The Case for the Commons
This land is your land. It’s time to take it back.
James Yang / www.jamesyang.com
This article is part of a series of articles on the commons. For more, read The Science of Cooperation and A New Political Dawn. For more writing on the commons from the alternative press, visit utne.com/Commons.
The first three times I heard the word commons, I had no idea what it meant. Hearing the phrase House of Commons in a media report from the British Parliament, I guessed that being a part of the commons meant being rich, white, and aggressively drunk. The next time, it appeared in a British children’s television series in the 1970s—The Wombles, about a group of furry creatures who practiced the dark arts of recycling on Wimbledon Common. I imagined a common to be a place littered with exciting things that were removed by the Wombles to be reused in their burrow. The third time was on a holiday in New York, where my family was told that if we wanted to have the full American experience, we needed to head to Woodbury Common, a large shopping complex outside New York City. (I got a sweater with an American flag on it.) Common, I thought, was American English for “shopping center.” What I never quite understood was that common could be not only a place, but also a verb to describe how to value and share the world around us.
Although it is often associated with Britain and its colonies, the commons as place and process can be found in societies from Central America to South Asia and, most recently, cyberspace. A commons is a resource, most often land, and refers both to the territory and to the ways people allocate the goods that come from that land. The commons has traditionally provided food, fuel, water, and medicinal plants for those who used it—it was the poorest people’s life-support system.
The term “tragedy of the commons” was coined by microbiologist Garrett Hardin in a 1968 Science article, in which he asked what happens when individuals compete for a scarce resource. Hardin argued that when people are faced with a shared resource, they will be overrun by their own selfish desires to consume it, even if they know that they’re destroying it in the process. So, propelled by animal urges of self-satisfaction, in a world of scarcity, people will end up destroying the thing that they depend on for survival. Hobbes couldn’t have said it better. Hardin’s views weren’t, however, based on any experimental or observed evidence, and they ignored history. Despite this disconnection from the past, his essay became one of the most widely cited think pieces of the 20th century.
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