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The colorful world of the commons – From Wikipedia to self-managed parks | S4F

The economist Elinor Ostrom has shownthat self-organized groups are very capable of managing common goods sustainably - contrary to the pessimistic theory of the “tragedy of the commons”. But is this just about traditional village communities?

The world of the commons is rich and diverse, but it is often our upbringing that obscures it. We are not born egoists. It is the conditions that we take for granted that turn social beings who were originally willing to cooperate into “homo oeconomicus”, the “rational utility maximizer”. In an experiment1 with 20-month-olds, the experimenter dropped a spoon and tried in vain to reach it with his hand. Most of the children recognized his distress and brought him the spoon. They kept doing this even when he didn't even say thank you. But if he rewarded them with a candy and the reward suddenly disappeared after a few repetitions, most children lost their willingness to help. But the willingness to cooperate is not synonymous with self-denying altruism. Commoners can certainly be utility maximizers, namely the common utility.

The best-known example of a functioning commons is Wikipedia. Here everyone can share knowledge and create knowledge. This knowledge commons is managed by the users themselves. Anarchic beginnings have become complex System of checks and balances developed that can largely ward off takeover by trolls and other free riders. If you look at centrally managed platforms like X or Facebook, you can see how high this success can be.

Also the computer operating system Linux was born out of the commons idea. Everyone can use it, and everyone can improve it, modify it and adapt it to their own needs. All open source software is based on the commons principle. But there is also open source hardware - i.e. freely usable, patent-free design plans Armchair to Passive House.

The Tenement Syndicate in Germany is an association of 187 community housing projects. The projects are as diverse as their origins. Some were created for purely practical reasons, others with political and social-changing objectives or to forestall demolition plans. The syndicate uses its know-how and advises on new projects, organizes direct loans from private individuals and maintains a solidarity fund. Above all, the syndicate offers the individual house projects protection from themselves. In order to permanently remove the houses from the real estate market, each house project merges with the syndicate to form a GmbH. This gives the syndicate equal voting rights in matters relating to the sale or conversion into condominiums.

Link to Omni Commons video

Omni Commons is a joint project of several collectives in Oakland, California: All projects here are accessible to everyone and are run jointly: natural science laboratory, hacker space, art studio, meeting and rehearsal rooms, print shop, concert and theater space, a school in which everyone can teach and everyone can learn, and a cafeteria that gives out free food made from rescued food.

Last year the “alternative Nobel Prize” – correct name: “Right Livelihood Award“ – to the cooperative network Cecosesola awarded in Venezuela. Namely, “For the establishment of a fair and cooperative economic model as a robust alternative to profit-driven economies.” Cecosesola (Central de Cooperativas de Lara) is a network of rural and urban cooperatives in the Andean foothills that provides affordable goods and services to over 100.000 families in seven Venezuelan states. And that has been the case for 55 years. The cooperatives produce and distribute food, provide health services, transportation and even funerals. They operate four large markets in the 1,25 million city of Barquisimento. The food is sold there at a uniform price per kilo - 1 kg of tomatoes costs the same as 1 kg of potatoes. The individual village communities consult with the cooperative's employees about their production costs: seeds, irrigation pipes, fuel for pumps, mules that bring the vegetables to the passable roads... The costs of all communities are pooled, as are the quantities produced by each village Vegetables. This results in the uniform price per kilo. Different production conditions in favorable and less favorable locations are balanced out. The standard price saves a lot of bureaucracy, there are no costs for marketing and advertising, and no middlemen. “Our benchmark is simply the production costs including what the producers need to live,” explains cooperative member Noel Vale Valera. As a result, the prices of Cecosesola are significantly below the usual market prices. For over half a century, the cooperative was able to survive political and economic crises, including hyperinflation, which reached almost 1917 percent in 3.000. You can read it in the book “The world of the commons“ by Silke Helfrich and David Bollier.2

On the book's website, a star-shaped logo says: "Open Access". Open Access is the implementation of the commons idea in science. The German Research Foundation DFG offers the following Definition: "Open Access (English for open access) is free access to scientific publications and other materials on the Internet. Anyone can read, download, save, link, print and use a scientific document published under open access conditions free of charge.” In practice, this means, for example, that you can download Silke Helfrich’s book as a PDF. Scientific journals are expensive and the individual articles on the Internet are usually hidden behind a payment barrier. But there are also open access journals whose contributions, like those of other journals, are checked by independent reviewers (peer review), but are accessible on the Internet without payment. But not everything that someone puts on the Internet as scientific can be called open access. To ensure quality there is the “Directory of Open Access Journals" and the "Directory of Open Access Books".

Not only for scientific publications, but for all types of publications, “Creative Commons" created. These are internationally standardized licenses that enable producers to make their products available to the general public in such a way that they cannot be appropriated by others. This means that content can be shared without restrictions or with different conditions. The most common use is a license that requires the author to be credited and that distribution occurs under the same conditions. It is also possible to restrict it to non-commercial use or to stipulate that the work may not be modified.

Back to more tangible commons. Do you feel like “crawling”? In Innsbruck at the corner of Andreas-Hofer-Straße and Franz-Fischer-Straße, above the entrance to the underground car park, there is a beautiful, freely accessible mirabelle plum tree. Like thousands of other fruit trees and berry bushes on public land, it is listed on the map of

And do you know the only self-managed park in Vienna? It is the grid square garden in the 4th district. You can find out how the residents fought for this community garden in the 1970s and prevented the demolition of their houses, with the active support of an ORF television team, on the website First Viennese protest hiking trail hear and see.

Cover photo: Wild Woods Farm in Iowa directly supplies 200 households with 30 different types of vegetables. This is the weekly portion that members can pick up at one of the seven pick-up stations.
Photo: US Dept. of Agriculture – Public Domain

1 Warneken, Felix/Tomasello, Michael (2008): “Extrinsic Rewards Undermine Altruistic Tendencies in 20-Month-Olds”, in: Developmental Psychology, Vol 44 (6), pp. 1785-1788.

2 Silke Helfrich, David Bollier, Heinrich Böll Foundation (eds.) (2015): The world of the commons. Patterns of joint action. Berlin, Boston, Bielefeld.

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