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Lord of the Swans: The Tragedy of the Enclosure of the Commons

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April 21, 2022
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The “tragedy of the commons” is an idea that has so thoroughly seeped into culture and law that it seems normal for people and corporations to own land, water, and even whole ecosystems. But there’s a BIG problem: the “tragedy” part of it has been debunked – it really should be the triumph of the commons. Learn the origin story of privatization and explore the true meaning of commons and how to manage them for sustainability and equity. Also check out our suggestions for championing the commons (beyond Robin Hood’s strategy of stabbing the aristocracy). For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.

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Asher Miller: Hi, I’m Asher Miller.

Rob Dietz: I’m Rob Dietz.

Jason Bradford: I’m Jason Bradford. Welcome to Crazy Town where this land ain’t your land, this land ain’t my land, this land belongs to king and queen.

Melody Travers: This is producer Melody Travers and in this season of Crazy Town, Jason, Asher, and Rob are exploring the watershed moments in history that have led humanity into the cascading crises we face in the 21st century. Today’s episode unpacks the peculiar history of land privatization, the watershed moment took place in the year 1773. At the time, the estimated carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was 278 parts per million, and the global human population was 770 million.

Jason Bradford: Okay, guys, I’m here to initiate Crazy Town poetry corner. Are you ready?

Rob Dietz: Oh, man.

Asher Miller: I got one.

Jason Bradford: Yeah?

Asher Miller: There once was a man from Nantucket…

Jason Bradford: No, no, no, no, no, no. Let’s not get filthy. This is a family program.

Rob Dietz: Is this your cultured accent voice kind of thing going on?

Asher Miller: This is his kindergarten teacher accent.

Jason Bradford: Guys. Listen up. This is a very important poem that talks about a very important period in history. Are you ready?

Rob Dietz: Ready. Please.

Asher Miller: Please do something with that voice of yours.

Jason Bradford:

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from off the goose

The law demands that we atone

When we take things we do not own

But leaves the lords and ladies fine

Who take things that are yours and mine

Rob Dietz: Wow, I really liked that rhyme scheme. Super simple. Like, when I squeezed the golden goose, I can drink lots of golden juice.

Jason Bradford: Yes. That was the next stanza, but I wasn’t going there. Isn’t this a nice poem, right?

Rob Dietz: Yeah, yeah, sure. Sorry, we didn’t even applaud you.

Jason Bradford: Thank you. Thank you. So that’s . . .

Asher Miller: You wrote that, right?

Jason Bradford: No, no. This is like Middle Ages in England basically.

Asher Miller: Oh, wow.

Jason Bradford: Yeah. So that’s what we’re gonna talk about.

Rob Dietz: Like an unattributed poem?

Jason Bradford: Yeah, that’s right. Now that’s a poem about geese. But it’s also about what was happening at the time related to resources and, quote-unquote, ownership. But I have another question though. Before we get into the meat of the show.

Rob Dietz: Okay?

Jason Bradford: What’s a bird that’s bigger than a goose?

Asher Miller: Ostrich.

Jason Bradford: Yeah.

Rob Dietz: Wow, you took mine. Emu?

Jason Bradford: Yeah.

Rob Dietz: Moa from New Zealand

Asher Miller: Dodo bird? Was Dodo bird bigger?

Jason Bradford: But in England.

Asher Miller: Oh, in England.

Rob Dietz: Big Bird. Big Bird.

Asher Miller: Yeah.

Asher Miller: Big Bird is not English.

Jason Bradford: Yes. Okay.

Asher Miller: Swan?

Jason Bradford: Yes, swan. You got it. Okay. So, during Elizabeth I’s reign, the swan was a very popular dish for feasts for the royalty.

Jason Bradford: Who would eat swan?

Jason Bradford: They had this system in place – somehow the royal chefs – where they stuffed the carcass of a swan with nine other birds.

Asher Miller: Excuse me?

Jason Bradford: Yeah. Have you ever heard of –

Asher Miller: It’s like a Russian nesting doll?

Jason Bradford: Yes. Have you ever heard of a turducken?

Asher Miller: Yes, of course. That sounds like amateur hour.

Rob Dietz: That’s two birds. I can conceptually make a turducken. I don’t think I can make a nine bird. . . Like they stuffed the small bird up the cloaca of . . .

Asher Miller: Inside the hummingbird?

Jason Bradford: Let me read it. It’s a nesting doll, descending order, like you said. Inside the swan is a goose, inside the goose is a duck, inside the duck is a mallard, I guess it was a smaller breed of duck. Inside the mallard is a chicken, inside the chicken is a pheasant, inside the pheasant is a partridge. Inside the partridge is the pigeon, and inside the pigeon is a woodcock.  So yeah. So pretty cool. Pretty good stuff.

Jason Bradford: Can you imagine trying to like take your knife and get through all nine layers and . . .

Asher Miller: Are they all shoved up each other’s butts? Is that how it works?

Jason Bradford: Yeah, I don’t have detailed. . . .Bon appetit.

Rob Dietz: I remember in the 80’s we used to go to Taco Bell and get a seven layer burrito. I thought that had a lot of ingredients, but if I could get a nine layer bird. I mean, that’s. . .

Jason Bradford: Yeah, well, okay. Well, why I bringing this up? I’m bringing this up because first of all, swans are owned by the Queen. I don’t want you to think, even dare imagine –

Asher Miller: What do you mean swans are owned by the Queen?

