New topic – ‘commoning’ – and why ‘the Tragedy of the Commons’ is wrong

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Posted Dec 1 2019 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
The tragedy of the commons

At university, back in the 80s, we were taught about ‘the Tragedy of the Commons’ – an essay by Garrett Hardin, about how common resources are always abused, because humans are basically selfish. It seemed plausible at the time, but has since been shown to be false. Hardin’s position was that if there’s a ‘common’ that all villagers are allowed to graze their animals on, everyone will assume that everyone else will always try to add one extra animal, and so they will do it too. That will mean that the grassland will be eroded and become useless. This is the ‘tragedy’ that will befall all attempts to hold resources in common.

It seemed like common sense back then, but later, I realised that there have been ‘commons’ for as long as there have been people, and I researched modern commons to see how they work. I found that there are Alpine grazing commons in Switzerland that have been kept in pristine condition for hundreds of years. There are plenty of other examples, including fisheries, forests and irrigation systems.

In fact, the work of Elinor Ostrom has superceded that of Hardin, who, it turns out, was coming from a not-too-healthy extreme right ideological position (which they never mentioned at uni). Ostrom’s research showed that a ‘commons’ is not just the resource. A commons is a) the resource, b) the commoners, and c) the rules about how to use the resource, produced democratically by the commoners. Without rules for use, it’s not a commons – it’s just a free-for-all.

Later still, I read about the historical enclosures of common land, in the superb ‘Land Magazine’ to which I subscribe. That seemed like the real tragedy to me. Peasants were evicted from common land all over the country by wealthy landowners who had realised that there was profit to be had from running their own sheep on land that had been used by ‘commoners’ for centuries. This was around the same time that capitalism was emerging from feudalism, and so the evicted commoners were forced into city slums to work in the new factories, or emigrated, to become part of the exodus from Europe enclosing land that had been held in common by indigenous people all over the world for thousands of years.

So, as you know, Lowimpact.org is involved in the creation of a mutual credit network for the UK – the Open Credit Network (OCN). The UK network will be part of a global network – the ‘Credit Commons’. After a public meeting about the OCN, I was approached by Mike Hales, who suggested that what we were building is not a commons, but a co-op. Sure, the Open Credit Network is a co-op, but if a global Credit Commons can be built, it will be the credit that is held in common. The credit is the resource, the users of the global mutual credit scheme will be the commoners, and the rules will be outlined clearly for all commoners, who will be co-owners of a democratic system.

I was impressed with Mike’s knowledge of the commons, and so I asked if I could interview him for a new, ‘commoning’ topic on Lowimpact.org. I visited him in Brighton, and spent a very interesting afternoon over a couple of beers, discussing the subject – the most complex topic on Lowimpact.org to date. Mike explained that the topic should be called ‘commoning’, because ‘it’s more of a verb, an attitude, a practice, a way of living rather than a ‘natural thing’, ‘out-there’.

Mike confirmed the ‘the Tragedy of the Commons’ was not about commons. And here’s Elinor Ostrom explaining the same thing.

Elinor Ostrom explains why ‘the Tragedy of the Commons’ is a myth.

He also outlined the different types of commons, and what is and what isn’t commoning – something that had been puzzling me for some time. He described three main categories of commoning – natural infrastructure, economic infrastrucure and cultural ‘superstructure’. We discussed wikis (including wikipedia), indigenous people’s land, community land trusts, Makerspaces and Fablabs, Linux / free & open source operating systems and software, plus various kinds of peer-to-peer production.

All of the above help to keep wealth in the communities where it is generated. So it is extremely annoying to find that companies like Airbnb, Uber and TaskRabbit call themselves the ‘sharing economy’, when they are anything but. These companies do the exact opposite of commoning – i.e. they extract wealth from communities all over the world and concentrate it in very few hands.

But commoning not only keeps wealth within communities, it brings local people together to discuss / negotiate the terms of their local commons, and so it helps to build community too – and community is essential for human well-being.

Natural resources can be protected by local commoning. This is why I find the arguments of some ‘environmentalists’ in favour of nuclear power and genetic modification so worrying. These technologies are only necessary if we accept the premise that the economy has to grow forever, and that can’t be sustained by renewable energy and organic smallholdings. But worse than that, they can never be commoned. The technology is owned by the corporate sector, and geared towards concentrating wealth in the hands of their major shareholders.

Commoning is beneficial for nature, for communities and for individuals.

We need to beware of a new wave of enclosures – of digital commons. For example, GitHub was a platform for peer-to-peer production of free / open source software. 24 million coders worldwide could collaborate on open software projects. In 2018, it was bought by Microsoft, who now extract value from the data generated by its users, following Facebook, Google, Amazon et al. Gitlab, SourceForge and Bitbucket are being developed in the non-corporate arena. Let’s hope they supercede GitHub in the same way that Libre Office (genuinely free / open source) superceded Open Office (bought by Oracle).

Mike decided that he didn’t know enough about wikis to give too much information about them. But he introduced me to Simon Grant of Cetis LLP, who studied physics and philosophy at Oxford, and now looks after the P2P Foundation Wiki. I’ve since interviewed him about the potential for wikis to build information commons. This will be our next new topic.

Simon expressed an interest in helping us turn the Lowimpact topics into a wiki. We’re very keen to do this, and we’ll be blogging about it as and when it happens.

Here’s our new commoning topic.


Dave DarbyAbout the author

Dave Darby lived at Redfield community from 1996 to 2009. Working on development projects in Romania, he realised they saw Western countries as role models, so decided to try to bring about change in the UK instead. He founded Lowimpact.org in 2001, spent 3 years on the board of the Ecological Land Co-op and was a founder of NonCorporate.org. and the Open Credit Network.