The following letter was written by me to some villagers I know scattered around Alaska, with supporting material on a recent Nobel Prize winner. Then I thought I'd add anecdotal information for the fun of it. Like the Easter Islander's story, which I never knew, until I saw it on the History Channel recently. And I saw plenty of parallels to what is happening on the whole space island we're on.
Many hundreds of years ago, the Easter Islanders started sculpting rocks in abstract images of men for good luck. It became a competition to see who could make the biggest one, which gave them some social advantage or other. They became possessed with sculpting these huge figures, and too, the island got hit with a mammoth storm or tsunami which left no trees standing. So they ended up eating each other.
Their solution was to have a competition once a year to climb down a thousand foot cliff by hand, swim a mile or two off-shore, and get the first bird egg of the year, swim and climb back and give it to the elders. Then the winner's family could rule Easter Island for the next twelve months. The culture stabilized after that, that is, until the British started hauling them off into slavery.
But I heard of a superior competitor in Western Alaska thinking along the same lines, although at the moment his mandate is tenuous and maybe non-existent. The comparison of the Easter Islanders to some Western Alaska villages might not be too distant in certain regards. I know one thing for sure, the big mining and oil companies aren't concerned.
Think Pebble prospect versus a good chunk of the world's salmon. The biggest gold miner in the world is interested in building a bigger port for his yacht, and those of his friends, in the Mediterranean Sea. I saw an artists drawing of a LSV mega yacht with hydroponic farms and trawl gear. What??? (The LSV means Life Support Vessel.) So does this mean the rich are going to just float off over the horizon after they have raped the land in the name of free market capitalism? Are you home Sean?
My letter and the news articles follow:
You know, I was going to write something, wasn't sure what, with the lead-in of working together. You folks in the villages have been on my mind and then I saw the attached material again. I can't imagine a large segment of society working together, for instance, all fishermen. Even if there was a pat definition of 'fisherman,' given that more of them all the time sit on shore while they rent their boat and license out. I've been writing for some time about working together, since Elinor Ostrom won a peace prize for her work on cooperative resource management.
The article below highlights the issue in regards resource management. However my thoughts have been on a community level and I wonder how much communities CAN work together to manage local resources, or do 'barn raising' projects. There are articles written about how everyone is so independent these days, the family unit is disintegrating, etc. The 'me generation' and all that. We might want to think about some very tried and true stuff to 'make it' if things keep going the way they are: peak oil, devaluation of the dollar, etc. After all, most public policy is fairly new, untested, stuff. Some is downright warped.
I started writing on low-tech fish preservation methods some years ago, and tried a low-tech processing project last winter, except with a high tech 'processor.' That processor just happened to be available, and I think it signaled to me that going low tech is safer. A blend of good, new, sustainable technology blended with good old technology. Like 'integrative medicine.' Can we look forward with courage, as communities, and decide what strategies will work if we have only ourselves to rely on? Is there any commitment for this kind of thing any more?
To develop strategies, we have to be brutally honest about what our assets are. Just about every town profile I've seen repeats the mantra of 'strong sense of community.' Even Petersburg: so why did half of the seine fleet jump ship and join the Silver Bay bandwagon in Sitka. They may maintain homes in Petersburg, and their winter moorage, but so much for the 'close knit community' business.
A new leadership paradigm could turn things around, and it must. I don't think there is a town in Alaska that isn't going down a little or a lot. The thinking is that 40 to 100 cities in the U.S. are basically bankrupt. Even whole states. And the Fed says it isn't going to bail them out with bond issues and all like they did for the banks. Remembering that the Fed was set up BY the banks.
I probably should have continued to 'fast' after 'my procedure.' You know, the kind of oscopy that nobody likes to discuss in polite company. I was starting to see pretty darn clearly. Since I had put your communities on the front burner of my mind, I did get one gem. And that is that knowledge takes a much lower position than community spirit. Although the thought included good family and interpersonal relations as well.
