In 1968, Garrett Hardin wrote an often cited paper for Science magazine, called “The Tragedy of the Commons”. He claimed that any common property “remorselessly generates tragedy” since it’s to the advantage of each individual to use as much of this common thing that they share (called by those who deal with this stuff, “The Commons”) and thus deplete it to the point no one could use it. While this might make some theoretical sense, many writers since (most notably Elinor Ostrum--who I talked about in my post on Original Virtue, 9/14/08) have pointed out that tribal societies have managed the commons without difficulty for generations and generations.
The book, Whose Common Future? by the staff of the magazine The Ecologist (subtitle “Reclaiming the Commons”), is an in depth look at the use and misuse of the commons. They begin by citing several examples from around the world where local folks carefully manage their common assets. They point out that tribes, neighborhoods, and societies have developed checks and balances so that no one takes a lot more than their share and resources are sustained rather than depleted.
Then they look at the enclosure movement, which was the end of common property and the beginning of almost all property being private. (For more on this see my post on Land, 5/28/09, where I reference Whose Common Future?) The book goes into great detail about globalization and privatization, how power elites want to manage the commons and profit from it.
In their final chapter, called “Reclaiming the Commons”, the writers return to examples of how people can take back common resources and how they can collectively manage it. They finish with “A Concluding Remark” where they are careful point out that they have no policy recommendations. First, because policy recommendations assume that there’s some policy-makers that they want to appeal to, which is once again giving power to the elites. And, most importantly, it implies that there are global, overall solutions where their point is that the commons need to be managed by local communities and in each case, the community itself will find a way that works for that specific community. Local solutions are diverse solutions.
Quote of the Day: “One cannot legislate the commons into existence; nor can the commons be reclaimed simply by adopting ‘green techniques’ such as organic agriculture, alternative energy strategies or better public transport--necessary and desirable though such strategies often are. Rather, commons regimes emerge through ordinary people’s day-to-day resistance to enclosure, and their efforts to regain the mutual support, responsibility and trust that sustain the commons.” - The Ecologist