Notes on Commonsism

Yes, I coined another word.

I am a commonsist.

The term got its start as a tag, and I didn’t use the term in the post tagged with it.

Commonsism mixes together the thinking of Elinor Ostrom and Aldo Leopold, and many others.

Ostrom won the Nobel prize for economics for her work on common-pooled resources (CPRs) or ‘commons’, that was sparked by Garrett Hardin’s 1968 Science article, The Tragedy of the Commons.

Hardin employed the example of a herder grazing his cattle on pasturage ‘open to all’, and who has an incentive to add cattle to their herd. But so does every other herder, and if nothing halts their collective self-centered actions, the pasture will quickly be reduced to a desert.


I am a commonsist: I reject political authority that does not derive from a bottom-up management of our world as a network of commons.

One pessimistic interpretation is that absent the intervention of an outside power — a Leviathan like a king or a democratic government, or religious decrees — the unchecked exploitation of the commons is inevitable.

Ostrom, however, found numerous examples of well-managed CPRs across the world, based on her field work in the management of pasture by locals in Africa and irrigation systems management in villages of western Nepal, and the examination of other systems of commons management.

As noted in a piece in the Economist, Ostrom cataloged the rules that are necessary for managing a commons:

In “Governing the Commons”, which was published in 1990, Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University described the rules needed to keep a commons going. She showed that there are almost always elaborate conventions over who can use resources and when. What you take out of a commons has to be proportional to what you put in. Usage has to be compatible with the commons’ underlying health (ie, you cannot just keep grazing your animals regardless). Everyone has to have some say in the rules. And people usually pay more attention to monitoring abuses and to conflict resolution than to sanctions and punishment.

In her Governing the Commons (1990) she laid out the 8 Principles for Managing a Commons:

1. Define clear group boundaries
2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up [better translated into network terms, ‘from the smallest social scale’] to the entire interconnected system [‘network’].

What if we were to consider the Earth as a commons, and at the local level, each watershed and island, each prairie and region, as commons, as well?

The premise that the greatest degree of control for a shared resource — for example the Hudson Valley watershed — should be determined principally by those living within that watershed. Note, however, that resource must be managed by the principles above, along with the zeroth principle: all activities must be based on the foundation of causing the least harm to the commons as possible, so that the commons can continue to be used by its members and by future generations.

This zeroth rule is also equivalent to environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s golden rule:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Or paraphrased,

We can judge the morality of political and social actions by the degree to which they harm or help the land, the sea, and the air.

I am reminded of the saying from Marcus Aurelius,

That which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees.

So, I am a commonsist: I reject political authority that does not derive from a bottom-up management of our world as a network of commons.

At every scale, the rules of the commons must shape human activities that impact the commons, most importantly, the views of those closest to a commons should carry the most weight. But just as the watershed of Fishkill Creek (where I live in Beacon NY) drains into the Hudson, the actions that we who live along the creek can impact others in the greater watershed, so polluting the creek has impacts at the greater scale. However, if we manage local fishing in the creek to maintain fish levels, and avoid importing aggressive exotic fish, we are likely to not damage the greater watershed.

By acting as responsible members at the bottommost scale in the watershed, we also are acting in the interests of all, at the greater watershed of the Hudson. And those outside our watershed should not have much of a say in what we do locally, unless we are keeping our own watershed cleaning by trucking pollutants to the Connecticut watershed.

By the opposite logic, however, those that are failing to follow the principles of the commons — for example, companies that spill PCBs into the Hudson, or countries that are spewing CO2 into the atmosphere and warming the earth–are immoral, no matter what their motivations for doing so may be. And those closest to the mess being made have the right and obligation to compel them to stop.

And here’s where this system demonstrates that the world is upside down: if a political order is organized in such a way that actions based on the principles of the commons can be blocked by those less close to the commons it is flawed, and probably immoral. For example, the State of NY should not be able to compel a municipality to allow fracking, which could damage the land to the detriment of all. On the other hand, if Beacon citizens voted in favor of fracking along Fishkill Creek, they can be overruled by the greater Hudson River watershed citizenship (especially those downstream and nearby), since the possibility of damage to the greater watershed is relatively high.

The zeroth rule, Leopold’s golden rule, creates a massive check on activities that threaten the greater good, and do not allow a substitution of money or other compensation in exchange for the possible or actual damage.

So, join the commonsists, and resist the political order that places anything ahead of the perpetuation of the commons we — and posterity — rely on.


Originally published at stoweboyd.com.

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