Every two years, the universe of scholars who study the commons converge on some spot on the planet to present their research findings, argue about theoretical models and party-hardy. Just kidding about that last one, but it is hard to imagine a more interesting party than 600 people from 90 countries around the world.
I have encountered an Indian economist who has closely studied the role of women in improving the sustainability of forest commons in Nepal (Bina Agarwal), an Australian academic who has written about modern-day gleaning such as “dumpster diving” (James Arvanitakis), a British activist who helped pass a modern-day law to protect British common lands (Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society), an Indian-American who is studying how language shapes our ability to understand the commons (Vijaya Nagarajan), a Belgian historian of the European commons (Tine De Moor), among many others.
It is quite a pleasant shock to suddenly be around so many people who not only know what the commons is; they can get into some rather arcane and sophisticated arguments about it. The conference is skewed towards academics, however, which means that the policy and activist sensibility is somewhat muted. That’s too bad, but I hope it might change in the future.
There is also an emphatic focus on natural resource commons, with a very limited exploration of so-called “new commons,” by which the IASC academics mean commons that have arisen in unconventional realms such as the Internet. I find this too bad, because there is so much to be learned from digital commons, which are among the most robust commons out there. The phrase “new commons” is also vaguely off-putting because it privileges the natural resource commons so absolutely. Now I have an inkling of how Native Americans must have felt to have been “discovered.”