Commons Sense

Collectivism is a way forward. It’s just the “ism” that isn’t and the consensus that never shows up that somehow take things in a more tangential direction. Peter Manley maps his journey to sustainable managed common resources and it’s a long way to go.

Commons, collective ownership, sharing resources: that sounds like a perfect solution to sustainably managing common resources with common purpose. Perhaps so, but the local resource governance of commons that so inspired Elinor Ostrom’s eight core design principles1 were not established overnight. The governance and economics were evolved over many generations through considerable growing pains to establish the systems studied by Ostrom. Also, let us not forget the many commons that failed to make the cut, Easter Island being an oft-cited example. Each established, sustainably managed commons has its own unique journey and story to tell.

My own journey into collectivism started when I joined Cloughjordan Eco-village in 2011. At that time I lived in France, so it was something of a leap of faith to join this intentional community in Tipperary, Ireland. In the seven years that followed I have learned a considerable amount about human behavior and Irish company law. However, I’m still grappling with the basics when it comes to understanding the ethics and principles of how this project manages its common resources.

The idea for this intentional community started back in 1999 in Dublin with the formation of the development company, Sustainable Projects Ireland. The idea was: a group of about 100 families and individuals collectively bought common land on which to build an Eco-village. The Eco-village would serve as a replicable model for sustainable living, minimise pollution and demonstrate a new approach to rural regeneration. The plan was that participating members would buy serviced sites to fund the collective purchase of the land and that the land would be owned collectively by the purchasing members. At the outset the plan appeared simple, but somewhere along the line things became complicated.

“The idea was: a group of about 100 families and individuals collectively bought common land on which to build an Eco-village.”

After an extensive search for a suitable site Cloughjordan in North Tipperary was selected as the location for the Eco-village in 2002. The infrastructure works in Cloughjordan were mostly completed in 2008 to the point were members could commence building their homes in the Eco-village estate. Using the word Eco-village is perhaps misleading as what was built was in reality an Eco-neighbourhood attached to the existing rural village of Cloughjordan. The first residents moved into the Eco-village in December 2009 and the district heating plant was completed in 2010. Bucking the downturn in development in Ireland the Cloughjordan Eco-village has 54 completed residential homes, a 33 bed Hostel and an Enterprise Centre. The development company still has 47 unsold sites available for sale, site prices have been considerably reduced to reflect the current market conditions.

The Eco-neighbourhood attached to the existing rural village of Cloughjordan

The Ecovillage has always adopted a consensus decision-making approach, which in effect means that decisions are never made easily or quickly. In establishing the management of common areas there will always be some conflict and fall-out. It would be naïve to expect otherwise. For Cloughjordan Eco-village it took several years to finally agree in 2015 on the extent of the common areas that would remain in the hands of the developer and what would be transferred to the owners’ management company (OMC). In the end the consensus decision seemed to leave many on both sides of the debate unhappy with the outcome.

It is quite normal for the OMC of a multi-unit development in Ireland to be the legal entity that takes ownership of the common areas. Each owner is by virtue of their purchase a member of the OMC and has one vote. An OMC operates as a non-for-profit co-operative putting the needs of its members first, including, in the case of the Eco-village, living in an ecologically sustainable way. This long-established OMC system became enshrined in Irish law as the Multi-Units Development Act (MUDs Act) in 2011. The MUDs Act sets out the rights and obligations of developers and owners with respect to the common areas. The MUDs Act provides clarity for purchasers about their rights and also what they have a right to expect from developers.

The MUDs Act 2011 stipulates the minimum legal obligations that should apply in multi-unit developments, while allowing a certain amount of autonomy to those communities living in estates to manage their own affairs. The members of the OMC set the level of management fees and decide the house rules. Absentee-landlords can have their tenants or others act as their proxy. Top-down national legislation limits the scope for simply running amuck; OMCs are still bound by company law, fire regulations, local council standards and so on. The Act is effectively the Irish version of Elinor Ostrom’s design principles where (within the defined legal framework) those using the common areas have autonomy to decide how the common areas are to be managed.

“One would expect that all participants in the Eco-village have a common purpose to reduce their environmental footprint, but like all things, the devil is in the detail.”

As things currently stand the ownership of common areas of the Cloughjordan Eco-village still resides with the development company (which is a registered charity). The development company still has control over who can use the common lands and governs what activities are undertaken on these lands.

One would expect that all participants in the Eco-village have a common purpose to reduce their environmental footprint, but like all things, the devil is in the detail. It is always difficult to get agreement on any issue that concerns the management of the common areas in the Eco-village. At times it feels like a real world version of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian political satire scene where The People’s Front of Judea poured disdain onto the Judean People’s Front, and the Judean Popular People’s Front. What started out as a simple “become a member build your home here” approach has become a much more complicated ecosystem2 of ideology and commercial interests. So much so that the “common purpose” often gets lost in the mix.

The Eco-village discussion board that once buzzed with lively debate covering over 400 topics has long-since been closed down.

I’m not sure what Elinor Ostrom would make of how the common areas in the Cloighjordan Eco-village are managed. The Eco-village seems typical of such projects with its own impenetrable-jargon and a higher-than-average number of distinctly opinionated misfits (including myself). There has never been any agreed common political, ideological or spiritual position in our Eco-village. Nonetheless, you can guarantee that every time there is a dispute someone will wheel out the “project ethos” in an attempt to steal the moral high ground. Simply replace “patriotism” in Samuel Johnson’s famous pronouncement to come up with “project ethos as the last refuge of a scoundrel”, when all other arguments fail “project ethos” will suffice to gain the upper hand in any Eco-village debate.

