The Promise of the Commons. (Culture)

By Rowe, Jonathan | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

The Promise of the Commons. (Culture)

Rowe, Jonathan, Earth Island Journal

Words are a form of magic. They conjure thought out of the confusion of experience, and they form the lens through which we see the world. Politics is largely a contest over words--over a version of reality. Those whose words prevail, rule; and those who rule choose the words.

Nowhere is this more evident than in economics. Though couched in the trappings of science, economics is basically a word game. Define anything produced as a "good," and the debate is over before it starts. Who wouldn't want more "goods?" Define "growth" to mean simply an increase in monetary expenditure, and you can claim economic "progress" even if much of that expenditure results from "goods" that are not so good--the obesity and medical bills arising from junk food, for example.

Such words are tools of power. They drive thought towards predetermined ends. Where would the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal be without the term "market" to cast a devotional glow upon the most mundane commercial transaction? It would be left with just a welter of little issues to complain about--a tax matter over here, a trade or regulatory matter over there. These would be separate things, joined only by the fact of economic interest, which would be on the table for all to see.

The word "market," by contrast, invests these little money issues with a cosmic significance. It turns the mundane acts of selling and getting into a cosmology, and greed into the engine of a divine plan. The Wall Street Journal editorial writers do not have to articulate this, of course. The agenda is embedded in the word, which turns one facet of human experience into a summation of all existence. Within the cosmology of the market there is little room or justification for anything that is not the market. As in language, so in life. In the beginning was the word, indeed.

It was a great achievement of the environmental movement to open a crack in the cosmology. The concerns that came together in the movement existed long before the movement itself: "Resource conservation, wilderness preservation, public health reform, population control, ecology, energy conservation, anti-pollution regulation, and occupational health campaigns," as Mark Dowie recounts them in his book, Losing Ground. But these were enclaves within the old gestalt; and most public health workers, say, did not see themselves as part of a movement that included hunters and fishing people as well.

Then Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, and the many became one. They were now aspects of the environment, a realm of reality and value that ties outside the market and that the market is not automatically entitled to claim or degrade. The word invested the smallest parts with the significance of the whole, much as the term "market" had done for business. Smog no longer was just smog; snail darters no longer were just little fish. They now were parts of larger system, in which the health of the whole was bound up with the health of the smallest parts.

For millions, the term "environment" provided a link between their intuitive concerns about the world and a larger and potentially political whole. It gave the concerns a name, and therefore a reality; and this galvanized a movement that changed the nation's political map. Now however, the movement is stalled and on the defensive. The signal triumph of the year--the defeat of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--was a defensive victory, and rested on a slim majority in the US Senate. (See page 20.)

Given the forces arrayed against the environment, this is not surprising. It hasn't helped that the movement has become so institutionalized and centered in Washington. But there's a problem also with the word. The "environment" suggests something at the edges of daily experience rather than central to it. In reality, of course; nothing is more central than air, water, and the rest. But the impression lingers. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Promise of the Commons. (Culture)


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.