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  • Cosmopolitan Commons: Sharing Risks and Resources across Borders ed. by Nil Disco and Eda Kranakis
  • Erik van der Vleuten (bio)
Cosmopolitan Commons: Sharing Risks and Resources across Borders. Edited by Nil Disco and Eda Kranakis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. Pp. 344. $28.

This ambitious book sets out to develop a historical theory of commons for the modern age. The editors and authors defy the prevalent concept of commons as an archaic form of social organization in medieval peasant societies. Instead they see commons as a historical phenomenon, which in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries became “decidedly shaped around technologies” (p. 2) and increasingly shared between countries. Examples include commercial airspace and other transnational infrastructure as well as the North Sea—a shared shipping, fishing, and oil and gas extraction resource for its many surrounding countries. Drawing on cosmopolitan theory, [End Page 518] and neo-medievalism in particular, they call such shared technological and natural transnational spaces “cosmopolitan commons.” These spaces involve shared risks, producing transnational “communities of fate,” and are “inherently threatened by subversion and clashing interests” (p. 3). Therefore cosmopolitan commons require—the editors and authors contend—non-coercive and distributed forms of transnational cooperation and governance in order to be environmentally and socially sustainable.

The book focuses on Europe not only because it was associated with the European Science Foundation’s grand history of technology program Inventing Europe, but also because the key problems for such a theory of cosmopolitan commons can be well-studied in boundary-permeated Europe, and because European commons governance models often inspired global ones.

After the introduction, a sophisticated theoretical and historiographical chapter aimed at a rather advanced readership reviews commons theory since the days of Garrett Hardin and especially Elinor Ostrom, to whose memory the book is dedicated. It also elaborates on the historic nature, the technology-rich character (conceptualized via STS), the transnational spatial configuration, and the transnational governance aspects of modern cosmopolitan commons.

Next follow eight extremely well-written chapters with engaging case studies, which serve to illustrate the historical variety of cosmopolitan commons. These have a conventional history-of-technology format. Part 1 discusses how historical stakeholders have negotiated institutions to handle the shared valorization of technological and natural resources such as a European airspace commons, a European radio frequency spectrum commons, and hydropower from the Russian-Finnish Vuoksi River. Part 2 covers how historical actors joined together for the protection of humans and nature, and created the “information commons” of weather forecasting infrastructure, “breeders’ commons”—a network of vaults preserving Planet Earth’s crop genetic diversity, and the international response to acid rain. Part 3 studies the clash of different commons governance regimes on the multifunctional North Sea and Rhine River.

This book project is laudable and well-executed. Indeed, the organizers and participants should be encouraged to continue the important line of research. There are, however, two issues that they need to address. Both have been hotly debated among those interested in cosmopolitanism and transnationalism. The first challenge is to repair an empirical bias toward the international. When the authors speak of “transnational” commons, they refer to infrastructure and resource spaces shared by several states. Accordingly, the focus is on cases of intergovernmental and nongovernmental international governance. A theory of modern commons that privileges the space left over by seemingly monolithic nation-states, however, risks missing the variety of shared local, micro-regional, and national [End Page 519] infrastructures and resource spaces. Local radio broadcasting, air pollution, and rivers are subject to similar “commons” dynamics. One way to work “domestic” commons into the theory, perhaps, is through “transnational analysis,” not in its international relations meaning (associated with the so-called “first transnational turn” in political science in the 1970s), but in its globalization studies meaning (the “second transnational turn” of the 1990s) of analyzing how the local, national, and international became mutually constitutive and entangled.

The second challenge is related to the first. The book’s theory underlines that cosmopolitan commons and their governance regimes involve new “moral economies,” which help direct individual action toward collective goals. The book itself, however, also has a moral economy. Despite disclaimers that “cosmopolitan commons cannot be taken...