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Learning to Recognise the Common by John S Veitch
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The idea of "the Common" was first introduced to me in history classes.  People in ancient times didn't have title to the land they used.  Ordinary people lived on the land that might have been controlled by, but not owned by, a warlord or local baron.  They may have had small family plots of land, but their animals lived on and shared "the common".  

I was introduced to Gareth Hardin and External Link"The Tragedy of the Commons", in my economics classes.  Hardin made the point that different forms of ownership made a great deal of difference to how the common land was used and protected, or abused.  The general lesson economists draw from this study, is that private ownership is more likely to protect the land.  That assumption is biased by traditional economic thinking.  

Gareth Hardin did not say that exactly.  He said that for a common to be protected it needed both a set of appropriate rules, and a means of ensuring that users of the common obeyed the rules.  The common needs protection by appropriate rules or over exploitation of the common is inevitable.  In small tribal societies, tradition and cultural practices often (but not always) achieved this objective.

Once we begin to look at the ecology of the planet, how we organize our communities, and our economies, and how our political systems function, we begin to realise that "commons" exist everywhere.  Some natural, and many human made.  Commons often exist because things that are naturally shared and cannot sensibly be owned by anyone.  Or where there are rules that might be made about ownership of a commons, of the sea for instance, but there is no way to stop "our sea" mixing with "your sea", or stopping "our fish" swimming to a sea far away.  The earth's atmosphere is currently a "common" of political concern.  

There are local man-made commons, roadways and walking tracks for instance, but also parks and civic amenities of all kinds.  There are social commons, like public picnics, or community concerts, or public dances. Walking on the sidewalk, eating in a restaurant or attending religious services, is using the common.  

To a large extent, every commons is a self organising system.  Order on the commons always lies between well ordered and chaos.  On the commons people and animals tend to congregate in self forming groups.  Groups of equals, peers.  What people choose to do on a common tells you what they value.  A common is easily disrupted.  A single individual, a suicide bomber, a lone gunman, a drunk driver, anyone engaged in illegal activities can attack the value of a common.  

Stewart Brand

He is the original editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, (Winner of the National Book Award); author of The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, How Buildings Learn, and The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (MasterMinds Series); and Two Cybernetic Frontiers on Gregory Bateson and cutting-edge computer science. The Los Angeles Times Magazine: "Always two steps ahead of others.....(he) is the least recognized, most influential thinker in America."

Stewart Brand (born December 14, 1938 in Rockford, Illinois) is best known as editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. He founded a number of organizations including The WELL, the Global Business Network, and the Long Now Foundation.

When the use pressure on a commons is light, rules of use are normally unwritten, but nevertheless well understood by all users.  Such simple ideas can be quite effective.  My personal example is a dance floor.  In ballroom dancing, dancers move in a "line of dance", flowing around the room.  If the number of couples on the floor is large, dancing freely becomes more and more difficult, but with skilled dancers a floor will hold a lot of people.  A single inexperienced couple dancing statically on the edge of the floor can destroy the flow.  

With increased pressure on the common resource written rules enforced by the law may be needed.  This process may be the source of great resentment and complaints that "my rights" are being infringed.  Restricting fishing catches with daily limits, or size limits are an example.  There are always individuals or groups who choose to ignore the restriction.  Enforcement is costly, but essential.  

Faced with the issue of climate change, the most obvious counter measure is to phase out and close down coal mining.  But coal mining provides massive employment around the world, and the low cost energy for burning coal is considered essential to industrial production.  Little wonder that coal mining is the elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about.  Talk about clean coal with current technology is merely greenwash.  It's a hard issue.  Banning coal mining would certainly cause deaths.  Continuing with coal mining will also cause deaths.  Different people at a different time.  It's probably impossible to make decisions like that at a national level.  Having an "Open Future©" demands the ability to make hard decisions.  

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