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Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Commons

Three works are dominating my recent thinking.

They are: The Tragedy of the Commons by Garret Hardin (1968, updated 2005); Governing the Commons by Elinor Ostrom (1990), and Reclaiming the Commons by Al Fritsch (2009, updated 2013. Also Naomi Klein, David Bollier, and Brian Donahue)

According to Ostrom, a discussion of the commons is part of a larger discussion on the theory of collective action which is vital to our economy and our politics. Those of us who promote community organizing as an essential component of a free and open society for democratic social change will want to pay close attention to this discussion. I would go so far as to say that much of the polarization in our politics in regards to our economy is due to a lack of critical thinking about how humans access and use the commons meaning "common pool resources" (CPR). 

These resources include land (farms, homes, parks, fisheries, wilderness), water (the seas, lakes, rivers, groundwater basins), the atmosphere (air for breathing, radio waves, wind, climate), wildlife (fish, meat, plants and timber), energy (oil, gas, heat, wind, water), minerals (gold, silver, diamonds, uranium, tantalum, tin, tungsten), people (workers, consumers, students), culture (history, intellectual work, tradition, information)--all a part of the earth itself as a common pool resource. Sustaining these resources is obviously vital to sustaining humanity. "Devising property regimes that effectively allow sustainable use of a common-pool resource requires rules that limit access to the resource system and other rules that limit the amount, timing, and technology used to withdraw diverse resource units from the resource system." (Ostrom)

The tragedy as identified by Hardin and others is that we are on an inevitable trajectory to using up all our CPR and so to extinction especially with the exponential increase in population. It is simply a matter of how human nature has evolved to individually seek short term advantage especially when one cannot be assured of long term profit based on others not acting for their short term advantage. Hardin demonstrates this through mind experiments of herders grazing their cows on a limited common use meadow, by mathematics of game theory especially the prisoners' dilemma, and by general observation. 

The way out of his tragedy is through Leviathan or privatization. To avoid us killing each other competing for resources or totally using up the resources that keep us alive, we give ourselves to the State (Hobbes) which has a monopoly on the means of violence (Weber). Big government owns or controls the resources and makes the rules by which they are used on behalf of the "general welfare" or on behalf of those who run the government. 

Or we destroy the "horror of the commons" by eliminating it entirely through private ownership of everything and allow individual decisions for self-interest to constitute the social order (Adam Smith). However the rights of private ownership and its rules must be monitored and enforced by some mechanism, whether or not it is called "government," that will be set up and controlled probably by those who have the most property. 

Whether through Leviathan or privatization, external intervention, therefore, is the only way out of the tragedy. But because of this neither will ultimately solve the issue because external intervention will be controlled by some party which is subject to the same natural law. Rational individuals will put their self-interest over some long term general welfare.

Along comes Ostrom with a second generation theory of collective action based on her analysis of communities which governed their commons without external intervention; i.e. without relying on a controlling government or on privatization.  New evidence challenges a theory which must either be rejected or expanded to account for the new evidence. And Ostrom spent her academic life (and received a Nobel Prize in Economics) discovering and accumulating this evidence and adjusting her theory of self-organizing communities that were able to govern and manage resources in a sustainable way--sometimes with and sometimes in spite of government and the private sector.

She identifies circumstances and conditions for this third way between government control and privatization. She also shows that the self-organizing model is not only possible, but preferable in that the people developing it "buy into" it as it develops. This model indicates that humans are motivated by more than self-interest even in economic decisions. Affiliation developed in working relations (not just tribal or cultural) and values developed in association are also motivators. This expansion of the theory of human nature beyond that of the first generation theory of collective action is in accords with recent findings by evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists regarding empathy, social identity, and memory.  

In Reclaiming the Commons, Fritsch is writing to the Church and by extension I think to all congregations within the Judeo-Christian tradition. He develops a theology and a spirituality,  founded in that tradition for living and acting in a way that will use and sustain resources equitably. He provides a clear definition of the problem confronting each of our major resources including a critique of the mindset and morality of the politics and economy at the root of the problem. He offers to the churches ways within their own religious traditions to deal with the issues humanity is now confronting. It is a work that I wish every leader and member of a congregation would read. Fritsch's book like the work of Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, and Jim Conlin in the Catholic tradition offers an eco-spirituality and theology for a new sustainable economics.

Religious congregations within all traditions are themselves self-organizing communities often within or sponsoring other self-organizing communities. Washington Interfaith Network in which my congregation conspires and acts for social justice with many other congregations, neighborhood groups, and other non-governmental, non-profit organizations is itself a means to "reclaim the commons." There are also experiments in urban agriculture, shared transportation systems, and communication of information and knowledge. 

A few days ago I listened to a team led by Mark Warren and Karen Napp describing their findings of six case studies on local community organizing achievements in school reform (see Match on Dry Grass). Brian Donahue provides other excellent experiences of self-organizing groups reclaiming the commons to stop urban sprawl and promote community farms. 

This certainly relates to my own work with Keith Bergthold in creating a strategy for smart growth in the Central Valley of California. Keith, as the chief planner for the City of Fresno, gained the trust of the local neighborhood communities to support a general plan for Fresno that would strengthen existing neighborhoods, encourage infill commercial and housing development, and save farmlands. He is presently working with 14 cities in the Central Valley to do the same so that the urbanization of the Valley coincides with preservation of natural resources and rural and agricultural growth. In order to achieve this, congregations and community organizations have to organize themselves into a powerful network to press political decision makers to constrain private housing developers into a framework of sustainable resources. The State of  California in its efforts to mitigate the carbon emissions that effect climate change has recognized that the City of Fresno and the Central Valley of California is integral to its project but is powerless to make it happen without community action.

One of the lessons of the study of the commons is the understanding that government is not to be identified with the commons nor with the public.  Organization and action through non governmental organizations can create or constitute publics that reclaim the commons and achieve the sustainability of the common resource pool. Public education need not be government run or supported schools. The same for public parks, libraries, recreation centers, TV, news stations, internet, utilities, electric power, community centers.

A government that is constituted by and responsible to publics would be an ally in reclaiming the commons over against both privatization and government control (Leviathan). But for this to be realized means an organization of publics through non-governmental self-organizing communities. This is the vocation of the community organizer who is supported by local churches, neighborhood centers, non profit community development and housing organizations, and cooperatives.

Naomi Klein advances a strategy of linking these local community organizing efforts with regional, national, and international organizations and foundations working to reclaim the commons through conservation, development, alternative economies, and advocacy. This will coincide with a new integration of both "liberation" and "eco" theology and spirituality. This also will result in a political discourse that neither demonizes government nor the private sector but fosters true publics that can hold both accountable in using, maintaining, and restoring the commons.