Jason Bradford: – that you could make a swan dinner like this yourself. As enticing as it is. The swans are the Queens for God’s sakes. You know this, don’t you?

Asher Miller: No. What are you talking about?

Jason Bradford: Okay, okay. Well, this goes back a long ways. But over time, the royalty of that part of the world basically have just sort of taken over ownership of almost everything. You know?

Asher Miller: Wait, are you telling me that to this day, right now, the Queen of England owns all the fucking swans in England?

Jason Bradford: Yeah, yeah.

Jason Bradford: This is almost as dumb as making a meal out of a swan stuffed with a goose, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a . . .

Asher Miller: Does she still have this for a meal once a year?

Jason Bradford: I think they’ve moved on. But yeah, there’s still ceremonies for the last several 100 years or so. They’re still counting the royal swan.

Rob Dietz: “Hey, can I get one of those swans over here?” “No, that’s my swan!”

Asher Miller: Well, how does she know if somebody has taken a swan?

Jason Bradford: Yeah, well, you know, there are people that have gotten in trouble. There’s some recent people that have been fined and imprisoned for eating or capturing swans. Anyway, the bigger picture here. And let’s get to the watershed moment. Because I bring this up as just an example of what’s called the enclosure of the commons in general. And in particular, I want to focus on the Enclosure Act of 1773. The reason this is a big deal is that beyond all other previous Enclosure Acts that have been going on, this one basically was structured to basically give those who wanted to privatize, essentially carte blanche to make it so.

Jason Bradford: So you’re saying this this act gets passed and therefore now I can claim all the swans, all the lands?

Jason Bradford: No, no, because you’re just a commoner.

Rob Dietz: Oh right. I can’t claim shit

Jason Bradford: You can never eat swan again.

Rob Dietz: Okay, well, let’s, let’s step back for a sec here. Because you’re using these fancy terms, like you always do, you academic types.

Asher Miller: Yeah, like swan.

Rob Dietz: Yeah, swan, and duck, and goose. No, these terms like enclosure of the commons. And I think it’s important to talk for a minute about what’s meant by the commons.

Jason Bradford: Why don’t you do that?

Rob Dietz: Yeah, well, I am a member of this really cool group. It’s called the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, or WEAll, and they put out these briefing papers every once in a while. And there’s one I found recently written by Munro Fraser and Thomas Mande. And they listed a few ways to think about commons. And I’m going to give those to you, sort of going from the most physical to the most abstract. So one way is you can think of the commons as an entity, something like a forest or a fishery, right? Something that is –

Jason Bradford: Like a, quote unquote, resource.

Rob Dietz: Yeah, but there’s also an attached governance piece to that. It’s not just the resource, but there’s also some way that people manage that resource. So that’s one way of thinking about a commons. Another way to think about it is that it’s an entirely alternative system of resource governance that’s separate from what we normally think of as the two big systems today, the market and the government, or the state. So the idea of a commons based resource governance system is it’s designed by a community of people who share the resource.

Jason Bradford: Okay, so not the professional technocrats or bureaucratic class, but it’s actually the people that are living with and associated with, maybe benefiting from those resources, are involved in the management?

Rob Dietz: Right, exactly. And then there’s a third kind of most abstract way to think of the commons. And that’s sort of an alternative social paradigm, or a different way of thinking that acknowledges our connectedness with each other, our shared heritage, and our shared responsibility for ensuring wellbeing for future generations.

Jason Bradford: Okay. Thank you for that. That helps. Definitions, you’re good at that kind of stuff.

Rob Dietz: I mean, we’re talking the first one, mostly here with the original enclosure of the commons in Britain. We’re talking taking land.

Jason Bradford: But it has  implications for what you also talked about in terms of the mental models people walk around with, how they think about the world. So I think that’s important. And let me back up again. Since you know, let’s put this into context.

Rob Dietz: Let’s never go forward. Yes. Let’s just keep backing up.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, keep reversing. I’m just thinking –  Imagine you’re a member of a tribe or a hamlet of peasants. And in this situation, you basically are living directly off the land, or the waterways and the coastal resources. And you don’t own per se any of these. These are all held in common. And nobody could tell you, you couldn’t go somewhere to hunt or forage or collect wood, as long as you belong to that particular area and were basically associated with the commons and its management. And so this is an astonishing way to think about the world. Because right now, I mean, I look outside and look at the farm. It’s all divvied up. Like, I don’t just go walk across my neighbor’s property. I just feel weird about doing that.

Rob Dietz: This is messed up. Because I was looking at a map of your property, and you live one mile away from my favorite brewery, which we would have to cut across –

Jason Bradford: Private property.

Rob Dietz: Yeah, like, Farmer Jacob’s field over here, who would probably shoot me on the way. And yeah, it sounds like the way you were describing before would be kind of a lot more fun.

Jason Bradford: Exploring, You’d just go exploring or whatever. And like hunt mushrooms or hunt game. And how it kind of worked in these agrarian settings with these peasants is they met and they would divvy up arable land fairly. And the local lord and rural class like in the manor system, they mostly stayed out of this. Maybe if there was disputes they would get involved, but most of the way that people interacted with the world were like this. And they persisted for hundreds or 1000’s of years. And here are mechanisms for individuals to work with their talent and improve their situation in life. There are systems for sharing what you could not manage individually, like teams of oxen, or making cheese. So, they figured out with a very low overhead, right, they’re just kind of doing it themselves, how to live in a place.

