From Community to Conservation

The lobster fisheries of Maine illustrate how social process can translate into husbandry of a resource commons. These fisheries are organized informally within the state's many harbors, which are small enough to be communities. The fishers that work these waters know and watch one another. Each has a territory that has been worked out informally.

The enforcement of these informal territories, as well as of restrictions on taking undersized, oversized, or egg-bearing lobsters, is a community function more than a bureaucratic one. "As most lobstermen live in the same town, send their kids to the same school, and rely on one another in emergencies," Colin Woodard observed in his book The Lobster Coast, "social sanctions can be more effective than a dozen wardens." The wardens do exist. But the social networks that have evolved around these commons make them less needed.37

Maine fishers often toss back all the female lobsters in their traps, not just the egg-bearing ones, even though they don't have to. Unlike the hypothetical herders in Hardin's hypothetical pasture, these actual commoners are not without common sense. It is not entirely coincidental that the state's lobster fisheries are thriving, even though the number of fishers making a majority of their income from lobsters more than doubled between 1973 and 1998.38

This is the same kind of social structure that makes commons so productive in the alpine pastures of Switzerland, the rice fields of the Philippines, and many other settings. It is an argument for management that is local and community-based, and it raises questions about the assumptions behind a corporate global economy. Such arrangements are not always possible, however, espe

The Parallel Economy of the Commons cially in a mobile market culture such as the United States. Then too, some commons are simply too large, such as watersheds, the oceans, and the atmosphere.

The challenge, then, is to devise formal institutions that replicate the essential features of commons even if they cannot include all the social dynamic of local and traditional settings. In other words, it means scaling up commons management just as the corporation scales up business management from the individual entrepreneur. One essential feature is equity and mutual benefit. Commons serve all, either equally or by a just distributional standard, subject to necessary rules for access and use. Central Park is open to all New Yorkers whether they live in Harlem or on Central Park West, so long as they obey the rules.

The second essential feature has to do with time. Corporations are designed to seek short to midterm gain. They move to the metronome of the quarterly earnings statement. The market theory that justifies them, moreover, has no concept of the future in regards to resources. Maximize gain today and the future will take care of itself, the theory goes. The needs of future generations actually are discounted, which means that market calculus always values the present generation more than it does future ones.

Commons, in contrast, turn that assumption upside down. Properly designed, they are encoded to preserve assets for the future rather than to liquidate them for the present. They embody the way neighbors might think about a wooded hillside as opposed to the way developers would. There are times when government management can play this role. Central Park functions admirably as a commons under public ownership.

But government ownership is not always possible—or necessarily the best course. In the United States, continuing pressures on the

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on national forests illustrate the vulnerability of a system that is ultimately political. Even at the local level there are pressures to invade parks and other public spaces with corporate sponsorships, advertising, and so on. The national parks are treasures, but there is increasing need for an alternative to government ownership that is not so tied to the corporate-government nexus.39

No solution is without problems, but some are less problematic than others. At present the institution that best embodies commons functions outside the public sphere is the trust. (See Box 10-2.) Existing trusts are primarily local or regional and have discrete boundaries. The next challenge is to apply the concept to larger commons such as the atmosphere and oceans or with entire watersheds. One possibility is to scale up the trust model one step further and use something that looks like a "market mechanism" but that actually serves nonmarket ends. For example, Peter Barnes of the Tomales Bay Institute has proposed a Sky Trust, which would serve as trustee for the atmosphere much the way a bank serves as trustee for a family trust. To understand the Sky Trust model it helps to consider briefly what it is an alternative to.40 The air pollution debate in recent years has focused on something called tradable pollution rights. Under this scheme corporations essentially get grandfathered rights to their past levels of dumping in the sky. If they reduce their emissions they can then sell the air space they are not using to another com-pany—thus reaping a financial bonus for past bad behavior.

This approach is called "market-based" because it involves the buying and selling of dump space as opposed to just regulatory limits. (Such limits still would exist, but they would cap the dump space overall while companies worked out through trading which

The Parallel Economy of the Commons

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