This oft-cited “project ethos” is off course whatever you want it to be, because allegedly “our project is unique”, a place where normal laws, ethics or economics that operate in the “capitalist” world do not necessarily apply. For example there are Eco-village participants who argue, using a combination of moral gymnastics and half-baked, self-serving reasoning, that the MUDs Act (that applies to all other privately owned, multi-unit estates in Ireland) does not apply to the Cloughjordan Eco-village. Rather than enabling constructive social discourse, the dogmatic use of “project ethos” in the Eco-village is constraining innovation and removes objectivity in the governance of the common areas and in decision making in general.

“The Eco-village seems typical of such projects with its own impenetrable-jargon and a higher-than-average number of distinctly opinionated misfits (including myself).”

In 2014 as part of the ongoing common areas debate, I presented the idea of the OMC applying a system of sustainable management and governance for the Eco-village common areas based on Elinor Ostrom’s eight core design principles. For the purposes of my Powerpoint slide Ostrom’s eight were encapsulated into these six proposed principles for managing the Eco-village common areas:

  • clearly defined group boundaries, licenses and user agreements;
  • stakeholder participation in modifying the rules;
  • monitoring mechanisms by community;
  • graduated sanctions;
  • effective communication between stakeholders; and
  • rules matched to local needs and conditions.

Let’s just say there wasn’t much, if any, interest in progressing these. Maybe they seemed too prescriptive and formal, or perhaps too pragmatic, or even too straightforward? Who knows?

Unlike the theoretical models, in reality the individual participants don’t all have common and uniform identities. We bring our own personalities, life-experience, preconceptions, skills, baggage, politics, family, dogs, cats, and more. Ostrom provided a framework that could be adopted and adapted so that the principles accommodate the cultural and historical context that which might pre-shape how our community would establish and enforce rules for managing common areas. For example, graduated sanctions sounds great as a theoretical concept, but expecting neighbours to self-govern is at best problematic. The issues arising move way beyond the usual neighbourhood complaints, often creating resentment and conflict. It is all too easy for one neighbour to describe another as an oppressor/enforcer for simply carrying out the agreed graduated sanctions on behalf of the collective. It is dirty work, but someone has to do it. Don’t expect to get any thanks for it.

Simply setting out with an apparent common goal is not enough. One of the key design principles is reconciling conflicting values and interests, and that “success means different things to different people” (Stern et al., 2002: 457)3. Those members who would challenge or question the established so-called, founding fathers’ regime at Cloughjordan Eco-village can be pushed to the margins and often vilified. The Eco-village discussion board that once buzzed with lively debate covering over 400 topics has long-since been closed down. The Eco-village website and Facebook page are carefully stage-managed to project a Utopian vision of life here with carefully selected photos and glowing commentary. The issues around the common areas that divide our community don’t make headlines or win awards.

“Without ideology and dogma people can work together as a community in co-operative ways, it is just that we are people with families, jobs and loads of other stuff going on in our lives.”

Perhaps the solution lies in finding a more inclusive and meaningful form of governance that does not insist upon a predefined vision of the nature of the problem, and/or a predefined solution. The rejection of top-down solutions in favour of the innate collaborative instinct of human communities to manage common resources was at the heart of Ostrom’s work. However, there are times when those collaborative instincts seem quite elusive. The buzzwords and jargon that proliferate within our community can frequently feel like just another top-down edict.

The Eco-village website and Facebook page are carefully stage-managed to project a Utopian vision of life here with carefully selected photos and glowing commentary

Central to Ostrom’s work was the move “beyond panaceas”; transforming institutions to widen participation, promote diversity and favour cooperation over competition. Ostrom regularly challenged academia as individualist, narrow and elitist. She promoted a radical approach to education, based on participation. I would go further to say that academia is a self-serving industry, that in general takes credit for others’ ideas (see Nassim Taleb’s theory on academics: Teaching birds how to fly).

Beyond panaceas we require skills and ideas that we acquire by participating, or that came naturally to us. Without ideology and dogma people can work together as a community in co-operative ways, it is just that we are people with families, jobs and loads of other stuff going on in our lives. All this real-life stuff places demands on us that stretch us all at times to our limits. We are not cybernetic rats in someone else’s socio-economic project. The journey towards collectivism is not for the faint-hearted. Bring your own thick skin and a working bullshit detector.

References
1. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Ostrom, 1990)
2. An ecosystem to the untrained eye appears to have an apparent stability and resilience, however ecosystems are not systems based on co-operation, but on trying to out-compete both within and between species.
3. Stern, P. C., T. Dietz, N. Dolsak, E. Ostrom and S.C. Stonich (2002) ‘Knowledge and Questions after 15 Years of Research’, in T. Dietz, N. Dolsak, E. Ostrom, P.C. Stern, S.C. Stonich and E.U. Weber (eds) The Drama of the Commons, pp. 445–90. Wash- ington DC: National Academy Press.

Peter Manley

Peter is a self-employed financial consultant / musician currently living and working in Ireland. Peter worked for many years in ‘The City’ specialising as a Quant (quantitative Research analyst), working at four …

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