The fragile parameters within which human life on this lonely planet has flourished are already starting to tip. As we hurtle through space on trajectories beyond our control, the life support systems dashboard is flashing critical, a lagging signal of a disruption we’re already in the midst of.

The challenge is heightened – perhaps caused by – the mutual strengthening of pillars of state and markets, and the weakening of another pillar – community. Economist Raghuram Rajan notes: “When any of the three pillars weakens or strengthens significantly, typically as a result of technological progress or terrible economic adversity, the balance is upset, and society has to find a new equilibrium.”

As markets and states have been growing together, concentrating power, there is a risk that they become unable to address problems of collective action and specifically that they alone do not have the capacity to halt and reverse the degradation of the environmental parameters on which life as we know it depends. We need to look to local commons – assemblies of people who form self-governing groups around their relationships to resources.

There are many groups taking action at the local level, in ways that avoid reducing the complexity of the degraded environment into a single gas, policed as a resource from a single policy centre, acting on a single scale.

One Dimension

Even in the land of rugged individualism, effective management of the commons arose, claim Elinor Ostrom scholars Peter J Hill and Shawn Regan. The rapid influx of miners from different backgrounds following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, California, was a recipe for violence. Instead of constant fighting however, prospectors settled on rules so they could focus on wealth production rather than fight over ownership. They agreed and enforced rules around access to water used in the mining process. The principles that emerged from these disparate groups were so effective that they were codified in state and federal law.

However, once codified, these rigidly applied rules made it difficult for subsequent users of the land. So the laws around the land favoured extraction, and put obstacles in the way of other uses, such as amenity or conservation. The focus on one stakeholder group around a single resource conceived of in one dimension interfered with the discovery of the optimal use of land.

Water conflicts among miners were largely avoided. But the narrow success of management of a water resource as a mechanical element, was beset by broader failures. The Native Americans who had built lives around the land, were massacred, their numbers greatly reduced. Woodlands were deforested, rivers silted up, and California grizzlies were hunted to extinction.

CO₂

Treating the world as a carbon sink sees the world in one dimension, through one lens. Climate change driven by human-created greenhouse gases is already in train, but it is not the only urgent degradation of the environment. What we need to protect is the complex and myriad parameters of life, not the concentration of a particular chemical in the atmosphere.

The appeal of reducing a complex of problems to a simple single metric is that it can then be managed. Though we have to be careful that in managing for that one metric, we are not locking in suboptimal institutional arrangements and favouring those players who can act to optimise on that one parameter. The allied challenge of a single metric is that it becomes managed by a single entity that begins to resemble the Leviathan, an external coercive force proposed by Garret Hardin (who coined the phrase Tragedy of the Commons).

One Scale

A government that has become intertwined with certain players in the market undermines the independence of one pillar – the state – while compromising the adaptive ability of another – the market. This loss of balance can be seen in the government’s approach to achieving net zero. The need to involve local groups was noted as a key success requirement by the Commision on Climate Change: “It will not be possible to get close to meeting a net-zero target without engaging with people.” However, Community Energy England notes that ”we do not see this needed change in recent policy announcements”.

Instead, the government has shown its disconnection from the local situation. Its original Green Homes Grant stuttered, because the government lacked the local knowledge that there was no way the volume of installers for its energy efficiency and generation measures could meet the demand it hoped to stimulate in the time originally provided.

The outright ban on internal combustion cars is welcome, but is also evidence of how the state has been captured by oil interests, just as those gold miners captured the land use. In an effective market, electric cars and perhaps other mechanisms for movement would have been allowed to emerge and compete long ago.

Diverse actions and multiple scales

As Ostrom noted, “Instead of the benefits derived from reducing greenhouse gases existing only at the global level, multiple benefits are created by diverse actions at multiple scales.”

Within the UK, the multiple manifestations of collective problem solving, relational resource management, respond to and address the social and structural as well as environmental and resource challenges. Communities that common increase their resilience, not only through increasing the resource available locally, strengthening bonds, but also through learning how to collaborate. Communities that work together to achieve goals they have determined for themselves have been shown to improve collective mental health. Local resilience is an incredible outcome on its own, but we should aim for networked commons rather than be satisfied just to provision our lifeboat better.

Build Trust

“To achieve its objects, any policy that tries to improve levels of collective action to overcome social dilemmas must enhance the level of trust by participants that others are complying with the policy or else many will seek ways of avoiding compliance,” claimed Ostrom.

At state level this is the question asked by poorer countries of developed nations. While you got rich despoiling the earth, your attempts to curtail our access to those same technologies look like a way of protecting your position.

