Jonathan Rowe

It is an article of faith among economists that a resource without a private property regime is destined for overuse. Yet on Bali, an island in the Indonesian archipelago, that is not the case. For centuries rice farmers there have coordinated their use of scarce water through social networks built on the innate human capacity to manage such resources in a cooperative manner.1

The system is based on what anthropologists have called "water temples," which enfold the water sharing within a context of traditional Balinese religion. But actually the networks function through a form of bottom-up cooperation in which the temples provide a venue through which producers can coordinate their water use. Modern computer analysis has found that the resulting allocation is close to ideal in terms of the productivity of the farms. It defeats pests naturally and uses the available water to maximum effect.2

Bali's water sharing system is a textbook example of commons management—a traditional property arrangement that has worked effectively for centuries in a wide variety of resource contexts but that economists today either disparage or ignore. That was the case in Bali, when in the late 1960s the government decided to push rice farmers into the modern age. It bypassed the water temples, hired hydrologists to install modern water systems, and pushed Green Revolution techniques, complete with heavy pesticides, upon the farmers.3

The result was a disaster. Insects soon developed resistance to the chemical pesticides. Crop yields plummeted. In the end, the government had to relent, and the farmers returned to the social productivity arrangements that the experts had deemed relics of an unenlightened past.4

Fast forward to 2001 in the United States, when Jimmy Wales set out to create an encyclopedia online. He thought first of the corporate Britannica model, only staffed by

Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute and is founding codirector of West Marin Commons. 138 WWW.WORLDWATCH.ORG

The Parallel Economy of the Commons volunteers. He established panels for peer reviews, assigned articles to recognized experts, and then waited for something to happen. Not much did. Economists might see the problem right away—a kind of corollary of the problem they would see in Bali. Writers lacked a property right in their output and therefore a monetary "incentive" to activate their dormant mental assets. Wales was familiar with that lure; he was a refugee from the world of options trading and understood the role that incentives play in business. But instead he went in a different direction.5

He tried writing an entry himself (on option trading) and discovered it was like "handing in an essay at grad school." It just wasn't any fun, and the top-down corporate structure was the reason why. So Wales shifted gears. He abolished the expert peer-review panels and put informal teams of coordinators in their place. More important, he dropped the idea of assigning entries and let users write them on any topic they desired. Then these same users would check one another for accuracy and bias. A discussion page for each entry would provide a forum in which to hash these issues out and a written record that every user could retrace.6

In other words, Wales created—or rather, seeded—a social network instead of an economic mechanism in the conventional sense. People were engaged not as profit seekers from the economics texts but as social beings who get a kick out of producing in this way. Within two weeks the project had generated more articles than it did in two years of the top-down model.7

The result is Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that now has almost 2 million articles in English and smaller numbers in about 250 other languages—for a total of almost 8 million articles. Nature magazine compared a sample of science articles from Wikipedia with corresponding ones in Bri-

tannica. It found that the difference in accuracy was "not particularly great."8

Technophiles attribute this social productivity to the magic of silicon chips and the Web. Tech leads and people follow. Yet in reality the Web is just a new venue for the same human capacity that found expression in the water temples of Bali. It is a long way from one to the other, in time as well as space. But in both the rice fields and on the Web, social structures and social norms are doing jobs— creating and managing resources that are held in common—that conventional economic wisdom says only monetary incentives and private property rights can do.

Moreover, both draw on a side of human nature that does not exist in the economics texts and that has fallen off the radar in western economic life. People are not supposed to produce something for nothing. They are not supposed to be able to manage a scarce resource without a regime of private property rights to keep them in line or else the edicts of an authoritarian state. They are not supposed to but they are—and with results that equal if not surpass those produced by the prevailing economic model.

The rice farmers on Bali are an example of a mode of local resource management that has worked for eons, from the alpine pastures of Switzerland to the irrigated rice fields of the northern Philippines. Today this model is reappearing in many precincts of the economy at large—from the revival of traditional main streets, public spaces, and community gardens to the resistance to the corporate enclosure of university research and the genetic substrate of material life.9

It is as though something latent in human nature is breaking through the concrete of the corporate economy and the bureaucratic state. The result is not just effective and generative use of the asset, but also a dividend in the form of social cohesion and trust that can be

The Parallel Economy of the Commons as important as the product itself. A new field called "behavioral economics" (a phrase that ought to be redundant but revealingly is not) has been rediscovering and giving empirical shape to this. Researchers have demonstrated, for example, that people seek fairness in economic dealings and not just their own gain. They seek stability over the long term and not just a quick buck.10

Such insights are not really news to most people. But recognition of them by at least a part of the economics profession helps put policies that derive from them into play in the high-level debate. In particular, it gives new legitimacy to the commons—a form of property that is neither the market nor the state, public nor private, but rather that people hold jointly and together rather than separately and apart. (See Box 10-1.) As governments look for models for conserving natural resources for the long haul, a large part of the answer could lie here.11

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