The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecology.

Author:Stevenson, Hayley
Position:Book review

The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecology. By Derek Wall. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014.

In this short book, Derek Wall charts a course between those who see the commons as the cause of all environmental ills and those who passionately hold the commons as a Utopia of environmental sustainability and social justice. For Wall, an English politician and member of the Green Party, restoring the commons and recreating new commons traditions are essential elements of solving environmental crises. But he acknowledges that there are no simple solutions.

Wall begins by unpacking the contested definitions and understandings of "the commons": land and resources that are either collectively owned or set aside for public use. Based on usufruct rights, commons allow public access and use to the extent that future productivity is not endangered. Garrett Hardin's well-known parable of the "tragedy of the commons" has led many to associate commons with environmental degradation:

if resources are not privately owned or centrally managed, they will be destroyed. (See Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science 162, no. 3859 [13 December 1968]: 1243-1248.) Wall briefly recounts alternative narratives and experiences from across the globe. On balance, tragedy arises more often from privatization than from failed collective management. A recurring observation is that degradation is often the result of solutions designed to improve the productivity of commons rather than focusing on their steady conservation.

While he is sympathetic to commons advocates, Wall does...

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