Asher Miller: I think what’s interesting for me in thinking about this a little bit is that we tend to contrast sort of Western ways of organizing and dealing with property and land and resources. And we contrast that with like indigenous cultures, for example, right? And we say, and we’ve talked about this with colonization, right? Like, this idea that we come in, and we can conquer and own all this land, and it’s all theirs for ours to do what we want with. But it’s interesting to think that there’s this dynamic of “commoning,” right (if you want to use a verb) in Europe.

Jason Bradford: Oh, yeah, that was the way.

Asher Miller: Even though they had kings and fucking aristocrats and whatever else they had. They had a caste system or kind of a hierarchy of power in society. There’s still this dynamic of sharing resources collectively in a community.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, that’s the way it was.

Asher Miller: We could have a strip that goes a mile long to the local brewery.

Rob Dietz: Yes, that’s my part. I’ll bring you guys beers. Love it. Love it.

Rob Dietz: Yeah. One example that’s been explained is called the Open Field System. This is one representation of how commons can work, but each farmer in this open field system, they didn’t have their own farm or pay rent to work it but the field would get divvied up based on a bunch of criteria. Like, what’s a healthy crop rotation? What’s the local ecology? What kind of traditions do we have in this area? And it was also tied even to the technology they had at the time. They had, you know, oxen pulling a plow, and it was really hard to turn that plow around. So they would divvy this open field into really long strips and say, okay, Farmer Jason, you take that strip this season. Asher, you take that strip. Rob, you’re not allowed to farm because you suck. You go over there and do something else.

Rob Dietz: Yeah, all right. So totally different than these sort of square fields chunked out, right? You know, surveyed and fenced off. It’s like, no, go! This is your strip of wheat. This is your strip of barley, or whatever. So yeah, fascinating.

Asher Miller: And just to point out, it wasn’t just arable land, right? Commoners had historic rights to fisheries and marshes and forests. And, you know, I know that we’ll get more into kind of the impacts of this change in society through this act that we’re talking about and other laws that were passed to take that away. It goes way back, this sort of struggle. Like the story of Robin Hood, right? Robin Hood, the ballads go back to the early Middle Ages. But it’s interesting by the early 1800’s, there was a critique already. At that point, they sort of changed what they ballads were because they’re passed down orally, I guess, oral tradition, to critiquing the so called forest laws that barred hunting and forest harvesting by peasants.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, yeah.

Jason Bradford: Yeah. So I just when you’re talking about Robin Hood, I just think of the Errol Flynn movie. You guys ever see that old Robin Hood?

Jason Bradford: I haven’t seen that. I’ve seen so many.

Rob Dietz: I think it’s from the 60’s, but it won best picture. But it’s hilarious. It’s like this guy running around in green gymnastics tights.

Jason Bradford: Men in tights.

Rob Dietz: And he just he just kind of goes “Ha Ha Ha,” and he stabbed some aristocrat, and goes off and swings on a vine.

Jason Bradford: Yeah. The sheriff in those days actually had a lot to do with forest management. So that term is interesting, you know.

Rob Dietz: Ah, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, exactly. The Nottingham Forest is a big forest. Sherwood Forest. Yeah.

Rob Dietz: Well, okay. So we have this whole notion of the commons. We have this long history. But why in the hell was this happening where you got this 1773 Act, and you got this history that led up to that, and, people are starting to privatize stuff that means taking away people’s livelihoods? My one word answer that is economics. Basically start following the money, following the power. Think about it. The wealthy people, they are looking for ways to make money, increase their power. Well, one of the things that they realize is, hey, we can sell a bunch of wool. But we need people to be shepherds. We need people out there managing this process. Well, if they’re not able to farm this land,  then I can push them out to deal with the sheep. Or let’s say, you’ve got global trade starting to pop up and you need wood for your boats, you know. It’s like, okay, I can push these people out of the forest and now I get the big trees to make the boats that I want to have.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, and there’s a lot of discussion of the time. We’re talking going back into the 11th century through the 1800’s. As you get  more and more towards what we’re talking about in the this act, the discussion really talks a lot about efficiencies, and really denigrating the peasants for not being efficient. And what is fascinating. . .

Rob Dietz: What an insult. You damn inefficient peasant, you!

Jason Bradford: Yeah, well, what it’s about is that the rentier class, in a sense, could extract higher rents from farms that were larger and growing commodities. So this is sort of, in their mind, there’s a highest and best use case to be made for kicking the peasants off and getting this into sort of private hands that are consolidating production. And measuring in this perspective, they get a higher rent. However, this was not actually the best way to grow more food. So people looking at this at the time could show that the small scale farmers that were primarily feeding their families could produce a lot more per acre, let’s say. But they weren’t really generating a lot of cash. And so they really couldn’t pay rent to the same degree.

Rob Dietz: Wow, that’s, yeah, let’s end that practice. I hate it when people feed their families.

Jason Bradford: Right, so in terms of like . . .

Asher Miller: Self-sustaining, that’s sucks.

Jason Bradford: Exactly. So in terms of efficiency, the peasant farmer with small lots was very good at getting a lot of food per acre, but not a lot of money per acre.

Rob Dietz: Metrics like dollar per acre, dollar per anything — that’s always the way to a sustainable economy. Always.

