Historical Commons

Together as One

The Commons is a very old way of people living on shared land, and being sustained by it.

The word ‘common’ means ‘together as one’: in this case, land together as one with the people sharing it.

It is a land relationship

It is a land relationship, though a regulated one. Historically, access to everything from the common pasture for summer grazing, to the forest for fuel, to strips of plowed field for growing grain was regulated by ‘stints’ or limits to keep the use of the land within its carrying capacity.

It was all about mutual sustainability, which is also what the Gabriola Commons is trying to revive.

It was a land-based way of life and a culture

It was a land-based way of life and a culture, giving people a sense of identify and belonging. The land relationship at its centre was both a birthright and a trust; a set of duties to the land and the community sharing it.

It was a covenanted relationship

It was a covenanted relationship, something the Gabriola Commons is also trying to revive, including with a unique Conservation Covenant centred on people’s responsible use of land, not keeping people off it.

The Commons predates private ownership of land and even feudalism

The Roman historian Tacitus, who lived in the 1st Century, wrote about commons he encountered on his travels to Britain, describing them as “chiefly democratic.” The array of regulations, and the appointed or elected field officers who enforced them, were referred to as “lex loci” or the law of the local place.

However, when commons began to be enclosed (from the late 16th. Century through to the 19th. Century), such local, orally based laws were dismissed as “legal nonsense.” In 1832, when “The Tragedy of the Commons” was first articulated, in a lecture at Oxford University, the restraining influence of these laws, and the ethos of collective responsibility to the land, was assumed away by the speaker: an amateur mathematician called William Forster Lloyd. He simply assumed that rational self-interested individuals would inevitably send too many animals to the common pasture, and inevitably –“tragically” — over graze it.

*Based on Heather Menzies’ research for Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good (2014).

The Gabriola Commons is part of a world-wide resurgence of the historical commons with its rich legacy of practices and solidarity with the living earth.

Be part of it by joining one of its self-governing teams, or becoming a donor.