Undermining abundance

Roberto Verzola is a convenor and member of the Philippine Greens. He is active in information, environmental and agriculture issues. He may be reached at rverzola@gn.apc.org.

Abundance creates commons

If we review history, and perhaps prehistory as well, we would see that abundance has often led to the creation of commons. In communities that respond to abundance by treating it as a common pool resource, community members tend to act cooperatively to manage the commons so that the goals of social justice and sustainability are met and the risk of failure in abundance is minimized.

Commons management involves not only economic rules but also cultural and political factors such as conscious community decisions, appeals to the common good, and the values of sharing, cooperation, altruism and community spirit. It often relies not only on prices but also on restrictions, prohibitions and taboos. Ancient tribes and other traditional societies have evolved complex social norms of behavior and hierarchies of communal use and access rights that have served them well in managing abundance and the commons for many generations. Similar norms have likewise evolved among successful modern commons such as free/open source software and the Wikipedia.

Their institutions and methods for governing the commons have proved even more useful for threatened resources as well as resources that have actually become scarce, by helping meet goals of social justice and sustainability. In a number of instances, fishing grounds and forest reserves have been nursed back to abundance, thanks to the proper management of these commons.

A modern political economy of abundance and scarcity

Thus, a rich heritage of theory and practice in managing abundance and coping with scarcity exists and may be found in the literature of the commons. This heritage was overlooked by many for several decades after Hardin observed in 1968 that a “tragedy of the commons” ensued when rational gain maximizers exploited the commons in pure pursuit of selfinterest.

This has led governments to take over these commons as State property or turn them over to corporate interests through privatization, oftentimes creating worse tragedies. What can be worse than the tragedy which befell Russia, when the common wealth of its people – literally the product of their sweat, tears and blood –became private property overnight of Party bureaucrats-turned-capitalists?  Subsequent studies have since shown that Hardin’s “tragedy” was by no means universal, and that successful practices in managing the commons continue to serve many communities today.

Hardin’s analysis of his herders and pasture example was also too simplistic. Hardin argued that a rational herder would gain for himself +1 unit per additional head, and split with other herders the 1 unit damage to the pasture. He concluded that the positive net gain will drive every herder to keep adding heads to the pasture until the commons collapses. Hardin’s riskblind herder does not take into account the risk to his own perpetual income stream created by each additional head he puts to pasture. A riskwise herder, weighing the gain from each additional head against the increasing risk of losing his perpetual income stream, will stop adding heads before the probability of losing that income stream reaches 100%, which occurs as carrying capacity is exceeded.

Every herder should get a clear signal as the risk increases, because he will be getting less gain per unit effort as the pasture deteriorates. Here is a potentially selfregulating system that requires no unrealistic assumptions like perfect knowledge or perfect competition.

A foolhardy herder who needs the +1 gain badly enough may still risk not only his own but also everyone else’s perpetual income stream. Since each one could, one day, face a similar situation of urgent need, they may eventually realize that it would be better for each herder to contribute a small amount to raise the +1. This suggests, as a longterm solution, a system of insurance or social security, a type of commons that reduces individual risk by pooling resources.

Read on (in .pdf, 26pp.) .

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