Asher Miller: It’s how we judge everything to this day. Yeah, except in their case, it was pounds, right? We touched on this a little bit, but the Enclosure Act of 1773, we picked it as our watershed moment, but it really is part of a history that went on for centuries, you know. This gradual degradation of the commons. This push to turn what was in common into private property. And interestingly, there are some discussion theories harkening all the way back to the Norman conquest.

Jason Bradford: Is this like Norm from “Cheers?” What do you mean by that?

Asher Miller: Yeah, it was a whole bunch of Norms.

Rob Dietz: Norman Bates from “Psycho” stabbing everyone in the shower?

Jason Bradford: Oh, yeah. He’d win every war.

Asher Miller: No, the Normans coming from the continent of Europe. Conquering the British Isles.

Jason Bradford: Right, across the channel, right?

Rob Dietz: They were excellent swimmers.

Asher Miller: They took the Chunnel, yeah. When they conquered the Saxons, when they conquered England, those lands, they installed their own aristocracy. And they rewarded their backers essentially, with land. So this in a sense was the beginning of a process of saying, “Well, this can’t be held in common. We need to somehow grab it, control it. Whether we’re making rent off of it, or we’re passing it off to cronies or people who support us to maintain power.” And over the centuries, there were various laws that were enacted. This one, I think, was really a key one because it was a serious legitimation of it through the parliament, the British Parliament, of this ongoing process. And, you know, I think it’s also tied into this acceleration of globalization, which I think we’ll talk a little more bit about.

Rob Dietz: Yeah. I do want to go back to Robin Hood for a sec, who is like your emblem of resistance, you know. The sort of myth of it. And you know, you’re talking about how there’s this erosion over time where the aristocracy is coming in and taking away and taking away and chipping away. But at the same time, I think it’s probably much more untold history, but there’s always resistance, protests, uprisings. And there’s a few that you can find that are actually named. Like the poem that you started us off with Jason is clearly a protest of, hey, give me my goose back.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, exactly.

Asher Miller: Yeah, a lot of violence. There was a lot of violence associated with this. There’s a lot of draconian crackdown.

Jason Bradford: Oh, medieval levels of violence.

Rob Dietz: A lot of aristocrats were shoved up the cloaca of a swan…

Jason Bradford: Beheadings were very common, and wasn’t the Norman Bates thing where they would just cut your head off? Yeah. Well, yeah, this particular act is impactful, the 1773 Enclosure Act, in a number of ways. But one of the main ones we’re focusing on is that it sped things up, right? It really allowed for rapid loss of commons, which tied into the Industrial Revolution, and the need for urban wage laborers. And this was a very conscious process. And there was an incredible amount of shade thrown at peasants, commoners, so to speak. So I’ve got a quote from this guy named John Middleton, he was a London and Middlesex county historian from this period. Big proponent of enclosure.

Asher Miller: You’ve got to do it in a posh British accent.

Jason Bradford:

“The commons were of real injury to the public, by holding out a lure to the poor man; by affording him materials wherewith to build his cottage, and ground to erect it upon; together with firing, and the run of his poultry and pigs for nothing. This is, of course, temptation sufficient to induce a great number of poor persons to settle upon the borders of such commons. But the mischief does not end here for having gained his trifling advantages through the neglect or connivance of the lord of the manor. It unfortunately gives their minds an improper bias and inculcate a desire to live from that time forward without labor, or at least with as little as possible.”

Rob Dietz: So wait, what’s that guy’s name again?

Jason Bradford: Douchebag. John.

Rob Dietz: I hate him. So I can’t think of a…

Asher Miller: I wanna go back in time and just punch him in the face.

Rob Dietz: Think about how industrious you would have needed to be, to be taking care of yourself and your family by working with your community to get what you need off of the commons.

Jason Bradford: I know. He’s talking about, they’re running their poultry, they’re running their pigs, they’re building their own cottages.

Asher Miller: He’s awful.

Jason Bradford: “These poor people that don’t do anything.”

Rob Dietz: Oh, that’s hideous.

Jason Bradford: I know, it is pretty bad. But it talks about what was lost. Right?

Asher Miller: Yeah. But getting back to what you just talked about, Jason, on the Industrial Revolution, I think this is really key in the timing of the Enclosure Act. Because we talked earlier about profit seeking from rent, you know, renting of land. We have a situation as the Industrial Revolution is ramping up in Britain. And we have to remember that this was where it really started.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, right. They got a head start.

Asher Miller: They needed to get fucking people into the factories, right? To go make cheap goods and flood the global market with them. Right? So they had to shut down local craftspeople. They had to basically take folks off of the land in a sense and stick them in the factories to support the growth of the Industrial Revolution.

Jason Bradford: Woohoo! We get Dickens.

Rob Dietz: Well, and this stuff continues on, right? Like the 20th century ideology that just wants to crush the commons. You guys may be aware of the ecologist Garrett Hardin and his ridiculously famous paper called, “Tragedy of the Commons.”

Jason Bradford: Yes, very influential.

Asher Miller: Yeah, I mean, that term is ubiquitous.

Rob Dietz:Yeah, I mean, it’s weird. Because you don’t really think an academic paper is going to turn into a common everyday colloquial saying.

Jason Bradford:

Well, it fed into what certain people wanted to hear.

Rob Dietz: Well, I want to give you a quote where he lays out his thesis. This is out of the paper. He says...

Jason Bradford: And this was in 1968?

Rob Dietz: I think. Yeah, so you know, a long time ago, but not all that long ago.

Asher Miller: A long time ago. That’s like around when we were born. Makes me feel old.

