Thursday, January 28, 2010

Adjusting to Regulation of a Commons

The day after President Obama's State of the Union Address, the blogosphere is buzzing. Alas, there wasn't much to comment on from a commons perspective ... So instead, here's an article with nothing to do with the SOTU.

Today's New York Times profiles a man named Yia Yang who lives in Sacramento and has a radio show about hunting. The article puts an interesting spin on an otherwise seemingly mundane topic by explaining wild game's cultural significance for Hmong men and the challenge of adjusting to the regulation of hunting it.

According to Paul Hillmer, a Minnesota professor quoted in the article, hunting was "a big part of the traditional role for (Hmong) men" back in Laos. Hillmer adds, "The adjustment for Hmong men in this country was getting used to things like private-property boundaries, hunting licenses and regulations."

I grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, so I had many friends whose parents were refugees from Laos. Given the violent clashes between Hmong and white hunters in my home state back in 2007 and 2004, it was especially nice to be reminded of the positive context for hunting.

While hunters may have a bad rep in some parts of the country, due to over-hunting that left some animals endangered or extinct ... in the upper Midwest, hunting is generally seen as both a form of leisure and as necessary to control the deer population. The state determines where and when hunting is permitted -- a form of commons governance similar to the other examples researched by Nobel-winner Elinor Ostrom. In California, where Mr. Yang lives and provides hunting advice to his community, the same regulation occurs with the state relying on volunteers, like Mr. Yang, to teach other hunters about the rules that govern the hunting commons.

It's an interesting article, check it out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Making our own commons

I used to live in New York City and I had a friend with a small apartment (a bedroom, tiny bathroom, and one other all purpose room with a refrigerator and stove in one corner and a couch in the other corner demarcating living room, dining room and kitchen). One of his claims to fame was that he had not bought anything in his apartment. His CD collection, towels, blankets and some dishes were gifts from friends, his mattress was a gift from his Midwestern mother who couldn’t believe someone would choose to live in New York City but thought perhaps a few nights of restorative sleep would precipitate a return to Indianapolis, but the rest of his stuff he had found on the street.

Bookcases, end tables, a table and four mismatched chairs, an overstuffed chair and a modern sleek sofa, a television, a toaster and a microwave, a towel warmer, two chests of drawers and a variety of clothes were all someone else’s castoffs. His apartment was, as they say, nicely appointed. It had an eclectic look and a very welcoming feel.

When I first moved to Manhattan, I was appalled at what people would put out on the street. I thought people should give their unwanted usable items to a thrift shop, and believed that New Yorkers just could not be bothered to dispose of things properly. My indignation was always fueled when perfectly good stuff got rained on and then ruined. I still think there is an element of irresponsibility in putting things out on the street, but as I met more and more people like my friend, I realized that there is a constant exchange of items going on—an informal bazaar with no money changing hands, no guarantees of excellence and no obligation on anybody’s part. A casual not very well organized commons.

I wondered if there could be something a little more formal, but still free. In Berkeley, I found a place where everyone takes their books when they can’t or don’t want to sell them. At the end of a not often used parking lot, there is a shelter of sorts, and in it are a dozen book shelves loaded down with books. People bring books and usually stack them nicely on the shelves. If the shelves are full, they leave the books in their boxes. There are always people there looking through the books, perhaps dealers or collectors. Every so often an organization called “Books, Not Bars” comes and takes a large number of these books to prison libraries.

Then I read about a neighborhood association that organized several blocks to have a sidewalk sale, but with no sale. The rule was you had to put something out on your sidewalk and then you were free to go around and take stuff from your neighbors. At the end of the day, a few neighbors bundled up anything that hadn’t been taken and took it to the Goodwill or the dump, depending on what it was. They have now done this twice a year for a few years and find it works quite well. Outsiders come to get free stuff, but mostly they bring something also.

Finally, there are now websites that advertise free stuff. Many nonprofits I know have gotten or gotten rid of good furniture or old but usable computers this way.

I like these more formal models because they challenge owners to be good stewards of our stuff: when we don’t want it anymore, we need to see if someone else can use it. We don’t throw it away, nor do we just leave it on the street to become possibly someone’s living room furniture but also possibly another burden on an already stressed garbage collection or street cleaning system. These models say that I don’t really own anything: I simply use it as long as I need to, and because I don’t own it, I can’t just throw it away: I have to see that it is used by someone else until it really cannot be used anymore.