Two New Special Reports on the Commons Today

Two new special reports on the commons just came out, and both are chock-full of interesting presentations and essays. The first is published by Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO), a decentralized collective that promotes social justice economic alternatives. The latest issue of GEO is devoted to “Collective Action: Research, Theory and Practice: Celebrating Elinor Ostrom and Her Work.”

The editors of GEO write:

An important shift is underway in academia and it seems to be building momentum. It is a spreading inter-disciplinary interest in empathy, cooperation, and group-level behavior that seems to be converging in networks both within and outside of university structures....Cooperation is now a core issue of our times, and because of the ferocious energy of many in the social sciences, it is re-emerging into the spotlight of public attention.

Theorists and researchers of cooperation and collective action share the values and passions of practitioners, but, as Marx put it so eloquently, the point is to change the world not just to understand it. And for this endeavor, researchers and theorists can inform and even transform how we do collective action in real life, and we can be a cornucopia of experience for more understanding of the questions they are puzzling over.

The GEO issue includes a piece by Seth Frey, co-editor of the issue, about the role of science in understanding cooperation; Ryan Conway's overview on the vocabulary used in discussing the success and failure of collection action; a piece by Forrest Fleischman on the limits of strictly local solutions and the need for polycentricity; and a review by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of the new book, Super Cooperators, by theoretical evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak.

There's other great stuff in the issue, too, so check it out.

Another worthy collection of materials about the commons comes from the Indian activist organization, the Foundation for Ecological Security. FES co-hosted the International Association for the Study of the Commons conference in Hyderabad, India, last January 2011.  Its latest issue of Common Voices (pdf document) collects some of the more notable talks given.

Among the essays are the keynote speech that Elinor Ostrom delivered to a large audience of conference participants, the public and government officials. Ostrom recounted her intellectual journey in coming to study commons, the conventional wisdom she had to overcome and some of the new insights that her empirical fieldwork revealed.

“I had stacks of case studies on my desk when I had a sabbatical in 1987,” Ostrom recalled. “And I struggled trying to find the et of rules. I came as close to being defeated and depressed as I have in my career, because I couldn't find the specific rules that accounted for the success of some of the cases. And finally, after hiking in the finally dawned on me that there were some uniformities that underlie the success and were absent when systems collapsed. These weren't specific rules but broader principles that characterized the ones that had survived for a long time.”

Another wonderful talk, by Professor Bina Agarwal, focused on how women play a significant role in forest conservation in India and Nepal. Because women in rural households have a disproportionate responsibility for gathering firewood, fodder and other subsistence products – and because they tend to be excluded from paying jobs and private land – they are disproportionately dependent on the commons, especially forests.  Forestry commons are a significant governance institution in India, in the form of 84,000 “community forestry institutions” that involve some 8.4 million households. However, women are often excluded from the executive committee and general bodies that manage community forests.

Agarwal found that women's presence” on forestry governance institutions generally helped improve conservation and regeneration of forests. Their participation not only empowers women and helps them develop personally, it helps improve the ecological decisions that are made.  Agarwal did extensive empirical reviews to investigate if and how women's participation in forestry governance helped. The short answer: “a strong 'yes'.”

There are other talks in Common Voices, including ones by Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Ashish Kothari of the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, and my own.