Can Historical Forms of Commons Governance Be Used To Manage Contemporary Global Commons

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By Hartmut Zückert:

"The concept of the commons today often refers to open-access natural resources such as oceans, the atmosphere and space.3 Such aspirational uses of the term do not specify the actual governance regimes that can sustainably manage them, however.

Are the defining characteristics of the historical commons – or a comparable concept of common property – transferable to open-access commons or even to global resources? Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop were convinced that common-property institutions might be helpful in solving current-day problems of natural-resources policy and are doing so already. High-seas fisheries can serve as an example here. Limiting a fishing season to counter overfishing has a parallel in the grazing season on the commons; extending national fishing zones to 200 miles from the coast is analogous to the boundaries of a village’s grazing land and the determination of who had rights to graze livestock there. The establishment of national quotas and individual fishermen’s quotas resembles the practice of stinting on the commons. Similar institutions regulating use of the atmosphere, they believe, might emerge. Following those who consider the oceans to be the common heritage of all mankind, one could consider these resources to be a “giant commons managed as a trust by some international agency such as the United Nations.” (Ciriacy-Wantrup/Bishop 1975)

The historical concept of the commons is a concept of property rights. If we historicize the contemporary debate about the commons and bring the historical concept of the commons into play, we must take that into account. Yet we must consider whether the question of property rights is even the central issue if we seek to solve global problems, and if so, how common-property rights can be fleshed out today." (