Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Commons during a pandemic (with a tribute to libraries)

You all know we're at a difficult moment.  We've seen people being vaccinated but most of us won't get our own until April at the earliest.  As General Hillier put it, "It's not the light at the end of the tunnel, but someone's lit a match."  The winter solstice is upon us, and I for one am losing a couple of hours' sleep each night.  Then follows the Christmas like no other.  A time that brought us together in celebration of close human ties and all they add to our everyday lives will be characterized by smaller celebrations, many of them moderated by Zoom or Google Meet.  

It's become a gambit in the media and in conversation:  talking about what parts of the pandemic should remain in our lives.  Frequent nominees are our smaller carbon footprint, the birds we're seeing and hearing for the first time, our changed relationship with retail therapy, our recognition of our mortality and all that implies about the importance of the present moment and spending that moment with the people we love.

I'm voting for Christmas lights.  Have you noticed how many more light displays there are this year?  It used to be that I went to Regina's crowdsourced Sparkle Tour map and worked out a careful route for Bill and me to take to see the best of the lights, but I probably won't need to do that this year.  We've put out more Christmas lights because we have time and because that's the way we can share the season with others.  They are a recognition that right now "the commons" has become important to us, and we've turned our front yards into a link between ourselves and others on the street, hoping to share some cheer. Can you be patient with me for five paragraphs?  I need to explain the age-old concept of "the commons," which essentially rose alongside private property when homo sapiens shifted from hunter gatherers to farmers.  Only then can I talk about why, during a pandemic, it's folly not to think about what we have in common.  Only then can I point out how much the commons is doing for us right now and perhaps to suggest that our thinking about "the commons" ought to shift after the pandemic is over.

There is a large park at the centre of Boston known as "Boston Common" that dates back to 1660.  It was "common" by virtue of anyone's ability to graze their cows there.  Inevitably, it became overgrazed; as a consequence, the users of this common resource made some rules to mitigate the overgrazing.  Even 400 years later, Boston Common continued to be a shared space.  In 1969, it was the site of numerous peace rallies protesting the war in Vietnam.  More recently, Boston's version of "The Women's March" decrying Donald Trump's attitudes toward women took place there.  So did a protest against hate speech and white supremacy reacting to the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville VA that ended with 32-year-old Heather Heyer being killed by a white supremicist.  Common grazing morphed into common and free speech, as it tends to do. Think of Speakers Corner in London's Hyde Park, where anyone can mount a soapbox.   Recently Atlantic Monthly, founded in Boston in 1857 by abolitionists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others, underwent a redesign.  Atlantic's page of letters from readers is now called "The Commons."

You may know "the commons" from another tradition:  nineteenth-century English literature.  Novels like Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles record the more intimate effects of England's "Enclosures Acts," whereby a large landowner could appeal to enclose the common land that his underpaid farm labourers had been working for themselves to supplement their meager diets.  The industrialization of agriculture meant that farmers could now exploit these small spaces for their own profit, and labourers who did not suit the landlord, like Tess's profligate father, were sent packing.  Trying to find a safe place for her family throws Tess into the arms of Alec D'Urberville, which ends in his death and her hanging.

In 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin wrote a piece for Science called "The Tragedy of the Commons."  He argued that resources held in common inevitably fail because each user puts his or her own needs and desires first and takes more than his or her share, leaving less for others.  That essay became, according to Rutger Bregman, author of Humankind, widely reprinted and read, providing one of the foundational beliefs of Neo-liberalist economics.  Neo-liberals essentially argues that only the market can prevent organize our lives adequately.  Only if we price goods, like blood donations, for example, will we keep them from careless overuse.  (Actually, putting a price on blood ends up making it more scarce because it's ill-managed--but that discussion of altruism is for another day.  Or you can read about it in my novel, Soul Weather.) You will doubtless be familiar with instances when governments attempted to put common goods into private hands or when governments deliberately undervalued the resources we  hold in common.  Several years ago, the Saskatchewan Government attempted to radically cut funds to libraries and closed down the Saskatchewan Transportation Corporation that provided bus service to rural communities.  Any of you watching The Crown will know--or discover--that Margaret Thatcher attempted to sell publicly held companies, like railroads and mines, to individuals or private corporations.  