Rob Dietz: Well, you are old.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, over half a century ago.

Rob Dietz: You don’t remember the 1773 Act, but . .

Asher Miller: Just barely. It was just before my time.

Jason Bradford: So here’s Garrett Hardin. And he says, and I guess he was probably American, so I’m not going to do your posh British accent.

Jason Bradford: California, I think.

Rob Dietz:

“The rational herdsmen concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd.” This is talking about if I had an open-access field of grass. So he says add another animal to his herd, “and another and another. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsmen sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit, in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Asher Miller: Bizarre. This is such a bizarre thing. So talking about ecological limits, right? When you look at our economy, the economy that we have now, where everything is essentially privatized and totally about self interest, that’s what’s driving us.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, it is ironic.

Asher Miller: Like to think that people don’t know how to fucking compromise with one another in a community. . .

Rob Dietz: Well, that’s it. He took sort of that homo economicus as an idea: this economic man who is just a rational money grabber. Like, I’m just gonna go out and take what I can and not worry that you’re just gonna come kick my ass tomorrow.

Jason Bradford: It’s a projection of the society he’s living in is what’s interesting. And so there’s been a lot of research about the specific way that these people interacted with the commons and their cattle. And you know, there were rules. That’s what’s so amazing. And these poor people, they had to eat these animals. It wasn’t like they were like, “Oh, I can make more money if I get another one. Let me get another. Let me get another.” No, they had to breed them. They had to then eat and milk. And it wasn’t like they could suddenly just flood any kind of pasture with additional animals anytime they wanted.

Rob Dietz: But also, I mean, you’ve brought this up before, Jason, too. Like, if I am having all this excess, but my neighbor is starving, how much security do I actually have?

Jason Bradford: Right.

Asher Miller: It’s so strange because I guess he never spoke with an anthropologist, right? Because like, you study other cultures who do practice the commons, right? Or you look at historically, the many, many, many, many, many, many, many generations that operated that way sustainably, right?

Jason Bradford: This is in 1968. He didn’t have the internet. He couldn’t just email somebody or look anything up.

Rob Dietz: Well, let’s talk about the anti-Hardin. Or sort of like, I guess, the like Anti-Christ Hardin. I don’t know. Anyway, Elinor Ostrom is who I want to bring up. She was a political scientist, who was actually the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Asher Miller: Probably the last best thing that they ever did.

Rob Dietz: Well, maybe. You’re right. I mean, she’s kind of a hero among what I think of as outsider economists, like ecological economists, and people who are not thoroughly engaged in the neoliberal economics framework. So what she did is she actually went out and studied commons rather than theorizing about him like Hardin was doing. She looked at, how do these work? How do people manage them? And she found tons of successful examples all around the world, and really helped start this big backlash against that thesis of the “Tragedy of the Commons.” You might even call it like the “Triumph of the Commons.” based on how well some of them were managed. And she even kind of later on, think in the ’90s, Hardin recanted his thesis. He said, “Oh, it should have been titled The ‘Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.'”

Jason Bradford: Yeah, let’s give some credit to him that he did accept that feedback.

Asher Miller: But, sorry. There were no unmanaged commons. When you defined them earlier, Rob, you talked about there being two key ingredients, right? And one of them was how they were governed.

Jason Bradford: Well, I think he’s, I mean, in essence, if you don’t have the good governance, they become an unmanaged commons, and maybe then they get denigrated.

Rob Dietz: Yeah, I mean, you can definitely find examples of commons that have suffered and been degraded, but that’s why, right? The governance breaks down. So you’re exactly right, Asher. In fact, there’s a guy named David Bollier, who’s like a kind of a commons guru. And he wrote a book called, “The Commoner’s Catalog for Changemaking.” Really, really good. We’re going to come back to this in a bit. But in that book, it talks about how the idea of unmanaged commons is already an oxymoron right there. Because, as you say, that’s part of the definition of a commons is that it’s managed. What Hardin is talking about is something more like a free for all. Or, you know, something that that people are not working together on. And there was this guy who, kind of like us, I guess he likes to throw stones at people that can’t fight back. This guy, Lewis Hyde, he said, “Instead of ‘Tragedy of the Commons,’ it should have been called, ‘The Tragedy of Unmanaged Laissez-Faire Common Pool Resources with Easy Access for Non-Communicating, Self-interested Individuals.'” Or as I like to call it, “The Tragedy of a Shitshow run by Sociopaths.”

Asher Miller: Which is the modern economy.

Rob Dietz: That describes most corporate cultures in this nation.

Jason Bradford: Yeah. Well, what I found fascinating about all of what we’re talking about, is we see the coming together of this package of beliefs and practices that will eventually be known as neoliberalism. And that is a topic of a future episode. So I won’t go into too many details, but the notions of private property of commodification of this rentier class of simplifying the culture and the landscape of globalization. All these things you see manifesting at this period in history, with the start of the Industrial Revolution coinciding with basically the obliteration of most of the commons is a source of livelihood for people there.

Rob Dietz: Yeah. Wow. So that’s the dream, right? To join the rentier class. Sit back, and you guys pay me a bunch of money while  do nothing. That’s a – don’t talk about the lazy peasants, right? Talk about the lazy rentier class.

Asher Miller: And this is the economy we have now.

Jason Bradford: I know.

Asher Miller: Even if it’s not about a rentier class owning property and land that people are working, right? Owning everything, essentially.

Jason Bradford: Like stocks and intellectual property. Like it’s gone to the . . .

