The Buffalo Commons: The Social Life of a Metaphor
One of my working hypotheses has been that commons discourse has great power because it is able to function as an open platform. It is both general and specific. I frequently compare the commons to DNA because both are under-specified design structures that evolve and adapt in relationship to local circumstances. A certain ambiguity and incompleteness in the language of the commons is precisely what enables people to infuse it with their own specific values, needs and aspirations. And this is what makes the commons both universally appealing and particular in its manifestations.
Now I have found a wonderful confirmation of my hypothesis in the history of the Buffalo Commons. In 1987, Frank J. Popper and Deborah Popper, husband-and-wife geographers, wrote an essay that argued that some 139,000 square miles of the Great Plains -- the drier parts extending across ten Western and Midwest states – should become a vast nature preserve. They dubbed their idea the Buffalo Commons, believing that reintroducing the American bison, popularly known as buffalo, could symbolize their vision for the region’s restoration and conservation in ways compatible with human needs.
The Poppers noted that the Great Plains had gone through several major boom and bust periods in American history, in which economic growth resulted in overgrazing, overplowing and excessive water use, which then resulted in busts as people migrated elsewhere, as they did during the Dust Bowl crises of the 1930s. The Poppers proposed that some 10 to 20 million acres of land should be allowed to return to its native vegetation, especially native prairie grasses, and that farming and ranching should be gradually phased out. Writing in 1987, during yet the third major “bust” phase in the Great Plains, the Poppers realized that neither large-scale government intervention (dams, irrigation projects, etc.) nor conventional economic development (farming, ranching, mining) were sustainable. Hence the idea of the commons -- a collaborative plan that might emerge from people themselves.
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