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For other uses, see Commons (disambiguation).

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.


The term "commons" derives from the traditional English legal term of common land, also known colloquially as "Commons". However, while common land might have been owned collectively, by a legal entity, the crown or a single person, it was subject to different forms of regulated usage, such as grazing of livestock, hunting, lopping of foliage or collecting resins. In distinction, the term commons in modern economic theory has come to refer to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, such as air, water, and a habitable earth.

A failure (tragedy of the commons) was a widespread metaphor of early economics, which came up in the 18th centuries.[1] Early econonomic writers and scientists were supporters of the British Agricultural Revolution and Land reform laws and were in favour of unified ownership of the land.[1] They tried to get rid of the traditional usage rights of the commoners and used the tragedy of the commons as a suitable metaphor. They quoted, among others, Aristotle's polemic against the Polis of Platon in the sense of "everybody's property is nobody's property" and respectively "the most common good is the least guarded". The conflict around the dissolution of the traditional commons played a watershed role in landscape development and cooperative land use patterns and property rights.[2] Among others, pamphlets as of 1833 by William Forster Lloyd on herders overusing a shared parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze became part of the common wisdom in economics.[3] The same concept is sometimes called the "tragedy of the fishers", because fishing too many fish before or during breeding could cause stocks to plummet.[4]

According Joachim Radkau, the alleged failure of the commons in the early economic literature and the status and functionality of the actual commons (or "Allmende")[5] did not correspond at all. While the commons tragedy was used as means for the enclosure movement and the clearances and in general to get rid of collective rights in favor of private property, the actual commons or "Allmende" provided no signs of an uncontrollable failure at all.[5]

As well, Elinor Ostrom[6] found the tragedy of the commons not as prevalent or as difficult to solve. She and her coworkers looked at how real-world communities manage communal resources, such as fisheries, land irrigation systems, and farmlands, and they identified a number of factors conducive to successful resource management. One factor is the resource itself; resources with definable boundaries (e.g., land) can be preserved much more easily. A second factor is resource dependence; there must be a perceptible threat of resource depletion, and it must be difficult to find substitutes. The third is the presence of a community; small and stable populations with a thick social network and social norms promoting conservation do better.[7] A final condition is that there be appropriate community-based rules and procedures in place with built-in incentives for responsible use and punishments for overuse. Locals have often come up with solutions to the commons problem themselves; when the commons is taken over by non-locals, those solutions can no longer be used.[8] Robert Axelrod contends that even self-interested individuals will often find ways to cooperate, because collective restraint serves both the collective and individual interests.[9]

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. The crowdsourcing movement and among others Wikipedia are examples of the production and maintenance of common goods by certain communities in the form or videos, music, or encyclopedic knowledge that can be freely accessed by anyone without a central authority.[10] Tragedy in the Wiki-Commons is avoided among others by community control and trading status and attention of individual authors within the Wikipedia community.[11]

Economist Peter Barnes has proposed a 'sky trust' to fix this problem in the 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 back into the atmosphere.[12]

The information commons

may protect the community. Companies that pollute the environment release information about what they are doing. The Corporate Toxics Information Project[13] and information like the Toxic 100, a list of the top 100 polluters,[14] helps people know what these corporations are doing to the environment.


Caring for the commons is an act of individual stewardship (long-term care for a given resource for the benefit of oneself and others including the resource itself) and collective trusteeship.[15]

Caring for the commons can stress relationships between otherwise friendly neighbors- especially if they come with unrealistic expressions. Caring for a shared commons requires an equal balance of stepping forward and getting the work done by creating an informal atmosphere that allows everyone to relax and enjoy. So, caring for the commons can not only build relationships but also strain them.[16]

Caring for the commons means more than just regulating. Caretakers are needed, that is, a system nurturing societal cooperation, sharing of goods and thoughtfulness of generations to come. It entails establishing norms that reduce free riding and hold communities together. For our generation seems to be moving beyond viewing commons only as a norm, and taking action to enable and protect them in all spheres of our lives.[17]

Tragedy of the commons[edit]

The tragedy of the commons is a situation where individuals acting independently and rationally according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole by depleting some common resource. The concept was based upon an essay written in 1833 by the Victorian economist William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land in the British Isles.[18] This became widely-known over a century later due to an article written by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968.[19]

The concept of the commons is generally taken to mean any shared and unregulated resources such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or even an office refrigerator; as distinct to the centuries-old use of the word "commons" when colloquially used to indicate formally-recognised common land in its collective sense.