But Hardin's isn't the whole story.  Elinor Ostrom, whom Bregman describes as "an ambitious political economist" questioned Hardin's hypothesis and, along with her graduate students, compiled a list of over 5,000 examples of commons that worked well.  Her groundbreaking book, Governing the Commons, led to her 2009 Novel Prize in Economics.  Yes, 2009:  the year after our attempts to privatize everything that moved led to The Great Recession--a moniker I resist, by the way.  There was nothing great about it.  Among other things, it led to a generation of students whose parents told them to "go to university and get a job" rather than "go to university and get an education," a difference I saw in students' attitudes towards their own learning.  Learning became a means to an end, not an end in itself. Learning was monetized. What Ostrom points out in Governing the Commons is exactly what happened in Boston Common.  When people who benefited from a commons found it misused, they made rules that governed its use.

What do Canadians hold in common?  Our parks.  Interestingly, we tend to protect land we hold in common, turning it into a safe haven for nature and her species. Our libraries, our streets, our health care system, our schools.  Our drinking water and our air.  Our health:  how many times have we been told that our individual practices have an impact on the health of others?  The number of vaccines developed in record time was made possible by the fact that scientists collaborated on an unprecedented scale that has possibly changed science forever.  (I've pasted a link below to an excellent article in The Guardian on this collaboration.)  "We're all in this together," has been the consistent messaging of governments.  

But as we can see from the continually rising numbers, too many have ceased to see their own individual health as something held in common. COVID-19 has also revealed the fact that in a time when provincial governments tend to lean right, toward Neo-liberalist belief that "the market" or "the economy" trumps health or education, we discover that we've been under-investing in those common goods.  Too many schools, for instance, have faulty ventilation, but improving conditions for childrens' learning is at the back of the budget bus. Some longterm care facilities run for profit have put their patients at risk in order to cut corners and increase profits.  Other statistics point out that our failure to invest in people also creates risks for all of us.  The statistics are clear:  the people who are disproportionately affected with COVID-19 are the poor, many of whom pack up our take-out burgers or wash floors in hospitals.  And when they cannot afford to stay home from work, they will inevitably infect others and overwhelm the health-care system.  Perhaps COVID-19 will teach us to realize universal sick pay for everyone who works, or that a Universal Basic Income, or a reasonable minimum wage actually benefits all of us.  COVID-19 erupts in places where homes are crowded.  Perhaps it's time to formulate a national housing policy that will, in effect, benefit all of us?

But the news on the commons isn't all dire.  You've been reading your way through the pandemic, haven't you?  Yes, I know you have.  In November, overwhelmed by decision fatigue over what to read next, I read all of Trollope's Palliser novels downloaded free from--another commons--The Gutenberg Project.  All 6,000 pages. Although libraries were initially closed during the lockdown, they've been creative.  The Saskatchewan library system "checked out" over 1,200,000 ebooks in 2020. In smaller communities where the library is too small to allow for social distancing, you could call ahead for an appointment with a librarian who would help you choose books.  If you tell the Regina Public Library what your favourite genre is, a librarian will pack a bag of books especially for you, and you can pick it up curbside.  

And then there were the truly heroic efforts.  The Spokane Public Library opened a temporary homeless shelter.  And the St. Louis and Columbus libraries provided free lunches for children when the schools closed.  The Miami-Dade Homework Help project linked 100 teachers with 800 students who needed help with their homework.  

Other moments when the commons stepped up?  When we closed streets for safer pedestrian traffic or to allow restaurants to extend their outdoor tables.  City infrastructure as a commons--sidewalks and parks--became essential to our mental health as we spent much more time walking this year. Nature, that greatest of all keepers of the commons, has been delighting us with birdsong and changes of seasons.  The vaccine is a commons--both something made collaboratively and something that has little meaning unless we all share it.  What I'm hoping is that this new ethos, this recognition that what we hold in common is truly valuable, will stay with us after the pandemic....well, it will never be "just a memory."  The world has been traumatized and shaken.  But if we're going to get through this, it will be by sharing our resources. 

Scientific collaboration on COVID-19 testing and vaccine

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