2020 Green Templeton Lecture Series – Professor Tine De Moor on the evolution of the Commons

‘More than a metaphor: the evolution of the commons in the past millennium’, delivered by Professor Tine de Moor, is the first talk in the 2020 Green Templeton Lecture Series on the Future of the Commons, convened by Research Fellow Dr Dustin Garrick.
Tine De Moor 4

Listen to the lecture:

Green Templeton’s Anna Clemente, MPhil Politics: European Politics and Society, reports from the evening:

On the 23rd of January, Green Templeton had the pleasure of hosting Professor Tine de Moor (University of Utrecht) to start off the 2020 lecture series on the Future of the Commons. Prof de Moor’s talk, “More Than A Metaphor: The Evolution Of The Commons In The Past Millennium”, covered the history of the commons (or more precisely, Institutions of Collective Action, ICAs): how have they developed, and what can be learnt from the differences and similarities of these institutions that span more than 1000 years?

This is precisely what she and her research team are investigating. Through “field research of the past”, they examine the evolution of institutions of collective action, gaining precious insights for our current and future challenges. Her work is indeed very topical, given we are witnessing a resurgence of the commons in Europe. There has been a flourishing of “citizens’ collectivities”, especially in the form of cooperatives, in a variety of areas, from social care to food and energy provision, as institutions are formed to deal with the misery that the retrenchment of the state creates.

But what exactly are the commons? They can be defined as a “governance regimes of natural or man-made resources shared among different members of a group according to collectively set agreements”. Since Hardin (1968), they have been studied as situations where individual interests are at odds with collective ones. Ostrom’s work (1990) showed that institutions are the way out of the “tragedy of the commons” and can ensure that collective arrangements endure over time.

The commons all have a similar governance model, as institutionalised forms of collective action that deal with a collectivity of members and resources. In particular, they are all characterised by an attempt to find balance between utility (that is, the primary reason one should join a collective), equity and efficiency. The balance between these three elements is what makes these institutions resilient.

Moreover, they all face the same social dilemma. On the one hand, individuals are motivated to form or join a collectivity due to the benefits they can derive from the economy of scale, collective bargaining power, the sharing of risks and resources, reduced transaction costs and lower search and information costs (for example through internal agreement on the price of the goods and compulsory collective meetings). On the other hand, individuals face a trade-off between their short term benefit and the long term benefit for the collectivity. This creates a problem as reciprocity is not easy to achieve due to the lag between the contributing and the harvesting, the do and the des. Moreover, not every collectivity can be managed in the same way, as it is not possible to just copy instruments.

So why in some periods the benefits of setting up and joining a collectivity outweigh the costs? To better understand this, we can look at how the commons have developed, tracing their history.

Macro perspective: when and where?

These institutions, which are so often deemed revolutionary, are surprisingly common in the history of humanity, and indeed they show up time and again in different periods and geographical locations. Indeed, de Moor considers the recent growth we have witnessed since 2004 as a third phase in the evolutionary life of the commons, which can be summed up as:

– First wave: the most traditional type of commons (agricultural) have developed since the late medieval age in Europe. They were characterised by the use of land to extract resources under commonly shared rules. At the same time, in the cities guilds were formed as a locus for collective action, combining within themselves the craftsmanship and production of commodities. Other notable institutions included water boards and collective beguinages, where lay religious women could live together in a safe community without retiring from the world.

This first period of collective action came to a halt in the late 18th/early 19th century. The emergence of the nation state and the liberalisation wave that followed suppressed collective action replacing it with individual activity.

– Second wave: 1880-1920. This is a glorious period for institutions of collective action, with the birth of cooperatives and mutuals (such as institutions of mutual insurances and social cooperative banks) on the one hand, and labour unions on the other—that is, institutions for workers to associate and work together towards joint goals.

– Third wave: since 2005 we have witnessed a third wave. Although many link the rebirth of the commons to the economic crisis and a last resort against austerity, there has been a spike in ICAs activity since 2005.

The principles of mutualism have been revived in particular in the insurance sector. This is especially evident in the Netherlands: in 2004 the abolishment of Dutch Disability Benefits Act for self-employed workers led to the creation of broodfunds (collectives that allow independent entrepreneurs and self-employed to provide each other with temporary sick leave) as workers associated to replace what was before covered by the state.

We have thus seen a revival of the mutual, but with a noticeable qualitative change: the focus is now local, with regional coops exploiting new technology and taking a digital turn, as to become platform cooperatives.

From a macro perspective, we observe some persistent archetypes over time. For example, guilds can be considered the predecessors of mutuals and labour unions, which inherited their functions. Institutions thus have transferred functions from one to another in different historical periods.

Moreover, ICAs develop in specific circumstances: all of these three periods are characterised by rapid market development, privatisation and commercialisation. As markets left individuals vulnerable, they associated with others facing similar struggles.

