Who owns the world? 50 years of commons research

Fifty years ago, US ecologist Garret Hardin launched a global debate. In his essay "The Tragedy of the Commons" he warned of the consequences of a growing world population. The steadily increasing, uncontrolled consumption of resources is leading to a global collapse. Today, "commons" research is established worldwide and provides answers to local and global problems. In light of this, the "World Commons Week" will be held around the world from 4 to 12 October. The European component is being organised by Prof. Insa Theesfeld from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU). MLU will participate on 8 October with a mini-conference on pseudo-commons in post-socialist countries in cooperation with the Agricultural University Plovdiv in Bulgaria.

In his 1968 essay Hardin criticised the belief that all of mankind's problems could be solved through technical innovation. He regarded the biggest problem as being the consequences of an ever-increasing world population. He wrote at the time in the journal "Science" that this was increasingly consuming freely accessible and limited resources, such as land and water. He predicted a long-term collapse of the entire system at the end of this development. He called for a change in thinking: access to public goods would have to be privatised or controlled by the state.

The biologist, who provided a boost to commons research, was, however, not an ethicist. And: "Hardin makes an error in his essay: he equates common goods with free, unregulated access. He talks about resources for which there are no rules. However, this is not at all the case for common goods," says Dr Insa Theesfeld, Professor of Agricultural, Environmental and Food Policy at MLU. In the case of traditional common goods, like forests and fishing grounds, there is in fact a defined set of rules. These stipulate the rights and obligations of the users and detail who is entitled to use them.

Common goods have a much broader definition today than 50 years ago, says Theesfeld. For example, the global atmosphere or public spaces are regarded as common goods. There are also many considerations with regard to regulating science, software and IT using "commons" principles. "Not every common resource becomes scarcer when it is shared. In fact, the opposite is true for knowledge: it multiplies," said the researcher. Therefore, current research on common goods also examines questions of access and provision.

Half a century of commons research is being marked by "World Commons Week", organised by the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC), whose founding president was Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom. It will take place worldwide from 4 to 12 October 2018 and it also aims to give new impetus to research on commons governance. MLU researcher Insa Theesfeld is the initiator and co-organiser of the global week. Martin Luther University will participate on 8 October with a mini-conference on pseudo-commons in post-socialist countries, which Theesfeld is organising together with the Agricultural University Plovdiv in Bulgaria. Theesfeld's research assistant, Dr Ilkhom Soliev, is organising an excursion to Halle's open-air gallery on the topic of "Revitalising the Common Urban Space". As head of the European IASC Group, Theesfeld is also tasked with coordinating the events in Europe, which will take place locally in the form of mini-conferences and workshops.


A 24-hour global webinar will also take place around the globe on October 12, 2018 – for a half an hour at lunchtime in each time zone – with experts and practitioneers from all over the world reporting on new common goods projects. https://www.worldcommonsweek.org/webinars.

Mini-Conference: "pseudo-commons in post-socialist countries"
8 October 2018
Agricultural University Plovdiv, Bulgaria

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