The tragedy of the commons concept is often cited in connection with sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental protection, as well as in the debate over global warming. It has also been used in analyzing behavior in the fields of economics, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, game theory, politics, taxation and sociology.

The term tragedy of the commons was probably coined by Lloyd and later used by Hardin in his article.[18]

Comedy of the commons[edit]

The comedy of the commons is an economic concept, developed to explain why the tragedy of the commons model doesn't always correspond to reality. While the original paper on the tragedy of the commons suggested that all commons were doomed to failure, commons are extremely common in the real world. Work by later economists has found many examples of very successful commons. Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize for analysing under what situations commons are run successfully.[20][21][21] For example, Ostrom found that grazing commons in the Swiss Alps have been run successfully for many hundreds of years by the farmers there.[22] In the comedy, very often users of the commons are able to develop mechanisms to police their use to maintain and even improve the state of the commons.[23]

The term comedy of the commons appears to have originated in an essay by legal scholar, Carol M. Rose in 1986.[23][20][24] The concept, or closely related concepts are sometimes called the inverse commons, cornucupia of the commons, triumph of the commons.[25][26] in the cornucupia of the commons, some types of commons, such as open source software, work better as in those cases "the grass grows taller when it is grazed on".[27]



Mayo Fuster Morell proposed a definition of digital commons as "as an information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusivedible, 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".[28][29]

Examples of digital commons are Wikipedia, a type of Free Software and Open-source hardware projects.



Main article: Common land

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.[30]

In middle Europe, commons respectively small-scale agriculture in especially southern Germany, Austria and the alpine countries in general were kept, in some parts till the present.[1] Some studies have compared the German and English dealings with the commons between the late medieval times and the agrarian reforms of the 18/19th century. The UK were quite radical with doing away and enclosing former commons, while southwestern Germany (and the alpine countries as e.g. Switzerland) had the most advanced commons structures and was much more willing to keep them. The Lower Rhine region took an intermediate position.[31] However, the UK and the former dominons have till today a large amount of Crown land which often is used for community or conservation purposes.

Alfred Thomas Grove and Oliver Rackham's history of the Nature of Mediterranean Europe see a rich heritage of the tradition of highly varied land use patterns there, including commons, which are base of the ecological variety in the Mediterranean.[32]

Mongolian grasslands[edit]

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.[33] In Mongolia, where shepherds were permitted to move collectively between seasonal grazing pastures, degradation remained relatively low at approximately 9%. Comparatively that of Russia and China, which implemented state-owned pastures involving immobile settlements and in some cases privatization by household, was much higher at around 75% and 33% respectively.[34] A collaborative effort on the part of Mongolians proved much more efficient in preserving grazing land.

Lobster fishery of Maine[edit]

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

Community forests in Nepal[edit]

Implemented 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 therefore increasing the incentive to protect them from overuse. These 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 visible improvements in the number of trees. In addition to this, community forestry contributed to community development in rural areas such as school construction, irrigation channel & drinking water construction and road construction. Similarly their fund allocated into the poor focused activities as well. Furthermore, community forestry has become an example of an appropriate institution for democratic practices at grass root level, where we can see absolute inclusion into their executive committee.[36]

Irrigation systems of New Mexico[edit]

Main article: Acequia

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.[37]

Notable theorists[edit]

