The Commons

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The Challenge of Acting for the Commons


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The Question of the 'Tragedy of the Commons'

Via Aeon

By Michelle Nijhuis, Project editor at The Atlantic and author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction (2021)

May 2021

In December 1968, the ecologist and biologist Garrett Hardin had an essay published in the journal Science called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. His proposition was simple and unsparing: humans, when left to their own devices, compete with one another for resources until the resources run out. ‘Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest,’ he wrote. ‘Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.’ Hardin’s argument made intuitive sense, and provided a temptingly simple explanation for catastrophes of all kinds – traffic jams, dirty public toilets, species extinction. His essay, widely read and accepted, would become one of the most-cited scientific papers of all time.

Even before Hardin’s ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ was published, however, the young political scientist Elinor Ostrom had proven him wrong....

Community-based conservation can’t solve everything, and it doesn’t always succeed in protecting the commons. In many cases, national governments don’t recognise the longstanding land claims of Indigenous and other rural communities, creating uncertainty that interferes with community efforts to manage for the long term. Even well-established systems are vulnerable to internal conflict, and to external pressures ranging from drought to war to global market forces. As Ostrom often reminds... any strategy can succeed or fail.

Community-based conservation is distinctive because many societies have only begun to understand – or remember – its potential. "What we have ignored is what citizens can do."

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Reclaiming the Commons

The silent theft of our shared assets and civic inheritance need not continue

By David Bollier / Boston Review / Economics After Neoliberalism

GreenPolicy360 Siterunner: This is an extended, thoughtful reflection on 'the Commons' and 'Commonwealth'. Well worth reading and sharing...

One of the great questions of contemporary American political economy is, who shall control the commons? "The commons" refers to that vast range of resources that the American people collectively own, but which are rapidly being enclosed: privatized, traded in the market, and abused...

One of the great questions of contemporary American political economy is, who shall control the commons? "The commons" refers to that vast range of resources that the American people collectively own, but which are rapidly being enclosed: privatized, traded in the market, and abused...

Varieties of Commons

The American commons comprises a wide range of shared assets and forms of community governance. Some are tangible, while others are more abstract, political, and cultural. The tangible assets of the commons include the vast quantities of oil, minerals, timber, grasslands, and other natural resources on public lands, as well as the broadcast airwaves and such public facilities as parks, stadiums, and civic institutions. The government is the trustee and steward of such resources, but "the people" are the real owners.

The commons also consists of intangible assets that are not as readily identified as belonging to the public. Such commons include the creative works and public knowledge not privatized under copyright law. This large expanse of cultural resources is sometimes known as the public domain or—as electronic networking increases its scope and intensity—"the information commons." In addition, our society has dozens of "cultural spaces" provided by communications media, public education, and nonprofit institutions. Another large realm of intangible assets consists of scientific and academic research, much of which is supported by the public through government funding. The character of these spaces changes dramatically when they are governed as markets rather than as commons.

No less important and vulnerable are what might be termed the "frontier commons": features of the natural world that have historically been too large, too small, or too elusive for any market regime to capture and that have often been regarded as parts of a common human heritage. Yet entrepreneurs and corporations are now developing ingenious ways to turn these natural commons into exploitable property. Several multinational companies are, for example, seeking to transport huge supplies of freshwater in Northern countries to "thirsty" regions in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and southern California. Biotech companies are trying to gain proprietary control over agricultural seed-lines that have long been regarded as community assets—for example, by seeking patents for a common yellow bean grown widely in Mexico, as well as for basmati rice and neem plants in India. The human genome is a target of property claims and landowners fighting environmental regulations insist that they "own" wildlife and that the regulations amount to an unconstitutional "taking" by government.

A last category of threatened commons is that of so-called "gift economies." These are communities of shared values in which participants freely contribute time, energy, or property and over time receive benefits from membership in the community. The global corps of GNU/Linux software programmers is a prime example: enthusiasts volunteer their talents and in return receive useful rewards and group esteem For the most part, no money changes hands, yet economically valuable work occurs. Gift economies are the animating force behind scientific research communities, blood donation systems, New York City's community gardens, and Alcoholics Anonymous.

What unites these highly disparate commons—from natural resources to public domain to gift economies—is their legal and moral ownership by the American people. The commons comprises not just marketable assets, but social institutions and cultural traditions that help define our common life as Americans. In virtually every case, the market price for a resource does not begin to capture its actual value to the larger community. But generally we have no rigorous way to speak about such shared assets, or about the costs of enclosing them.

Learning to see the Commons

In an age of market triumphalism and economic myopia, it is an open question whether the notion of "commonwealth"—that we are a people with shared history, common values, and control over collectively owned assets—has practical meaning. As private interests have quietly seized the American commons, we have lost sight of our heritage as a democratic commonwealth. A society in which every human transaction is increasingly mediated by the market, in which everything is privately owned and controlled, may come to resemble a network of medieval fiefdoms, in which every minor property-holder demands tribute for the right to cross his land or ford his streams. This balkanization is bound to impede the flow of commerce and ideas—and the sustainability of innovation and democratic culture...

Read the full article


Katharine Heyhoe:

At its core, climate change is a 'Tragedy of the Commons'. First coined by Garrett Hardin in 1968, based on an 1833 publication by William Forster Lloyd, this concept dates back to the time when villages shared a common grazing area. Each individual villager would benefit from grazing as many animals as they could on the commons. If everyone did that, though, the land would become dry and barren and no one would be able to graze. As individuals, villagers lacked the incentive to limit their own behavior for the common good. Only by acting together was it possible to preserve this shared resource.

In the same way, our planet is now our global commons. Whenever we dig coal, oil, or natural gas out of the ground and burn it, we release that carbon into the atmosphere—carbon that would not naturally reach the atmosphere for millions of years.

Climate, Politics and Religion / Professor K. Hayhoe / Texas Tech / 'My opinion' - 2015



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SJS/GreenPolicy360 Siterunner: For over fifty years, since the mid-1960s, your GreenPolicy founder has worked for environmental protections, sometimes successfully, often hopeful, and too often frustrated by the difficulties in building a green 'eco-nomics' and movement to make a positive difference.

Today, as I write this, I can see hope across the world, even as global challenges to all, now recognized as existential, grow large and imminent. The dangers to the Commons are real. Still we carry on...

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