The Commons: From Tragedy to Celebrity
Source Charles Brown
Date 09/11/02/09:25

The Commons: From Tragedy to Celebrity
United for a Fair Economy

THE RECIPIENTS OF the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics were
announced on Monday October 12th. The prize was shared
between two Americans, Elinor Ostrum and Oliver E.

Ostrum deserves a special toast for several reasons.
First, such high-level recognition of her work brings
the idea of The Commons into the spotlight, which is
fitting given how broken our current economic system is.
Second, she is only the second non-economist to win the
award and, as the first female recipient of the award,
she shattered yet another glass ceiling for women the
world over.

Ostrom's research, which essentially bridges political
science and economics, focuses on community vs. private
or governmental management of common resources like
land, forests, irrigation waters and fisheries. One of
her key findings is that successful governance can
result when end-users - the people actually using the
resources - actively participate in the process.

This directly contradicts the long-standing theory of
the "Tragedy of the Commons," in which property rights
and privatization are seen to be the only means to
preserving finite resources.

The commons doesn't just refer to natural resources,
however. It includes anything that is shared by members
of local, national or even global communities. And it
raises the idea that we can shift from a market-based
society narrowly focused on private wealth, to a
commons-based society focused on managing common assets
so they benefit everyone. Essentially, it offers a
framework for revamping our currently flawed economic
system, and seeks to do so to benefit the many - an idea
that is right up our ally.

About the Commons

The commons is a new way to express a very old idea-that
some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these
community resources must be actively protected and
managed for the good and all.

The commons are the things that we inherit and create
jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations
to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as
air, oceans and wildlife as well as shared social
creations such as libraries, public spaces, scientific
research and creative works.

Biopiracy: The practice where traditional knowledge of
natural resources, especially medicinal and agricultural
plants, is appropriated by international companies to
create products, for which they are awarded exclusive
rights to use under patent laws.

Cap-and-dividend: A practical solution to the problem of
global climate disruption, based upon the commons
principle that the atmosphere belongs to everyone. (Also
known as the Sky Trust.) First articulated by On the
Commons co-founder Peter Barnes in his 2002 book, Who
Owns the Sky? cap-and-dividend is a response to cap-and-
trade proposals in which polluters are granted
permission to buy and sell pollution rights as a way to
curb carbon and other emissions causing global warming.
This essentially gives existing polluters ownership of
the air in order to create incentives to reduce
emissions. Cap-and-dividend starts at the same place by
creating a cap on pollution that gradually reduces the
amount of greenhouse gases that can be dumped into the
air and creating a market where the right to pollute can
be bought and sold. But rather than letting historical
polluters reap all the financial benefits, fees that
companies pay to pollute would be collected and returned
to citizens in the form of a regular dividend. This is
not only a more equitable way to distribute the wealth
created by a commons, it also increases public support
for measures to stop global climate change. For more
information see Peter Barnes 2008 book Climate Solutions

Common assets: Common assets are those parts of the
commons that have a value in the market and which are
appropriate to buy and sell (see "inalienability").
Radio airwaves are a common asset, for example, as are
timber and minerals on public lands and, increasingly,
air and water. By recognizing certain resources as
common assets, it becomes natural to ask: Are the common
assets being responsibly managed on behalf of the
general public or a distinct community of interest? Is
the capital being depleted?

Commons movement: A growing social and political
movement that believes the commons is a crucial sector
of the economy and society and useful prism for talking
about resources that should be shared. The commons
offers not only an affirmative vision of a more
equitable, eco-friendly society: it also serves as a
countervailing force to keep excesses of the market and
government sectors in check. Some speak of an emerging
commons paradigm as a new way of looking at the world,
one that opens up the competitive, mechanistic, profit-
centric mindset that has ruled Western civilization
since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, with a more
humanistic, environmentally aware and holistic world
view. A wider appreciation for the enduring importance
of the commons has developed over the last eight years,
especially among people deeply involved in the politics
of water issues, the internet, the over
commercialization of culture and public spaces. This
world view is now reaching into many other arenas,
including economics, the environment, social justice and
numerous citizens movements around the world.