Historical movements
Contemporary movements

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bollier, David. "The Commons". Public Sphere Project. Schuler. Retrieved 26 October 2015.
  • Bowers, Chet. (2006). Revitalizing the Commons: Cultural and Educational Sites of Resistance and Affirmation. Lexington Books.
  • Bowers, Chet. (2012). The Way Forward: Educational Reforms that Focus on the Cultural Commons and the Linguistic Roots of the Ecological Crisis. Eco-Justice Press.
  • Fourier, Charles. (1996). The Theory of the Four Movements (Cambridge University Press)
  • Gregg, Pauline. (2001). Free-Born John: A Biography of John Lilburne (Phoenix Press)
  • Harvey, Neil. (1998). The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy (Duke University Press)
  • Hill, Christopher. (1984). The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Penguin)
  • Hill, Christopher. (2006). Winstanley ‘The Law of Freedom’ and other Writings (Cambridge University Press)
  • Hyde, Lewis. (2010). Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Kennedy, Kennedy. (2008). Diggers, Levellers, and Agrarian Capitalism: Radical Political Thought in 17th Century England (Lexington Books)
  • Kostakis, Vasilis and Bauwens, Michel. (2014). Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy. (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan). (wiki)
  • Leaming, Hugo P. (1995). Hidden Americans: Maroons of Virginia and the Carolinas (Routledge)
  • Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. (2000). The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press)
  • Linebaugh, Peter. (2008). The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (University of California Press)
  • Lummis, Douglas. (1997). Radical Democracy (Cornell University Press)
  • Mitchel, John Hanson. (1998). Trespassing: An Inquiry into the Private Ownership of Land (Perseus Books)
  • Neeson, J. M. (1996). Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700—1820 (Cambridge University Press)
  • Negri, Antonio, and Michael Hardt. (2009). Commonwealth. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674060288
  • Newfont, Kathyn. (2012). Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina (The University of Georgia Press)
  • Patel, Raj. (2010). The Value of Nothing (Portobello Books)
  • Price, Richard, ed. (1979). Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas (The Johns Hopkins University Press)
  • Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. (1994). What is Property? (Cambridge University Press)
  • Rexroth, Kenneth. (1974). Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (Seabury Press)
  • Rowe, Jonathan. (2013). Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy That Makes Everything Else Work (Berrett-Koehler)
  • Shantz, Jeff. (2013). Commonist Tendencies: Mutual Aid Beyond Communism. (Punctum)



