Sheep grazing on common pasture, a stereotypical environmental commons, at Castlemorton

The commons is 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 even when owned privately or publicly. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit.[1] Characteristically, this involves a variety of informal norms and values (social practice) employed for a governance mechanism.[2] Commons can also be defined as a social practice[3] of governing a resource not by state or market but by a community of users that self-governs the resource through institutions that it creates.[4]

Definition and modern use

The Digital Library of the Commons defines "commons" as "a general term for shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest".[5]

The term "commons" derives from the traditional English legal term for common land, which are also known as "commons", and was popularised in the modern sense as a shared resource term by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in an influential 1968 article called "The Tragedy of the Commons". As Frank van Laerhoven and Elinor Ostrom have stated; "Prior to the publication of Hardin's article on the tragedy of the commons (1968), titles containing the words 'the commons', 'common pool resources', or 'common property' were very rare in the academic literature."[6]

Some texts make a distinction in usage between common ownership of the commons and collective ownership among a group of colleagues, such as in a producers' cooperative. The precision of this distinction is not always maintained. Others conflate open access areas with commons; however, open access areas can be used by anybody while the commons has a defined set of users.

The use of "commons" for natural resources has its roots in European intellectual history, where it referred to shared agricultural fields, grazing lands and forests that were, over a period of several hundred years, enclosed, claimed as private property for private use. In European political texts, the common wealth was the totality of the material riches of the world, such as the air, the water, the soil and the seed, all nature's bounty regarded as the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together. In this context, one may go back further, to the Roman legal category res communis, applied to things common to all to be used and enjoyed by everyone, as opposed to res publica, applied to public property managed by the government.[7]


Environmental resource

The examples below illustrate types of environmental commons.

European land use

Main article: Common land

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. A person who has a right in, or over, common land jointly with another or others is called a commoner.[8]

In middle Europe, commons (relatively small-scale agriculture in, especially, southern Germany, Austria, and the alpine countries) were kept, in some parts, till the present.[9] Some studies have compared the German and English dealings with the commons between late medieval times and the agrarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. The UK was quite radical in doing away with and enclosing former commons, while southwestern Germany (and the alpine countries as e.g. Switzerland) had the most advanced commons structures, and were more inclined to keep them. The Lower Rhine region took an intermediate position.[10] However, the UK and the former dominions have till today a large amount of Crown land which often is used for community or conservation purposes.

Mongolian grasslands

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.[11] In Mongolia, where shepherds were permitted to move collectively between seasonal grazing pastures, degradation remained relatively low at approximately 9%. Comparatively, Russia and China, which mandated state-owned pastures involving immobile settlements and in some cases privatization by household, had much higher degradation, at around 75% and 33% respectively.[12] A collaborative effort on the part of Mongolians proved much more efficient in preserving grazing land.

Trawl Fisheries of New York

A trawl fishery in the Blight region, located in New York, provides a completely different example of a type of community-based solution to what is sometimes referred to as the dilemma or "tragedy of the commons". The multitude of fishermen in the region make up a fishing cooperative who specialize in harvesting whiting. Being a part of the cooperative gives them consistent access to the best whiting grounds in the area which allows them to be highly successful, sometimes even dominating regional whiting markets during the winter season. It is a relatively high price to be a member of the collective, which limits entry, while also establishing catching quotas for members. They prevent unlimited entry or access to cap the number of members that are allowed in the club. This is done through a closed membership policy, as well as having control over the docking spaces. This leads to exclude outsiders from entering the regional whiting market. The "quotas" are established based on what they estimate can be sold to the regional markets. It directly contrasts government imposed regulations which are typically considered to be inflexible by the fisherman in the local area. The cooperative on the other hand is considered to be effective and flexible in their sustainable use of the resources in the region.


