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Rio+20, #sustainability & the commons: tragedy of the commons at 3 levels (#systemsthinking #stwg)

I think you will spend 300 seconds reading this post

As my readers may know, I’m a member of the Systems Thinking World LinkedIn discussion group and there’s a running thread regarding that United Nations call from Secretary General Ban Ki Moon about some revolutionary thinking to get the global economy out of the marsh it is now.

Thanks to that (long) thread, I’ve been acquainted with various initiatives, one of them being that of The School of Commoning. One of their home page blog article is about a Tragedy of the Commons identified following the Rio+20 UN world conference recently.

Indeed, I identified not one, not two, but three Tragedy of the Commons happening regarding these sustainability issues, though not all at the same level, but probably reinforcing the whole problem at a bigger level (haven’t modelled that from a higher level, though, someone ought to do it. Volunteers, somewhere?). They are:

  1. Fight for usage of non renewable resources (or commons)
  2. Fight for monetization of non renewable resources (or commons)
  3. Fight for control over the non renewable resources (or commons)

Let’s review them each in turn…

Fight for usage of non renewable resources

This Tragedy of the Commons concerns every one of us on the planet, although some people are mature enough to reject usage of some of them (oil and its derivatives for instance).

These resources are featured as 1) being non renewable and 2) being low enough to mandate a rapid and drastic change of our collective behavior in order not for humanity to run into a (very hard) wall.

The more we hear about that pressing issue, the more we are willing to get our share of them before it all disappear. Who hasn’t rushed to fill his car’s tank after hearing that gas price were going to raise?

Hopefully, we can’t directly get access to these non renewable resources on our own: we need to purchase the services of private or government companies. Would it be for people only, chances are that we’d have run out of oil already…

Fight for monetization of non renewable resources

The other level concerns private companies (and sometimes government companies as well) that start to compete to have access to some non renewable commons. Oil fields come to mind, but so do fishing areas as well (hopefully, the fishers each have an individual quota preventing them here again from taking it all definitely). For that fishery aspect, I urge you to experiment with that Harvest Game intended to teach Systems Thinking, from Linda Booth Sweeney (check her website and her excellent books with games to teach Systems Thinking).

It should also be noted that these companies fight for access to these resources because they have customers (us obviously) ready to buy!

I guess this is where the School of Commoning is trying to intervene to put some control in place to avoid that situation (tragedy of the commons systems dynamics archetype) to arrive to its logical conclusion: total and definitive depletion of that resource.

I take the opportunity to make a note to the reader that we can identify 3 kinds of commons:

  • unlimited commons (sun, wind, tide)
  • limited but renewable resources on a short-term (oceans, air, fertile land). If you get past a tipping point, the resource cannot renew itself and disappear forever (or gets renewed after humanity died, which is the same for my purpose),
  • limited and non renewable resources (oil).

Fight for control over the non renewable resources

The last kind of tragedy of the commons I see unfolding today is between private companies trying to exploit non renewable resources, and ecologists trying to preserve them. The formers want to exploit them, the latters to preserve them and thus avoid exploitation of the resource by the formers. The more one gets control over some resources, the more the other is willing to control the rest, to at least, save that.

It is in line with the systems thinking saying that “nothing grows forever”. Indeed, the greed of private companies (itself fed by the greed of humanity) is raising the very concern of ecologists to protect commons, and that raising concern itself further raises the greed of private companies.


What conclusion can we have regarding that? Well, I don’t know for now (if you have, please state it in comments below!)

We have two tragedies of the commons competing for accessing the commons and risking depleting them totally (fight for usage and fight for monetization). The third tragedy is about (from an ecologist point of view) gaining control in order to preserve or regulate access, thus is a trend against preventing the two previous tragedies from coming to their (tragical) end.

So it’s a good thing, but also a bad thing since it will trigger all sort of unethical behavior from private companies to exploit as much as they could before that which they exploit gets under control of governments or ecologists. Though, putting that control into place (what the School of Commoning is trying to do by educating people as far as I understand their purpose) is precisely what’s supposed to be done to regulate a “tragedy of the commons” situation.

If only that would have been done earlier, before the issue got too pressing as of today, we could have learned to live under restricted access to these commons… (of course, before now, nobody’s was listening anyway so nothing could (or have?) been done anyway). Some indigenous people understood that and regulated themselves by limiting fishing, hunting, etc.). It may be because the feedback loops were short enough for them to notice the risk. Or that because their lack of technology made them close enough to Nature to be able to listen and understand it.