So after all this pondering on the fate of the coastal community, and all the key-pad racket, I conclude there is enough love in a community to 'git 'er done.' Just look at the parents with children and there's your answer right there. But we do need to stop sculpting statues.
Rewriting the “Tragedy of the Commons”
What cooperation and sharing have to do with saving the world.
by Bill McKibben
posted Jan 10, 2011
"Mexico has become a global leader in safeguarding its expansive forests. And it has done so not by fencing the forests behind "no trespassing" signs, but by giving local communities ownership rights and an opportunity to take responsibility for their stewardship."
-Luis A. Ubiñas, "At Climate Talks, An Answer Grows Outside."
It was two years before the first Earth Day in 1970 when Garrett Hardin penned the famous essay “Tragedy of the Commons,” and it fit a certain bleak and despairing mood of the time. Paul Ehrlich had just published The Population Bomb, a Malthusian account of a world overwhelmed by sheer numbers of people. Against the backdrop of that gloom, Hardin’s theory came as another dose of bad news, “proving” that we also had no hope of controlling our appetite for natural resources. Since no one owned the oceans or the atmosphere, we would inevitably fish and pollute them into oblivion. Hardin offered a few suggestions, but his title summed it up: we were witnessing a tragedy whose script could not be revised.
Oddly, a decade later his argument fit just as easily the exuberant, privatizing mood of the Reagan years. No one owns the sky or the sea? Well, then, let’s sell them! The race was on to privatize everything, from fishing rights to kids’ playgrounds, on the theory that this was the only way to manage them well. Society was the problem, the individual was the solution.
The race was on to privatize everything, from fishing rights to kids’ playgrounds, on the theory that this was the only way to manage them well.
The only thing that Hardin’s argument didn’t fit was the facts, at least not all of them. For eons communities had managed to protect all kinds of resources without private ownership. In America and in England, it’s true, a couple of centuries of enclosure and corporatization made this harder to recall. But around the world most of the pasturelands, forests and streams, had long been controlled by communities, drawing on deep traditions of custom and collective wisdom. Even in the U.S. we had classic examples—the acequia irrigation systems of New Mexico, which may be the only sustainable water systems in the American west, or the lobster fishery of Maine, protected from overfishing less by law than by long custom.
And in the years since “The Tragedy of the Commons” appeared, even a cursory glance around the landscape reveals that Hardin’s gloom has been disproven a thousand times. For example, I’m willing to bet that many of the people reading this book turned on their local public radio station this morning. Here’s how public radio works: give away your product for free with no advertising, and then twice a year wheedle people to make a donation to pay for it. Turn that in as your business plan at some bank and they’ll laugh you out the door, but public radio has been the fastest-growing sector of the broadcast industry for years. And now we have low power F.M. and community radio, not to mention the explosion of free content on the Internet.
I’ve spent most of my life as a writer—and one of the sweetest parts of that job is knowing that whatever I produce ends up in a library, an institution dedicated to the idea that we can share things easily. There are innumerable other examples—and they are the parts of our lives that we usually care most about. They don’t show up on balance sheets because they’re not producing profit—but they are producing satisfaction.
These things we share are called commons, which simply means they belong to all of us. Commons can be gifts of nature—such as fresh water, wilderness and the airwaves—or the products of social ingenuity like the Internet, parks, artistic traditions, or the public health service. But today much of our common wealth is under threat from those hungry to ruin it or take it over for selfish, private purposes.
We have to figure out how to cooperatively own and protect the single most important feature of the planet we inhabit—the thin envelope of atmosphere that makes our lives possible.
The most crucial commons, perhaps, is the one now under greatest siege, and it poses a test of whether we can pull together to solve our deepest problems or succumb to disaster. Our atmosphere has been de facto privatized for a long time now—we’ve allowed coal, oil and gas interests to own the sky, filling it with the carbon that is the inevitable byproduct of their business. For a couple of centuries this seemed mostly harmless—CO2 didn’t seem to be causing much trouble. But two decades ago we started to understand the effects of global warming, and now each month the big scientific journals bring us new proof of just how vast the damage is: the Arctic is melting, Australia is on fire, the pH of the ocean is dropping fast.
