200-130: Sustainability & The Commons

The original meaning of the term “commons” comes from the way that communities managed shared land in Medieval Europe. This shared land was not owned by any single individual but, rather, was “held in common,” thus the term “commons.” Along with this shared land was a clear set of rules developed by the community about how it was to be used. Technically, the term “commons” thus refers to the land and the rules that go with it to govern its use. Over time, the term commons has taken on several meanings. Most generally it can be used to refer to a broad set of resources, natural and cultural, that are shared by many people. Examples of resources that are referred to as “commons” include forests, fisheries, or groundwater resources that are accessible to members of the community.

Regardless of how they are managed, these types of resources that can be defined as “commons” are essential for our society. We share them, inherit them from previous generations, and create them for future generations. The commons are therefore crucial for our wealth and happiness. Why would we care to study the commons? Because there is a big challenge associated with sustaining the commons for both society and for enterprise. Because of the lack of clear rules of use and mechanisms to monitor and enforce those rules, some commons are over-harvested. How can we make sure that the commons are used wisely and fairly? Who should regulate the use of the commons? Who should make the rules? This course address these important topics.