David Fleming drew on the wisdom of Elinor Ostrom, who published ‘Governing the Commons’ in 1990. An article in the Economist records that “collaboration was her watchword. Neighbours thrived if they worked together. The best-laid communal schemes would fall apart once people began to act only as individuals, or formed elites . . . “ 

She asked two basic questions:

  • how can resources be managed in an ecologically sustainable way?
  • how can a self-governing system could be promoted?

Her reflections:

“Our problem is how to craft rules at multiple levels that enable humans to adapt, learn, and change over time so that we are sustaining the very valuable natural resources that we inherited so that we may be able to pass them on.

“I am deeply indebted to the indigenous peoples in the US who had an image of seven generations being the appropriate time to think about the future.

“I think we should all reinstate in our mind the seven-generation rule. When we make really major decisions, we should ask not only what will it do for me today, but what will it do for my children, my children’s children, and their children’s children into the future”.

All these cases had taught her that, over time, if free to manage their resources, human beings tended to draw up sensible rules for the use of common-pool resources. Neighbours set boundaries and assigned shares, with each individual taking it in turn to use water, or to graze cows on a certain meadow. Common tasks, such as clearing canals or cutting timber, were done together at a certain time. When locals realised that the commons had been exploited, the rule-breakers, would be fined or eventually ‘run out of town’.

The schemes were mutual and reciprocal – many had worked well for centuries.

Maintaining the commons (land, food, water) so that demands on it do not exceed what can be supplied will sometimes require closed access. A stable population enables the community to estimate its needs for food, water, housing, healthcare, transport etc, making provision for the immediate future and for those yet unborn. Shaun Chamberlin also reminds us that other life forms are wiped out or forced to emigrate (‘Gaia exit’) as the human population rises and the commons are depleted.

Movement will be limited when people are able to thrive in the places in which they were born. To this end, Colin Hines, convenor of the Green New Deal Group, advocates a “project hope” agenda which rebuilds local economies, funding a massive green infrastructure programme for transforming the energy, energy-saving and transport systems which would mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, substantially reducing its domestic carbon emissions and addressing automation’s threat to employment.