If we are to somehow ward off the coming catastrophes, we have to reclaim this atmospheric commons. We have to figure out how to cooperatively own and protect the single most important feature of the planet we inhabit—the thin envelope of atmosphere that makes our lives possible. Wrestling this key prize away from Exxon Mobil and other corporations is the great political issue of our time, and some of the solutions proposed have been ingenious—most notably the idea put forth by commons theorist Peter Barnes and others that we should own the sky jointly, and share in the profits realized by leasing its storage space to the fossil fuel industry. For that to work, of course, we would have to reduce that storage space quickly and dramatically. Barnes’ Cap-and-Dividend plan offers one way to make that economically and politically feasible.
But for this and other necessary projects to succeed, we need first to break the intellectual spell under which we live. The last few decades have been dominated by the premise that if we privatize all economic resources it will produce endless riches. Which was kind of true, except that the riches went to only a few people. And in the process they melted the Arctic, as well as dramatically increasing inequality around the world. Jay Walljasper performs the greatest of services with this book. It is—choose your metaphor—a bracing slap across the face or the kiss that breaks an enchantment. In either case, after reading it you will be much more alive to the world as it actually is, not as it exists in the sweaty dreams of ideologues and economics professors.
The commons is a crucial part of the human story that must be recovered if we are to deal with the problems now crowding in on us. This story is equal parts enlightening and encouraging, and it is entirely necessary for us to hear it.
This article is excerpted for YES! Magazine from All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons by Jay Walljasper and On the Commons (The New Press). Noted environmental author Bill McKibben is scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College and one of the founders of the 350 campaign to curb climate change. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
“The Commons Offers a New Story for the Future” by Bill McKibben originally appeared in All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons: How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities, and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us Copyright © 2010 by Jay Walljasper, published by The New Press, Inc. and reprinted here with permission.
A Nobel for Common(s) Sense
ALSO SEE BELOW: An interview with economics laureate Elinor Ostrom,
who studies the way communities self-organize to solve common problems.
Elinor Ostrom Wins Nobel for Common(s) Sense
The newest Nobel Laureate in Economics has built her career on the science of cooperation.
by Fran Korten
posted Feb 26, 2010
Elinor Ostrom was an unusual choice for the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
For one thing, she is the first woman to receive the prize. Her Ph.D. is in political science, not economics (though she minored in economics, collaborates with many economists, and considers herself a political economist). But what makes this award particularly special is that her work is about cooperation, while standard economics focuses on competition.
Ostrom’s seminal book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, was published in 1990. But her research on common property goes back to the early 1960s, when she wrote her dissertation on groundwater in California. In 1973 she and her husband, Vincent Ostrom, founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. In the intervening years, the Workshop has produced hundreds of studies of the conditions in which communities self-organize to solve common problems. Ostrom currently serves as professor of political science at Indiana University and senior research director of the Workshop.
Fran Korten, YES! Magazine’s publisher, spent 20 years with the Ford Foundation making grants to support community management of water and forests in Southeast Asia and the United States. She and Ostrom drew on one another’s work as this field of knowledge developed. Fran interviewed her friend and colleague Lin Ostrom shortly after Ostrom received the Nobel Prize.
- Fran Korten: When you first learned that you had won the Nobel Prize in Economics, were you surprised?
Elinor Ostrom: Yes. It was quite surprising. I was both happy and relieved.
Fran: Why relieved?
Elinor: Well, relieved in that I was doing a bunch of research through the years that many people thought was very radical and people didn’t like. As a person who does interdisciplinary work, I didn’t fit anywhere. I was relieved that, after all these years of struggle, someone really thought it did add up. That’s very nice.
