The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit. Characteristically, this involves a variety of informal norms and values (social practice) employed for a governance mechanism. Commons can be also defined as a social practice of governing a resource not by state or market but by a community of users that self-governs the resource through institutions that it creates .
The Digital Library of the Commons defines "commons" as "a general term for shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest".
The term "commons" derives from the traditional English legal term for common land, which are also known as "commons", and was popularised in the modern sense as a shared resource term by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in an influential 1968 article called The Tragedy of the Commons. As Frank van Laerhoven and Elinor Ostrom have stated; "Prior to the publication of Hardin's article on the tragedy of the commons (1968), titles containing the words 'the commons', 'common pool resources', or 'common property' were very rare in the academic literature."
Some texts make a distinction in usage between common ownership of the commons and collective ownership among a group of colleagues, such as in a producers' cooperative. The precision of this distinction is not always maintained.
The use of "commons" for natural resources has its roots in European intellectual history, where it referred to shared agricultural fields, grazing lands and forests that were, over a period of several hundred years, enclosed, claimed as private property for private use. In European political texts, the common wealth was the totality of the material riches of the world, such as the air, the water, the soil and the seed, all nature's bounty regarded as the inheritance of humanity as a whole, to be shared together. In this context, one may go back further, to the Roman legal category res communis, applied to things common to all to be used and enjoyed by everyone, as opposed to res publica, applied to public property managed by the government.
The examples below illustrate types of environmental commons.
Originally in medieval England the common was an integral part of the manor, and was thus legally part of the estate in land owned by the lord of the manor, but over which certain classes of manorial tenants and others held certain rights. By extension, the term "commons" has come to be applied to other resources which a community has rights or access to. The older texts use the word "common" to denote any such right, but more modern usage is to refer to particular rights of common, and to reserve the name "common" for the land over which the rights are exercised. A person who has a right in, or over, common land jointly with another or others is called a commoner.
In middle Europe, commons (relatively small-scale agriculture in, especially, southern Germany, Austria, and the alpine countries) were kept, in some parts, till the present. Some studies have compared the German and English dealings with the commons between late medieval times and the agrarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. The UK was quite radical in doing away with and enclosing former commons, while southwestern Germany (and the alpine countries as e.g. Switzerland) had the most advanced commons structures, and were more inclined to keep them. The Lower Rhine region took an intermediate position. However, the UK and the former dominions have till today a large amount of Crown land which often is used for community or conservation purposes.
Based on a research project by the Environmental and Cultural Conservation in Inner Asia (ECCIA) from 1992 to 1995, satellite images were used to compare the amount of land degradation due to livestock grazing in the regions of Mongolia, Russia, and China. In Mongolia, where shepherds were permitted to move collectively between seasonal grazing pastures, degradation remained relatively low at approximately 9%. Comparatively, Russia and China, which mandated state-owned pastures involving immobile settlements and in some cases privatization by household, had much higher degradation, at around 75% and 33% respectively. A collaborative effort on the part of Mongolians proved much more efficient in preserving grazing land.
Widespread success of the Maine lobster industry is often attributed to the willingness of Maine's lobstermen to uphold and support lobster conservation rules. These rules include harbor territories not recognized by the state, informal trap limits, and laws imposed by the state of Maine (which are largely influenced by lobbying from lobster industry itself). Essentially, the lobstermen collaborate without much government intervention to sustain their common-pool resource.
In the late 1980s, Nepal chose to decentralize government control over forests. Community forest programs work by giving local areas a financial stake in nearby woodlands, and thereby increasing the incentive to protect them from overuse. Local institutions regulate harvesting and selling of timber and land, and must use any profit towards community development and preservation of the forests. In twenty years, locals have noticed a visible increase in the number of trees. Community forestry may also contribute to community development in rural areas - for instance school construction, irrigation and drinking water channel construction, and road construction. Community forestry has proven conducive to democratic practices at grass roots level.
Acequia is a method of collective responsibility and management for irrigation systems in desert areas. In New Mexico, a community-run organization known as Acequia Associations supervises water in terms of diversion, distribution, utilization, and recycling, in order to reinforce agricultural traditions and preserve water as a common resource for future generations.
Today, the commons are also understood within a cultural sphere. These commons include literature, music, arts, design, film, video, television, radio, information, software and sites of heritage. Wikipedia is an example of the production and maintenance of common goods by a contributor community in the form of encyclopedic knowledge that can be freely accessed by anyone without a central authority.
