Protecting The Commons

Protecting the commons

“The commons” are the natural and cultural resources, ranging from land to knowledge, that should be accessible to all members of society. Under intense social evolutionary pressure, however, we need to be vigilant that these commons are protected and secured for the good of all.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “common”? Is it a community of Wombles or perhaps a bucolic English village green? Or is it a traditional way of sharing or allocating resources that predates the modern market economy? Despite rarely receiving attention in the media and academia, the commons is important in building mutually beneficial rather than hierarchical social structures. The origin of the noun “common” dates to around 1300 CE and means a fellowship or brotherhood.

Western cultures have been moulded into seeing the world through a lens of private ownership, and this has certainly been good for national economies. However, when access to some resources is shared rather than privately controlled, society as a whole tends to benefit, and this avoids inefficient use of resources and space.

The commons takes in a diverse range of environments, including urban parks, plazas and roads. In nature, it extends to rivers, beaches and oceans, especially areas outside of national territorial waters. Clean air, clean water, libraries and technology can be considered commons too.
Collectively managed land

In many countries, common land is used as means of subsistence, and sometimes also for earning an income. Frequently this involves community forestry. Such jointly managed forests exist in Nepal, Indonesia, South Korea, Brazil and India, among other countries. Two major goals of community forests are to protect forests and to relieve poverty among nearby communities. They are often used for firewood, animal fodder, sustainable logging, nuts and mushrooms. Rather than being a legacy from the past, in recent decades they have been evolving and developing, especially in Nepal, where government control over the forests was decentralised in the 1990s. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in 2016 that nearly a third of the world’s forests were managed under a kind of community-based arrangement.

Indigenous groups are important examples of functioning commons-oriented societies that typically use a system of collective land ownership. The proportion of similarly run “customary” land is particularly high across the South Pacific region, reaching 97 per cent in Papua New Guinea. The land-governance network International Land Coalition estimates that 2.5 billion people manage and rely on over 50 per cent of the world’s land, but only 20 per cent of this is secured, leading to a risk of “land grabs” in the other 30 per cent.

A community land trust (CLT) is a type of collective land ownership structure that helpfully pushes down the cost of building or buying a new home. Under the traditional CLT model, the owner pays for the house, while the CLT administration retains ownership of the land on which it stands. This type of legal structure is common in the UK, and in the United States where it has been successfully used to regenerate areas of urban blight, among other purposes. Rather than handing development of an area to developers and the logic of the market, a CLT enables the community to steer the development of an area in a direction that it collectively decides.

Collective ownership has been utilised in some unconventional circumstances. Fordhall Organic Farm in the British county of Shropshire had been tenanted, but not owned, by the same family for centuries. In 2006, when its future was threatened by industrial development, a pair of siblings launched an urgent fundraising drive. This resulted in contributions from 8000 member-owners, and the farm was saved.

Enclosing the commons

In the Middle Ages, rural districts of Europe were often characterised by an “open field” system of agriculture, where each village would be self-sufficient. A peasant would typically farm several long and narrow strips of land. Starting in the 12th century and continuing up to the end of the 19th century, England saw a process of enclosure where peasants were evicted from common land for it to be seized and fenced by larger landholders. Where commoners were provided with alternative land as compensation, this was typically smaller and of poorer quality.

Underlying this trend was the boosting of yields via agricultural modernisation and intensification, a push for economic development and the commodification of land within a capitalist system. Some of the effects of enclosure were captured in Oliver Goldsmith’s moving 1770 poem The Deserted Village. Later forced enclosure acts in the early 19th century coincided with the trend towards industrialisation and resulted in a ready supply of cheap labour in fast-growing industrial urban centres.

On the European continent, enclosure occurred in some countries, but later, in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Switzerland and the southwest of Germany, some areas of the commons were never enclosed, and today Switzerland retains well-functioning areas of grazing commons.

The right to roam

Access to the countryside is a variation on the theme of the commons. In the UK, this occurs via an extensive network of public footpaths crossing private land. Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland have “right to roam” laws that allow a reasonably unrestricted access to nature, and several other European countries have a more conditional right to roam. Under these rules, people are permitted to walk on and camp on private land, within a few guidelines. This effectively turns private ownership into a type of commons.

Such a concept has a tendency to appear outlandish in countries with the strongest private property cultures, such as Australia and the US, where it may arouse hostile reactions due to an association with illegal trespassing. What both countries share are colonial histories that never embraced a concept of the commons, unlike the indigenous cultures that preceded them.

Libraries as commons

Public libraries, and the books, media and other resources they contain, are an important part of the commons. However, they are under threat, particularly in countries such as the UK. Many have been closed there, while others have had their hours reduced, as part of an “austerity” agenda pursued by Britain’s Conservative government. This threat to the UK’s access to a knowledge commons has been rejected by local communities, which in some cases have been successful in stopping the closures.

