Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The triumph of the commons

The idea of the 'tradegy of the commons' was originally coined back in 1968: 

The tragedy of the commons is a term, originally used by Garrett Hardin, to denote a situation where individuals acting independently and rationally according to each's self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting some common resource. The term is taken from the title of an article written by Hardin in 1968, which is in turn based upon an essay by a Victorian economist on the effects of unregulated grazing on common land.

"Commons" in this sense has come to mean such resources as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, the office refrigerator, energy or any other shared resource which is not formally regulated; not common land in its agricultural sense.

The idea is pretty much accepted:

- and is very current today:

However, it is an idea which was challenged by Nobel-Prize winning Elinor Olstrom:

Her seminal book ‘Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action’, was published in 1990; however, Elinor’s work on common property began in the 1960s. Her studies showed that “ordinary people are capable of creating rules and institutions that allow for the sustainable and equitable management of shared resources,” and resources held in the commons may reduce potential over-use or under-investment, and so enable sustainability. At the time of publication it debunked the conventional thinking that ‘common-pool’ finite resources required ‘top down’ regulation or private ownership to maximise their utility and prevent depletion. Elinor also created the International Association for the Study of the Commons.

Ostrom begins by noting the problem of natural resource depletion—what she calls “common pool resources”—and then goes on to survey three largely complementary (“closely related concepts”) major theories that attempt to explain “the many problems that individuals face when attempting to achieve collective benefits”: Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons,” the prisoner’s dilemma, and Olson’s “logic of collective action.”

Unfortunately, these models (or this model) ossified into a dogma, serving more often as a substitute for thought than a starting point. Even more than twenty years after Ostrom’s seminal work, it’s still common to state as a truism—backed only by a passing allusion to Hardin or the prisoner’s dilemma—that the actual users of resources will inevitably deplete them in the absence of governance by some higher authority or other. Ostrom cites one blithe assertion, in an article on fisheries in The Economist:
“left to their own devices, fishermen will overexploit stocks…. [T]o avoid disaster, managers must have effective hegemony over them.”

This last quote exemplifies perfectly the common approach to the governance of common pool resources taken by advocates both of state regulation and corporate privatization. Garrett Hardin himself, later revisiting his article on the tragedy of the commons, argued that the problem of resource depletion would have to be addressed either by “a private enterprise system” (i.e. ownership by for-profit business firms) or “socialism” (i.e. ownership and regulation by the state). The assumption that “private enterprise” and “socialism” both require managerial hierarchies of one sort or another, and are incompatible with horizontal, self-organized institutions, speaks volumes about the internalized values of the intellectual stratum in our society.

As commentators note, the epithet 'tragedy' is often an excuse to 'sort out' the commons:

'Green economy?' We're not green enough to buy it
KEVIN CARSON, Updated: May 7, 2013 at 04:52 PM

In last month's Rio +20 (UN Conference for Sustainable Development) declaration, "The Economy We Need," RIPESS (French acronym for Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social and Solidarity Economy) dismisses the "so-called green economy" model promulgated "by governments and corporations" with the contempt it deserves. About us | RIPESS - Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy 

There are at least two problems with the green economy movement. The first is highlighted in the RIPESS declaration: It is really a greenwashed attempt to create a new, greenwashed model of capital accumulation for global corporate capitalism, based on "the commodification of the commons." The network against financialisation of nature | Make Finance WorkTaking Action Against Carbon Trade: What the Clouds Say | Common DreamsBlue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water - Maude Barlow, Tony Clarke - Google 

Green (or Progressive, or Cognitive) Capitalism, like the first Industrial Revolution, is based on a large-scale process of primitive accumulation (a technical term Marxists use that means "massive robbery").

The primitive accumulation preceding the rise of the factory system in industrial Britain involved the enclosure of common lands: First of a major portion of the Open Fields for sheep pasturage over several centuries in late medieval and early modern times, then the Parliamentary Enclosures of common pasture, woodland and waste in the 18th century.

Stopping The Industrial Hydra: Revolution Against The Megamachine
George Bradford

Capitalism depends on the process of enclosure - put crudely, the way in which something is quantified as a finite commodity (eg.the introduction of the concept of ‘scarcity’ and the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’) and then privatised. The privatisation is then supposed to regulate a rational distribution and use of the thing in question, thereby preventing a ‘tragedy of the commons’ from developing. The new discipline of ‘environmental economics’ is a reframing of the environmental debate - it is an attempt to enclose environmentalism and its irksome thesis.