  1. ^ a b c Radkau 2008, p. 90, ff in the German text
  2. ^ The end of the commons as a watershed' The Age of Ecology, Joachim Radkau, John Wiley & Sons, 03.04.2014, p. 15 ff
  3. ^ Lloyd, William Forster (1833). Two Lectures on Population. 
  4. ^ Samuel Bowles: Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution, Princeton University Press, pp. 27–29 (2004) ISBN 0-691-09163-3
  5. ^ a b Radkau, Joachim. (2008). Nature and Power, A Global History of the Environment, p. 72
  6. ^ Ostrom, Elinor; Burger, Joanna; Field, Christopher B.; Norgaard, Richard B.; Policansky, David (1999). "Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges". Science 284: 278–282. doi:10.1126/science.284.5412.278. PMID 10195886. 
  7. ^ van Vugt, Mark (January 2002). "Central, Individual, or Collective Control? Social Dilemma Strategies for Natural Resource Management". American Behavioral Scientist 45 (5): 783–800. doi:10.1177/0002764202045005004. 
  8. ^ "Ostrom 'revisits the commons' in 'Science'". Archived from the original on June 1, 2001. 
  9. ^ Axelrod, Robert (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02121-2. 
  10. ^ Huberman, Bernardo A. and Romero, Daniel M. and Wu, Fang, Crowdsourcing, Attention and Productivity (September 12, 2008). doi:10.2139/ssrn.1266996
  11. ^ Avoiding Tragedy in the Wiki-Commons, by Andrew George, 12 Va. J.L. & Tech. 8 (2007)
  12. ^ Barnes, Peter (2000). Pie in the Sky. Washington D.C: Corporation for Enterprise Development. p. 1. ISBN 1-883187-32-X. 
  13. ^ "Corporate Toxics Information Project". Political Economy Research Institute. PERI-Umass. 
  14. ^ Ash, Michael. "Justice in the Air" (PDF). PERI. PERI- Umass. 
  15. ^ O'Riordan, Timothy. Environmental science for environmental management. 
  16. ^ Chapin Ross, Susanka Sarah. Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World. 
  17. ^ "Campaign Brief: Caring for the Commons". Archived from the original on February 2, 2014. 
  18. ^ a b Lloyd, William Forster (1833). Two lectures on the checks to population. England: Oxford University. 
  19. ^ Hardin, G (1968). "The Tragedy of the Commons". Science 162 (3859): 1243–1248. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243. PMID 5699198. 
  20. ^ a b Rifkin, Jeremy. "10 - Comedy of the Commons". The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative. Retrieved 2 February 2016. 
  21. ^ a b Governing the Commons- The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action Elinor Ostrom Published: October 2015 ISBN 9781107569782
  22. ^ NPR: Remembering Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Laureate Updated June 13, 201211:08 AM ET Published June 12, 20125:37 PM ET
  23. ^ a b Rose, Carol M. (1986). "The Comedy of the Commons: Commerce, Custom, and Inherently Public Property". Faculty Scholarship Series (Yale Law School): Paper 1828. Retrieved December 28, 2011. 
  24. ^ The Drama of the Commons By Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change, National Research Council, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, Board on Environmental Change and Society
  25. ^ Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth By David Bollier
  26. ^ Cox, Susan Jane Buck. (1985). "No tragedy on the Commons," Journal of Environmental Ethics 7 (Spring).
  27. ^ The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an ... By Eric Raymond
  28. ^ Fuster Morell, M. (2010, p. 5). Dissertation: Governance of online creation communities: Provision of infrastructure for the building of digital commons.
  29. ^ Berry, David (21 February 2005). "The commons". Free Software Magazine. 
  30. ^ Anon. "Commoner". Farlex Inc. Retrieved 20 April 2012. 
  31. ^ Hartmut Zückert: Allmende und Allmendaufhebung. Vergleichende Studien zum Spätmittelalter bis zu den Agrarreformen des 18./19. Jahrhunderts (= Quellen und Forschungen zur Agrargeschichte; Bd. 47), Stuttgart: Lucius & Lucius 2003, IX + 462 S., 4 Farb-Abb., ISBN 978-3-8282-0226-9 review (in German)
  32. ^ Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History, by Alfred Thomas Grove, Oliver Rackham, Yale University Press, 2003, p. 88 ff
  33. ^ Sneath, David. "State Policy and Pasture Degradation in Inner Asia". Science Magazine. Retrieved 11 May 2011. 
  34. ^ Ostrom, Elinor. "Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges". Science Magazine. Retrieved 11 May 2011. 
  35. ^ Acheson, James (2004). Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster. University Press of New England. ISBN 9781584653936. 
  36. ^ Mehta, Trupti Parekh. "Community Forestry in India and Nepal". PERC Reports. 
  37. ^ Davidson-Harden, Adam. "Local Control and Management of Our Water Commons: Stories of Rising to the Challenge" (PDF). Retrieved 11 May 2011. 

External links[edit]

  • On the Commons – dedicated to exploring ideas and action about the commons—which encompasses natural assets such as oceans and clean air as well as cultural endowments like the Internet, scientific research and the arts.
  • The Peer to Peer Foundation and the Economics and the Commons Conference.
  • International Journal of the Commons – an interdisciplinary peer-reviewed open-access journal dedicated to furthering the understanding of institutions for use and management of resources that are (or could be) enjoyed collectively.
  • Infrastructuring the Commons – Aalto University Special Interest Group SIG in the Commons (peer-production, co-production, co-governance, co-creation) and Public(s)services. The SIG addresses the relevance of the Commons as a framework to expand the understanding of emerging considerations for the design, provision and maintenance of public services and urban space. Helsinki, Finland.