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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, not owned privately. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit. Characteristically, this involves a variety of informal norms and values (social practice) employed for a governance mechanism. [1] Commons can be also defined as a social practice 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 . [2]


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". [3]

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." [4]

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.

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. [5]


Environmental resource

The examples below illustrate types of environmental commons.

European land use

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. [6]

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. [7] 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. [8] 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. [9] 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. [10] A collaborative effort on the part of Mongolians proved much more efficient in preserving grazing land.

Lobster fishery of Maine

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). [11] Essentially, the lobstermen collaborate without much government intervention to sustain their common-pool resource.

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, locals have noticed a visible increase in the number of trees. 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. [12]

Irrigation systems of New Mexico

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. [13]

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. [14]

Tragedy of the commons in the Wiki-Commons is avoided by community control by individual authors within the Wikipedia community. [15]

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 [16] and information like the Toxic 100, a list of the top 100 polluters, [17] helps people know what these corporations are doing to the environment.

Digital commons

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." [18] [19]

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

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. [20]

Syntagma Square in Athens as urban commons 20110630 Indignados Syntagma general mass Athens Greece.jpg
Syntagma Square in Athens as urban commons
Tahrir Square in Cairo as urban commons Tahrir Square - February 9, 2011.png
Tahrir Square in Cairo as urban commons

Urban commons situates citizens as key players rather than public authorities, private markets and technologies. [21] David Harvey (2012) defines the distinction between public spaces and 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. [22] 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. [23] More recently participatory studies of commons and infrastructures under the conditions of the financial crisis have emerged. [24] [25]

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. 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). [1] 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). [26]

Commoning as a process

Some scholars have coined the term commoning, which by its nature as a verb serves to emphasize the understanding of the commons as a process and a practice rather than as a static entity. Some authors [27] 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. [28] These practices entail, for the community of commoners, the creation of a new way of living and acting together, [29] thus involving a collective psychological shift: it also entails a process of subjectivization, where the commoners produce themselves as common subjects. [30]

The discussion of commoning as a process rather than as a fixed entity also serves to bring new elements to the discussion of the commons. Its focus on social relations endues such processes with an emancipatory potential. Importantly, even if some commons are temporary or fail according to a conventional understanding of the term, their contribution to the members of the community and the social practices and psychological shifts that have arisen are still influential, having contributed to creating new subjectivities and sensibilities. Therefore, in this understanding, commoning can be temporary and this does not entail a problem or a failure. Commoning is a learning process, and the so-called failure of some commons might result in the creation of new ones.

Economic theories

Tragedy of the commons

A commons failure theory, now called tragedy of the commons, originated in the 18th century. [7] 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. [31] The same concept has been called the "tragedy of the fishers", when over-fishing could cause stocks to plummet. [32] 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”, [33] 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, his argument has been widely criticized, [34] 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 [35] 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. [36] 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. [37]

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. [38] [35] For example, Ostrom found that grazing commons in the Swiss Alps have been run successfully for many hundreds of years by the farmers there. [39]

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. [40] This term was coined in an essay by legal scholar, Carol M. Rose, in 1986. [40] [38] [41]

Other related concepts are the inverse commons, cornucopia of the commons, [42] and triumph of the commons. [43] [44] It is argued that some types of commons, such as open-source software, work better in the cornucopia of the commons; proponents say that, in those cases, "the grass grows taller when it is grazed on". [45]

Notable theorists

Feminist perspectives

Silvia Federici articulates a feminist perspective of the commons in her essay "Feminism and the Politics of the Commons". [46] 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. [47] 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. [47]

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", [48] 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 forsts, the seas, the animals. [47] 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 a important part of the feminist struggle. [47]

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 using diverse commoning strategies in order to provide women safe and affordable abortion. Care, knowledge, pills have been made commons against abortion restriction. In New York, U.S., the group Haven Coalition [49] 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, [50] they are able to provide them with medical and financial assistance. [51] Underground networks outside male-dominant 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 [52] in Arizona. Some groups like Women on Waves from Netherlands use international waters to conduct abortion. Also, in Italy, Obiezione Respinta movement [53] 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

Related Research Articles

Overgrazing intensive grazing

Overgrazing occurs when plants are exposed to intensive grazing for extended periods of time, or without sufficient recovery periods. It can be caused by either livestock in poorly managed agricultural applications, game reserves, or nature reserves. It can also be caused by immobile, travel restricted populations of native or non-native wild animals. However, "overgrazing" is a controversial concept, based on equilibrium system theory. A strong indicator of overgrazing is where additional feed needs to be brought in from outside the farm, often to support livestock through the winter. Traditionally this feed was sourced on the farm, with fewer animals being kept and some fields being used for hay and silage production. Modern farm businesses often choose to keep more animals than their land can support alone; buying in external feed to offset this.

Tragedy of the commons Depletion of a shared resource according to ones self-interests

The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling the shared resource through their collective action. The concept originated in an essay written in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land in Great Britain and Ireland. The concept became widely known as the "tragedy of the commons" over a century later after an article written by Garrett Hardin in 1968. In a modern economic context, "commons" is taken to mean any shared and unregulated resource such as the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, ocean fish stocks, or even an office refrigerator.