Stopping The Industrial Hydra: Revolution Against The MegamachineFutures Forum: Alternatives to asphalt for building roads ..... gravel, or ..... concrete, or ..... glass as solar panels
Futures Forum: Climate change: asphalt and urban heat islands

In opposition to Hardin's (1968) classic 'tragedy of the commons' thesis, which asserts that common pool resources will be inevitably degraded if left to their own devices and thus require 'either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise' (1998: 682) to be sustainably managed, CPR (common property regimes) research documents numerous situations in which individuals, under certain specified conditions, work collectively to manage common pool resources for the long-term benefit of the group (e.g., Feeny et al. 1990; Ostrom et al. 1999; Agrawal 2003; Neves-Graηa 2004). 

One important component of the CPR perspective is an explicit call for greater democracy and participation in resource governance regimes, which are often hampered by authoritarian top-down structures (Ostrom et al. 1999). Ostrom and colleagues contend, for instance, that achieving sustainable resource management on a global scale will require forms of communication, information, and trust that are broad and deep beyond precedent, but not beyond possibility. Protecting institutional diversity related to how diverse peoples cope with CPRs may be as important for our long-run survival as the protection of biological diversity (1999: 282).

In fact, the challenge to this notion of the commons being a 'tradegy' comes from both left and right:

Ralph Nader wants liberals to back Rand Paul. Don't do it.
A left-libertarian alliance would only hurt liberal goals
By Bill Scher | May 1, 2014

This week, Ralph Nader returned to the political stage with a new book, Unstoppable, whose triumphant subtitle is The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. To kick off his publicity tour, he has argued that liberals should "definitely" impeach President Barack Obama, abandon the "international militarist" Hillary Clinton, and instead embrace Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as a possible leader of his dream coalition.

To what end? In the book, Nader writes that by marrying the Left with the libertarian Right, we can cut off government support for corporations and have "honest government," "fair taxation," and "more opportunity." Nader sees relatively low-hanging fruit in opposing "sovereignty-shredding global trade agreements, Wall Street bailouts, the overweening expansion of Federal Reserve power, and the serious intrusions of the USA PATRIOT Act against freedom and privacy." He also articulates loftier, if not fully fleshed out, aspirations to "push for environmentalism," "reform health care," and "control more of the commons that we already own."

Ralph Nader wants liberals to back Rand Paul. Don't do it.
Futures Forum: Ralph Nader: UNSTOPPABLE
Futures Forum: Climate change: Ralph Nader and the 'Kingpins of Carbon'

Neighborhood Environmentalism: Protecting Biodiversity
Grant Mincy | June 1st, 2014

The environment, specifically climate change, is receiving some much deserved attention as of late.
. It is time to embrace neighborhood environmentalism and reclaim the commons.

“Growth at any cost” economics, the dogma of neo-liberalism and government institutions, utilizes precious landscapes and resources needed for ecological subsistence. Even programs that seek mechanisms for conservation, such as the United Nation’s REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), inadvertently promote the total exploitation of natural areas, simply because regulation diverts resource extraction to unprotected land/seascapes. The tropical forest conservation plan, known as REDD, has the potential to significantly reduce deforestation and carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. But unless projects are carefully designed and monitored, the program could be undercut by shady dealings at all levels, from the forests to global carbon markets. Will REDD Preserve Forests Or Merely Provide a Fig Leaf? by Fred Pearce: Yale Environment 360

Enclosure movements (acquisition of territories for the state or private capital) more often than not exploit natural landscapes. To the contrary, democratic management of natural areas has resulted in best sustainability practices.
The work of Nobel Prize recipient Elinor Ostrom demonstrates environmental protection increases with Common Pool Resource InstitutionsThe policy tools and processes for protecting common pool resources, such as fisheries, water, grazing lands, and forests, have been of interest to many policy scholars, particularly since the publication of Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article in Science outlining the “tragedy of the commons”.  In Hardin’s article, he foresaw the overuse and degradation of CPRs as a likely outcome of human use of these resources, particularly in light of the increasing demand for these resources under growing populations, unless policymakers intervene to regulate or privatize these resources.  Over twenty years later, Elinor Ostrom’s seminal book Governing the Commons (1990) brought together evidence from long enduring, locally managed, common pool resource settings from around the world to show that Hardin’s assumptions were, in many cases, off-base.  In fact, many communities that use common pool resources have been able to avert the “tragedy of the commons” and find ways to effectively self-govern these resources without intervention from external authorities or privatizing the commons.  Common Pool Resource Theory | Buechner Institute for Governance | University of Colorado Denver