Lobster fishery of Maine

The 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).[14] Lobster is another resource that is sometimes considered vulnerable to overharvesting, and many people within the industry itself have been predicting a collapse for years. Nonetheless, the lobster industry has remained relatively unscathed by resource depletion. The state government of Maine establishes certain regulations, but they do not limit the number of licenses themselves. In practice there are many restrictive exclusionary systems that are generated, dictated, and upheld by the community through a series of "traditional fishing rights" that have been locally grandfathered in. One must obtain confirmation to fish from the community to actually be granted access. Once an individual is granted access, they are still only able to access the territories held by that community. Outsiders may be persuaded by threats of violence even. It is impossible to know if the lobster resource would have been sustainably used if there was more regulation, or without the internal regulation, but it is certainly being used sustainably in its current state of affairs. It also seems to be run relatively efficiently. This case study of Maine lobster fisheries reflects how a group was able to restrain access to a resource from outsiders, while regulating the communal use in an effective manner. This has allowed the local communities to reap the benefits of the rewards of their restrain for decades.[13] Essentially, the local lobster fishers collaborate without much government intervention to sustain their common-pool resource.[13]

Community forests in Nepal

In the 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 thereby increasing the incentive to protect them from overuse. 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, some locals, especially in the middle hills, have noticed a visible increase in the number of trees, although other places have not seen tangible results, especially where opportunity costs to land are high. Community forestry may also contribute to community development in rural areas – for instance school construction, irrigation and drinking water channel construction, and road construction. Community forestry has proven conducive to democratic practices at grass roots level.[15] Many Nepalese forest user groups generate income from the community forests, although the amount can vary widely among groups and is often invested in the community rather than flowing directly to individual households. Such income is generated from external sources involving the sales of timber from thinned pine plantations such as in the community forest user groups of Sindhu Palchok and Rachma, and internally in Nepal's mid-hills' broad leaf forests from membership fees, penalties and fines on rule-breakers, in addition to the sales of forest products. Some of the most significant benefits are that locals are able to use the products they gather directly in their own homes for subsistence use.[16]

Beaver Hunting in James Bay, Quebec, Canada

Hunting wildlife territories in James Bay, Quebec; located in the northeastern part of Canada, provide an example of resources being effectively shared by a community. There is an extensive heritage of local customaries that are used to effectively regulate beaver hunting in the region. Beaver has been an important source of food and commerce for the area since the fur trade began in 1670. Unfortunately, beavers are an easy target for resource degradation and depletion due to their colonies being easily spotted. Luckily, the area has grandfathered in many traditions, and stewards of the land to safeguard certain territories populations.

In the 1920s there was a massive influx of non-native trappers in the region due to a new railroad coming to the area, as well as an increase in fur prices at the time. The Amerindian communities' lost control over these territories for a short time during this period which helped to eventually lead to what is known as a "tragedy of the commons". In the 1930s conservation laws were enacted which prohibited outsiders from trapping in the area, and reinforced locals' customary laws. This led to a restoration of the population and commerce that beavers provided by the 1950s. The experience of the 1920s is not an isolated incident in the community either. Business conflicts among fur trading companies has led to a couple other times of resource overuse, but gradually resource use was restored to a proper balance once local control was restored. This case study reflects how communal resource sharing can be effectively propagated by a community.[13]

Irrigation systems of New Mexico

Main article: Acequia

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.[17] The Congreso de las Acequias has since 1990s, is a statewide federation that represents several hundred acequia systems in New Mexico.[18]

Free drinkable water fountains in Paris

Main article: Wallace fountain

In Paris, France, there are over 1,200 free drinkable water fountains distributed throughout the city. The first 100 were donated by Englishman Sir Richard Wallace (1818–1890) in 1872, called the Wallace fountains, and since then the Parisian water company "Eau du Paris" have put more of them around the city, this give people living Paris and tourists all around the world access to free drinkable fresh water in Paris. Since then, many other countries like Spain, Brazil, Italy or Portugal have put these fountains on a lower scale. [19][20]

Allotment gardens in Stockholm

In the Stockholm region, green spaces are predominantly owned and managed in either private or municipal forms, allotment gardens being the most common form. The system provide cultural ecosystem services to lot holders, as well as the offer of vegetables, fruits, and ornamental flowers.

The majority of allotment land in Stockholm is owned by the local municipality, and leaseholds are set for extended periods of time (up to 25 years). The local allotment association makes the decisions about who gets land rights. Only residents of multifamily homes inside the municipality were permitted to sign contracts, signifying a commitment to the original goals of allotments, which were to enhance the health of city dwellers in outdoor settings.