And it’s very nice for the team that I’ve been a part of here at the Workshop. We have had a different style of organizing. It is an interdisciplinary center—we have graduate students, visiting scholars, and faculty working together. I never would have won the Nobel but for being a part of that enterprise.
Fran: It’s interesting that your research is about people learning to cooperate. And your Workshop at the university is also organized on principles of cooperation.
Elinor: I have a new book coming out in May entitled Working Together, written with Amy Poteete and Marco Janssen. It is on collective actions in the commons. What we’re talking about is how people work together. We’ve used an immense array of different methods to look at this question—case studies, including my own dissertation and Amy’s work, modeling, experiments, large-scale statistical work. We show how people use multiple methods to work together.
Fran: Many people associate “the commons” with Garrett Hardin’s famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” He says that if, for example, you have a pasture that everyone in a village has access to, then each person will put as many cows on that land as he can to maximize his own benefit, and pretty soon the pasture will be overgrazed and become worthless. What’s the difference between your perspective and Hardin’s?
Elinor: Well, I don’t see the human as hopeless. There’s a general tendency to presume people just act for short-term profit. But anyone who knows about small-town businesses and how people in a community relate to one another realizes that many of those decisions are not just for profit and that humans do try to organize and solve problems.
If you are in a fishery or have a pasture and you know your family’s long-term benefit is that you don’t destroy it, and if you can talk with the other people who use that resource, then you may well figure out rules that fit that local setting and organize to enforce them. But if the community doesn’t have a good way of communicating with each other or the costs of self-organization are too high, then they won’t organize, and there will be failures.
Fran: So, are you saying that Hardin is sometimes right?
We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.
Elinor: Yes. People say I disproved him, and I come back and say “No, that’s not right. I’ve not disproved him. I’ve shown that his assertion that common property will always be degraded is wrong.” But he was addressing a problem of considerable significance that we need to take seriously. It’s just that he went too far. He said people could never manage the commons well.
At the Workshop we’ve done experiments where we create an artificial form of common property—such as an imaginary fishery or pasture, and we bring people into a lab and have them make decisions about that property. When we don’t allow any communication among the players, then they overharvest. But when people can communicate, particularly on a face-to-face basis, and say, “Well, gee, how about if we do this? How about we do that?” Then they can come to an agreement.
Fran: But what about the “free-rider” problem—where some people abide by the rules and some people don’t? Won’t the whole thing fall apart?
Elinor: Well if the people don’t communicate and get some shared norms and rules, that’s right, you’ll have that problem. But if they get together and say, “Hey folks, this is a project that we’re all going to have to contribute to. Now, let’s figure it out,” they can make it work. For example, if it’s a community garden, they might say, “Do we agree every Saturday morning we’re all going to go down to the community garden, and we’re going to take roll and we’re going to put the roll up on a bulletin board?” A lot of communities have figured out subtle ways of making everyone contribute, because if they don’t, those people are noticeable.
Fran: So public shaming and public honoring are one key to managing the commons?
Elinor: Shaming and honoring are very important. We don’t have as much of an understanding of that. There are scholars who understand that, but that’s not been part of our accepted way of thinking about collective action.
Fran: Do you have a favorite example of where people have been able to self-organize to manage property in common?
Elinor: One that I read early on that just unglued me—because I wasn’t expecting it—was the work of Robert Netting, an anthropologist who had been studying the alpine commons for a very long time. He studied Swiss peasants and then studied in Africa too. He was quite disturbed that people were saying that Africans were primitive because they used common property so frequently and they didn’t know about the benefits of private property. The implication was we’ve got to impose private property rules on them. Netting said, “Are the Swiss peasants stupid? They use common property also.”
8 Keys to a Successful Commons
Advice on how to govern our commons by Nobel winner Elinor Ostrom.
