explore the relevance of The Commons to issues, including water and radio waves, that affect the wellbeing and resilience of our rural society
The Commons.  A concept from a less egalitarian era but one that has returned to prominence in a time when our society seems bedeviled by man-made problems.

Does an approach based on the principle of the Commons provide an opportunity to solve issues like climate change, financial crises and high energy prices?

One of the modern examples of The Commons in action is Wikipedia.  This is an online encyclopaedia with content maintained through the collaborative effort of a community of users.  This resource is not privately owned and is available to anyone free of charge.

Wikipedia defines the Commons as originally being elements of the environment, including forests, the atmosphere, rivers, fisheries or grazing land, that are shared, used and enjoyed by all.

Hagley Oval: The Commons or?

Today, Commons has many definitions.  It is an area of land set aside for public use.  From our British heritage, the term is used to define the non-ruling class or those not of noble birth. The House of Commons is a part of British democracy.

In a wider context, the term refers to cultural resources as well as natural ones that are accessible to all members of a society. Thus it includes public services such as parks, education, health and infrastructure such as electricity and water distribution systems.

An called the Creative Commons was founded in 2001 and released copyright licenses for creative works to be released free to the public on defined terms and conditions.   This included software and so now we have a healthy open-source software industry competing with the mega-profit companies.

The Commons also refers to cultural matters such as literature and music, arts and design, film, radio and information.

In New Zealand, the Alexander Turnball Library is a participant in the Flickr Commons, an online resource of tens of thousands of copyright-free historical photos.

In so many areas, implementations of The Commons is contributing real value to our society.

So why is it that in some important areas, the principles of the Commons is being lost?

Just two examples are water and radio waves.  In each area, we are moving towards these Commons becoming private, rather than public, benefits.  Some of our rivers look like being turned over to non-public bodies (whether privatised electricity companies or Maori interests).  And more of our radio waves will shortly be sold to private telecommunications companies for their exclusive commercial use.

Some will argue that this commodification of the Commons is necessary to avoid “the Tragedy of the Commons.”

This term was first used in 1968 by Garrett Hardin in an article in Science. It describes what happens to common resources when the greed of an individual undermines the resource availability to everyone else. The example commonly used to describe this is the farmer who grazes his sheep on “The Common”.  The farmer has every economic incentive to increase the number of sheep in his flock.  This results in more grass being consumed and so reduces the grass available to others.

A more modern example is access to underground water resources where one person drawing excessively on a water table, reduces the volume of water available to others.  This is a tragedy because, in seeking individual personal gain, the group is ultimately hurt.

Over the next few weeks, I will explore the relevance of The Commons to issues, including water and radio waves, that affect the wellbeing and resilience of our rural society.  And then look for ways to turn tragedy in to an opportunity of the Commons.