Copyleft: This refers to a license that allows free re-
use and modification of creative work so long as any
works derived from the original remain available on the
same terms. Copyleft, formally known as the "General
Public License" or GPL, was initiated by computer
programmer Richard Stallman and the Free Software
Foundation. By protecting the creativity and energy of
the commons from private appropriation, the GPL has
enabled communities of programmers to build shared
bodies of code, such as free software and open source
software. A similar set of licenses for other types of
creative works has been devised by the Creative Commons.

Corporation: A self-perpetuating legal entity whose
mission is to maximize short-term return to
shareholders. In its aggressive pursuit of this mission,
the corporation not only produces new innovations and
efficiencies, it also displaces costs onto the
environment, our communities and our personal lives (see

Enclosure: Historically, this refers to the
privatization of common grazing lands beginning in 15th
Century England, which impoverished many peasants. Today
it is used to describe the conversion of a commons into
private property. Enclosure entails not just the
privatization of a resource, but also the introduction
of money and market exchange as the prevailing
principles for managing that resource. Enclosure shifts
ownership and control from the community at large to
private companies. This in turn changes the management
and character of the resource because the market has
very different standards of accountability and
transparency than a commons. (Contrast a public library
with a bookstore, or Main Street with a private shopping
mall.) Because of its compulsion to extract maximum
short-term rents and externalize costs, market enclosure
often results in the "tragedy of the market."

Externality or illth: A social or ecological cost that
is not paid by its creators. As the scope of market
activity expands beyond a certain point, engulfing more
of nature and daily life, it yields less and less
happiness and wellbeing even as it causes more and more
unintended problems. In market logic, the expanding
output must be regarded as "progress" and "wealth." In
fact, the accelerating pace of the market machine is
producing more "illth" - the opposite of wealth. Author
Peter Barnes ( Who Owns the Sky ) has popularized this
term, coined by John Ruskin in the 19th century, to
describe the unintended but increasing destruction of
nature, social disruptions, health problems and other
(unacknowledged, unintended or disguised) costs of
market activity.

Gift economy: A community of shared purpose, such as an
academic discipline, whose members give time and
creativity to the community and reap benefits in return.
In gift communities, money is an unacceptable "currency"
because relationships are rooted in personal, particular
and historical experiences of each individual, and
cannot be converted into cash or any other fungible
unit. Despite the absence of cash, legal contracts and
market exchange, a gift economy can be tremendously
productive, efficient and innovative, as seen in free
and open software communities, online wikis and other
collaborative websites, blood donation systems and
scientific research disciplines.

Inalienability: The principle that a given resource
shall not be freely bought and sold in the marketplace,
but shall remain intact, in its natural context.
Inalienability derives from a social consensus that
certain things and behaviors are so precious and basic
to human identity that they are degraded if they are put
up for sale. "Goods" that have traditionally been
regarded as inalienable include votes, babies, bodily
organs, sex, genes, living species and most aspects of
nature, but market forces are increasingly challenging
long-standing norms of inalienability.

Land trusts: An alternative model of land ownership in
which a tract of land is owned by a non-profit
organization-usually to preserve its natural assets or
to maintain it as affordable housing. There are more
than 1,600 land trusts in the US today encompassing 37
million acres. Land trusts provide a good example of how
a commons economic model can exist outside the realm of
both government and private control as a distinct sector
for advancing the public good. Professor Carol Rose of
Yale Law School has cited land trusts as an example of
"property on the outside, commons on the inside"-meaning
that the resource exists within the market system as
legal property yet is managed internally according to
commons principles.

