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The Commons in History

Culture, Conflict, and Ecology

Derek Wall

Publication Year: 2014

The history of the commons -- jointly owned land or other resources such as fisheries or forests set aside for public use -- provides a useful context for current debates over sustainability and how we can act as "good ancestors." In this book, Derek Wall considers the commons from antiquity to the present day, as an idea, an ecological space, an economic abstraction, and a management practice. He argues that the commons should be viewed neither as a "tragedy" of mismanagement (as the biologist Garrett Hardin wrote in 1968) nor as a panacea for solving environmental problems. Instead, Walls sees the commons as a particular form of property ownership, arguing that property rights are essential to understanding sustainability. How we use the land and its resources offers insights into how we value the environment. After defining the commons and describing the arguments of Hardin's influential article and Elinor Ostrom's more recent work on the commons, Wall offers historical case studies from the United States, England, India, and Mongolia. He examines the power of cultural norms to maintain the commons; political conflicts over the commons; and how commons have protected, or failed to protect ecosystems. Combining intellectual and material histories with an eye on contemporary debates, Wall offers an applied history that will interest academics, activists, and policy makers.

Published by: The MIT Press

Series: History for a Sustainable Future


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Title Page, Series Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-x

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Michael Egan

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pp. xi-xvi

Derek Wall’s The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecology inaugurates a new series from the MIT Press. “History for a Sustainable Future” is predicated on the idea that scholars, publics, and policymakers need to be conscious of the historical contexts of contemporary environmental problems...


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pp. xvii-xviii

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1. Commons Ecology

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pp. 1-42

London and its environs would have no parks today if commoners had not asserted their rights, and as the nineteenth century drew on rights of recreation were more important than rights of pasture, and were defended vigilantly by the Commons Preservation Society. We owe to these premature “Greens” such urban lungs as we have. More...

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2. Culture in Common?

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pp. 43-70

To the medieval mind such landscapes were liminal places, where humanity might encounter the supernatural . . . in early medieval Scandinavian cosmology, where the utgard (the same term was used of the common waste beyond the farmland) was inhabited by monsters and was dark. . . . The association of wilder spaces beyond cultivation...

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3. Commons in Conflict

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pp. 71-100

All these changes from the original communal property conditions did not, of course, take place without friction, the opposition often taking place in peasants’ revolts; hundreds of thousands of these being killed in their attempts to preserve their commons, forests and waters free for all, to re-establish their liberty to hunt, fish and cut wood...

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4. Questions for Good Ancestors

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pp. 101-136

In March 2005, the Onondaga Nation of Indians filed suit against the state of New York and several large corporate polluters that had done business in the vicinity of Syracuse. In their complaint, the Onondagas said that they were “one with the land and consider themselves stewards of it. It is the duty...


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pp. 137-154

Selected Readings on the Commons

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pp. 155-156


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pp. 157-165

E-ISBN-13: 9780262322003
E-ISBN-10: 0262322005
Print-ISBN-13: 9780262027212

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: History for a Sustainable Future
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OCLC Number: 872644062
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Commons in History