Arun Agrawal, in his work Environmentality, notes sustainable forest policy emerged in the Kumoan region of the Himalayas as a result of decentralized, democratically controlled resource management. In our cities, the establishment of urban wilderness areas popping up around the globe, from the labor of civic sector institutions and private citizens, are protecting large expanses of forest and crucial habitat from economic exploitation – my favorite example hails from the Scruffy City of Knoxville, Tennessee, where over 1,000 acres of forested habitat has been preserved. Center for a Stateless Society » Managing the Anthropocene

There are many more examples of freed markets protecting wilderness and ecosystem services. This protection simultaneously provides ancillary benefits to all flora and fauna — including humans. Government institutions and concentrations of private capital are all too often hurdles to the implementation of policies that can ease the current biodiversity crisis. Neighborhood Power is the way of the future — conservation depends on it.

Center for a Stateless Society » Neighborhood Environmentalism: Protecting Biodiversity
Futures Forum: Neighborhood Environmentalism: protecting biodiversity ... ... and defining 'the environment'

Elinor Ostrom and the solution to the tragedy of the commons

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, England promulgated the Enclosure Acts, which were responsible for privatizing (and fencing in) the lands for grazing livestock, so that they could be devoted to intensive cultivation. Until that point, those lands were common and under-used, without an owner except the sovereign, in a purely formal sense, but freely accessible to anyone. The English shepherds, farmers, cultivators, and hunters who, until then, had freely used the commons for their livelihood were excluded or limited in access due to the enclosures and had to move with their families from the countryside into the cities.

This Great Transformation, as the socio-economist Karl Polanyi defined it, caused low-cost labor to be concentrated in places like the city, a precondition for exploiting the use of Watt’s steam engine and opening the English Industrial Revolution. In about the same years, with the promulgation of the Homestead Act, a similar process occurred in the U.S. at the expense of the Native Americans.

The privatization of land had the advantage of allowing for a more intensive use of resources and thus promoting the economic development of the West, but at the cost of shameful socio-hygienic conditions for most of the worker population that were only solved (at least partially) after many decades (or centuries) with the labor laws and a welfare state.

Around the same time, but in another place in the world, in Törbel, Switzerland, there was a substantially different definition of the law on land. The management of land was not assigned to either a private or a government entity, but belonged to a community of people that used it. This particular instance of “collective” institutions was stable and efficient for centuries in Törbel, showing that there may be a third way (and an efficient and effective one) that lies between the strictly state management of resources (like in England before the enclosures) and strictly private management (in England after the enclosures). This represents the greatest empirical and theoretical contribution of Elinor Ostrom.

Unfortunately, Elinor Ostrom, the first woman (and currently the only one!) to win the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2009, died on June 12 at age 78 from cancer. In April of 2012, Time magazine had named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She worked at the University of Indiana and headed the “Vincent and Elinor Ostrom” Research Center for political studies and analysis with her husband.

Her research concerned the governance of common resources (also known as commons). The commons are natural resources, like land for grazing, fishing areas, forests for timber, water for the irrigation of farmland, and also more intangible resources, like knowledge, for which it is very expensive to control and fence in “user” consumption. The problem with these types of resources, as shown in 1968 by Garrett Hardin (but Aristotle had already observed a similar phenomenon) is that they are over-exploited, or at least their care and sustainability is overlooked by users. The reason is that people behave opportunistically (like free-riders) and consider the resource they are accessing, without the possibility of being excluded, as a free resource, and they therefore maximize their private benefits but neglect, or collectivize, the costs.

Hardin coined the phrase “tragedy of the commons” to describe this phenomenon and gave social sciences one of the most evocative metaphors after Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. These two metaphors are effective because they capture two essential social situations in marked contrast to one another. When social interactions are guided by an invisible hand, they reconcile individual choice and socially desirable results, whereas in the tragedy of the commons, individuals pursuing their private objectives cause disastrous consequences for themselves and others. The solution to the tragedy of the commons, before the contribution of Ostrom and her studies, was to privatize resources or, in a diametrically opposite view, to form a Leviathan state in order to manage them.

