Commons

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Commons refers to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.[1][dead link] The resources held in common can include everything from natural resources and common land to software.[2] The commons contains public property and private property, over which people have certain traditional rights. When commonly held property is transformed into private property this process alternatively is termed "enclosure" or more commonly, "privatization." A person who has a right in, or over, common land jointly with another or others is called a commoner.[3]

Concepts[edit]

The commons were traditionally defined as the elements of the environment - forests, atmosphere, rivers, fisheries or grazing land - that are shared, used and enjoyed by all.

Today, the commons are also understood within a cultural sphere. These commons include literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, software and sites of heritage. The commons can also include public goods such as public space, public education, health and the infrastructure that allows our society to function (such as electricity or water delivery systems). There also exists the ‘life commons’, e.g. the human genome.

Peter Barnes describes commons as a set of assets that have two characteristics: they are all gifts, and they are all shared. A shared gift is one we receive as members of a community, as opposed to individually. Examples of such gifts include air, water, ecosystems, languages, music, holidays, money, law, mathematics, parks and the Internet.[4]

There are a number of important aspects that can be used to describe true commons. The first is that the commons cannot be commodified – if they are, they cease to be commons. The second aspect is that unlike private property, the commons are inclusive rather than exclusive — their nature is to share ownership as widely, rather than as narrowly, as possible. The third aspect is that the assets in commons are meant to be preserved regardless of their return of capital. Just as we receive them as shared gifts, so we have a duty to pass them on to future generations in at least the same condition as we received them. If we can add to their value, so much the better, but at a minimum we must not degrade them, and we certainly have no right to destroy them.[4]

The Public commons is commonly referred to as a place in our world that has a public good that is free for people to view and enjoy and owned by everyone who wants to be a part of it. Something as simple as water and grass that you see in the park everyday is a public common. Most times people don’t even realize that when they’re in a park that it is free. However usually in these commons it is patrolled by other people in the area and if someone were to violate the commons in anyway by littering or dumping then it would be up to people in the area to control what happens to their own place.

Some people don’t tend to agree with Peter Barnes in saying that the commons are all owned by 'the people' because things like public transportation, public education and health care aren’t always available to people and are state-run services. Each of these things have a “care penalty” in which there is a certain fee or tax payable in order to use them. This type of common is provided by an infrastructure like the government but to have access to it there are taxes on families and health insurance premiums.

Another highly-used public common is the internet. The internet is something many people have access to as a resource and a scholarly tool but is also privatized as well. This type of common is a hybrid. To gain access to the internet a household needs an internet service provider that they have to pay in order to get online.

There are quite a few different ways to categorize a “common” but there are public commons like parks, rivers, oceans, mountains and grasslands but there are also privatized commons that government provides and lastly the hybrid of the two where the service is free but also privatized by certain groups or individuals.

While use of the commons is generally unrestricted, there have to be certain rules in place to ensure that they are available for future generations. Overuse of the commons threatens their very existence. When considering the commons as an entity used by all, it is easy to see how there are claims that the atmosphere and skies are commons. In that case it is not a matter of what is being taken from the resources, but what is being put into those commons.

Economist Peter Barnes has proposed a sky trust to fix this problem. This idea claims that the sky belongs to all the people, and companies do not have a right to over pollute. It is a type of cap and dividend program. Ultimately the goal would be to make polluting excessively more expensive than cleaning what is being put back into the atmosphere.[5]


In some ways, the information commons is required to and actually helps protect the community. It is actually required that companies that pollute release information about what they are doing. The Corporate Toxics Information Project[6] and information like the Toxic 100, a list of the top 100 polluters,[7] helps people know what these large corporations are doing to the environment. Having the information open to all, as part of a common network helps ensure the safety and knowledge of anyone who wishes to access it.

Environmental examples[edit]

English commons[edit]

Originally in medieval England the common was an integral part of the manor, and was thus legally part of the estate in land owned by the lord of the manor, but over which certain classes of manorial tenants and others held certain rights. By extension, the term "commons" has come to be applied to other resources which a community has rights or access to. The older texts use the word "common" to denote any such right, but more modern usage is to refer to particular rights of common, and to reserve the name "common" for the land over which the rights are exercised. "Common land" does not mean state-owned or public land, but is owned by private individuals or corporations called partition units. A person who has a right in, or over, common land jointly with another or others is called a commoner.[3]

Mongolian grassland management[edit]

Based on a research project by the Environmental and Cultural Conservation in Inner Asia (ECCIA) from 1992 to 1995, satellite images were used to compare the amount of land degradation due to livestock grazing in the regions of Mongolia, Russia, and China.[8] In Mongolia, where shepherds were permitted to move collectively between seasonal grazing pastures, degradation remained relatively low at approximately 9%. Comparatively that of Russia and China, which implemented state-owned pastures involving immobile settlements and in some cases privatization by household, was much higher at around 75% and 33% respectively.[9] A collaborative effort on the part of Mongolians proved much more efficient in preserving grazing land.

