Ostrom’s legacy of robustness and the "Swiss commons lab": Introductory reflections on change and power in commons studies
Tobias Haller, Jean-David Gerber, Karina Liechti, Stephane Nahrath, Christian Rohr, Martin Stnber, Frangois-Xavier Viallon and Raliel Wunderli
Introducing this book
Discussions on the commons have resulted in a very rich and sophisticated literature, originating with the work of Garrett Hardin (1968), through the reactions summarised and synthesised by Elinor Ostrom (1990) 30 years ago. This has ranged from local studies of resource management, broad comparative studies and topics such as collective action and experiments (Ostrom et al. 1994; Dietz et al. 2002; Poteete et al. 2010) to approaches involving the political ecology of the commons in a ‘glocal’ world (see, for a newer example, Haller et al. 2019). These research strands are also reflected in the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC), as well as in many publications in the International Journal of the Commons and other journals with related interests. The commons are also debated on several levels: from the local regulation of common-pool resources (CPRs) such as fisheries, pasture, forests and wildlife, to state, international and global levels such as those involving the sustainable development goals (SDGs). There is a focus on what can be called global commons, such as biodiversity and climate as issues related to collective ownership and governance on the global scale of a capitalist, neoliberal and sustainability-related state order. While some approaches see commons rather as patterns of‘commoning’ (Bollier and Helferich 2015), which are to be understood as a collectively organised alternative to capitalism in practice, there are also views suggesting that ‘commoning’ hides that we are dealing with an individualised and a mostly challenging endeavour if power structures are not considered (see, for instance, Schliippi and Gruber 2018).
So, where is this book to be placed? It is based on the results of the interdisciplinary research project SCALES (Sustainable Commons Adaptations to Landscape Ecosystems in Switzerland), funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), and looks at the more ‘classical’ commons as regards continuity and change in the management of CPRs such as pastures and forests in Switzerland. The main focus of the project is the differences and similarities between local common-pool resource institutions (rules and regulations) and forms of commoners’ organisations (corporations of citizens, corporations). We show that these organisations have been managing the common property of CPRs, especially alpine pastures and forests, for several centuries, and have shaped the cultural landscapes of Switzerland. The fact that this volume deals with comparative and historically grounded research in Switzerland, however, will be particularly interesting to an international audience for an important reason: a Swiss case study by the US social anthropologist Robert Netting in the Swiss Alps (Torbel) — published under the title Balancing on an Alp (1981) - had a major impact on the global debate around Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons (1990). For that book, which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary in 2020, she received the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Balancing the Commons in Switzerland builds on Netting’s work but traces the local histories of the commons in Switzerland back to the Late Middle Ages, and examines changes from that time to the present day. We thus closely examine the notion of robustness in Swiss commons and its challenges, in both a comparative and interdisciplinary way. Therefore, the book not only provides new insights into what has been seen as empirical proof that common property can be sustainable and that Swiss common property institutions show a high level of robustness; it also tries to unpack the power relations and diversity in the development of local commoners’ organisations in a national context, in which common property rights are accepted by the Swiss civil code (and recognised in some cantonal legislations) (Knoepfel and Schweizer 2015) and state subsidies are provided in order to maintain the work undertaken by the commoners.
This unique situation, which we call the ‘Swiss commons lab’, will be of interest for all commons scholars in understanding this globally unique case and what it means for global studies of the commons. Our main hypothesis is that the robustness of Swiss commoners’ organisations depends on their ability to balance between market (declines in the value of the CPRs and rising costs of maintenance) and the state (how to harness and adapt to state subsidies and policies). This balancing act depends on their bargaining power related to the state, the canton and the municipality, and the ability to be resilient to economic and social pressures. We also argue that members of commoners’ organisations do not pursue a purely economic logic but try to maintain the overall common property.
External political, economic and institutional changes in the last 300 years, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, created important structural transformations that threaten the existence of the commoners. The growing complexity of policy interventions, overall loss of value for agricultural and forestry products and uncertainty about the interest of future generations as appointed successors have increased pressure on the management of CPRs, especially alpine pastures and forests, via common property. How did local commoners react to these changes by adapting and transforming common property institutions? This research question is not solely of interest to the
Ostrom’s legacy and the ‘Swiss commons lab’ 3
Swiss, but also to international scholars in the field of commons studies and natural resource management.
The authors are an interdisciplinary group of researchers from human geography, history, political science and social anthropology', focusing on five alpine regions and their commoners’ organisations in the German- (Uri, Grisons, Obwalden), French- (Valais) and Italian- (Ticino) speaking areas of Switzerland. They have gathered data regarding the robustness, change and innovations of commons institutions. The main focus is the local emic perception of common property, the perception of structural changes and how institutions have been reproduced, adapted and transformed.