Asher Miller: Housing. Yeah. You know, now we’ve got a rush of these big hedge funds buying up housing, you know, getting into that game. They just sit back and they make profit off of people.

Jason Bradford: Well, it’s fascinating to think that Britain was a colonized territory since the Norman conquest in the 11th century. And the elites that were in charge were not really from the same clans as these commoners. And this division then seems to be feeding into this gross inequality and land use that is building up during the Middle Ages. And then there’s this point where we’re talking about the accelerants and the early Industrial Revolution to produce this model now for Empire and development that has been spreading around the globe. And this guy named Simon Fairl, he’s really into the history of agriculture, which if you’re studying that, you know, where he lives in Great Britain, that really includes then how agriculture changed as a result of the loss of the commons. And here’s what he says,

“Britain set out more or less deliberately to become a highly urbanized economy with a large urban proletariat, dispossessed from the countryside, highly concentrated land ownership and farms far larger than any other country in Europe. And enclosure of the commons, more advanced in the U.K. than anywhere else in Europe was not the only means of achieving this goal. Free trade and the importing of food and fiber from the New World and the colonies played a part. And so did the English preference for primogeniture, bequeathing all your land to your eldest son. But enclosure of common land played a key role in Britain’s industrialization and was consciously seen to do so by its protagonists at the time.”

Rob Dietz: Yeah, it’s like an unbelievable confluence of events.

Jason Bradford: And that’s the watershed moment, dude.

Rob Dietz: Right? Well, but part of the confluence too, something else we talk about all the time is the fossil fuel piece, right? It’s like around that time that coal deposits are turning Britain into this superpower. And they’re industrializing the hell out of everything. And then they’re exporting all these finished goods around the world that’s coal fired. But they’re also exporting people who are desperate to get away from like, “You want to work in a coal mine?” “No, not really.” “You want to work in a factory?”” No, not really.” Well then go colonize the rest of the world.

Jason Bradford: Want to get out of prison? Go to Australia.

Rob Dietz: Right. So, you got this giant global empire developing out of that too.

Asher Miller: And it’s not just how the economy is operating, you know, people’s relationship with land, this dynamic of class and power. This enclosure of the commons has transformed mindsets and belief systems. It’s interesting to think about, but we really do act as though individual property rights are a law of nature, right? I mean, we have all these legal systems based to sort of codify this stuff.

Jason Bradford: So much of law is basically possession and property. A huge amount.

Asher Miller: Absolutely. Yeah. And we could have done a watershed moment on the first lawyer, probably and that would have been interesting. But let’s just step back for a second and just recognize, it’s not a law of nature, right? It’s not. In fact, the alternative, this idea that our relationship, and we’ve spoken about this, mostly from the standpoint of humans managing land and natural, quote-unquote, resources in the commons with one another. We haven’t even talked about managing in common with other species which I think we need to just reference. But this  approach of not seeing land as property as possessed by the individual, or the family, has been the norm. It has been the dominant paradigm for most of our history as a species. So what we are living with is actually an anomaly. But it’s so deeply embedded in our mindset that it’s like impossible to imagine that you could – How do have you have a house if you don’t own it?

Rob Dietz: It is weird, though. I mean, I feel like I questioned this as a little kid. Like the whole notion of, I want to go across that creek to get to whatever was on the other side, and it’s like, oh, that’s, that’s somebody else’s land. They own that. You can’t go on it. It just felt weird. I think you’re right. It’s an anomalous time that we live in where you’re not able to freely move about like that.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, I’ve heard it termed as like, “we” cultures turned into “I” cultures. and that was very unusual.

Rob Dietz: Well, you know, there’s even been language changes that are associated with this enclosure of the commons. So the word “trespass,” it went from meaning general wrong against someone to meaning entry on another person’s property or grounds without legal authority. And the word “occupation,” that’s another one. It went from meaning occupying or holding office, to occupying or possessing real property. My favorite word evolution here, it’s less documented than those two, but the word “landlord” went for meaning someone who stewards the land to douche-o-matic scum pumper.

Asher Miller: Douche-o-matic scum pumper?

Jason Bradford: Okay. How long did you work on that? How many beers?

Rob Dietz: I’ve always, always appreciated people who can take swearing up to another level.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, good.

Rob Dietz: I’m not – what is a scum pumper?

Jason Bradford: I think they go into the septic tanks, maybe?

Rob Dietz: That could be a job for me. I’m gonna look into that.

Jason Bradford: I’m thinking about what this means for the future. Looking ahead, part of what happened then is you’ve got this reliance on your community and your place, and then you end up starting to rely on then the employment and the state. So there’s a guy named Steven Quilley who writes about this. I find it very interesting. A Canadian academic. Where the market state sort of took over what he calls a survival unit. And so you used to have these local based survival units, but then that shifted to becoming a wage laborer, and you get integrated into some global trade pattern, right? And now, you know, you don’t even know what mushrooms kill you or what are tasty, right? So he traces this back also to the enclosure movement as sort of a loss of the ability to have livelihood in place.

Rob Dietz: That’s really amazing. Because you see people falling out of that survival unit now. Like all around the U.S., people are living on the street and the numbers are mushrooming.

Jason Bradford: Well, that’s the thing. What he talks about is that the state market sort of duopoly, that’s supposed to be the tradeoff we’d make, right? Like if we’re no longer going to have our livelihood in place, our survival units be the commons, then it has to be the state market system. But that is starting to fail.

