I hadn’t thought much about using the idea of the commons in my work as a peacebuilder until the term resonated with my therapist last week. As a self-described climate voter, she immediately saw the term as a useful metaphor for understanding the world we live in and then acting accordingly.

Since she often gives me homework assignments that help me deal with my personal growth, I decided to give myself one for my work by asking myself how and why the commons could be at the heart of the work I do for social change that extends far beyond peacebuilding and includes many people who come from the same social milieu as my doctor.

That took me back to my previous post on the noosphere which, along with my doctor’s enthusiasm, led to the realization that we had to take the idea of the commons even more seriously than I thought even two weeks ago because:

  • It is the most engaging way of describing the challenges of life in the twenty-first century because it lends itself to hopeful interpretations and outcomes
  • It therefore should become a key organizing principle around which we base our responses to those challenges
  • It starts with changing the way we think about the world by making those things we share in common—including the climate, our shared inheritances, and even life itself–our highest priority

As they did last time, those three points will eventually get me to Elinor Ostrom (whose photo is at the top of this post) and her pathbreaking research on managing the commons, at which point my therapist will return to the narrative.

But first, some background on the two very different ways the term commons (with an “s” in both the singular and plural) is used.

From One Commons to Another

The term commons has entered my life in two quite different ways.

I spent the first third of my career teaching and writing about comparative politics where the word “commons” conveys the image of lower status people (commoners) and their representatives (the British House of Commons). If you haven’t ever seen why the House of Commons is not a role model for what I will be talking about here, take a half hour and watch the last Prime Minister’s Question Time before the House went on its summer break last month. You will have no trouble seeing that they are not exactly acting in common….

The peacebuilding version of the commons has the same etymological roots but its usage has evolved in a totally different way.

Sometime in the middle ages, people around Europe began referring to the commons as a place where they used and/or stored shared resources, holding them literally in common. Over time, two forms of common land usage came to stand out—where people grazed their livestock and where local militias trained. Typically, no single individual owned the land. More importantly, whoever owned the land, the commons was managed by the men and women who used it.

Over the centuries, those commons faced more than their share of threats. In England, in particular, the common lands were increasingly “enclosed” by aristocrats who technically owned them in ways that, among other things, helped make the industrial revolution possible. In New England which also had commons, they gradually outgrew their utility as commercial agriculture and professional militaries took hold. In the most famous example, the region’s largest common was turned into a park that many of us enjoy to this day—the Boston Common.

Garrett Hardin Enters the Scene

The commons might have languished in historical obscurity (other than pleasant afternoons on the Boston Common, that is) had it not been for the not quite coincidental but simultaneous appearance of the modern environmental movement and Garrett Hardin’s seminal 1968 article, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

By the time he wrote, environmentalists knew that everything from our growing population to our growing (mis)use of resources was putting the global ecosystem in jeopardy. And we were doing a lousy job of meeting those challenges, something that Hardin seemed to explain brilliantly. Or at least my graduate school professors at the University of Michigan thought so when they made us read the article during the same semester that the first Earth Day celebrations was held with its spotlight on Ann Arbor. In fact, if I remember right, I attended some Earth Day events in the same building where my political science seminars were held.

It was a hard argument to ignore. And an even harder argument to accept.

On the one hand, Hardin himself had solid environmentalist credentials and clearly wanted to preserve those endangered commons. On the other hand, he supported eugenics and had libertarian tendencies. The latter led him to apply conventional microeconomic theories to our tendency to overuse shared resources until the commons itself collapsed for one simple reason. Self-interested users would never voluntarily agree to limit their use. They would be too many free riders who consumed the commons’ resources until they entire system collapsed.

In the nearly sixty years since he wrote, the potential tragedy of the commons has gotten dramatically worse in two ways that he probably would have understood and had an I-told-you-so reaction to.

  • More and more of the problems we face have commons like tendencies in that they are putting shared resources at risk. That is most clearly the case with climate change but applies to most issues we face since they are anchored in interconnected, complex networks in which changing one element directly or indirectly changes everything else.
  • We are not doing a very good job of addressing whose whole systems as whole systems for the very reasons he discussed. Again, that is most obvious with climate change but applies across the board to racism, public health, economic justice, and more.

