Learning the art of commoning
“Growing numbers of people are taking steps that move us, gradually, in the direction of a commons-based society — a world in which the fundamental focus on competition that characterizes life today would be balanced with new attitudes and social structures that foster cooperation.”
Jay Walljasper (2010)
The practice of ‘commoning’ — to collaboratively hold a natural or cultural resource as a ‘commons’ — is a way to collaborate in safeguarding the gifts of nature and culture that people share in a particular place and that humanity shares collectively.
A regenerative culture will value and responsibly steward the bio-cultural commons we all depend upon: clean air, clean water, healthy ecosystems functions, abundant bioproductivity, on the one hand, and the fruits of diverse cultures (as epiphenomena of nature) on the other hand. This cultural heritage includes music, art, science, dance, literature, languages, liberator technologies like the open Internet, and the stories and questions of wisdom that have guided humanity on its journey so far.
In most indigenous cultures the natural resources generated in a particular place along with cultural traditions and knowledge are not anyone’s ‘private property’ but are regarded as a ‘commons’ held in trust and stewardship by all, for the benefit of all. What is held in a ‘commons’ is not to be owned but to be cared for and regenerated so it can be passed on to the next generation in equal or better conditions than the current generation received it in.
What are the Commons (Source)
The commons of a particular locality or culture are a birthright of all born into the local community or accepted as members of that community. The practice of commoning is about relationships and belonging. It is a practice of relating to “others” from within the narrative of interbeing rather than separation. Holding things in ‘common’ invites people to collaborate and share the abundance provided by a particular place and culture, while excessive private (or corporate) ownership creates artificial scarcity and separation, driving us to compete.
Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ offered a convenient justification for rapid privatization (enclosure) of the gifts of life that were previously held in a commons (range lands, mining rights, water rights, forests, fisheries, etc) during the period of rapid economic growth that saw the rise of large multinational corporations. Hardin argued it was inevitable that as population numbers increased people would over-exploit and destroy the commons, and suggested that regulating population growth was the most important way to end the tragedy of the commons. He did emphasize that “every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody’s personal liberty” (1968: 1248), yet his work has since been used to justify more enclosure of the commons through privatization and strict government regulation. This process continues today.
Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, spent her life working on an economics of collaboration rather than competition. She demonstrated that “communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time” (1990: 1).
Ostrom reviewed a number of successful and unsuccessful cases of communities governing a common resource; and identified a set of ‘design principles’ leading to successful collective management of the commons (more).
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 to the entire interconnected system.
These principles basically encourage collaboration and discourage competition by creating a common interest community.
In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in exploring what a commons-based collaborative economy would look like. Online resources include On the Commons, David Bollier’s News and Perspectives on the Commons and the P2P Foundation. David Bollier explains:
“A commons arises whenever a given community decides to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard to equitable access, use and sustainability.” [Importantly, the commons is not simply a resource but] “a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resource”
— David Bollier, 2011
Creating regenerative cultures will critically depend on our ability to collaborate in managing local, regional and global resources collectively. We need to learn the art of commoning.
NOTE: this is an (edited) excerpt from the Economic Design Dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability. The first version of this dimension was written in 2008 by my friend Jonathan Dawson, now Head of Economics of Transition at Schumacher College. In 2015–2016, I revised the Design for Sustainability course substantially and rewrote this dimension with more up-to-date information and the research that I had done for my book Designing Regenerative Cultures.
The next installment of the Economic Design Dimension starts in March 2020 and runs for 8 weeks online. You can join the Design for Sustainability course at any point during the year.