A Dangerous Idea

July 2, 2012

She was no queen but a commoner. Yet to scientists, economists, farmers, fishermen and indigenous people, she was the undisputed Queen of the Commons. Elinor Ostrom made Common Pool Resource (CPR) systems mainstream and won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics in the process. Her years of painstaking and interdisciplinary research proved that communities are capable of managing their resources with their own unique system of governance. She proved that people have the intelligence and perseverance to flourish independent of government or private interference. The entrenched myth of Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” was shattered by empirical evidence.

Before her, CPR was rubbished as primitive and wasteful. State and private actors had been abusing this myth to take over land and natural resource management from the hands of local communities that had been self-sufficient for centuries. Under the false guise of benevolent state protection and private efficiency, villagers and forest dwellers were relieved of their rights and treated like infants. Pastures, forests and lakes that had been managed through commons were appropriated for private and state use. Even the word commons was made to sound like an archaic relict, a cross between Middle Ages peasant folklore and fairy tales.

The rebirth of the commons was a rebirth of a dangerous idea. In effect it stated that under the right conditions, people could live free lives. That government was not indispensable and that the private sector was not always an efficient beast. In a sense this small idea had a lot in common with an earth-shattering evolution whose reverberations are still being felt today – the birth of atheism.

The religious heads at height of their powers force-fed the belief that human beings were born in sin and incapable of saving themselves without divine intervention. In a similar vein, the commons-bashers promoted the myth that human beings were intrinsically free-riders and cheats and hence incapable of sustaining themselves without external intervention. Both propogated the belief that people needed to be saved from themselves despite the existence of complex and successful societies that predated governments and organised religion.

The idea that morality came from human beings and not from religion or divine benediction gave birth to the enlightenment and modern science. People were freed from centuries of religious tyranny and allowed the option of non-belief in a divine mover. Of course, the religious powers did not quietly disappear into the night. Thousands perished for questioning myths and proposing alternative explanations to the workings of the universe. Science was held back for centuries and had to claw its way out of the religious stranglehold over people’s minds. In a more modest way the idea of a working and thriving commons had to fight myths, prejudices and vested interests to become widely accepted. It was a small idea whose time had come.