Land is organised and managed cooperatively; outside enterprises are not involved in any way. The allotment association recognises lot holders as official members, granting them equal voting rights and shares. In turn, the association represents the land owners in various administrative proceedings.[21]

Urban green commons in Cape Town

In the post-apartheid metropolis of Cape Town, South Africa, the history of land rights is particularly noticeable since a large number of residents have vivid memories of being forcibly evacuated from their homes or of being assigned to live in specific regions.

In 2005, the city re-zoned the Northern shore of Zeekoevlei – a seasonal lake and wetland area – into smaller parcels of land that were bought by people from Grassy Park who shared experiences of oppression and marginalization during apartheid. After 10 years of being utilised as a landfill, the area was covered in "non-indigenous" plants. While constructing their homes, the locals decided to do something different: rather than erecting security walls to demarcate and guard their individual property, they would restore the fynbos and wetland ecology and establish a public communal garden. As stated by the locals, the initial plan was to build a "blueprint" for communal gardening that would serve as an example for other abandoned green areas, with the goal of "correcting the imbalances of apartheid" and "beautifying and dignifying".

The nine residents and the city's conservation managers signed an agreement that allowed the residents to incorporate the public shoreline area into the rehabilitation project, even though the city had retained the area closest to the shoreline as public property. Meanwhile, the city saw an opportunity to restore the fynbos and provided labour and plants for clearing and planting.

About 50,000 plants were planted (and "weeds" eradicated) along Bottom Road over the course of four years, drawing bees, birds, dragonflies, and toads in addition to humans through the addition of walkways, benches, and areas for barbecues. Here, management is done by the locals themselves, often with assistance from the local government, through paid employees and voluntary labour.

Because of its immense size, governance is extremely difficult. Currently, the project spans 6-7 ha, potentially even more. Its proximity to a busy road and hundreds of residential homes exacerbates the traffic issue. In addition to the disregard shown by the city administration, the neighbourhood has deteriorated as a result of people setting up barbecues at random and cars driving around freely, both of which have been linked to criminal activity.[21]

Cultural and intellectual commons

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. Wikipedia is an example of the production and maintenance of common goods by a contributor community in the form of encyclopedic knowledge that can be freely accessed by anyone without a central authority.[22]

Tragedy of the commons in the Wiki-Commons is avoided by community control by individual authors within the Wikipedia community.[23]

The information commons may help protect users of commons. Companies that pollute the environment release information about what they are doing. The Corporate Toxics Information Project[24] and information like the Toxic 100, a list of the top 100 polluters,[25] helps people know what these corporations are doing to the environment.

Digital commons

Main article: Digital commons (economics)

Mayo Fuster Morell proposed a definition of digital commons as "information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusive, 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."[26][27]

Examples of digital commons are Wikipedia, free software and open-source hardware projects.

Following the narrative of post-growth, the digital commons can present a model of progress that guide commoners to build counter-power in the economic and political field.[28] Being able to digitally share knowledge and resources through internet platforms is a new capacity that challenges the traditional hierarchical structures of production, allowing for a higher collective benefit and a sustainable management of resources. Non-material resources are digitally reproducible and therefore can be shared at a low cost, contrary to physical resources which are quite limited.[28] Shared resources represent in this context data, information, culture and knowledge which are produced and accessible online.[29] In accordance with the "design global, manufacture local" approach digital commons may link the traditional commons theory with existing physical infrastructures.[30] It further connects with the degrowth communities since transformations in use-value creation by employing new technologies, decoupling society from GDP growth and lower CO2 emissions, are envisioned.[30] Moreover, as a decentralized approach, there is a strong emphasis on inclusion and democratic regulation which has led Commons as an alternative, emancipatory and emerging form of social organization that goes beyond democratic capitalism.[31] Accordingly, through the cooperation of diverse stakeholders and the equitable distribution of means of production, technological development becomes more accessible and bottom-up projects are fostered in communities.[32]

Urban commons

Urban commons present the opportunity for the citizens to gain power upon the management of the urban resources and reframe city-life costs based on their use value and maintenance costs, rather than the market-driven value.[33]

Syntagma Square in Athens as urban commons
Tahrir Square in Cairo as urban commons

