That it is necessary to explain the commons testifies to their neglect (despite the best efforts of political scientists such as the late Elinor Ostrom). A commons is neither state nor market. It has three main elements. First a resource, such as land, water, minerals, scientific research, hardware or software. Second a community of people who have shared and equal rights to this resource, and organise themselves to manage it. Third the rules, systems and negotiations they develop to sustain it and allocate the benefits.
A true commons is managed not for the accumulation of capital or profit, but for the steady production of prosperity or wellbeing. It belongs to a particular group, who might live in or beside it, or who created and sustain it. It is inalienable, which means that it should not be sold or given away. Where it is based on a living resource, such as a forest or a coral reef, the commoners have an interest in its long-term protection, rather than the short-term gain that could be made from its destruction.
A commons is a resource, entirely true. But it’s a resource with common access – thus the name. And Garrett Hardin told us a lot about these. When demand for the resource is below regenerative capacity then it can simply motor along as is. When demand rises above that then some form of management must be imposed. Hardin thought there were two, state (regulation that is) or private property. Ostrom added the third, the community of users themselves, spontaneous order that is. Which works, up to some number of people – a couple of thousand tops.
That is, everything after the sentence stating that a commons is a resource, everything is about how people manage that access to the common resource, that’s not part of the definition of what the resource is, nor a commons. It’s in fact a definition of those commons which have survived, because people have worked out a method of limiting access.
George is entirely missing the point that is. And in doing so he’s also entirely missing the vast amount of work that’s been done on this sort of thing. Coase for example, illuminates which of the three methods we might use in certain circumstances. Hardin himself was insistent that which of his two methods depended on circumstances, nothing else. We might, as we actually do at times, be able to deal with water rights through private contracts. Atmospheric pollution less so and regulation is more likely as a solution. Or at least government action. How many cows the 30 farmers of the village can put upon Minchinhampton Common might well be left to the saloon bar of the Dog and Duck. Or the Manorial Court which is much the same thing as Ostrom’s communal regulation.
By not grasping the underlying economic point Monbiot is thus able to ramble off into wibble, sadly.