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October 19, 2021

The struggle over the commons continues

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common-story-spiralBy Mary Gardner

The power of a Great Story goes round and round, spiralling outward from its first telling. Such stories become influential but why? Consider one from 1968 called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. For nearly fifty years, this cautionary tale was repeated as ‘scientific’ justification for the privatisation of land and every other resource possible.

The essay by United States ecologist Garret Hardin was published by the prestigious journal Science. Hardin told a story about what he called the inevitable ruin of shared pastures by the collective of herdsmen. He explained this happened because each one was a rational individual player. Obviously, each wanted to maximise their personal gain. Each would add more and more cattle on the land. This common property could only rescued from degradation when fenced off as private real estate. Its best management was in the hands of professional technocrats.

This story caricaturised the commons as a free-for-all space and its people as selfish, ignorant consumers. Hardin’s example was taken from the work of British writer William F Lloyd, published in 1833. This particular author also advocated enclosure and technocracy as an imperative economic policy.

But the historian of agriculture Simon Fairlie presents the larger story. He found Lloyd defended those who wanted to make private gain of the common fields, woods and marshes of England. These gentry of the 1800s were the latest in a long line of power brokers dating back to the 1400s.

Over these centuries, history and folklore remember the struggles over the commons. The Peasant’s Revolt (1381), John Cade’s Rebellion (1450), Kett’s rebellion (1549), Captain Pouch’s revolts (1604) and the Diggers of St George’s Hill (1649). Wearing soot on their faces, ‘King John’ and other vigilante gangs successfully defended common lands until they were finally targeted by the infamous Black Acts (1723). Gathering wood became a crime. Poaching became a hanging offense. Such laws were only repealed when it became possible to transport these people as convicts to Australia.

In the earlier times of Celts, Saxons and Normans, communities managed their open fields in ways which were equitable and safeguarded the abundance. Twice a year, the community held planning meetings, allocating fields for production or fallow. The oxen for ploughing and the community labour for haymaking was shared. Dairy cows grazed during the day on communal land but were individually owned and milked by each household.

Great expanses of marshes were also important commons for peoples who used them for grazing, hunting and gathering. From 1630, in East England, the Tyger Fens rallied, calling themselves ‘the Brethren of the Water’. For 20 years these fisher farmers fought the lords and abbots who would drain their lands. Drainage would destroy their livelihoods and force them to become day labourers to new landlords. By 1649, the Tygers won and wetlands continued as commons.

From 1760 to 1840, an Act of Parliament drained the Fens, broke up communities and created gang labour systems. Limited compensation gave a few people some very small farms, but most were left without access to land.

Many power-mongers blamed the subsequent poverty on these same people. They continued with enclosures throughout England, in the Scottish Highlands and right around the world including places such as Australia.

As such privatisation stories prove to be distortions, other stories are becoming more influential. These tell of inventive, adaptive management of a commons over generations. As Bundjalung elders will agree, this is one of the oldest most enduring property regimes known to human beings.

Here in Byron Bay, like many places, most of our practices uphold enclosure as if this be the only way to live. But change is in the ocean wind. One example is in the current revival of the Union Drain Trust, responsible for the common waterways which crisscross West Byron, the Industrial Estate and beyond. It’s part of a collective including Byron Council, Cape Byron Marine Park, the Arakwal and community.

Here’s a great story for us. It’s from the Upper Basin of the Mississippi River. The Fishers and Farmers Partnership is rehabilitating 50,000 kilometres of waterways (www.fishersandfarmer.org). This self-directed collaboration of Native Americans, farmers, wildlife carers, ecologists, townspeople and government agencies are all planning and acting for the greater good. They turn old ‘Tragedies of the Commoners’ into ‘Tales of Resilience’ featuring revitalised human communities.

Happy New Year, Byron Bay.

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  1. Mary. Garret Hardin argued that privatisation of community resources would lead to over exploitation. He certainly did not argue for privatisation. He pointed out that the law of the tragedy of the commons applied to natural ecosystems, air, water, oceans, forests, in fact anything held in common. Your interpretation is totally wrong. You may have heard that slant from some developer somewhere but please read the original article carefully, his great contribution to economic thought does not deserve to be blighted but such silly misrepresentation. Excuse the strong language but I am too old to put up with crap.

  2. “They hang the man and flog the woman,
    Who steals the goose from off the common.
    Yet let the greater villain loose,
    Who steals the common from the goose.”
    17th century English protest rhyme.

  3. Thanks for your comments. Many people do not hold with a ‘law of the tragedy of the commons’. Erosion of any commons is not inevitable. Quite the contrary: many commons were and some still are managed successfully. Each case requires a place-based assessment of its politics as well as its society and ecology. For meaningful debate, what is meant by the commons should also be clarified. When writing about polycentric governance, Adela Schalger and Nobel winner Elinor Olstrom pointed out, ‘commons’ is used to mean three or even four very different things: property owned by government, by no one, by community of users who manage and defend this use and a resource used by a mixture of differently entitled owners. Obviously, no single ‘law’ can apply to them all or predict the futures. Finally, to be comprehensive in any debate, Harding’s correction should also be acknowledged: ‘As a result of discussions carried out during the past decade I now suggest a better wording of the central idea: Under conditions of overpopulation, freedom in an unmanaged commons brings ruin to all.’ Again thank you all for your interest and for the protest poem.

    • Mary you are far too generous. I got it wrong. you were correct. Hardin pointed out that ‘Laissez faire capitalism’ approaches were bound to end in inequality and over exploitation, hence the “Tragedy” in the title. He discounted social control (Socialism!! What else could an American economist do??) He ignored all the examples that you quoted that showed long term responsible behavior was possible.
      I would add that Australian Aborigines created a social system which lasted for thousands of years where responsibility for the environment was central to their beliefs. The rapid and effective response to the ozone hole testifies to our continuing ability to keep the greedy under control. The resistance to measures to control climatic change shows that the greedy are still out there and still willing to sacrifice everyone else to maintain the least vestige of their perceived advantage.
      My sincere apologies Mary I loved your article. And I once again apologize for my intemperate and inaccurate comments.


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