Quantcast
Business

Rebuilding the Commons

How can we renew and rebuild our collaborative commons? Omega’s Where We Go From Here conference explores this age-old foundation of our society. But first, what exactly does “the commons” mean?

“The commons” is a phrase that generally refers to an asset that anyone can access and use without being stopped by someone else.

Jay Walljasper, author of All That We Shareexplains that these assets belong to everyone. “Some are bestowed to us by nature. Others are the product of cooperative human creativity. Anyone can use the commons, so long as there is enough left for everyone else.”

Traditional examples of commons include grazing lands, fisheries, forests, traditional medicinal and agricultural knowledge and practices, plus traditional dance, songs, crafts and artistic motifs. Modern examples include open source software (like Linux and Mozilla Firefox), and licensing systems for creative works (like the one started by the nonprofit Creative Commons).

But the phrase “the commons” doesn’t just refer to a particular resource, explains David Bollier, cofounder of the Commons Strategy Group and a speaker at the Where We Go From Here conference. The commons “is a resource plus a defined community, and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.”

In other words, the commons also includes the relationship that a group of people has with the resource, including how they manage it.

According to Bollier, “A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with a special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability.”

The Commons Are Inclusive

Classically, commons have been small-scale and focused on natural resources, says Bollier. “But the contemporary struggle of commoners [those trying to identify and create new commons] is to find new structures of law, institutional form, and social practice that can enable diverse sorts of commons to work at larger scales and to protect their resources from market enclosure.”

Market enclosure is when a resource is available only to those who have privileged access to it, often at a cost. A classic example of market enclosure is fencing off public land for grazing animals. More modern examples include patenting genes, excessive use of copyrights, privatizing water supplies, restricting access to the fastest Internet speeds and attempting to copyright yoga postures or patent traditional herbal remedies.

Read page 1

Bollier says, “Enclosure is about dispossession. It privatizes and commodifies resources that belong to a community or to everyone, and dismantles a commons-based culture (egalitarian coproduction and cogovernance) with a market order (money-based producer/consumer relationships and hierarchies). Markets tend to have thin commitments to localities, cultures and ways of life; for any commons, however, these are indispensable.”

The Economics of the Commons

The standard economic argument in the past half century in favor of enclosure is based on the theory of the “tragedy of the commons,” the concept that if access is freely available to everyone who wants it, people will inevitably try to maximize their personal benefit and deplete the resource in the process.

The argument relies on the assumption that each person will act selfishly, without regard to the people around them.

But Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom has demonstrated this is not historically the case.

In her 1990 book, Governing the Commons, Ostrom observes, “Communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time.”

Ostrom cites examples where community-level agreements successfully managed commonly-held resources in a number of countries, including Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, United States and Switzerland.

She also observed eight characteristics shared by societies who have successfully managed the commons:

1) Group boundaries are clearly defined

2) Rules governing use are in line with local needs and conditions

3) Those people affected by the rules can modify them

4) Outside authorities respect the rights of community members to make rules

5) Monitoring is carried out by community members

6) Sanctions for violations are graduated

7) Dispute resolution is both accessible and affordable

8) Responsibility for governing the resource is in nested tiers from the lowest levels to the whole

History has given us successful models. Now it’s our turn to discover the best ways to continue this tradition into the 21st century.

Join us at the Omega Institute, Oct. 24-26 for Where We Go From Here. We’ll be discussing how we can take principles of the commons, renewing this heritage and apply it to building a sustainable, regenerative society. Speakers include: Vandana Shiva, Van Jones, Jeremy Rifkin, Winona LaDuke, Bill McKibben, David Bollier, and more.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Renewable Energy
A prototype of GE's massive new wind turbine will be installed in the industrial area of Maasvlakte 2 in Rotterdam. GE Renewable Energy

World's Largest Wind Turbine to Test Its Wings in Rotterdam

Rotterdam's skyline will soon feature the world's largest and most powerful offshore wind turbine.

GE Renewable Energy announced on Wednesday it will install the first 12-megawatt Haliade-X prototype in the Dutch city this summer. Although it's an offshore wind turbine by design, the prototype will be installed onshore to facilitate access for testing.

Keep reading... Show less
Insights/Opinion
Colorful, fresh organic vegetables. fcafotodigital / Getty Images

A New Diet for the Planet

By Tim Radford

An international panel of health scientists and climate researchers has prescribed a new diet for the planet: more vegetables, less meat, fresh fruit, whole grains and pulses, give up sugar, waste less and keep counting the calories.

And if 200 nations accept the diagnosis and follow doctor's orders, tomorrow's farmers may be able to feed 10 billion people comfortably by 2050, help contain climate change, and prevent 11 million premature deaths per year.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Children's books about the environment. U.S. Air Force photo / Karen Abeyasekere

This State Might Require Public Schools to Teach Climate Change

Reading, writing, arithmetic ... and climate science. That doesn't have the same ring as the "three Rs" of education, but Connecticut could one day require the subject to be on the curriculum, The Associated Press reported.

A Connecticut state lawmaker is pushing a bill to mandate the teaching of climate change in public schools throughout the state, starting in elementary school.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
NASA's ICESCAPE mission investigates the changing conditions in the Arctic. NASA / Kathryn Hansen

These Eye-Opening Memes Show the Real 10-Year Challenge

Before-and-after photos of your friends have probably taken over your Facebook and Instagram feeds, but environmentalists are using the #10YearChallenge to insert a dose of truth.

Memes of shrinking glaciers, emaciated polar bears and coral bleaching certainly subvert the feel-good viral sensation, but these jarring images really show our planet in a worrying state of flux.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Vial containing swab from a deceased duck, collected for testing during the 2014-2015 avian influenza outbreak. © 2015 Erica Cirino, used with permission.

Could Trump’s Government Shutdown Cause Outbreaks of Wildlife Disease?

By Erica Cirino

The current U.S. government shutdown could worsen ongoing wildlife disease outbreaks or even delay responses to new epidemics, according to federal insiders and outside experts who work with federal wildlife employees.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Vegan raw cheese from cashew nuts. byheaven/ iStock / Getty Images

Vegan Cheese: What’s the Best Dairy-Free Option?

By Ansley Hill, RD, LD

Cheese is one of the most beloved dairy products across the globe. In the U.S. alone, each person consumes more than 38 pounds (17 kg) of cheese per year, on average (1).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Insights/Opinion
Sun setting behind the Fawley Oil Refinery in Fawley, England. Clive G' / CC BY-ND 2.0

Even Davos Elite Warns Humanity Is 'Sleepwalking Into Catastrophe'

By Jessica Corbett

Ahead of the World Economic Forum's (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland next week—which convenes the world's wealthiest and most powerful for a summit that's been called both the "money Oscars" and a "threat to democracy"—the group published a report declaring, "Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe."

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Robusta coffee beans growing on a tree. Dag Sundberg / Getty Images

60% of Wild Coffee Species at Risk for Extinction

If humans don't wake up now to the threats posed by climate change and habitat loss, we may be in for a permanently sleepy future. A study led by scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew found that 60 percent of wild coffee species are at risk for extinction.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!