The Commons in History

The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecology

Derek Wall
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    The Commons in History
    Book Description:

    The history of the commons -- jointly owned land or other resources such as fisheries or forests set aside for public use -- provides a useful context for current debates over sustainability and how we can act as "good ancestors." In this book, Derek Wall considers the commons from antiquity to the present day, as an idea, an ecological space, an economic abstraction, and a management practice. He argues that the commons should be viewed neither as a "tragedy" of mismanagement (as the biologist Garrett Hardin wrote in 1968) nor as a panacea for solving environmental problems. Instead, Walls sees the commons as a particular form of property ownership, arguing that property rights are essential to understanding sustainability. How we use the land and its resources offers insights into how we value the environment. After defining the commons and describing the arguments of Hardin's influential article and Elinor Ostrom's more recent work on the commons, Wall offers historical case studies from the United States, England, India, and Mongolia. He examines the power of cultural norms to maintain the commons; political conflicts over the commons; and how commons have protected, or failed to protect ecosystems. Combining intellectual and material histories with an eye on contemporary debates, Wall offers an applied history that will interest academics, activists, and policy makers.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-32200-3
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Michael Egan

    Derek Wall’sThe Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecologyinaugurates a new series from the MIT Press. “History for a Sustainable Future” is predicated on the idea that scholars, publics, and policymakers need to be conscious of the historical contexts of contemporary environmental problems to understand their social, political, economic, and ecological contexts. Resolving local and global environmental quandaries requires careful thought and planning, and future success depends on a deep appreciation of the past. This is the point of the series: we can learn from past mistakes, but more important, solving the environmental crisis demands the best information...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. 1 Commons Ecology
    (pp. 1-42)

    London and its environs would have no parks today if commoners had not asserted their rights, and as the nineteenth century drew on rights of recreation were more important than rights of pasture, and were defended vigilantly by the Commons Preservation Society. We owe to these premature “Greens” such urban lungs as we have. More than that, if it had not been for the stubborn defence by Newbury commoners of their rights to the Greenham Common, where on earth could NATO have parked its Nukes? ¹

    The siege of Namur in 1695 is perhaps best known from Laurence Sterne’s novel...

  6. 2 Culture in Common?
    (pp. 43-70)

    To the medieval mind such landscapes were liminal places, where humanity might encounter the supernatural . . . in early medieval Scandinavian cosmology, where the utgard (the same term was used of the common waste beyond the farmland) was inhabited by monsters and was dark. . . . The association of wilder spaces beyond cultivation with spiritual or mythical sites is a global phenomenon, reflected in the widespread occurrence of sacred groves and forests, or revered mountains and rivers, often subject, . . . to communal forms of guardianship. . . . They were spaces where ritual, such as the...

  7. 3 Commons in Conflict
    (pp. 71-100)

    All these changes from the original communal property conditions did not, of course, take place without friction, the opposition often taking place in peasants’ revolts; hundreds of thousands of these being killed in their attempts to preserve their commons, forests and waters free for all, to re-establish their liberty to hunt, fish and cut wood, and to abolish titles, serfdom and duties.¹

    In early May 1189, the abbot of Crowland closed his fens to the “men of Holland,” who used them to pasture their live-stock. The abbot’s land was intercommoned, which means it was shared by different groups, but the...

  8. 4 Questions for Good Ancestors
    (pp. 101-136)

    In March 2005, the Onondaga Nation of Indians filed suit against the state of New York and several large corporate polluters that had done business in the vicinity of Syracuse. In their complaint, the Onondagas said that they were “one with the land and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty of the Nation’s leaders to work for a healing of this land, to protect it, and to pass it on to future generations.” The state and the corporate polluters, they claimed, must undo the damage that they had done to the Onondagas’ traditional homeland, especially to Onondaga...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 137-154)
  10. Selected Readings on the Commons
    (pp. 155-156)
  11. Index
    (pp. 157-165)