Urban commons situates citizens as key players rather than public authorities, private markets and technologies.[34] David Harvey (2012) defines the distinction between public spaces and urban commons. He highlights that the former is not to be equated automatically with urban commons. Public spaces and goods in the city make a commons when part of the citizens take political action. Syntagma Square in Athens, Tahrir Square in Cairo, Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv, and the Plaza de Catalunya in Barcelona were public spaces that transformed to an urban commons as people protested there to support their political statements. Streets are public spaces that have often become an urban commons by social action and revolutionary protests.[35] Urban commons are operating in the cities in a complementary way with the state and the market. Some examples are community gardening, urban farms on the rooftops and cultural spaces.[36] More recently participatory studies of commons and infrastructures under the conditions of the financial crisis have emerged.[37][38]

Knowledge commons

Main article: Knowledge commons

In 2007, Elinor Ostrom along with her colleague Charlotte Hess, did succeed in extending the commons debate to knowledge, approaching knowledge as a complex ecosystem that operates as a common – a shared resource that is subject to social dilemmas and political debates. The focus here was on the ready availability of digital forms of knowledge and associated possibilities to store, access and share it as a common. The connection between knowledge and commons may be made through identifying typical problems associated with natural resource commons, such as congestion, overharvesting, pollution and inequities, which also apply to knowledge. Then, effective alternatives (community-based, non-private, non-state), in line with those of natural commons (involving social rules, appropriate property rights and management structures), solutions are proposed. Thus, the commons metaphor is applied to social practice around knowledge. It is in this context that the present work proceeds, discussing the creation of depositories of knowledge through the organised, voluntary contributions of scholars (the research community, itself a social common), the problems that such knowledge commons might face (such as free-riding or disappearing assets), and the protection of knowledge commons from enclosure and commodification (in the form of intellectual property legislation, patenting, licensing and overpricing).[2] At this point, it is important to note the nature of knowledge and its complex and multi-layered qualities of non-rivalry and non-excludability. Unlike natural commons – which are both rival and excludable (only one person can use any one item or portion at a time and in so doing they use it up, it is consumed) and characterised by scarcity (they can be replenished but there are limits to this, such that consumption/destruction may overtake production/creation) – knowledge commons are characterised by abundance (they are non-rival and non-excludable and thus, in principle, not scarce, so not impelling competition and compelling governance). This abundance of knowledge commons has been celebrated through alternative models of knowledge production, such as Commons-based peer production (CBPP), and embodied in the free software movement. The CBPP model showed the power of networked, open collaboration and non-material incentives to produce better quality products (mainly software).[39]

Commoning as a process

Scholars such as David Harvey have adopted the term commoning, which as a verb serves to emphasize an understanding of the commons as a process and a practice rather than as "a particular kind of thing"[3] or static entity.

"The common is not to be construed, therefore, as a particular kind of thing, asset or even social process, but as an unstable and malleable social relation between a particular self-defined social group and those aspects of its actually existing or yet-to-be-created social and/or physical environment deemed crucial to its life and livelihood. There is, in effect, a social practice of commoning. This practice produces or establishes a social relation with a common whose uses are either exclusive to a social group or partially or fully open to all and sundry. At the heart of the practice of commoning lies the principle that the relation between the social group and that aspect of the environment being treated as a common shall be both collective and non-commodified-off-limits to the logic of market exchange and market valuations."[3]

Some authors[40] distinguish between the resources shared (the common-pool resources), the community who governs it, and commoning, that is, the process of coming together to manage such resources. Commoning thus adds another dimension to the commons, acknowledging the social practices entailed in the process of establishing and governing a commons.[1] These practices entail, for the community of commoners, the creation of a new way of living and acting together,[41] thus involving a collective psychological shift: it also entails a process of subjectivization, where the commoners produce themselves as common subjects.[42]

Economic theories

Tragedy of the commons

Main article: Tragedy of the commons

A commons failure theory, now called tragedy of the commons, originated in the 18th century.[9] In 1833 William Forster Lloyd introduced the concept by a hypothetical example of herders overusing a shared parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze, to the detriment of all users of the common land.[43] The same concept has been called the "tragedy of the fishers", when over-fishing could cause stocks to plummet.[44] Forster's pamphlet was little known, and it wasn't until 1968, with the publication by the ecologist Garrett Hardin of the article "The Tragedy of the Commons",[45] that the term gained relevance. Hardin introduced this tragedy as a social dilemma, and aimed at exposing the inevitability of failure that he saw in the commons.

