer and the poor are getting more desperate. So that’s an obvious place where the commons can bring in a fresh perspective. The environment is another big one, and global warming. All environmental degradation is really a destruction of the commons, the theft of something that belongs to all of us because of the self-interest of small groups of people.

Doesn’t the fact that Minnesota and America are so politically polarized indicate that it’s going to be hard to mobilize a vast swath of society behind the notion of the commons?

We live in incredibly polarized times right now. I think immediately off the bat the commons is going to have more appeal to liberals than conservatives. But actually, if you look at the root of the word ‘conservative,’ the root of the word is to conserve. And that is precisely what the commons is about. So I think there is an opportunity for those conservatives that are actually very interested in conserving our natural resources and conserving our sense of the social fabric. I think the commons might actually appeal to them.

But couldn’t the fact that Republicans have majorities in the House and Senate in a state as historically liberal as Minnesota suggest that the pendulum may in fact be swinging in the opposite direction?

The commons really isn’t about this election or the next election — it’s really about taking the long view. In one of the stories in the book — and the book is really full of stories — I actually look at the market fundamentalists or libertarian economists. They first appeared in the 1950s and they took the long view. They didn’t just say, ‘oh, we’re gonna get beat in the elections in ’58 or we’re gonna get beat in the elections in ’62. Our ideas are no good.’ They had a passion for what they believed in, and it really took them until about 1980 when Ronald Reagan became president. So they had 25 or 30 years where they were sort of our in the wilderness politically, and people thought the movement was dead because Goldwater was crushed [in the presidential election] in 1964. So the commons is not going to rise or fall with Obama’s popularity numbers.

How well do you think Southwest Minneapolis does in terms of approximating the ideal, commons-centric society you allude to in the book?

I’ve lived in Southwest Minneapolis for 25 years, and I think there is a spirit of the commons that infuses this neighborhood maybe more than a lot of the places around the Twin Cities or the country. How many kids play on youth soccer teams in this neighborhood, and how many good parks do we have here? I would say Southwest Minneapolis is a commons stronghold. I think there is a spirit of cooperation and collaboration in our neighborhoods that maybe has drained away from other places in America today.