It felt like quite an exciting and original realisation, although being a real and common phenomenon of course someone had though of it before.
In October 2009, Ostrom had written a background paper to the 2010 World Development Report of the World Bank, entitled “A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change”, which addresses just that situation – one where a group is trying to interact with a commons that is bigger than the scale of their decision making. After reading the first few pages, I started sending the link excitedly to people with whom I’d shared discussions of climate change. It felt like the only thing I’d read or heard for years that was both sensible and hopeful about climate change. I wished I’d read it when it was first published, before I went to the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen. Maybe I would have felt there was something productive to do there, and would have felt less completely disempowered and hopeless in the months afterwards.
A “Polycentric” order is defined by Vincent Ostrom as “one where many elements are capable of making mutual adjustments for ordering their relationships with one another within a general system of rules where each element acts with independence of other elements”. In the context of climate change it gives a coherent narrative and theory of change to what is clearly already going on – groups at many scales independently, but mutually responsively taking action.
Maybe Ostrom was writing in pre-december 2009 optimism, and that gives a tone of hope to the piece. But it fits with my experience post-Copenhagen too, of people simply getting on with building more energy efficient houses and refurbishing existing ones, trying to reclaim ownership of energy generation, and resisting the extraction of yet more fossil fuels.
It’s an interesting interplay of local “community” action, for both personal benefit and altruistic purposes, and a policy context that supports it. Neither the solar PV cooperatives nor the energy efficient new buildings would be happening on the scale that they are without the Feed in Tariff or stringent building regulations.
So does community management of local commons have the potential to protect global commons in a meaningful way? I’m not sure, but it feels like this must be part of any hopeful way forward, and this question will probably form the basis of the four years of research I have just embarked on (an EngD with the University of Surrey).