Citizen Action Monitor

Towards an understanding of “common pool resources” and the state’s role in supporting the common good

“Common pool resources” consist of natural or human-made systems, such as forests, water, the atmosphere and irrigation systems.

No 2139 Posted by fw, January 8, 2018

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin of the Home page.

In Section 2 of Chapter 10, Tim Jackson summarized the ideological positions of the opposing right and left sides in contesting the manner in which the state will be governed. Considering the current dominance of the ruling oligarchs, the prospects for envisioning a new role for government to thrive in a resource-constrained, warming world would seem dim indeed.

Below, in my synopsis of Section 3, which Jackson titles “Governing the commons,” the author first explains that the term ‘commons’, as used in his title, refers to “common pool resources”, including, for example, natural or human-made systems such fish stocks, pastures, forests, water, the atmosphere and irrigation systems. Common pool resources, as Jackson explains, are vulnerable and subject to degradation. Solutions to this problem include nationalizing them, privatizing them, community monitoring of localized or regional resources, including an efficient dispute resolution and graduated sanctions schemes. Alternatively, for common pool resources that are geographically dispersed but interconnected — such as the oceans, the climate, and even the money system – higher levels of governance, at state or even at international levels, is almost inevitable and sometimes desirable. In his concluding paragraph, Jackson illustrates the advantage of state governance of common pool resources.

Note that the example of the fossil fuel industry used in the following synopsis is mine and does not appear in Jackson’s text.

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.

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Governing the commons, a synopsis, from Chapter 10, “The Progressive State” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

The term ‘commons’ in the phrase “governing the commons” refers to “common pool resources” consisting of natural or human-made systems such as irrigation systems, fish stocks, pastures, forests, water, and the atmosphere, including the climate, and so forth.

A common pool pasture resource, for instance, may allow for a certain amount of grazing to occur without harming the core resource. In the case of excessive grazing, however, the pasture may become prone to erosion and eventually yield less benefit to its users. Because the core resources are vulnerable, common pool resources are generally subject to problems of congestion, overuse, pollution, and potential destruction — unless harvesting or use limits are devised and enforced.

And therein lies the problem: Common pool resources are owned by everyone and no one. Everyone can use the resources but no one necessarily pays the costs associated with protecting them.

The fossil fuel industry, for example, heavily subsidized by taxpayers, reaps huge profits from the extraction of oil, coal and gas from common-pool land or ocean resources. Moreover, in the extraction process, these companies pollute a common-pool atmospheric resource with carbon emissions causing devastating and costly global climate change disasters. And when a fossil fuel extraction source is no longer viable, companies simply walk away from the sites, leaving taxpayers on the hook to pay for site reparation costs and the astronomical ecological damage costs.

American ecologist Garrett Hardin offered only two possible solutions to the degradation of common pool resources: 1) nationalization of these resources; or 2) privatization of them. Not surprisingly, free-market capitalist nations argued for privatization.

American political economist Elinor Ostrom advanced a community-based solution. Ostrom and her husband drafted a set of “design principles” that included “effective monitoring by the community, efficient dispute resolution and graduated sanctions schemes.

For common pool resources that are geographically dispersed but interconnected — such as the oceans, the climate, and even the money system – “higher levels of governance, at state or even at international level, is almost inevitable and sometimes desirable.

As an example of the desirability of state governance of common pool resources, Jackson concludes Section 2 with an October 2010 story about the UK government’s attempt to privatize nationally owned forests as a cost saving measure following the 2008 financial crisis. The lesson of the story is twofold: 1) while the government exercised governance over forests (as a common pool resource), the forests were not necessarily the government’s to sell; and 2) never underestimate the power of a vigilant citizenry, who, presumably understanding the government’s governance role, forced it to abandon its forest privatization scheme.

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