Lobster fishery of Maine[edit]

Widespread success of the Maine lobster industry is often attributed to the willingness of Maine’s lobstermen to uphold and support lobster conservation rules. These rules include harbor territories not recognized by the state, informal trap limits, and laws imposed by the state of Maine (which are largely influenced by lobbying from lobster industry itself).[10] Essentially, the lobstermen collaborate without much government intervention to sustain their common-pool resource.

Community forests in Nepal[edit]

Implemented in late 1980s, Nepal chose to decentralize government control over forests. Community forest programs work by giving local areas a financial stake in nearby woodlands, and therefore increasing the incentive to protect them from overuse. These local institutions regulate harvesting and selling of timber and land, and must use any profit towards community development and preservation of the forests. In twenty years, locals have noticed visible improvements in the number of trees.In addition to this, community forestry contributed to community development in rural area such as school construction, irrigation channel & drinking water construction and road construction etc.Similarly their fund allocated into the poor focused activities as well.Further more, community forestry has become example of appropriate institution for democratic practices at grass root level, where we can see absolute inclusion into their executive committee.[11]

Acequia irrigation systems of New Mexico[edit]

Acequia is a method of collective responsibility and management for irrigation systems in desert areas. In New Mexico, a community-run organization known as Acequia Associations supervises water in terms of diversion, distribution, utilization, and recycling, in order to reinforce agricultural traditions and preserve water as a common resource for future generations.[12]

Digital commons[edit]

See Digital commons (economics).

Mayo Fuster Morell proposed a definition of digital commons as "as an information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusivedible, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favor use and reuse, rather than to exchange as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources".[13]

Examples of digital commons are Wikipedia, a type of Free Software and Open-source hardware projects.

Caring for the commons[edit]

Caring for the commons is an act of individual stewardship (long-term care for a given resource for the benefit of oneself and others including the resource itself) and collective trusteeship.[14] It is the very essence of being ‘whole’, the fundamental basis of interdisciplinarity. It is one of the few ways we have to acknowledge our debt to the past generations, and to embody our link to future generation. It shows we believe in ourselves as an enduring civilization, not an economy.

Caring for the commons can stress relationships between otherwise friendly neighbors- especially if they come with unrealistic expressions. Caring for a shared commons requires an equal balance of stepping forward and getting the work done by creating an informal atmosphere that allows everyone to relax and enjoy. So, caring for the commons can not only build relationships but also strain them.[15]

Caring for the commons means more than just regulating. Caretakers are needed, that is, a system nurturing societal cooperation, sharing of goods and thoughtfulness of generations to come. It entails establishing norms that reduce free riding and hold communities together. For our generation seems to be moving beyond viewing commons only as a norm, and taking action to enable and protect them in all spheres of our lives.[16]

Historical movements[edit]

Contemporary movements[edit]

Notable theorists[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Bollier, David (2002). "Reclaiming the commons". Boston Review. [dead link]
  2. ^ Berry, David (21 February 2005). "The commons". Free Software Magazine. 
  3. ^ a b Anon. "Commoner". Farlex Inc. Retrieved 20 April 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Barnes, Peter (2006). Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. ISBN 978-1-57675-361-3. 
  5. ^ Barnes, Peter (2000). Pie in the Sky. Washington D.C: Corporation for Enterprise Development. p. 1. ISBN 1-883187-32-X. 
  6. ^ "Corporate Toxics Information Project". Political Economy Research Institute. PERI-Umass. 
  7. ^ Ash, Michael. "Justice in the Air". PERI. PERI- Umass. 
  8. ^ Sneath, David. "State Policy and Pasture Degradation in Inner Asia". Science Magazine. Retrieved 11 May 2011. 
  9. ^ Ostrom, Elinor. "Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges". Science Magazine. Retrieved 11 May 2011. 
  10. ^ Acheson, James (2004). Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster. University Press of New England. ISBN 9781584653936. 
  11. ^ Mehta, Trupti Parekh. "Community Forestry in India and Nepal". PERC Reports. 
  12. ^ Davidson-Harden, Adam. "Local Control and Management of Our Water Commons: Stories of Rising to the Challenge". www.ourwatercommons.org. Retrieved 11 May 2011. 
  13. ^ Fuster Morell, M. (2010, p. 5). Dissertation: Governance of online creation communities: Provision of infrastructure for the building of digital commons. http://www.onlinecreation.info/?page_id=338
  14. ^ O'Riordan, Timothy. Environmental science for environmental management. 
  15. ^ Chapin Ross, Susanka Sarah. Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World. 
  16. ^ "Campaign Brief: Caring for the Commons". [dead link]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]