Instead, Ostrom demonstrated that, within communities, rules and institutions of non-market and not resulting from public planning can emerge from the bottom up to ensure a sustainable, shared management of resources, as well as one that is efficient from an economical point of view. Besides the village of Törbel, Ostrom shows examples of common lands in the Japanese villages of Hirano and Nagaike, the huerta irrigation mechanism between Valencia, Murcia and Alicante in Spain, and the zanjera irrigation community in the Philippines. Also, the property in the form of “vicinale”, neighborhoods, typical of regions of Italy like Emilia, the Belluno and the Ticino, are also collective institutions, although not investigated by Ostrom. The argument then has a more modern example if one notices that even the “Wikipedia community” is a form of successful collective institution of a communal resource (knowledge).

In all these cases, the “institutional details” are essential. Starting from the theoretical contributions of Ronald Coase, Douglass North and Oliver Williamson, Ostrom isolates the main characteristics of local self-government. The first condition for the institutional basis of the success of these mechanisms is the clarity of the law (Who can do what? What can one not do? Who punishes whom? And how?). In addition to being clear, the rules must be shared by the community. This is why another essential element of self-government is the establishment of methods of collective and democratic decision-making, able to involve all users of the resource.

Furthermore, the mechanisms of conflict resolution must be local and public, so as to be accessible to all individuals of a community. Besides mechanisms of graduated sanctions, a mutual control of the resource among the users themselves must be established. This has a double merit. First, those interested in the proper management of the resource (the user) also have an incentive to check that management, and second, the users are also the subjects that have the best information on how the resource can be used in an inappropriate manner by the others. Finally, the rules, in addition to being clear, shared and made ​​effective by all users, must not conflict with higher levels of government.

With this last condition, it is clear that the great dichotomy of state and market is partial and too narrow, and therefore destined to crumble in theory (Ostrom writes in her Governing the Commons). More correctly (as the title of the Ostrom’s Nobel Lecture “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems” reminds us) one must take into account the fact that, in reality, multiple and complementary (and not strictly alternate) levels of “governance” of the same resource emerge and can coexist. As Ostrom stated, the term polycentrism indicates a plurality of interdependent decision-making centers on the management of a resource. The next step in the research, inherited from Elinor Ostrom is that of determining under which conditions the various levels cooperate as a single system or conflict with one another, and we should remember that the Tocqueville-Acton Research Center dedicated its 2011 annal to “Subsidiarity and Institutional Polyarchy”.

(translation by Maria Bond)

It seems therefore that there is a growing appreciation of the idea of the 'triumph', and not the 'tragedy', of the commons.

There is the understanding that resources are to share:
triumph of the commons (helping the world to share environmental resources)Triumph of the commons
The triumph of the commons in India - Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog
The triumph of the commons: Working towards the conservation of Guiana dolphins ( Sotalia guianensis ) in the Cananéia estuary, Brazil | Santos | Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals
Comment: The "Triumph" of the Commons: An Analysis of Enforcement Problems and Solutions in the Western Climate Initiative

And that at the heart of the idea is democratic decision-making:
The triumph of the commons: why Elinor Ostrom matters | Notes from a Broken Society

Meanwhile, the idea of the 'creative commons' is gaining ground 
Creative Commons U.S.
- which is very much about challenging traditional 'intellectual property rights', more of which later:
Center for a Stateless Society » Common Property, Common Power
- as well as challenging the fundamentals of 'private property rights':
Public property rights and the triumph of the commons - The Western News: Members

The idea of 'open source' is gaining ground: 
The Triumph of the (Internet) Commons | Nigel Barber
The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited
How Power Is Shifting From Corporations To Platforms - Forbes
- and going in different directions, such as biotechnology:
The triumph of the commons | The Economist

And there is the 'common currency' of Bitcoin - also, more of which later...
Bitcoin Technology: A Festival of the Commons : The Freeman : Foundation for Economic Education

Which takes us back to the idea of the 'sharing economy':
Deep Sharing: How the Commons Amplifies the Sharing Economy - Shareable

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