The Commons as an Approach to Governance, Sustainable Resource Management and Social Wellbeing

An Interview with David Bollier
James Alexander Arnfinsen

cross-posted from Levevei

[Editor's note: You can read GEO blogger Wolfgang Hoeschele's review of David's book, Think Like a Commoner, here.  Earlier this year, GEO also published a series of articles on the "This Land is Your Land: Remaking Property after Neoliberalism" conference.  The conference included David among its panelists.   Transcripts and video from the conference can be found here, here, and here.  David's reflections on the conference are here.]

In this episode I connect with with David Bollier who is an author, activist, blogger and consultant. David lives in Amherst, Massachusetts and has for the last 15 years been exploring the paradigm of “the commons”. Our conversation is based on his recent book called Think Like a Commoner and in our dialogue we go into detail around some of the most important economic, social and cultural nuances inherent in the commons “way of life”. I would also like to add that David is collaborating with Michel Bauwens who is an earlier guest on this show, so you might want to check out that episode which indirectly touches upon similar ideas. Below you can read a summary of our conversation, but you are of course encouraged to download or listen to the whole podcast. We would also appreciate if your share this introductory resource with people who might be interested.

(2:00) David starts of by sharing his own story on how he became interested in the commons, and he points to the advent of the internet and the disillusionment with neoliberalism as two important factors that inspired him to research this particular field. For him it was clear that the commons paradigm was a viable solution to resource management and governance, while also being a way for people to co-create and self-organize the economic and social structures that are needed in a thriving and living community (as opposed to either top-down government or market driven policies).

(7:08) David then gives a short explanation of what the commons approach actually entails, although it’s not so easy to define the concept in a clear cut way. Nevertheless, some of the most salient and recognizable features are that it’s a way to manage resources in a way which is fair and equitable to everyone, while also being sustainable. Another important characteristic is that it’s often locally specific and contextualized and that it often emerges from vernacular culture. For instance, in Hawaii some surfers have created a commons that manages who can access certain waves (the resource in this case being the wave).

(10:20) We then discuss some fundamental questions related to human nature; are we by nature self serving individuals or is there some kind of “basic sanity” or “basic goodness” in our overall makeup? David suggests that from a historical perspective there is much evidence to prove that the standard model of homo economicus is flawed. Countless examples suggest that cooperation and care for others is an important part of human culture and that often self interest and common interests are aligned and not opposed. Maybe the dichotomy between altruism and selfishness is somewhat artificial?

(13:30) Another theme we explore is to what extent the advent of the commons, or rather, the rediscovery of the commons, is a form of devolution; do we have to go backwards, in a sense, to a more traditional way of governance? It seems that a commons approach was inherent in many traditional societies before modernity and liberalism commodified natural resources and made the market into the prime actant. So what is it that we have to learn from pre-modernity? Which values are maybe lost or overshadowed in the high pacing, individualistic and capitalistic oriented societies in the 21st century?

(17:00) If the commons, as a social practice and a way of governance would remerge as the organizing principle of society, who would “lose”? Where is it that we find the most resistance towards this kind of development? David points to many of the mythological stories or “mental models” of the 21st century, models that many today dispute, for instance economic growth and consumerism as a key to human fulfillment (see earlier episodes on the concept of “steady state economy” as just one example).

(19:27) David goes further in fleshing out some of the underlying design principles inherent in most commons, with reference to the work of Elinor Ostrom. Some of the most important principles are; to what degree is there a boundary around the resource being managed; do people have the opportunity to make their own rules regarding governance; is there a certain openness and accountability for those who are involved in the governing structure; are the commoners able to identify “free riders” and are they able to mitigate transgressions etc. David points to a well known example in India where farmers have begun to share their seeds in stead of buying them from Monsanto (see for instance for a closer look at this issue).

(22:50) Another important class of commons is “digital commons”, such as Wikipedia, open source software, open access scholarly journals and much more. I ask David in what way this podcast show could reflect some of the principles of the commons, or what I would have to do to align the show and the website with design principles that would make it into a commons. David also points to his own engagements in what he describes as a “sense-making community” consisting of activists and academics that are involved in the advancement of the commons-approach.

(27:40) We then explore the seeming polarity between state-driven and market-based approaches to governance and economic activity.  The commons represents a different paradigm that in many respects transcends the constraints and limitations found in both. The commons-approach is trying to create different types of social relationships than what is found in the more conventional structures. For instance, concepts such as “gift economy” challenge the dominant way of seeing human beings primarily as customers or consumers, rather pointing to how mutual relationships can support many basic needs in a society.

(32:30) David goes on to describe some of the reasons for why the traditional commons became eradicated through what is known as the “enclosure movement”. Starting already in medieval times people who had a certain economic status cooperated with people in power and systematically privatized and commodified farmlands and natural resources that were earlier governed through locally created customs. Essentially, the commoners were dispossessed and similar practices have proliferated ever since leading to extreme forms of commodification and privatization. For instance, 20% of the human genome is now patented and many places around the world natural water resources are being seized by commercial companies.

(36:35) We then explore in what ways the commons can facilitate a wholesome and sustainable way of life. David sites one of the authors who has inspired him the most, namely Karl Polanyi and his historical overview on how the traditional societal structures became replaced by the capitalist market and neoliberal economic policy.

(40:00) Towards the end David shares how I intends to go forward. He is interested in how to upscale the commons-approach so that it can become a stronger force in dealing with larger resources and broader societal issues. For instance, how can we govern the atmosphere? In this regard the political scene is an important avenue for him to engage. Another point is how to devise new forms of law in cooperation with the state, laws that can enable commoners to become effective stewards of our society.


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