A variation on book-lending libraries are libraries of stuff that lend out a range of items at a modest cost, as an alternative to ownership. This works well for people in tiny houses or small apartments who lack storage space. In Australia, libraries of stuff are running in various places including Melbourne and the Wollongong area. Similar are community tool libraries that avoid the need for ownership of expensive power tools that are rarely used. Such facilities are found in Australia, in Brisbane and Melbourne, and in New Zealand, in Auckland and New Plymouth.

Collaboration, knowledge and technology

Less often considered when defining the commons is the role of collaboration, crowdsourcing and open-sourcing, often in the field of technology. Participants contribute their skills, effort and time, only receiving in return a buzz from being part of a large and engaging project. Some examples in this area include:

  • Open-source software, such as Linux, LibreOffice, VLC Media Player and GIMP.
  • The Wiki movement, usually involving the collaborative creation and editing of text. Wikipedia is obviously the most well known, and has been joined by Wikileaks, Wikispooks and many others. Wikimedia Commons is a library of free-to-use multimedia resources.
    Creative Commons is an anti-copyright licensing system that allows material to be reproduced elsewhere, with attribution. Anyone can attach a licence of this kind to their work.
  • Patentleft is a system of licensing patents for royalty-free use, under the condition that the adopter licenses any improvements they make in a similar fashion. Its goal is to create a technology commons.
  • Farm Hack involves the open-source design and modification of various types of farm equipment.
  • Cosmo-local production is a buzzword for a type of open-source design crowdsourced from people around the world. This has been used to design electronics (Arduino), video animations (Blender), cars (WikiSpeed), houses (WikiHouse) and furniture (Opendesk).

Public versus private

Inevitably the commons are at odds with the private realm, and a continuous tension exists between the two poles. In modern capitalist societies, some commons are under threat as never before, while digital technology is opening up new dimensions of commons that previously never existed.

Among those investigating the commons, one significant figure is the American activist David Bollier, author of the book Patterns of Commoning. He asserts that mainstream politics and economics generally fail to recognise the role of the commons and choose to allocate value to privately owned resources alone. Commons are severed from their ecological context when they are reinvented under the logic of the market, and commodified so that their value is measured in dollars. Bollier regards the commons as “relational” and the marketplace as “transactional”.

These dynamics are on display when it comes to modern land grabs in which land is seized from peasants or indigenous people for profit-making purposes, along the lines of past enclosures. Sometimes an organised movement is working to reverse this, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil, which originated in the 1980s. The MST’s strategy was to occupy and farm unused tracts of land. It is still active today, and has 1.5 million members.

In Australia, one long-standing tussle between public and private benefit involves the Murray–Darling Basin. This huge river system is subject to an ongoing water conflict between large farming concerns growing crops such as cotton, citrus or almonds on one hand, and the needs of the river’s ecological health, downstream towns and smaller farmers on the other. The commercial water trading market for Murray–Darling water is far removed from how the river network would be managed if it were treated as a commons.

Seeds are an important commons, but their exchange and use is threatened by the incursion of intellectual property. While both hybrid and genetically modified varieties are generally patented, open-pollinated seeds are not. Despite this, seed-swapping is illegal in about half of the states in the US.

A further area of controversy in the commons involves patents on life. Often referred to as biopiracy, this is sometimes also known under kinder term of bioprospecting. In the worst cases, biopiracy involves claiming ownership over species used by indigenous people, without any authorisation and without offering remuneration. In 1994, the US agribusiness giant WR Grace was granted a European patent over the neem tree, native to India. Following lobbying by activists, this patent was revoked a few years later.

The fake tragedy of the commons

A term that often comes up is the “tragedy of the commons”. This dates back to the 18th century but was popularised by biologist Garrett Harding with a 1968 study in the journal Science. Behind this perspective was the idea that when people have access to a common resource, they tend to overuse it, and it is often used up or destroyed. Harding gave the example of a common pasture where farmers can graze sheep and imagined a scenario where each farmer grazes as many as they can. However, this was based on speculation rather than actual observation of common land usage. It describes a free-for-all that has more in common with the competitiveness of capitalism rather than a commons arrangement.

When formulating the tragedy of the commons, Harding omitted to consider several added ingredients found in nearly all commons arrangements.

These include a sense of community, rules, an administrative structure and the ability to weigh up long-term self-interest ahead of short-term priorities. Harding’s theory was later used by free-market forces to denigrate the concept of the commons and shore up an argument for the necessity of private property. To a degree, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Harding later radically modified his views, and in the 1990s he wrote a follow-up called The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons. Parallel with this, US political economist Elinor Ostrom presented a favourable perspective in 1990, with the publication of her book Governing the Commons. She was able to give many examples of properly functioning commons arrangements from around the world, and in 2009 won the Nobel Prize for Economics for this work.

From an environmental perspective, the commons is needed more than ever, and community management of a resource tends to result in wiser and more considered outcomes. In terms of the health of society, cooperation, and collaboration result in a stronger community. It is time to consider the role that the commons could play into the future.

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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