The Commons: More than just resources
What do squatters’ movements have in common with meadows? What makes sharing a front yard radical? And how do these examples defy the dominant methods of resource management today: either top-down management by a state authority, or legal and physical enclosure in private ownership?
Each of the above qualifies as a commons when it’s organized around principles of local autonomy, mutual responsibility, and shared benefits. Commons are spaces and resources that are collectively managed by and for all in a user group. Commons can flourish quietly in the cracks between the state and market; they can overlap with those systems; they can even incorporate aspects of them. But successful commons governance emancipates people from passive roles towards their surroundings, and endows them with the responsibility of stewardship for the common good. And in our current moment of global inequality and ecological calamity, movements to defend existing commons and create new ones are multiplying.
To meet the moment, University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) Professor Arun Agrawal, a team of SEAS student researchers, and guest panelists are exploring the commons and commoning, or the processes that create and sustain commons. A workshop in November 2023 convened scholars to explore questions of power and sustainability within the commons, while the ongoing Commons, Commoning and Social Change webinar series is a forum for guest speakers to share research and visions of the commons as an alternative way to organize society and care for resources.
In a landscape dominated by private property scattered with some public lands, you may be tempted to write off the commons as a quaint historic phenomenon or a naïve fantasy. It’s fair to wonder: what can actually be managed as a commons? Are the commons a realistic option in our globalized, volatile world?
Our research provides an emphatic yes. This primer introduces six types of real-world commons. Each challenges the notion that state control or private exploitation of resources are inevitable. And each offers an alternative vision of reimagining our relationships with the living world and with each other.
If someone asks you to picture “the commons,” you’ll probably picture common-pool resources: things like forests, fisheries, or fields, accessed by a specific group of people and vulnerable to depletion if they’re overused. These are the quintessential commons outlined in political scientist Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize-winning work “Governing the Commons.” Her research was rich with examples of common-pool resources that are sustainably managed by community institutions to prevent individual overuse or mooching.
Take Törbel, Switzerland, a village of 600 people at the time of Ostrom’s research. Here, private property parcels coexist alongside communal meadows for grazing cattle. Access to the meadows is limited to villagers, and the number of cattle is strictly monitored. Communal grazing has been regulated by a resident association since 1483, and although the system has been humming along for centuries, it’s a mistake to think of it as a medieval relic. Törbel residents are not strangers to the concept of private property. But they’ve found that collective management of the meadow is superior to private ownership: it increases agricultural productivity, engages the entire community, and preserves the meadow as a whole ecosystem.
2. Global commons
Global commons are easy to recognize and hard to govern. They include oceans, the atmosphere, and Antarctica. They’re not owned or controlled by a single nation, but they’re crucial to survival at a large—often planetary—scale. Governing global commons gets trickier when you include transboundary commons, like rivers or migratory wildlife, which defy political boundaries and result in contested ownership claims. The challenge is to find ways to govern these commons cooperatively and fairly, with agreement among all users. No easy feat.
Seeds are a unique global common. Their genetics are increasingly mobile and commodifiable in a globalized economy, yet they are usually rooted in the ecologies and cultures of a particular place or people. In the Philippines, farmer-led coalition MASIPAG is on a mission to create an alternative to global seed markets. Farmers and researchers preserve and develop seed varieties, reject patents and GMOs, and share their seeds, land, and knowledge. Their refusal to privatize and philosophy of sharing ideas transforms their seeds from commodities into commons.
3. Social movements and common spaces
There’s a robust relationship between social movements and the commons. Social movements offer alternative visions of living, often based on principles of solidarity and justice. To achieve these visions and enact these principles, space is both a necessary ingredient and an active participant. Movements like New York’s Occupy Wall Street or Greece’s Movement of the Squares often transform public or private space into common space. There, coalitions of activists welcome new members, vote in assemblies, and organize to distribute food and medical resources, all while declaring their political values.
Since 2012, a collective of disenfranchised migrants, refugees, and allies known as We Are Here have occupied buildings in the Netherlands. The buildings are practical common resources, providing shelter denied by the state. They are also social and political hubs where residents share knowledge, resources, care, and political strategy. Participants become commoners, both proclaiming their criticisms of society while practicing collective decision-making that contrasts with their treatment at the hands of state authorities.