Let’s think about this a bit. In the valleys, they use private property, while up in the alpine areas, they use common property. So the same people know about private property and common property, but they choose to use common property for the alpine areas. Why? Well, the alpine areas are what Netting calls “spotty.” The rainfall is high in one section one year, and the snow is great, and it’s rich. But the other parts of the area are dry. Now if you put fences up for private property, then Smith’s got great grass one year—he can’t even use it all—and Brown doesn’t have any. So, Netting argued, there are places where it makes sense to have an open pasture rather than a closed one. Then he gives you a very good idea of the wide diversity of the particular rules that people have used for managing that common land.
Fran: Why were Netting’s findings so surprising to you?
Elinor: I had grown up thinking that land was something that would always move to private property. I had done my dissertation on groundwater in California, so I was familiar with the management of water as a commons. But when I read Netting, I realized that when there are “spotty” land environments, it really doesn’t make sense to put up fences and have small private plots.
Fran: Lin, if you were to have a sit-down session with someone with a big influence on natural resources policy—say Robert Zoellick, head of the World Bank, or Ken Salazar, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, what would be your advice?
Elinor: No panaceas! We tend to want simple formulas. We have two main prescriptions: privatize the resource or make it state property with uniform rules. But sometimes the people who are living on the resource are in the best position to figure out how to manage it as a commons.
Fran: Is there a role for government in those situations?
Elinor: We need institutions that enable people to carry out their management roles. For example, if there’s conflict, you need an open, fair court system at a higher level than the people’s resource management unit. You also need institutions that provide accurate knowledge. The United States Geological Survey is one that I point to repeatedly. They don’t come in and try to make proposals as to what you should do. They just do a really good job of providing accurate scientific knowledge, particularly for groundwater basins such as where I did my Ph.D. research years ago. I’m not against government. I’m just against the idea that it’s got to be some bureaucracy that figures everything out for people.
Fran: How important is it that there is a match between a governing jurisdiction and the area of the resource to be managed?
Elinor: To manage common property you need to create boundaries for an area at a size similar to the problem the people are trying to cope with. But it doesn’t need to be a formal jurisdiction. Sometimes public officials don’t even know that the local people have come to some agreements. It may not be in the courts, or even written down. That is why sometimes public authorities wipe out what local people have spent years creating.
Fran: You’ve done your research on small- and medium-sized natural resource jurisdictions. How about the global commons? We have the problems of climate change and oceans that are dying. Are there lessons from your work that are relevant to these massive problems we’re now facing?
Elinor: I really despair over the oceans. There is a very interesting article in Science on the “roving bandit.” It is so tempting to go along the coast and scoop up all the fish you can and then move on. With very big boats, you can do that. I think we could move toward solving that problem, but right now there are not many instrumentalities for doing that.
Regarding global climate change, I’m more hopeful. There are local public benefits that people can receive at the same time they’re generating benefits for the global environment. Take health and transportation as an example. If more people would walk or bicycle to work and use their car only when they have to go some distance, then their health would be better, their personal pocketbooks would be better, and the atmosphere would be better. Of course, if it’s just a few people, it won’t matter, but if more and more people feel “This is the kind of life I should be living,” that can substantially help the global problem. Similarly, if we invest in re-doing the insulation of a lot of buildings, we can save money as well as help the global environment. Yes, we want some global action but boy, if we just sit around and wait for that? Come on!
Fran: Do you have a message for the general public?
Elinor: We need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house. Some of the homes that have been built in the last 10 years just appall me. Why do humans need huge homes? I was born poor and I didn’t know you bought clothes at anything but the Goodwill until I went to college. Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.
Fran: Let’s look ahead 20 years. What would you hope that the world will understand about managing common property systems?
Elinor: What we need is a broader sense of what we call “social ecological systems.” We need to look at the biological side and the social side with one framework rather than 30 different languages. That is big, but I now have some of my colleagues very interested. Some of them are young, and what I find encouraging is that with a bunch of us working together, I can see us moving ahead in the next 20 years or so. Twenty years from now, at 96, I probably won’t be as active.
Fran: Not as active? I wouldn’t bet on that.
Fran Korten interviewed Elinor Ostrom for America: The Remix, the Spring 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Fran is publisher of YES! Magazine.