The information commons may help protect users of commons. Companies that pollute the environment release information about what they are doing. The Corporate Toxics Information Project and information like the Toxic 100, a list of the top 100 polluters, helps people know what these corporations are doing to the environment.
Mayo Fuster Morell proposed a definition of digital commons as "information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusive, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favor use and reuse, rather than to exchange as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources."
Urban commons present the opportunity for the citizens to gain power upon the management of the urban resources and reframe city-life costs based on their use value and maintenance costs, rather than the market-driven value.
Urban commons situates citizens as key players rather than public authorities, private markets and technologies. David Harvey (2012) defines the distinction between public spaces and urban commons. Public spaces and goods in the city make a commons when part of the citizens take political action. Syntagma Square in Athens, Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the Plaza de Catalunya in Barcelona were public spaces that transformed to an urban commons as people protested there to support their political statements. Streets are public spaces that have often become an urban commons by social action and revolutionary protests. Urban commons are operating in the cities in a complementary way with the state and the market. Some examples are community gardening, urban farms on the rooftops and cultural spaces. More recently participatory studies of commons and infrastructures under the conditions of the financial crisis emerge.
In 2007, Elinor Ostrom along with her colleague Charlotte Hess, did succeed in extending the commons debate to knowledge, approaching knowledge as a complex ecosystem that operates as a common - a shared resource that is subject to social dilemmas. The focus here was on the ready availability of digital forms of knowledge and associated possibilities to store, access and share it as a common. The connection between knowledge and commons may be made through identifying typical problems associated with natural resource commons, such as congestion, overharvesting, pollution and inequities, which also apply to knowledge. Then, effective alternatives (community-based, non-private, non-state), in line with those of natural commons (involving social rules, appropriate property rights and management structures), solutions are proposed. Thus, the commons metaphor is applied to social practice around knowledge. It is in this context that the present work proceeds, discussing the creation of depositories of knowledge through the organised, voluntary contributions of scholars (the research community, itself a social common), the problems that such knowledge commons might face (such as free-riding or disappearing assets), and the protection of knowledge commons from enclosure and commodification (in the form of intellectual property legislation, patenting, licensing and overpricing). At this point, it is important to note the nature of knowledge and its complex and multi-layered qualities of non-rivalry and non-excludability. Unlike natural commons - which are both rival and excludable (only one person can use any one item or portion at a time and in so doing they use it up, it is consumed) and characterised by scarcity (they can be replenished but there are limits to this, such that consumption/destruction may overtake production/creation) - knowledge commons are characterised by abundance (they are non-rival and non-excludable and thus, in principle, not scarce, so not impelling competition and compelling governance). This abundance of knowledge commons has been celebrated through alternative models of knowledge production, such as Commons Based Peer Production (CBPP), and embodied in the free software movement. The CBPP model showed the power of networked, open collaboration and non-material incentives to produce better quality products (mainly software).
A commons failure theory, now called tragedy of the commons, originated in the 18th century. In 1833 William Forster Lloyd introduced the concept by a hypothetical example of herders overusing a shared parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze, to the detriment of all users of the common land. The same concept has been called the "tragedy of the fishers", when over-fishing could cause stocks to plummet.
It has been said the dissolution of the traditional land commons played a watershed role in landscape development and cooperative land use patterns and property rights. However, as in the British Isles, such changes took place over several centuries as a result of land enclosure.
Economist Peter Barnes has proposed a 'sky trust' to fix this tragedic problem in worldwide generic commons. He claims that the sky belongs to all the people, and companies do not have a right to over pollute. It is a type of cap and dividend program. Ultimately the goal would be to make polluting excessively more expensive than cleaning what is being put into the atmosphere.
While the original work on the tragedy of the commons concept suggested that all commons were doomed to failure, they remain important in the modern world. Work by later economists has found many examples of successful commons, and Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize for analysing situations where they operate successfully. For example, Ostrom found that grazing commons in the Swiss Alps have been run successfully for many hundreds of years by the farmers there.
Allied to this is the "comedy of the commons" concept, where users of the commons are able to develop mechanisms to police their use to maintain, and possibly improve, the state of the commons. This term was coined in an essay by legal scholar, Carol M. Rose, in 1986.
Other related concepts are the inverse commons, cornucopia of the commons, and triumph of the commons. It is argued that some types of commons, such as open-source software, work better in the cornucopia of the commons; proponents say that, in those cases, "the grass grows taller when it is grazed on".