Commons

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Definition

Commons are resources used and managed jointly by people according to community-rules preventing the resources from damage, overuse and privatization. In the standard theory of economics, commons refers to resources that are collectively owned. This can include everything from land to health, biodiversity or software. The process by which the commons are transformed into private property is often termed enclosure.

The commons were traditionally defined as the elements of the environment - forests, atmosphere, fisheries or grazing land - that we all share. These are the tangible and intangible aspects of the environment that no-one owns but everybody enjoys.

But there are other conceptions of the commons. Today, the commons need to be understood within the cultural sphere as well. The commons within this sphere include literature, music, performing arts, visual arts, design, film, video, television, radio, community arts and sites of heritage. The commons can also include ‘public goods’ such as public space, public education, health and the infrastructure that allows our society to function (such as electricity or water delivery systems). There also exists the ‘life commons’ – the human genome that makes us a unique species. Though a central government may ‘manage’ these, realistically we have inherited them and any governing body only holds them in trust for the public as well as future generations.

The commons can also include the areas of human relationships such as the need for safety, trust, cooperation, shared intellect and so on. These are aspects of culture that our society shares and promotes a more functioning community.

Properties of commons

There are a number of important features that can be used to describe true commons. The first is that true commons cannot be commodified – and if they are – they cease to be commons. The second aspect is that while they are neither public nor private, they tend to be managed by communities, be they local or global. But they cannot have borders built around them otherwise they become private property. The third aspect of the commons is that, unlike resources, they are not scarce but abundant. In fact, if managed properly, they work to overcome scarcity.

Defense of the commons

The tragedy of the commons refers to a dilemma described in an influential article by that name written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968. The article describes a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen.

Counter-argument : the myth of the tragedy of the commons, the tragedy of the anti-commons.

The Manifesto Reclaim The Commons, launched at the last World Social Forum (Belem – Brazil – 2009) has been signed by nearly 1,100 people and 50 organizations without any structured campaign.


Links

  • Solidarity Commons, social network for Research and Development on Solidarity Economy and Commons