Learning to See the Commons

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/11/26/learning-to-see-the-commons.html

[[Generations of propaganda about the instability of “the commons” and the desirability of assigning property rights in everything has led the human race into a very dark place: now, two scholars, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, have published Free, Fair and Alive, which offers a critique of the “Tragedy,” case studies of working commons, and a path to a better world based on shared resources and commons-based production. -Cory]]

Could we please, finally, lay to rest the tendentious "tragedy of the commons" fairy tale that has poisoned the minds of at least two generations? The accurate story about the commons deals with its ability to address the intractable problems of our time -- wasteful economic growth, predatory markets, the climate emergency, savage inequality. The commons offers practical ways to develop non-capitalist social systems that meet needs while helping rebuild our ecosystems and create a sense of belonging.

This was a key reason why we wrote Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons. At some point, Big Deceptions such as the "tragedy" fable become so deeply rooted they need to be confronted and debunked. One way to do this is to recognize the social realities and political potential of actual commons.


I’ll save it for another time… Read a book on a browser isn’t the best of the world…

Okay, but isn’t the atmosphere a ‘commons’ for all of us, and the penalty for damaging that commons is currently “free”?


BB’s crusade to rail against a strawman mischaracterization of the TotC is weird.


I’ve found these articles to be very confusing as well. Is there some business school that teaches an incorrect version of the tragedy of the commons to promote unfettered free markets or something?


Wow, I missed a couple generations of thought about this. Last I knew in the 70s the tragedy of the commons referred to how, without (government) management and support, people tended to rip off shared resources. The point of the story as I understood it back then was that we needed to protect the commons from being raided, not that the raiders should divvy it up and make it private.


I’ve seen it twisted into an argument for privatizing everything. Because the greedy bastards among us will rip off more than their share of the commons, we should just give them all of it. Obviously as private owners they will take the best care of their property. :roll_eyes:

This has been going on for centuries.


Good Luck with that. Peer Governance works as long as the peers meet the following conditions:

  1. Are not more greedy than you are.
  2. Do not need basic necessities you already have.
  3. Are not idiots.

Hardin unfortunately got it right.

As an aside, Alexander’s book “A pattern language” is wonderful. I loved it so much, I shelled out nearly $130 for it so that I could own my own copy.



Like the Latifundium. In Souther Italy especially in Sicily the latifondia ultimately made agriculture in the island underdeveloped and made possible the mafia. https://books.google.it/books?id=y3bv3tqWftYC&pg=PA83&lpg=PA83&dq=mafia+latifundium&source=bl&ots=4h_6I9GBmT&sig=ACfU3U0olbhsauHBOq4KbKLttv6gGTMsNQ&hl=it&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiVz5rf74nmAhVYwAIHHe3dD50Q6AEwBHoECGMQAQ#v=onepage&q=mafia%20latifundium&f=false

On the other hand organized crime is a clear case of free market forces in action, because for instance the drugs market for instance is theoretically forbidden, but actually unregulated.


I found this (on a website which I know to be a reliable source of free market nonsense.) (1970)

The author admits that he borrowed the title from a more than somewhat problematic piece in Science. (1968)

“The Nature of Order” by Alexander is what really explains “A pattern language”; expensive though and it took me a few years to find reasonable priced hard copies and to finally purchase the four volumes. Step by step. Highly recommended!


This sounds very derivative of Elonore Ostrom’s work; hope they give her some credit.

I will look for it; thanks for the recommendation!

And welcome to the community.
Ha! I just realized that you’re one of the authors; I haven’t had my coffee yet. :smiley:

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of course we do :slight_smile:

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They hang the man, and flog the woman,
Who steal the goose from off the common,
But turn the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose!


The original fallacious version of the Tragedy of the Commons argued that a resource openly available will be exhausted unto ruin, and this was indeed used to promote privatization, AKA handing it over to the most rapacious greedpigs of all. I suspect this is still taught to students of finance, business, political science and other related studies. Meanwhile, the term evolved into something much simpler in the popular vernacular, the objectively true fact that a few bad actors can poison a well for everyone. Corporations beholden to shareholders have a higher proportion of being such bad actors than individuals, so it’s no kind of argument for privatization.

Strangely, this semantic forking in the use of the term tragedy of the commons seems to have occurred without most users on either side realizing it, leading to a lot of confusion and outright incredulity. The tragedy of the crossed signals?

When they do realize it, often neither side wants to give up a useful to term to the other. At least, I have no intention of entirely giving up the newer more useful and actually true meaning merely because the other is taught in wonkish disciplines. I say that without rancor and am sorry if it angers some people, but it’s a useful term. I am however more careful in what context I use it since I learned of the original usage a few years ago.


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