Asher Miller: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it isn’t exactly delivering right now.

Jason Bradford: It’s not delivering and there’s actually tons of people, I mean, of course, the hippies with the back of the land movement, but you’ve got all these sort of Christian conservative types that are homesteaders. You have libertarians, more Neo-green type agrarian folks, organic farmer type people. There’s actually a lot of interest in having more livelihood in place, and he looks at the failure of the state market duopoly as necessitating that you kind of rebuild this third leg of a modern survival unit. You know, maybe the state market system doesn’t disappear immediately or anything like that, but if it’s going to weaken if it’s going to leave a lot of gaps, rebuilding this local places livelihood in place as a means to have some form of a survival unit going forward.


Jason Bradford: Hey, you guys know our British analogs Dave and Ol? They do a comedy podcast about the environment called “Sustainababble.”

Asher Miller: Yeah, and they’re a third smarter than us, right? Because they cover the same ground with just two of them, and we have three.

Jason Bradford: I recommend them. If you speak European, you’re gonna understand them.

Asher Miller: Eur-o-peon, I’m-a-peon, We’re all-a-peon.

Rob Dietz: They are, yeah, probably smarter, funnier than us. But definitely, if you like Crazy Town, give “Sustainababble” a listen as well and support that show.


George  Costanza: Every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be.

Jerry Seinfeld: If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

Rob Dietz: So it’s a little bit difficult to talk about doing the opposite when so many of our commons have been eroded by this huge legal infrastructure that we’ve been talking about. But there are some commons that still exist. And the key is to manage them properly in a way that they can last over the generations and still provide for what communities need. And going back to our economic hero, Elinor Ostrom, people who have looked at her work have listed these eight rules for managing a commons. And I found this in an article that was based on a book by Derek Wall. And that book is called “Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals.” And I’m not going to sit here and read you guys all eight of these rules. But I did want to cover a few things that, you know, on some level might seem kind of like, well, of course, you should do that. But you know, on another level, where we’re stuck in this private property mindset, you know, maybe it bears talking about. So one of them is that commons, the rules for managing it, should be dictated by local people who understand local ecological needs. Another one is you got to have participatory decision making. People are more likely to follow the rules if they had a played a role in making those rules. Third one is that the commons have to be monitored. And this was interesting to me. Because the idea is, once the rules have been set, communities need a way of checking that people are actually keeping them. And the ideas that commons don’t really run on on goodwill. They run on accountability.

Jason Bradford: So you’re not quite a utopian anarchistic radical. You’re actually trying to get accountability, making sure people follow what they say they’re going to do. That’s good.

Rob Dietz: That’s right. We know that I’m a douche-o-matic scum pumper, not a utopian whatever the hell.

Asher Miller: We can borrow some practices, you know, from the folks who were pushing for enclosure of the commons, and we can behead people if they’re not following along with the rules.

Rob Dietz: Stuff them into a swan. This one was really interesting, too. This is the last one I’m going to share with you guys. The sanctions for those who abused the commons should be graduated. You don’t just throw people out the first time they break the rules because that just creates resentment in your community. Instead, you’d have systems of warnings and then fines and make it so your reputation gets dinged and that kind of thing. So it’s –

Asher Miller: Pants them in public.

Rob Dietz: Right. But no, I mean, this stuff is really interesting. If you want to have a well functioning commons, you obviously have to have governance and structures that help you manage it.

Jason Bradford: I want to know how to be a commoner, I want to be a champion of the commons. How do I do that?

Asher Miller: All right, I got the perfect book for you.

Jason Bradford: Okay.

Asher Miller: Danny, the Champion of the World. Ever read it?

Jason Bradford: No, what are you talking about?

Asher Miller: Oh, come on, man. Roald Dahl.

Jason Bradford: “Danny, the Champion of the World. . . ”

Rob Dietz: Oh, the Willy Wonka guy.

Asher Miller: Yeah. He wrote a great book. And it’s all about Danny and his father. And his father goes off at night to go poach pheasants that are owned by this asshole wealthy landlord  landowner guy  and it Danny has to go and rescue his father. It’s actually a great read. It’s not gonna give you like a blueprint for how to be a commoner.

Rob Dietz: In an irony for this particular podcast, Asher is giving us the children’s book, and I’m gonna give you the adult book on this subject. It’s usually reverse there. But we mentioned David Bollier and his book The Commoners Catalog for Changemaking earlier, and I read through it. It’s really good. It’s actually short. It combines a ton of really awesome information. And as a bonus Post Carbon Institute is mentioned in the book.

Asher Miller: That’s the only reason to like it.

Rob Dietz: But basically he says, you know, this is a book that’s about the art, culture, and politics of commoning. It’s the practices of talking with each other, coordinating work, experimenting, figuring out solutions to share challenges, and how to make them local, distributed, and fair. That sounds pretty damn good to me. And the book really does follow through on that. It has lots of really awesome examples. So yeah, let’s talk about a few.

Asher Miller: You know, I think some basic ones, but there are steps in the right direction. Use your dollars, your purchasing power, to support cooperatives. There are many cooperatives that are out there. We’ve got a co-op here in town, you know, our local grocery store. There are all kinds of cooperatives exist, some of them are employee owned and operated. So put your dollars there rather than putting them into some privately owned business or some publicly traded company. There’s also just, again, a small example, but part of pointing in the right direction, you know, we at PCI, and now all of our publishing at and publications that we do, we often turn towards Creative Commons licenses to get images. You know, there are people who write things and they publish them using a Creative Commons license. So the whole thing there is to just put it out into the world, not seeking to profit from it, not seeking to own copyright and control and ding people if they’ve used it. But using these Creative Commons places.