Open source software: (See copyleft) Open source
software is functionally similar to free software that
is protected under the General Public License, or GPL,
except that open source programs allow a program to be
freely copied, modified and distributed, but do not
require it. In addition, the open source community does
not necessarily subscribe to the political agenda of
Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software
Foundation, who regards the GPL as the foundation for a
vision of political and creative freedom. Open source
programmers tend to be more focused on the practical
value of open source code in developing superior

Public goods: Resources that, because of their "public"
nature, are difficult or costly to exclude anyone from
using. Examples include lighthouses, city parks,
broadcast programming and the global atmosphere. In the
lingo of economists, these are "non-rival" and "non-
excludable" resources. Government often steps in to pay
for public goods because it is difficult to get
individual beneficiaries to pay for them. But in the
networked environment of the Internet, it is
increasingly feasible for self-organizing groups to
create and pay for public goods. Open source software is
a prime example.

Public space: Any place where people are free to gather
for social or civic interaction. The value of public
spaces is increasingly being recognized as essential to
the health of local communities and democratic societies
in general. While usually defined as parks, streets and
sidewalks, plazas, libraries and public institutions,
the concept can also be expanded to include congenial
privately owned settings such as a coffee shop, corner
grocery or a plaza outside an office building. Shopping
malls, which in many suburban communities function as
Main Street, have stirred controversy by forbidding
civic activities such as gathering signatures for
petitions-a policy upheld by the courts which worries
many civil liberties and public space advocates.

Public trust doctrine: A legal doctrine that says that
the state holds certain resources in trust for its
citizens which cannot be given away or sold. Public
trust doctrine has its origins in Roman law, which
recognized that certain resources such as fisheries,
air, running water and wild animals belong to all. Under
the doctrine of res communes , the king could not grant
exclusive rights of access to a common resource. The
point is that there is a clear distinction between
common property (which belongs to the people) and state
property (which can be controlled and mismanaged by

Sky Trust (See Cap-and-Dividend)

Tragedy of the commons: Title of an influential 1968
essay by biologist Garrett Hardin, which argued that
overuse of common resources is a leading cause of
environmental degradation. This was interpreted by some,
especially economists and free-market libertarians, to
mean that private ownership is preferable to the commons
for the stewardship of land, water, minerals, etc. Yet
in recent years many have challenged this view on both
empirical and philosophical grounds. Professor Elinor
Ostrom of Indiana University has been a leading figure
in demonstrating the practical utility and
sustainability of commons governance regimes,
particularly in developing countries. Other analysts,
such as Professor Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law School,
have shown how people in online commons can indeed
collaborate sustainably to produce and protect valuable
resources. This suggests that the vision of human
behavior implicit in the tragedy of the commons metaphor
is not as immutable as many economists assert, and that
collective management is an eminently practical
governance strategy in many circumstances. The tragedy
of the "anti-commons" is now frequently invoked to
describe the problems associated with excessive
privatization and fragmentation of property rights, such
that collective action for the common good is thwarted.
An example is the proliferation of patents on bio-
medical knowledge that impedes research on cures for
malaria, or the proliferation of copyrights in film and
video that prevents documentary filmmakers from clearing
the rights to images for use in new films.

Trust or stakeholder trust: A legal institution for
protecting the commons and managing any assets that may
arise from it. If the corporation is the preeminent
institution of the market, the trust is the premier
institution of the commons. The managers of a trust, the
trustees, have clear legal responsibilities to manage
its resources on behalf of the beneficiaries. This
includes strict fiduciary responsibilities, transparency
and accountability. (See land trusts)

Value: Economists tend to regard "value" as a
quantifiable object with a price tag. But as commoners
realize, "value" can also be something intangible and
not available for sale. An example is the social
satisfaction of belonging to a community and
contributing to a shared goal. A commons can also create
economic value as efficiently as a market; examples
include Wikipedia, the online user-generated
encyclopedia, and Craiglist, the online advertising
service. The difference is that a commons usually does
not convert its output into a marketable commodity.

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