What are the Commons?

In a few posts we’ve mentioned the idea of “the commons,” but what are commons, exactly? At Shareable, they have a nice short explainer of the concept and its history.

Most people who have not taken a specific interest in the commons have likely come into contact with them through public spaces in a city, urban gardening plots, and of course Wikipedia. Although most of us don’t necessarily realise that’s what they are and don’t spend much time considering what that implies. Breathable air is another form of commons we’ve grown more aware of with pollution and of course COVID and protecting that shared air by using masks.

Most commons “comprise a resource, a community, and a set of social protocols. The three are an integrated, interdependent whole.” And the “key questions are whether a particular community is motivated to manage a resource as a commons, and if it can come up with the rules, norms, and sanctions to make the system work.” With the pre-eminence of markets in our lives, we often lack awareness of the possibility, and motivation to participate.

[Historically,] people in rural areas depended upon open access to the commons (forests, fields, meadows), using economic principles of reciprocity and redistribution. When common grounds were enclosed and privatized, many migrated to cities, becoming employees in factories and individual consumers, and lost the common identity and ability of self-governance.”

Not only is the market economy already making us forget the existence and strength of commons, their influence still grows and encapsulates more and more of our lives. If you live in a large city, many places have fewer and fewer truly public spaces, many of them might look like they are, for example, a plaza with benches in front of a skyscraper. But often today, those are actually the property of the building’s owner, not public space.

All over the world, all aspects of life are being monetized with the expansion of private property rights: water, seeds, biodiversity, the human genome, public infrastructures, public spaces in cities, culture, and knowledge.

This is why it’s important to rediscover the concept and spend some time thinking of commons in the past, and how some market and monetization mechanisms might be replaced by common resources instead.

The commons offers a powerful way to re-conceptualize governments, economics, and global policies at a time when the existing order is incapable of reforming itself. The most urgent task is to expand the conversation about the commons and to ground it in actual practice.

Lastly, the explainer above was used a bit as an excuse, not only to read up on the concept but also to debunk the idea of “the tragedy of the commons.” A lot of people, including many politicians sadly, believe that it’s the destiny of a commons to be over-exploited and to tragically disappear. That’s a myth, debunked a number of times over the years. Here are two good pieces at Aeon, to get you started.

The tragedy of the commons is a false and dangerous myth.

The features of successful systems, Ostrom and her colleagues found, include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions.

The challenge of reclaiming the commons from capitalism.

This loss is rooted, in large part, in the tragedy of the private – this notion that moved, in short order, from curious idea to ideology to global economic system. It claimed selfishness, greed and private property as the real seeds of progress. Indeed, the mistaken concept many readers have likely heard under the name ‘the tragedy of the commons’ has its origins in the sophomoric assumption that private interest is the naturally predominant guide for human action. The real tragedy, however, lies not in the commons, but in the private. It is the private that produces violence, destruction and exclusion. Standing on its head thousands of years of cultural wisdom, the idea of the private variously separates, exploits and exhausts those living under its cold operating logic.

Image: Header photo of Ballard Sunday Farmers’ Market in Seattle, Washington, by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.