Public good (economics) Good that is non-excludable and non-rival

In economics, a public good is a good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous, in that individuals cannot be excluded from use or could benefit from without paying for it, and where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others or the good can be used simultaneously by more than one person. This is in contrast to a common good such as wild fish stocks in the ocean, which is non-excludable but is rivalrous to a certain degree, as if too many fish are harvested, the stocks will be depleted.

Community management or common-pool resource management is the management of a common resource or issue by a community through the collective action of volunteers and stakeholders. The resource managed can be either material or informational. Examples include the management of common grazing and water rights; fisheries and open-source software. In the case of physical resources, community management strategies are frequently employed to avoid the tragedy of the commons and to encourage sustainability.

Common land land owned collectively

Common land is land owned collectively by a number of persons, or by one person, but over which other people have certain traditional rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, to collect wood, or to cut turf for fuel.


Pastoralism is a form of animal husbandry where domesticated animals known as livestock are released onto large vegetated outdoor lands (pastures) for grazing, historically by nomadic people who moved around with their herds. The species involved include cattle, camels, goats, yaks, llamas, reindeer, horse and sheep.

John A. Baden is founder and chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) based in Bozeman, Montana.

Garrett Hardin American ecologist

Garrett James Hardin was an American ecologist who warned of the dangers of human overpopulation. He is most famous for his exposition of the tragedy of the commons, in a 1968 paper of the same title in Science, which called attention to "the damage that innocent actions by individuals can inflict on the environment". He is also known for Hardin's First Law of Human Ecology: "We can never do merely one thing. Any intrusion into nature has numerous effects, many of which are unpredictable." He is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist, whose publications were "frank in their racism and quasi-fascist ethnonationalism".

Social peer-to-peer processes are interactions with a peer-to-peer dynamic. These peers can be humans or computers. Peer-to-peer (P2P) is a term that originated from the popular concept of the P2P distributed computer application architecture which partitions tasks or workloads between peers. This application structure was popularized by file sharing systems like Napster, the first of its kind in the late 1990s.

In economics, a common-pool resource (CPR) is a type of good consisting of a natural or human-made resource system, whose size or characteristics makes it costly, but not impossible, to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use. Unlike pure public goods, common pool resources face problems of congestion or overuse, because they are subtractable. A common-pool resource typically consists of a core resource, which defines the stock variable, while providing a limited quantity of extractable fringe units, which defines the flow variable. While the core resource is to be protected or nurtured in order to allow for its continuous exploitation, the fringe units can be harvested or consumed.

Global commons is a term typically used to describe international, supranational, and global resource domains in which common-pool resources are found. Global commons include the earth's shared natural resources, such as the high oceans, the atmosphere and outer space and the Antarctic in particular. Cyberspace may also meet the definition of a global commons.

Elinor Ostrom American political economist

Elinor Claire "Lin" Ostrom was an American political economist whose work was associated with the New Institutional Economics and the resurgence of political economy. In 2009, she was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her "analysis of economic governance, especially the commons", which she shared with Oliver E. Williamson. To date, she remains the first of only two women to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, the other being Esther Duflo.

Common good (economics) economics

Common goods are defined in economics as goods that are rivalrous and non-excludable. Thus, they constitute one of the four main types based on the criteria:

A collective action problem or social dilemma is a situation in which all individuals would be better off cooperating but fail to do so because of conflicting interests between individuals that discourage joint action. The collective action problem has been addressed in political philosophy for centuries, but was most clearly established in 1965 in Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action.

The Commonize Costs–Privatize Profits Game is a concept developed by the ecologist Garrett Hardin to describe a "game" widely played in matters of resource allocation. The concept is Hardin's interpretation of the closely related phenomenon known as the tragedy of the commons, and is referred to in political discourse as "privatizing profits and socializing losses."

Vincent Alfred Ostrom was an American political economist and the Founding Director of the Ostrom Workshop based at Indiana University and the Arthur F. Bentley Professor Emeritus of Political Science. He and his wife, the economist Elinor Ostrom, made numerous contributions to the field of political science, political economy, and public choice.

Overexploitation Depleting a renewable resource

Overexploitation, also called overharvesting, refers to harvesting a renewable resource to the point of diminishing returns. Continued overexploitation can lead to the destruction of the resource. The term applies to natural resources such as: wild medicinal plants, grazing pastures, game animals, fish stocks, forests, and water aquifers.

The term "knowledge commons" refers to information, data, and content that is collectively owned and managed by a community of users, particularly over the Internet. What distinguishes a knowledge commons from a commons of shared physical resources is that digital resources are non-subtractible; that is, multiple users can access the same digital resources with no effect on their quantity or quality.

The digital commons are a form of commons involving the distribution and communal ownership of informational resources and technology. Resources are typically designed to be used by the community by which they are created.

The Institutional Analysis and Development framework (IAD) was developed by Elinor Ostrom, an American political scientist, who was the first woman to receive the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009. The IAD relates a set of concepts to help in the analysis of commons, such as fishery stocks, woodlands. Ostrom explored which institutional structures support arrangements that handle those resource stocks in a sustainable way, balancing individuals' use with the interest of a wider public. Under the rational choice models, the IAD was devised in an attempt to explain and predict outcomes by formally exploring and documenting the governance structures, the actors' positions, and the informal and formal rules devised for individuals to extract resources from the commons resource. Thus, the IAD is a systematic method to document policy analysis functions similar to analytic technique commonly used in physical and social sciences and understand how institutions operate and change over a period of time.


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Further reading