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The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict and Ecology.

Derek Wall:

The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict and Ecology.

Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2014.

ISBN 978-0-262-02721-2 (HB) [pounds sterling]17.95. xv+165pp.

The late 1960s saw the publication of two poorly-researched articles in the journal Science which have been responsible for mountains of rebuttal and comment. One was Garrett Hardin's 'The tragedy of the commons', and the other Lynn White's 'The historical roots of our ecologic crisis'. Hardin, a biologist who had done next to no research on commons worldwide, argued that commons would always tend to be over exploited by individuals, and thus ruined for everyone. His argument was premised on an axiom of classical economics--the idea that humans are 'rational utility maximisers' who will always put their own interest first. An enormous volume of literature already existed to show that this was not the case, and that most societies, for most of human history, have prioritised co-operation, and that they have often done this through having resources in common--the commons.

The Commons in History appears in a 'History for a Sustainable Future' series, and it is an attempt to inform debate about sustainability by drawing on historical and cultural research. It offers a brief overview of some of the literature in the area, and appears to be aimed at first-year undergraduate courses, assuming no previous knowledge of any of the arguments.

Derek Wall considers some of the literature on commons in regard to Britain, Switzerland, Mongolia and India. Drawing on such work, and especially on the Swiss example, the North American economist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in economics for arguing the case for co-operation: what had for at least a century and a half been completely obvious to historians and anthropologists was revelatory to the economics profession, from whom Hardin borrowed his assumptions. Hardin overlooked the fact that social codes everywhere had policed common land for centuries. There are, of course, examples of common assets which have been overused and destroyed, but equally there are countless examples of common assets which have sustained communities and been robustly defended by common law and custom. But the notion of community was outwith Hardin's lexicon.

Wall argues that the idea of the tragedy of the commons has been used to justify enclosure, both in the eighteenth century, in England, and in Africa today. In fact, he argues, it is not so much that commons fail, as that they are enclosed for private gain. Paradoxically, perhaps, the argument against Hardin was not put by leftists but by a libertarian disciple of Hayek, rejecting big government in favour of local knowledge and commitment. Ostrom's arguments are (in this respect like Roger Scruton's in Green Philosophy) one of those areas where extremes seem to meet. She appealed to the notion of usufruct--a mainstream of Roman law and of medieval theology--the idea that people might have rights to use within limits, which undergirded the entire economic edifice of medieval Europe. Rejecting the individualism of her economic peers, she argued for the priority of co-operation and sharing. McCarthy might have had her locked up as a communist! Compounding this rich irony, her ideas were applauded by the right wing Institute of Economic Affairs, otherwise in favour of commoditising, privatising and selling everything. At least Roger Scruton is consistent in rejecting the globalised market, in arguing that the future of humankind cannot be left to distant bureaucracies. Instead we must rely on Burke's 'little platoons' with their local knowledge and concern for place.

In the second and third chapters, Wall considers the importance of culture and power in the maintenance or destruction of the commons. Commons only make sense, and only thrive, in cultures which foster commonality--hardly a surprise. Polanyi's 'great transformation'--the process by which societies ceased to have markets and became subject to 'the market', in which land and labour themselves became commodities, undid such assumptions. Polanyi (to whom the author does not appeal) already showed in 1944, based on dense historical and anthropological evidence, that co-operative cultures, many of which operated gift economics, were undone by the thin assumptions of competitive individualism. As Wall remarks, for those who define commons in terms of accumulation the commons is likely to be a failure.

The struggle of the seventeenth-century Diggers was over common land. Their attempt to cultivate it was met by violence, both on the part of local landowners, and of the army. This has been the story of almost all attacks on the commons: the idea of common property did not fail (a convenient rightwing myth) but was put down in the name of a quite different ideology--in the United States, sometimes in the interest of preserving 'wilderness'. Wall also correctly argues that European colonialism was an attack on the commons, though he does not comment on one of the most egregious of these attacks, Monsanto's attempt to privatise and patent the genetic commons. He rightly points out that the idea of commons may not provide the basis of an egalitarian society. Commons presume limits, and they can exclude marginalized or poorer groups, as indeed the Diggers were excluded. Switzerland has some of the most ancient and best managed commons in the world, as well as the world's most sophisticated democracy, but is neither egalitarian nor transitioning away from capitalism.

The final chapter is partly about a research agenda for work on the commons and partly about how the idea of the commons can contribute to sustainability. The key question, Wall argues, is not just resources but relationships amongst commoners, our ways of communing. Communal property rights reduce resource use via social sharing. If more resources are shared instead of owned privately it is possible to cut through the dilemmas of Malthusianism versus techno-optimism. Wall acknowledges that a purely local approach to commons is insufficient, but he does not discuss in any detail the most pressing problem of the commons, which might indeed prove the ultimate tragedy, namely climate change. It would seem that to take the action needed to avoid runaway climate change we need to appeal to states, but if we look at the world at present we have a very grim picture: groups operating with a seventh century ideology trying to re-establish an Islamic caliphate, and beheading their opponents; old fashioned nationalisms in Ukraine; bitter chauvinisms in Israel and Palestine; the rule of banks and corporations in the United States and European Union countries. Where do we go to establish and to act upon a common humanity? It is that failure which may ultimately undo us.


Hardin, G. 1968. 'The tragedy of the commons'. Science 162(3859): 1243-1248.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scruton, R. 2014. Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet. London: Atlantic Books.

White, Lynn. 1967. 'The historical roots of our ecologic crisis'. Science 155(3767): 1203-1207.


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Author:Gorringe, Tim
Publication:Environmental Values
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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