However, Hardin's (1968) argument has been widely criticized,[46] since he is accused of having mistaken the commons, that is, resources held and managed in common by a community, with open access, that is, resources that are open to everyone but where it is difficult to restrict access or to establish rules. In the case of the commons, the community manages and sets the rules of access and use of the resource held in common: the fact of having a commons, then, does not mean that anyone is free to use the resource as they like. Studies by Ostrom and others[47] have shown that managing a resource as a commons often has positive outcomes and avoids the so-called tragedy of the commons, a fact that Hardin overlooked.

It has been said the dissolution of the traditional land commons played a watershed role in landscape development and cooperative land use patterns and property rights.[48] However, as in the British Isles, such changes took place over several centuries as a result of land enclosure.

Economist Peter Barnes has proposed a 'sky trust' to fix this tragedic problem in worldwide generic commons. He 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 into the atmosphere.[49]

Successful commons

While the original work on the tragedy of the commons concept suggested that all commons were doomed to failure, they remain important in the modern world. Work by later economists has found many examples of successful commons, and Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize for analysing situations where they operate successfully.[50][47] For example, Ostrom found that grazing commons in the Swiss Alps have been run successfully for many hundreds of years by the farmers there.[51]

Allied to this is the "comedy of the commons" concept, where users of the commons are able to develop mechanisms to police their use to maintain, and possibly improve, the state of the commons.[52] This term was coined in an essay by legal scholar, Carol M. Rose, in 1986.[52][50][53]

Notable theorists

Feminist perspectives

Silvia Federici articulates a feminist perspective of the commons in her essay "Feminism and the Politics of the Commons".[54] Since the language around the commons has been largely appropriated by the World Bank as it sought to re-brand itself "the environmental guardian of the planet", she argues that it is important to adopt a commons discourse that actively resists this re-branding.[55] Secondly, articulations of the commons, although historically present and multiple have struggled to come together as a unified front. For the latter to happen she argues that a "commoning" or "commons" movement that is effectively able to resist capitalist forms of organizing labour and our livelihoods must look to women to take the lead in organizing the collectivization of our daily lives and the means of production.[55]

Women and the struggle for the Commons

Women have traditionally been at the forefront of struggles for commoning "as primary subjects of reproductive work". This proximity and dependence on communal natural resources has made women the most vulnerable by their privatization, and made them their most staunch defendants. Examples include: subsistence agriculture, credit associations such as tontine (money commons) and collectivizing reproductive labor. In "Caliban and the Witch",[56] Federici interprets the ascent of capitalism as a reactionary move to subvert the rising tide of communalism and to retain the basic social contract.

"Feminist Reconstructions" of the Commons

The process of commoning the material means of reproduction of human life is most promising in the struggle to "disentangle our livelihoods not only from the world market but also from the war machine and prison system". One of the main aims of the process of commoning is to create "common subjects" that are responsible to their communities. The notion of community is not understood as a "gated community", but as "a quality of relations, a principle of cooperation and responsibility to each other and the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals.[55] In communalizing housework, one of the supporting pillars of human activity, it is imperative that this sphere is "not negated but revolutionized". Communalizing housework also serves to de-naturalize it as women's labour, which has been an important part of the feminist struggle.[55]

Feminist Commons Movement

Abortion and Birth Control

As reproductive rights over unwanted pregnancies have been denied in many countries for many years, several resistance groups used diverse commoning strategies in order to provide women safe and affordable abortion. Care, knowledge, and pills have been made commons against abortion restriction. In New York, U.S., the group Haven Coalition[57] volunteer provide pre and post abortion care for people who have to travel for abortion which is considered illegal in their places of origins, and with New York Abortion Access Fund,[58] they are able to provide them with medical and financial assistance.[59] Underground networks outside medical service establishments are where women's networks oversee the abortion and assist each other physically or emotionally by sharing the knowledge of herbalism or home abortion. These underground groups operate under codenames like Jane Collective in Chicago or Renata[60] in Arizona. Some groups like Women on Waves from Netherlands use international waters to conduct abortion. Also, in Italy, Obiezione Respinta movement[61] collaboratively map spaces related to birth control such as pharmacies, consultors, hospitals, etc., through which users share their knowledge and experience of the place and provide access to information that is difficult to obtain.

Historical land commons movements

Contemporary commons movements

See also


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Further reading