At this point you may be thinking: OK, so can anything be a commons? And for those inspired by the commons’ potential to transform society, the answer is: exactly. Informal commons can be alternative spaces or practices that exist at the fringes of, overlap with, or even incorporate aspects of private or public ownership. They may be less political than a building occupation and less institutionalized than a common-pool resource association, but as real-world expressions of organizing society around shared values, protocols, and norms, they’re no less powerful.
Examples abound. In Hong Kong, migrant domestic workers turn city streets into social commons as they gather every Sunday. In Jakarta, the failure of a building management company spurred apartment residents to develop their own repair system in corridors, fostering ownership. And in some neighborhoods of Minneapolis, front yards—in some ways the classic symbol of an American nuclear family’s property—become combined territories where neighbors engage in childcare, plant-sharing, and gardening. Informal commoning norms emerge as everyone distributes the workload, costs, and bounty.
- Digital commons
Digital commons include information, data, and units of culture distributed online, such as art and music. But beyond this simple description, debates persist over what qualifies as digital commons and how to govern them. Is a virtual platform that organizes activities carried out in the “real world” a digital commons? Is it enough for a software’s code to be open source, or should it be designed and managed according to ethics of egalitarianism, transparency, and social progress? Can a well-intentioned digital commons avoid capture by those who seek to profit from its data, or co-opt it for surveillance?
A classic example of digital commoning is commons-based peer production (CBPP): a decentralized production system in which dispersed individuals organize and create together online. Participation is usually voluntary, and contributors are motivated by a shared vision, not profit. CBPP is responsible for revolutionary digital commons that have exceeded the usefulness of their private counterparts; Wikipedia is a prime example (or would you rather use Microsoft Encarta?). Digital commons constantly chafe against systems that seek to privatize them or absorb them into existing copyright and legal codes, but proponents argue that with enough momentum, digital commons can inspire radical forms of labor organizing and communication powerful enough to force states and markets to adapt to their agenda.
6. Urban commons
Urban commons are not just resources that happen to be in a city. They’re produced through the shared identities and activities that knit communities together, often in response to political exclusion or bulldozer-happy private development. They can be a neighborhood’s unique cultural character, a grassroots water delivery service, an art space, or a garden. Seen this way, urban commons can technically be owned privately, publicly, or any which way—but they are commons if they are sustained intentionally by a network of residents who cultivate belonging and access.
Abahlali baseMjondolo, or “people of the shacks” in isiZulu, formed in Durban, South Africa, as a movement for marginalized residents to assert their rights to public goods and services. By occupying city land and resisting evictions, members secure access to energy and water infrastructure, schools, and economic opportunity. The movement emphasizes consensus and organizational autonomy. Sharing childcare, laundry, and cooking duties forms a strong foundation that unites its ethnically diverse membership. Abahlali baseMjondolo doesn’t aim to create a totally new, commons-based society, but their commoning tactics affirm their “right to the city,” or the right to have equal access and equal say in urban life.
In exploring these examples, what’s clear is that commons don’t have to be things. Nor do they need to fit into a single category. Commons can take the form of short-lived experiments in social change, as well as ecologies and life support systems that predate recorded history. Some couldn’t exist without the Internet, while others have been managed for centuries by Indigenous peoples—not as radical alternatives to markets or states, but through cultural and political norms of reciprocity and relationships. Importantly, commons are not free-for-alls where everyone takes without limit. They’re governed by institutions or rules suitable for their context, and agreed on by all.
Serious challenges exist, including rapacious privatization, environmental mismanagement, inequalities within communities, and undemocratic governments. And yet the future of the commons seems bright: the greater your awareness of them becomes, the more you’ll see them evolving everywhere. The commons provides a framework for global solidarity among dispersed groups of diverse people tackling local problems. They are a hopeful template of resource governance that can lead us into a sustainable, fair, common future.
The Commons, Commoning and Social Change webinar series explores the relationship between the commons and sustainability; the commons and transformation—of society and of the self; the role of power in commoning; and the characteristics that distinguish successful commoning projects from unstable commoning attempts. Register for a future webinar here.
Jess Silber-Byrne (MS ’23) studied environmental justice and sustainability and development at SEAS, and earned the Science, Technology, and Public Policy certificate at the U-M Ford School for Public Policy. Under the guidance of SEAS Associate Professor Bilal Butt, her master’s thesis is a systematic review of wildlife-livestock research across East Africa’s rangeland commons, private landscapes and public parks, addressing the evidence’s implications for future conservation policy.
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