Elinor Ostrom to the Rescue

I never was happy with Hardin’s argument. It does makes sense if you accept conventional economic thinking and the assumptions about human nature that go along with it. But that is an “if” I have never been willing to accept either as an academic or an activist.

But because my own teaching and research rarely touched on questions involving the commons or collective action in general until the turn of the century, I never really had to systematically take his ideas on. That also meant that I didn’t have to pay much attention to Elinor Ostrom’s work until she won the Nobel prize for economics in 2009.

As I noted in the previous post, Ostrom had gathered reams of evidence about commons that not only avoided Hardin’s tragedy but thrived. More importantly for our purposes here, she developed a series of eight design principles for successfully managing a commons which I’ve adapted and abridged a bit for the connecting-the-dots issues I care the most about. Commons succeed when and if their members:

  • Nurture a strong identity that is built around a clear sense of purpose.
  • Make certain that whatever stakeholders do is fair, equitable, inclusive, and is appropriate given local conditions.
  • Develop a system through which community members can monitor whether or not other members are abiding by the rules, resolve conflicts when and if they occur, and sanction individuals and organizations who they do break the commons’ agreements.
  • Build institutions and practices that can expand what happens in a small commons to so that it can be taken to scale outward and upward.

It’s More Than Just The Commons

Ostrom taught public policy and thus focused at what political scientists refer to as decision makers in the state and elsewhere. While what happens at city hall, the state house, or in Washington obviously matters a lot, I’m convinced that we have to pay as much attention to cultural norms and the ways that we think about things like the commons because we have to shift the orientation of existing institutions. Everything I know as a social scientist suggests that cultural change has to precede or at least proceed hand in hand with shifts at the elite level if we are going to enact and sustain policy changes.

Here, the ultimate image of a commons—the image of the earth from space—is particularly helpful, as presented here by ProSocial, an organization I will return to at the end of this post. I’m old enough to remember seeing the first pictures of the entire earth taken from space a mere sixty years ago and the impact it had on my generation. Now, think about the evocative power of this photo that show a bunch of hands holding it up.

Yup, that’s the commons.

It is at this point that my therapist’s reaction comes back into the picture because she unwittingly forced me to go beyond Ostrom’s design principles because we are facing situations that are quite different from those that won her the Nobel Prize (Ostrom, that is, not my therapist). My doctor knew next to nothing about the academic debates surrounding Hardin’s argument, the related issues involving so-called free riders, or Ostrom’s work. What she did see was that the commons and these design principles can be a powerful metaphor that:

  • Appeals to climate activists like herself
  • Enables them to see how the racial, political, economic, gender, and environmental issues we face share commons-like features
  • Emphasizes the attitudinal changes that we can each make to bring our own thinking in line with preserving the commons
  • Leads to concrete actions we can all take

In the ten days since we spoke, I realized that there are also two critical differences between the commons Ostrom studied and most of the commons-like situations we face today. Most of the commons she studied were:

  • Limited in scope whereas the commons we need to preserve today are national and even global.
  • Were either designed as commons when they were created or converted into them early in their histories. By contrast, we have to take today’s well-established institutions and entrenched practices and help people see how and why we have to treat them as commons. That won’t happen—and can’t happen—quickly or easily.

During that time, I’ve also had my first discussions with members of ProSocial which was founded by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and a few other, less well known scientists.

And that means we have to help people see the need to think in terms of turning existing institutions and practices into commons and then manage them as shared resources in an Ostrom-like manner.

That’s why I’ve chosen to explore working with www.prosocial.world which tries to bring scientific discoveries about the commons, evolution, mindfulness, and complexity into our everyday lives. Their work is focused more on the thinking itself than on its practical implications for grass roots social change work.

I’m not sure yet how I can best bring these ideas into the communities I work with most closely. It would be a stretch to convince most of my activist friends to take the time to work through what can be a fairly abstract scientific literature whose home is pretty far from the kinds of social sciences most of my friends studied in college and graduate school.

Nonetheless, I suspect that there are entry points through concepts like bright spots and the adjacent possible that are also part of modern evolutionary thought, but that will have to wait until my next post.

So, stay tuned.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.