Meso perspective: how do they develop?

From a meso perspective, the variation that these institutions entail offers enough data to look at the question of how they develop over time and what kind of scaling strategies they use. These differ according to the period. During the first wave, the commons chose to remain small, with a strategy of splitting and specialising. The opposite is true in the second period, where a merger strategy was prevalent leading to a growth in the size of the ICAs. Finally, what we see prevailing today is a network strategy. Polycentricity is the key word for contemporary commons, which remain relatively small-sized (with about 50 members per organisation) to maintain personal connections and avoid anonymity, and join other similar organisation in order to grow in size without losing their specific organisational form. This is in stark contrast to the first wave, where the ICAs did not cooperate with each other.

We can also look at the difference in the life span of organisations across waves. Modern institutions last considerably less than the ones in the first wave. This applies also to individuals’ membership, which are now considerably shorter than during the first or second wave. One explanation for this may be that the further we go back in time, the more general ICAs we find. While now they are very specialised, in the first wave in particular they were clearly multipurpose. To optimise utility, they bundled together social and economic benefits, consumption and production. This meant the cost for trespassing was higher, given the use of reciprocal behaviour to reward and punish. Simply put, one had more to lose by not following the rules.

Micro perspective: how do they build resilience?

Finally, from a micro perspective, we can analyse the resilience of these institutions, understanding how ICAs adapted over time and what institutional solutions commoners developed to build a resilient collective.

To investigate this, de Moor’s research team has compared commons’ regulation longitudinally, using as criteria selection for their case studies a minimum of 3 changes in regulations in at least 150 years, as to avoid selecting cases where commoners transferred rules and norms over time without reflecting over them. Overall, the cases that complied were used to create a “Common Rules-database”, coding rules such as appropriation, management, and discipline. The collected 12 Dutch cases (out of 800 ICAs), 10 English and 10 Spanish, all pasture commons between 1300 and 1900.

What was found from the comparison of these cases was a u-shaped dynamic, with stronger regulatory activity at the beginning and end of the commons’ life span. In particular, there is a
higher incidence of administrative rules at the end. This trend is present in both the UK and Netherlands; despite fairly different legal systems, they did not find a difference in the evolution of the institutions. Legal factors then do not influence the general regulation pattern, but they do have an impact on the instruments being used.

In fact, they found a difference in the use of sanctions between the UK and the Netherlands. In the latter, there is a negative correlation between the longevity of an ICA and the investment (time and effort) that had been put in designing sanctions. Most successful commons showed rules but not sanctions. This is not the case in the UK, where most rules were accompanied by sanctions, without a distinct trend over time. The difference could possibly be explained by the manor court system, present in the UK but not in the Netherlands, where autonomy led to different ways of sanctioning. They also identified a positive association between sanctions and subsoil resources in the Netherlands, but not in the UK.

Finally, they found that graduated sanctioning (that is 3 strikes and you are out) is rather exceptional. Although in Ostrom’s work graduated sanctions appears as the 5th principle out of a list of 8 common denominators of institutions of collective action, they discover that this appears only towards the end of the life span of commons, that is when nothing else is working. After all, sanctioning is expensive, so it makes sense that institutions try to avoid it whenever possible.

They did find alternatives to sanctions, conjugating rights with responsibilities, such as the right to vote being linked to the attendance of meetings, the right to elect representatives but also the rotation of responsibilities. It appears that sanctioning could be avoided through intensive social control, where liability is attached to membership for those who shirk responsibility. Overall, graduated sanctioning is not as important for resilience, and maybe Ostrom’s results were dependent on the cases she selected.

Summing up, a new wave of ICAs always emerges after accelerated developments in the free market, and the period we are living now is characterised by polycentricity as the prevalent scaling strategy. In a way, the commons act as an early warning systems for market failures.

The lecture acted as a great introduction to the series on the future of the commons, underlying the importance of looking at history to draw lessons on what may work for cooperation now and in the future. These lessons also help us to imagine new ways of organising society and to question our assumptions of how collective organisations are supposed to work, for example by pointing out we are overstating the importance of sanctioning in making cooperation work.

About the Green Templeton Lecture Series


The Green Templeton Lectures series takes place annually. The 2020 series is convened by Research Fellow Dr Dustin Garrick on the theme of the Future of the Commons.The lecture series explores the commons in a world approaching peak population, deepening inequality, and growing threats to democratic forms of governance. The series follows an arc that starts with lessons from the history of the commons, and outlines the frontiers of research and innovation. The series contributes to a University-wide and global dialogue on the next wave of the commons, charting emerging governance innovations for a connected world.

Further lectures in the series:
Thursday 6 February – Globalisation and the grabbed commons: new insights on the Water Wars myth
Wednesday 4 March – On the knife’s edge of tragedy and hope: markets and the commons in a divided world

Created: 31 January 2020