Protecting our common resources

This piece originally appeared at New Frame on 14 May 2019. The original article can be accessed here.

Amid calls for legislative reform in the rights of the environment and renewed cooperative management, climate change forces us to rethink how we negotiate shared natural reserves.

In early April 2019, it emerged that during the height of Cape Town’s drought last year a Constantia homeowner, Paul Baise, had been selling water from a mountain stream that flowed through his property from Table Mountain National Park. According to Baise, he was selling the water to Capetonians to fill their swimming pools. Neighbouring residents claim that up to 20 trucks visited the property every day and were filled from three 5 000 litre tanks installed at the property, which were fed by the stream. It is alleged that Baise was making as much as R15 000 a day from the water, a claim Baise denies.

While Baise does have a legal right to use a reasonable amount of water from the stream for household use, the story provoked outrage from Capetonians who were restricted to just 50 litres of water use per day for months. Baise has since been issued with a desist order from the national Department of Water and Sanitation and is being sued by the National Parks Board for taking more water than he is allowed to use.

Despite the public outcry, Baise is unapologetic about selling the water. He is quoted as saying, “Government couldn’t deliver, so private enterprise steps in. That’s a thought to consider.”

What we share

This story raises some interesting questions about how we manage common resources like water. In 1969, philosopher Garrett Hardin wrote a seminal article called The Tragedy of the Commons in which he asserted that if common resources, like water or land, were not protected, they would inevitably be destroyed by overuse. According to Hardin, this overuse would occur because humans are inherently individualistic and will maximise the personal benefit they can gain from access to any common resource (following Adam Smith’s “rational man” hypothesis, which portrays humans as ultimately self-interested).

Hardin’s solution to this problem was either government regulation or the imposition of private property rights. While Hardin’s thesis appealed to some on the left as it indicated greater state intervention, it was grasped with fervour by liberals and neo-liberals who saw it as the perfect justification for wholesale privatisation. Hardin’s thesis had a powerful influence on international financial institutions like the World Bank and continues to this day.

It is useful to apply Hardin’s argument to the Cape Town case. In the case of Baise and those who purchased the water for their swimming pools, it certainly supports Hardin’s argument that humans will seek to maximise their own benefit from a common resource. That said, the inherent flaws in Hardon’s argument, and in much current thinking about managing common resources, are nonetheless exposed. In this case, private property rights were asserted over the water, by Baise and those who purchased water for themselves. But such rights were only asserted by those with the means to do so. What about the millions of other Capetonians who could not access the water due to the economic and social costs involved in doing so, and who were left struggling on 50 litres a day, while those with the necessary resources were filling their swimming pools? The privatisation of common resources can only work in theory if everyone, and that means everyone, has the ability to equally access those common resources, and nobody abuses their respective access. This is clearly an unattainable position given the gross inequalities that the capitalist system produces and perpetually reproduces.

The collective good

Hardin’s argument is also problematic in that it assumes that everyone is like Baise. It assumes we are all self-interested individuals. But this is, of course, emphatically not the case. People throughout the world every day dedicate themselves to the service of others and their communities more generally. On an individual basis, millions of people undertake unpaid labour in support of their families, friends and those in need. While collectively, there is evidence from across the world that the management of common resources can be effectively achieved by communities in the interests of those communities as a whole.

Elinor Ostrom, who died in 2012 and who received the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009, illustrated through her work in communities throughout the world how common resources are best managed by a bottom-up approach, with decision making and control in the hands of communities who live within or near the common resource and who benefit directly from it.

Evidence reveals that attempts to impose private property relations or government controls over the access to common resources has generally done more harm than good, as it has unravelled established systems whereby communities have successfully managed their common resources from generation to generation. Forests, pastures, grasslands, seashores, oceans, rivers and other commons have been managed by communities through bonds of sharing and trust, and social censure if and when need arises.

Ostrom drew attention to eight principles she argued ensured the success of local bottom-up management of common resources: resources must have clearly defined boundaries; decision making must be participatory; rules should be context specific; resource use must be regularly monitored; censure for abuse should be gradual rather than punitive; conflict resolution needs to be equally accessible to all; groups managing commons should be recognised by higher (state) authorities; and, regional commons network associations are necessary to manage geographically spread commons such as rivers or oceans.

Earth rights

If we are to tackle the climate crisis, it is to such forms of solidarity that we must look as we turn away from the toxic individualism at the core of capitalist relations and embrace the idea of local, national and global commons that are our shared heritage and responsibility. Progress is already being made. At a local scale, workers cooperatives, food sovereignty campaigns and community-owned renewable energy plants are examples, among many others, of how people are claiming the commons and forging an economy based on solidarity rather than greed.

At the national and global levels, progress is more limited, but legal recognition and protection of common resources is growing. In New Zealand, the Whanganui River has been granted human status and must be protected for the common good. In Bolivia, the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth has asserted that the Earth is a “collective subject of public interest” and must be preserved for the common good. The Ecuadorian constitution acknowledges that nature is not property and has the right to exist and regenerate, while the creation of a universal declaration of the rights of Mother Earth has been discussed by the United Nations.

It is only through the unravelling of the commodification of the environment and the compassionate, equitable and cooperative management of natural resources that we can hope to make a just transition to a post-capitalist world.

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