Commons - Prosperity by Sharing

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  • Report: The Commons - Prosperity by Sharing. By Silke Helfrich, Rainer Kuhlen, Wolfgang Sachs, Christian Siefkes. Heinrich Boll Foundation.



"What older tradition had referred to as res communes – common assets – has been relegated to the background, if not entirely to oblivion, by the market and the state and their doctrines of market-res privatae and state-provided res publicae. Common pool resources such as air and water are today treated as res nullius “no-man’s resources” that no one owns or cares about. The disastrous consequences this has for all of us are manifest everywhere today.

Yet the res communes or “commons,” as they are known in English, are by no means “ownerless.” They belong to all of us, and cannot and may not be used for just any purpose, or for that matter be destroyed. But we must first claim our rights to them – all of us. It is the commons that feed us, enable us to communicate with each other, move around, that inspire us, bind us to places and – not least – serve as dump sites for our wastes.

To talk about our collective rights to the commons opens up a new dimension to the classic concept of property, which is first and foremost associated with the rights of the individual. It also raises a number of provocative questions:

What would the consequences be if land were to be understood as a commons? How would public space change if it could no longer be arbitrarily privatised by advertisements, noise, vehicles or parking lots? What if knowledge and cultural assets could be used for free, as a matter of course, and their commercial use were the exception? What rules and institutions can help us best manage the commons? The above questions have not been thoroughly explored in their theoretical dimensions, let alone in their practical, political, social and economic implications. Yet such questions must be answered if we are to recover the commons.

This report attempts to explore the potential of the commons if they are used wisely and sustainably. It delves into the reasons why so many commons are threatened and examines the rules that can help protect the commons from ruin. In the following pages we will share with the reader our thoughts and stories on these questions.

Not all commons are the same. Nor are the institutional arrangements that can help protect the commons from private appropriation or ruin. However, many design principles for successful commons have been identified by the commons theorist Elinor Ostrom, whose award of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics has drawn global attention to these issues. Similarly legal scholar Yochai Benkler has offered important theoretical approaches that he calls “commons-based peer production.”

We need to strengthen the commons as a distinct sphere of activity beyond the state and the market, in a manner that complements both. To achieve this, each of us is called upon to assume his/her responsibility as co-owner of “our common goods,” which will not only enlarge our freedoms but promote greater participation in the decisions that affect us. Unlike markets and state assistance programs and regulation, the commons need people’s commitment to function. The wealth that accrues as a result of the commons must be equitably redistributed across all the spheres in which we live." (