12 October 2007

A New Commons & an Old Problem

We have private property figured out. If you own a farm, you can choose to fertilize or let it sit idle, as you wish. You protect it or invest in it and the results of your management are yours to enjoy or suffer.

It wasn’t always this way. Private property was a product of the first economy. Between 1300 and 1700, the West solved the problem of land and its limitations. Through trade, exploration, conquest and the establishment of private property, the West made precious land more valuable – creating an agricultural revolution that became the basis for the industrial revolution to follow.

But before this first economy, villages typically had a commons area – a shared pasture upon which everyone and anyone could graze sheep, cattle, and horses. One of the big problems with this arrangement was that each person had the incentive to get the most from the pasture and put the least back in. You would have incentive to add one more cow to the pasture because anything you gained would count as gain to you. Generally speaking, the additional burden on the pasture could easily continue to rise until it collapsed – so to speak – unable to handle the burden of so many animals. Suddenly, the pasture would be unfit for any animal, much less so many. No one individual had the incentive to worry about the whole. We see a similar problem in the harvesting of fish from oceans today.

Private property helped to overcome this – helped incent private parties to invest in and protect land. The market economy we have today still rests on this same solution – we never really solved the problem of the commons, we just did away with the problem by transforming the commons into private property.

Today, this has caught up with us. Our climate falls into the category of commons: no individual benefits from abstaining from dumping more carbon into the atmosphere, yet collectively we all suffer should the climate reach a tipping point and suddenly turn nasty on us. It is the problem of the commons revisited, although this time there is no simple solution like subdividing the atmosphere into vacant lots.

The problem of the commons is not just a problem in regards to natural resources and environment. The value of a corporation is emergent – emerging out of the interaction between shareholders, employees, customers, and management. It, too, is a kind of commons and, in a sense, all of modern society falls into this category. Safety, prosperity, and general well-being are products of complex interactions that rarely depend on just one thing or stability or progress.

So here, some 700 years later, we again face the problem of the commons. I suspect that any solution to changing us from fiercely individual individuals to those who share a sense of the commons will itself emerge from a variety of places, will itself be emergent. But one key to it may come from the sense of community that comes from the example of the Dutch who didn’t divide up their commons as much as they jointly created them, claiming land from the sea through joint efforts.

Imagine you live in a bog. You build a path to your neighbors place, a rise of dirt between your homes. A third neighbor decides to join your little network, and as you each build a path to his house, you suddenly realize that you’ve built an enclosure, a patch of land that is bordered by the three paths that connect your three homes. Whose land is this? If any one of you were to drop out of the network, the block to the water would rush back in and you’d lose the land.

My buddy Rick claims that this reality is why the Germans, Danes, and Dutch have a keener sense of community – an ingrained sense of shared destiny and notions about how to share the wealth and mitigate the losses more as communities than as individuals.

Perhaps step one towards treating the commons as the commons – whether they be natural commons like our water or environment or emergent commons like our education and economy – is to realize that these commons are equal parts gift and the product of joint cooperation. Perhaps the solution to this economic problem of dealing with the commons lies in seeing as illusion the sense that our fates can somehow be extracted from the fate of the whole.


David said...

Nice work Ron. You're at it again I see. Nice dialectic. Socialism diguised as commons or commonism. We are truly intertwined though as we'll find out in the next few years when the fate of the whole drastically changes. Causality will become a course in college and the word itself will be synonymous with fault.

Norman said...

"Perhaps the solution to this economic problem of dealing with the commons lies in seeing as illusion the sense that our fates can somehow be extracted from the fate of the whole."

Fuzzy logic or Zen, take your pick:
The whole is contained entirely within each part.