Rob Dietz: It’s also worth adding that there’s cool governance structures around a Creative Commons license, like about how you can share it, what you’re allowed to do, and making some kind of derivative product from it. Yeah, really, really useful, like you say, for people who are putting information out into the world.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, and I run a CSA, a community supported agriculture project. So I feel that’s part of this as well. Because basically, I’m taking this land here and growing food for local people. So I feel it’s part the local provisioning movement. And there’s other ways of doing this, too, you know. Supporting land trusts that maybe allow for some livelihood to occur via that land. Some can be explicit agrarian trusts, for example. But even other land trusts do things like that – allow for grazing rights or farming even. So I think there’s ways for people to come together buy land around where they live for that purpose.

Rob Dietz: Yeah. And if if you’re just looking to get kind of more informed about how to champion the commons, like we said, There’s David Bollier and his book. I also have worked a little bit in the past with a really smart guy named Jay Walljasper, and he helped found a group called They’ve got some really good stuff.

Asher Miller: Yeah. And I think the last thing, this is more challenging. We talked a lot about things being locally based. Local decision making, local commons, in a sense. I think we also have to think about the global commons. And Peter Barnes and others have been leading the charge on seeing, for example, the atmosphere, the oceans . . .

Jason Bradford: the Amazon Basin, for God’s sakes.

Asher Miller: . . . As something that has to be held in the commons. You know, the air, the quality of the air, the climate, is something that is not just shared by humans, but shared by all species.

Jason Bradford: And this is something where you see that a lot of what we’ve been talking about is sort of the principle of subsidiarity, where you push management down to the local level as much as possible. But when you’re talking about the global commons, this has got to be at that more at that nation-state level as well.

Asher Miller: I think there’s got a lot of work that’s to be done on legal shifting of property rights and making it more possible for commons type things to take place. And there’s also the mind shift. So just recognizing this whole idea of private ownership of every goddamn thing maybe has not always been the norm and it may not be the way to get through in the future.

Rob Dietz: Well, I don’t know about you guys. I’m gonna get started by going down to the local co-op, I’m gonna buy some fence posts, some barbed wire, and I’m gonna enclose a little piece of property over here and do my thing.

Jason Bradford: You’re gonna become one of those squatters. Squatters right. Just go for it.

Asher Miller: You’re a scum pumper or whatever.

Rob Dietz: We want to give a special thanks to Elana Zuber, our star researcher of the watershed moments through history. Without her work, there’s no way we could have covered such sweeping topics this season.

Asher Miller: Yeah, and we also want to thank our other outstanding volunteers. Anya Steier provides original artwork for us. And Taylor Antal prepares the transcripts for each episode.

Jason Bradford: And a big, big thank you to our producer Melody Travers who helps us bozos stay professional.

Rob Dietz: And finally thanks to you our listeners. If you want to help others find their way to Crazy Town, please drop us a five star rating and hit that share button when you hear an episode you like.

Jason Bradford: Alright guys, great sponsor for today. The Marianas Trench Holdings Incorporated. These guys are thinking long term. These guys are future-oriented.

Rob Dietz: Finally a frickin’ company that thinks long term. I’m excited. What do they do?

Jason Bradford: Well, you gotta think about most of the property on the surface of the planet has already been parceled out and bought up. So you know, savvy investors are looking for the next place to go.

Asher Miller: Sure. So deep, deep in the ocean.

Jason Bradford: Oh my gosh.

Asher Miller: The deepest place on earth.

Jason Bradford: The deepest place on earth. But a lot of people don’t realize is there’s a lot of life down there. Most animal phyla, and most multicellular life, you can find representatives of them, even at the darkest high pressure.

Rob Dietz: So you’re saying there’s a moose in the Marianas Trench?

Jason Bradford: Nothing. quite like that, but there are chordates, the same phylum that moose are in. They’re called tunicates. They’re little sea sponges. So yeah.

Asher Miller: Often confused for a moose.

Rob Dietz: Okay.

Jason Bradford: But there’s a real advantage here though guys. Because you think about it, this is all about hedging. You’ve got your property in New Zealand with the bunker, right? You may have something in the Swiss Alps.

Asher Miller: I do have that, yeah.

Jason Bradford: Okay. You’re in Montana.

Asher Miller: I’m covering my bases.

Jason Bradford: Right. Go to the deepest, darkest depths of the planet.

Asher Miller: Okay, so his is like not Planet B. This is Planet Z

Rob Dietz: Right, like the collapse comes, all those properties you own across the planet, that’s all wiped out. But if you can own a piece of the Marianas Trench, this is great. Because those little, what did you call them, spongy guys?

Jason Bradford: Yeah, almost all the animal phyla are down there.

Rob Dietz: Like after a couple of geological eras passed by post collapse, that could be like my nephew climbing out of the ocean.

Jason Bradford: In 10 or 20 million years, I mean, that’s where it’s going to go.

Asher Miller: We’re talking about long term investment.

Jason Bradford: Exactly. This is a long, long play, folks.

Rob Dietz: Wherever you buy stock, get your stock in Marianas Trench holdings.

Jason Bradford: Yeah, get a piece of the holding of the Marianas Trench, folks.


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