How can self-organising groups contribute to trust building, when they are based in places, and perhaps live lifestyles that contribute to the degradation of the environment, where others, who have exploited less, have benefited less and are more at risk?

We build trust by doing before it’s demanded. Organisations that reduce their locality’s impacts without waiting for legal requirements, government agreements, and coercion, demonstrate to others that it matters. Where groups and individuals make so-called sacrifices by consuming less, they reduce their burden on the planetary parameters and make the first move in demonstrating their commitment and trustworthiness, inviting reciprocation. Furthermore, the necessary constraints on our lifestyles are more likely to be respected, when the decisions are made at local levels. Ostrom showed that in situations that require that people to forgo consumption or use of a certain good, this was far more likely to be obeyed if local people had been involved in the decision making.

Take the common back

The Enclosures in England, the Clearances in Scotland, deprived people of access to land that provided livelihoods, a back-up in tough times, and paved the way for deforestation that exceeded the levels seen even in the Amazon. The UK commoners were the first to be denied access to land that provided for their sustenance. When they were forced from the land, some emigrated and carried with them the notion of fences, force, exclusion that later became massacres and penning in of Native Americans.

In Langholm, the flow is now running the other way. The Langholm Initiative in Scotland has bought 5,200 acres of land from the Buccleuch estate for the community, the ecosystem, and the globe. A diversity of actors at different scales were involved, from a local group, thousands of individuals who gave funds, the local authority, the Scottish Government, and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. The impacts, too, will be on multiple scales. Local children will get access to nature and outdoor education. The town of Langholm will benefit from new land-based jobs and tourism which it hopes will reverse the decline brought about by the relocation of the textile industry. The living ecosystem will benefit from the establishment of a nature reserve and conservation grazing. Clean renewable energy will be added to the grid, which in turn will reduce the fossil fuel dependence of the energy system. Ancient peatlands, once drained to make way for agriculture, will be flooded again, allowing them to capture carbon as they become a healthy habitat. Native woodland planting too will contribute to the extraction of greenhouse gas from the global atmosphere, while providing food and shelter to support biodiversity. These benefits across various scales are possible as the land and the ecosystem is seen in its multiple dimensions, supported at many scales, by a diversity of actors, while managed at the local scale.

My liferaft to yours

One of the positive aspects of an increasingly globalised and networked world is that resources can move to mitigate local disasters and deficiencies. At the moment, those flows are largely managed through states, where support is often conditional, or markets which can be extractive as their main currency – currency – is stripped of relationships.

At their best, charities and NGOs facilitate the flow of resources from an area with bounty to an area in need. Their databases of individual, group, and organisational donors spread wealth, lend power, amplify challenges faced in other localities. At their worst, they act like distant centralised bodies, unadaptive to changes, unresponsive to multiple stakeholders, dimensions, and scales. Such is the case with some conservation enclosures.

Heart of England Community Energy which manages the largest community solar farm in the UK produces renewable energy, returns for local investors, funds for local social and environmental projects, and also supports SolarAid to provide solar lights in Uganda, Malawi, and Zambia.

Aim for full stack networked commons

Increasingly, there are more options for self-organising groups to provide and procure from others, strengthening demand for each others’ services, sharing knowledge in ways competition does not facilitate, creating scales that markets seek while maintaining local knowledge.

When developing a local car club, Nadder Community Energy chose to procure telematics and booking systems from a Platform Co-op based in Europe. As one of 10 members of The Mobility Factory across Europe, the group holds a share, a stake and a voice in the intellectual property that is the core of the co-operative. It benefits from the experience of the other co-operative car club’s existing members, and is able to access hardware on a scale discount not available as a single car club. At the same time, it is working with the Community Benefit Society Charge My Street, which issues community shares to finance public chargers for electric vehicles.

These are just two ingredients of a business model, but as the number of groups across the UK and Europe grows, could this power demand for commons-like organisations throughout the supply chain? Can we one day connect with other commoners to procure cars from a community-owned manufacturing printer with materials from miners co-ops, powered by renewable energy and insured by a co-operative underwriter?

Lucy Stone leads Our Common Climate, a collective that amplifies, nurtures, and advocates for commoning solutions to climate change. Lucy has set up climate initiatives at global, national, and local levels, and is currently Director of climate foundation, FILE foundation.

Gustavo Montes de Oca is a writer and social entrepreneur. He currently leads a cooperative electric car club platform, and previously led The Golden Company, a social enterprise based in East London working with young people and nature, providing environmental and employee engagement services to companies.

This article was first published by Lucy Stone and Gustavo Montes de Oca in the Winter Issue 2021 of Stir To Action magazine.

Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

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