#13 post-2015
Patrick Delaney

Commons, Crises, and Tragedies

Managing, using and sustaining resources are social practices. Why we need to talk about the commons when discussing future development and sustainability.

From 2006 to 2010, Syria experienced its worst drought in four decades. In the northeast of the country, approximately 75 percent of households suffered total crop failure while shepherds in this region lost 85 percent of their livestock.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Thomas Friedman recently shed light on the connection between this devastating natural disaster and the Syrian Uprising in 2011 that has evolved into the civil war Syria is facing today. For a documentary that aired in April this year, Friedman retraced the events leading to three million Syrians being driven into extreme poverty, with one million farmers, herders and their families – traditionally conservative people, as Friedman puts it - relocating to already overcrowded urban areas. Friedman's investigations clearly identify the ecological crisis as a powerful catalyst for the political one, leading to a remarkable claim: “So to Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are funding the proxy war in Syria between Sunnis and Shiites/Alawites, all I can say is that you’re fighting for control of a potential human/ecological disaster zone. You need to be working together to rebuild Syria’s resiliency, and its commons, not destroying it. I know that in saying this I am shouting into a dust storm. But there is nothing else worth saying”.

“How exactly can an understanding of the commons further our understanding of future development and sustainability?”

The role that the commons play in the development of humanitarian crises – how they stabilize societies and economies when they are left intact and cared for, and how the same social and economical orders dissolve when the respective commons are destroyed – is often overlooked in contemporary development discourse. If that is true, then how exactly can an understanding of the commons further our understanding of future development and sustainability?

The commons are social practices revolving around common-pool resources of various scale and quality, ranging from community gardens, culture, and knowledge, to the world's oceans or even its atmosphere. Different kinds of commons sustain scientific progress, labor power, the environment, and human settlement space. Regardless, ever since ecologist Garret Hardin published his famous essay on “The Tragedy of the Commons” back in 1968, they have apparently been viewed as synonymous with the social dilemma of over-usage occurring around resources to which anybody has access. It took years of research and numerous publications to clarify that Hardin had conflated the commons with “open access” thus describing a “no man's land” that lacked precisely the social interactions and organizational structures that constitute a typical commons.

“We should listen closely to the ideas brought forward by 'commoners' worldwide when envisioning post-2015 development on a global scale.”

Talk about this concept surged after the late political economist Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her research on economic governance in 2009. Since then, the dust has settled a bit. The eruptions caused by the 2008 global financial crisis have proven themselves to be mere ripples on the surface of a system that displays a surprising amount of stability. Interest in alternative modes of economy and production seems to have weakened, while traders and policy-makers, researchers and workforces alike have more or less managed to settle back into their everyday lives. Still this article will argue that we should by no means abandon the significant findings of commons theorists during these years. We should listen closely to the ideas brought forward by 'commoners' worldwide when envisioning post-2015 development on a global scale. Exploring why the commons lie at the heart of conflicts and crises in the present and the future; and investigating the language of the commons will not only help identify the problems at hand. It will also make the implementation of urgent policies and reforms easier because of this concept’s ability to bridge the political gap between conservatives and liberals. The language of the commons is a very pragmatic language of ends and means and it tells stories of tragedies and prospects alike as the example of the Syrian Arab Republic illustrates.

“It seems that we are interconnected by our care – and maybe more to the point by our collective failure to care – for the commons, a fact sadly displayed by the large number of Syrian refugees arriving at European borders every day.”

Regarding the wide array of common-pool resources in Syria mentioned above, it becomes apparent that Friedman's statement must refer to both local and national commons. And indeed there seems to have been a culture of over-usage of farmland and water-reserves at work in northern Syria. Nevertheless, there is a broader picture to consider here if we acknowledge the Syrian drought and desertification as a local event embedded in global climate developments. It seems that we are interconnected by our care – and maybe more to the point by our collective failure to care – for the commons, a fact sadly displayed by the large number of Syrian refugees arriving at European borders every day.

What kind of lessons can we draw from this? First of all, social, cultural and ideological conflicts will most likely intensify as natural resources grow increasingly scarce. Existing systems of supply will have to become more resilient, where resilience refers to “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks”, defined by Rob Hopkins in his 2012 article “Resilience Thinking”. In the face of future scenarios like desertification, floods or peak oil, we need to be frank and acknowledge that the majority of our current modes of organizing production and distribution are performing relatively poorly in this regard. A prime example might be the supermarket that only stocks two days' worth of food at any given time, while replacing local supply chains, thus making a region much more dependent on global transport.

“Traditional commons and customary rights are destroyed and with them proven ways of managing local resources and culturally specific modes of governance.”

What holds true for Western developed countries applies even more to their development efforts in the global South. In this light, the idea of promoting regimes of governance similar to “Western” societies in states that are exposed to scarcity and poverty on a much greater level than others appears to be fatal. Yet, following international regulatory approaches such as the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and to a lesser degree the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), the Bretton Woods Institutions and many national development agencies have been engaging in this endeavor for the past three decades. And there are good arguments to be made for such a strategy: Private property rights for land, for example, are deemed to ease land conflicts, establish land markets and guarantee tenure security. Nevertheless there are downsides to this sort of policy that apply to developing countries in particular when even state property is often leased out as concessions to private actors. Economist Dirk Löhr makes this case for Cambodia where private concessions closely resemble private property as state officials either do not have the capacities necessary to enforce regulations and control protected areas or themselves engage in rent seeking. Rural populations are often at a disadvantage when it comes to contracts and lawsuits. Therefore this process destroys traditional commons and customary rights, and with them proven ways of managing local resources and culturally specific modes of governance, leading to over- and in some cases even under-usage: “The abuse of law to sanction this power play is pushing many states into a state of de facto anarchy. Paradoxically, the resulting, new state of 'de facto open access' is sometimes producing a gridlock of fragmented, overlapping property rights claims, a problem known as 'tragedy of the anticommons'”.

“While private ownership usually increases wealth, too much ownership has the opposite effect: it wrecks markets, stops innovation, and costs lives.”

The dilemma associated with the so-called anticommons is best described as a paradox of private ownership rights. As professor of real estate law at Columbia Law School Michael Heller puts it: “While private ownership usually increases wealth, too much ownership has the opposite effect: It wrecks markets, stops innovation, and costs lives”. Heller prominently made this case for drug patents, which are widely known to stifle innovation and ultimately account not only for slowing down medical research but also excluding parts of the world’s population from affordable treatment. This is where the language of the commons points toward an unbiased approach to future development policies. It does not make us choose between the market and the state and does not call for political revolution. It lets us closely examine which goods should be governed by whom, which goods should be sold in the marketplace, and which should be distributed differently. It inspires polycentric modes of governance that take local and traditional practices into account. Readjusting our systems of reproduction along those lines is a goal that liberals and conservatives alike should aspire to. By studying the commons, we learn that with regard to future development and sustainability, we should be less concerned with the sustainable growth of numbers and more with the sustainable growth of things. While we generally need to look closely at local practices of resource management and governance, cases like Syria can teach us to be more aware of the destabilizing effects related to the destruction of these practices and the resources they are based on. In the face of future crises, local resiliency will be a key factor worth fostering.

Photo: “patience” by Joel Bombardier
2011 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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