It seems to me that our usage of technology, built out of non reneable resources, precisely got in the way of us listening to what Mother Nature could have told us regarding preserving it. Vicious circle, again…


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  • Thorbjoern Mann

    There are many aspects deserving of discussion here,of course. Just a few notes:
    1. Among the three types of resources, I think it is useful to make one more distinction in the second one: between ‘naturally replenishable resources’ where the concern is to limit extraction to a level well below the rate of natural replenishment, and resources which need some degree of active human input. Examples are the supply of fresh water for the first kind, versus any kind of agricultural food production that requires sowing, fertilizing, and other forms of tending to. This is significant because the two types call for different ‘commoning’ rules and definition of ‘ownership’ or membership in the commoner community. One can see where the second kind borders on (with a ‘fuzzy’ border that increasingly is subject to efforts to make it more clear) the whole notion of private property: ownership and thus extraction rights being limited to those who ‘invest’ in the replenishment and maintenance effort. This is a source of resistance against converting resources to commons — strongly felt to be very legitimate for this particular resource type, but then throwing all kinds of resources in with the argument. Which any failure to make the distinction clear is inviting and weakening the case.

    2 (Referring to the IBIS- type notes on the commons) I would argue that the real question is to establish a proper balance between commons and private property transactions. The very notion of Commons became necessary only when the extraction rate of some resource previously felt to be ‘infinite’ or so much abundantly naturally replenishing compared to everybody’s extraction levels, suddenly began to exceed the replenishment rate. Then, extraction, maintenance and replenishment rules had to be established.

    3. Private property and commons are inextricably intertwined. Once somebody has harvested some food for daily sustenance from a commons, say a forest, it is respected as ‘private’, as are any tools used in the process that are personally (‘hand-made’) produced. Even resource exceeding daily needs (a plausible limitation criterion) that is being treated to extend shelf life or quality (‘adding value’) in a division of labor pattern is plausibly considered acceptable as private for exchange against other goods: I bake your bread, you make my clothes, because we each are better at our respective skills. The better baker will over time start wearing better furs… At what point does this become unacceptable ‘greed’? Again: the balance, the equilibrium devices are the problem.

  • Hi Thorbjoern,

    You’re right of course. Any analysis or thinking on these subjects is necessarily uncomplete. My second kind of Commons was already divided in two: ones that replenish whatever may happen to them, and those that need to be preserved a small percentage in order to replenish, otherwise they just decay definitively (which is what happened to a lot of species already, because of man or not) – a kind of overshoot and collapse (the Harvest Game is precisely teaching about that category). So, it seems we have four categories in my single #2. Seesh 🙂

    As for your #3: could it be that Communism had it (at least partially) right? How long will it take for big countries like the USA to decide that a Commons eocnomy looks like too much like socialism or communism and to reject any discussion about it? Are China (for instance) or Cuba more capable of managing Commons (being provocative here, though there’s a real question behind)?

    • Thorbjoern Mann

      Re #3: I have been waiting for that potential association to be made explicit. Whether under the label of Commons or anything else, that rejection and resistance is already very much present in the U.S. The sooner it is faced and dealt with the better. As I see it, there are a few key problems that arise in that connection. In no particular order:
      a) The problem of transition from currently ‘private’ resource extraction to a commons model: for most of the essential resources — e.g. oil or natural gas — the ‘private’ investments needed upfront to find and get access to those resources are the most forceful argument in favor of the current ‘private enterprise’ model, and fuel the resistance against transition.
      b) The argument about incentives. The needed and sometimes risky investments are made by private investors because of the expected ‘profits’. There isn’t much in the way of explanation I see for how such investment would be made by the ‘commons’ community — other than through the mechanism of the state. Which brings us to
      c) The problems associated with the large and — necessarily powerful — state. They have to do with the control of that power: I see the ‘failure’ of the big ‘pure’ socialist experiments as much in the lack of adequate constraints on power (and resulting corruption, oppression, human rights abuses) as in flawed economics strategies and tactics. So the propaganda against commons by the entrenched interests will conflate the two aspects and argue against alternative economic models with the abuses of power by the big bad state that ‘manage’ the commons — unless
      d) these issues are properly separated and adequate solutions found for each of the aspects: proper incentive mechanisms rewarding innovation, creativity, efficiency, proper constraints on power whether governmental or private (I have tried to call attention to the fact that more attention must be paid to power in private entities), and development of ‘sanctions’ — that is, means of ensuring that the beneficial commons behavior needed to maintain the commons is actually adhered to — that are not ‘enforced’ by greater and more powerful entities but ‘automatically’.
      As long as the arguments of commons movement only involve all those wonderful good intentions and holistic sustainability attitudes, and fail to address these more mundane issues, I don’t see much chance for progress.

      • I agree. Though as for addressing the commons as soon as possible without *first* addressing the sanctions things would be foolish.

        Also, I feel something must be done to prevent that linguistic blockage to happen against anything socialism-looking (even if only on the outlook)

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