The Case for the Commons

This land is your land. It’s time to take it back.

  • The Case for the Commons Image

    James Yang /

  • The Case for the Commons Image

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 .

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.

In many ways, Hardin’s world looks a lot like our own, as we destroy it at a pace made more frantic by the recession. If you’re looking for a tragedy, you can find it everywhere, from the scrambling coltan-mining communities in the Congo to the increasingly desperate actions of farmers applying inorganic fertilizer to the soil to replace the fertility that their mono­culture has destroyed. Hardin’s is also a perspective that resonates with a particular breed of environmentalist.

Scratch the surface, though, and Hardin’s arguments blame the victim. Looking at the 20th century’s great environmental disasters, one doesn’t see people run amok. The environmental tragedies from the Dust Bowl to the mass extinctions of rainforest and ocean are the result of the behavior of corporations, of capitalist agriculture and forestry and fishing. The Dust Bowl happened because while individuals knew full well the value of the topsoil, their induction into capitalist agriculture turned them into exploiters of the very land on which their survival depended, transforming their connection to the world around them into one solely of short-term profit.

12/26/2013 1:46:21 AM

Tim Gieseke
9/2/2010 9:02:26 AM

The solution to the 'Tragedy of the Commons' is to convert it to the 'Opportunity of the Commons'. If our economic system can embrace these externalities - or so-called value of nothing - then it would provide a market signal to some one like me that farms the commons. Complicated, but not complex -

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