The edited volume further highlights how institutional changes in the management of the agricultural and forestry commons at the local level are embedded in the public policies of the respective cantons (provinces) and the state. It shows the very different paths that local collective organisations and their members have followed in order to try to cope with the loss of value of the commons and the increased workload required for maintaining common property management. On the one hand, the authors argue that without public financial support from the state via subsidies, the communal management of the common property of pastures and forests would no longer be possible. This would also mean the loss of cultural landscape ecosystems in mountain areas that are key to providing for ecological and related services (biodiversity, protection against natural hazards, water maintenance, landscape quality and food security'). On the other hand, the presented chapters suggest that subsidies
Figure 1.1 Overview: SCALES-Project Study Regions. Source: Map design and compilation by Sarah Baumgartner, University of Beni; hillshade: © swisstopo; geodata source: see maps of the project study regions.
are not an easy fix, as commoners are still grappling with market pressure, generational gaps, high workload and the lowered bargaining power of CPR users within corporations and externally (on the level of municipalities, cantons and the state). This contributes to increasing the costs and decreasing the power of the commoners.
The case studies show how the various common property organisations cope differently with these challenges, and the way they are innovative or fragile, vulnerable or resilient to these changes. It also shows how different local contexts, even on a microscale, matter, and the diversity of the responses and adaptation strategies, as well as innovations. It becomes evident that an analysis also needs to refer to discussions about the work of Ostrom, and that - although recognising its great merit — there is a need to critically contextualise her work and set it in a wider context, which is the underlying basis of this research.
1.2. Ostrom, the ‘Swiss commons lab’ and critical theoretical reflections beyond
In studies of the commons, we have been trapped in attempts to (over)simplify complex political, social, economic and ecological realities since the polemic text of Garrett Hardin (1968), and paradoxically also since the empirically and comparatively grounded work of Elinor Ostrom (1990). Hardin’s view of environmental issues and population growth with its symbol of pasture being overused as a result of open access — which he mislabelled as the commons — and its huge uptake, is a path-dependent legacy in the debate. Interestingly, the academic impact of the paper was not a discussion of ‘unlimited’ population growth, as intended by the author, but the sustainable use of CPRs. The key issue here is that both the problem statement and the remedies were based on simplistic modelling: one-size-fits-all arguments lead thousands of scholars and policymakers, as well as economists, to find legitimacy in relatively new forms of institutions for the governance of resources — state and private property. The widespread but unproved narrative of the overused common pasture and the simple solution to fix this simple problem did work well, despite any empirical evidence. The imagination on which it was based was so powerful that no one could escape its simplified structure, and it became the symbol of the mechanic truth of overexploitation.
Second, this legacy was — paradoxically — taken over by Ostrom, although she wanted to do the opposite, especially regarding the issue of simplistic views. Her take was to reject the panaceas implying either state or private property as solutions for all problems regarding the degradation of natural resources. Following the order of rational choice approaches (game theory), methodological individualism and frameworks of collective action, she needed to deal with the path-dependent request for simplicity. This binary thinking of simplicity vs. complexity and the listing of one, two, three or more solutions as a counter-argument to Hardin’s oversimplifications did work to a certain extent.
It gave the illusion of a large heterogeneous data set provided in an easily accessible form to create outcomes that were also simple. The Swiss case in particular was a convenient narrative (Netting’s description of Torbel as a key model, see the prologue by Jon Mathieu in this volume) showing robustness, as if it were fallen from the sky of collective action. It offered the relief of proof — and no one would question the Swiss about their seriousness in institution building - that collective action can work and that this does — like an invisible hand - lead to good outcomes for all. Herein lies the legacy of the simplicity of Hardin’s work for Ostrom: one of the major problems here is that history in this sense is presented like an instant vacuum: it just happened and is also frozen as the platform for the future. No one really deals with the debates regarding the power relations and negotiation processes leading to the development of common property institutions and the issue of “Who is in and who is out?” of common property. This inclusion-and-exclusion aspect shown by the empirical cases of CPR management, which Ostrom used to develop her design principles, resemble so-called ‘club goods’ with the mentioned exclusion rules for CPRs. Nevertheless, Ostrom’s great achievement was to show that the collective ownership of resources can be sustainable, but it is the neglect of historically related power issues that is the pertinent failure, leading to the problematic legacy of simplicity.
We thus need to go not just beyond panaceas, but specifically beyond the panacea of collective action, and analyse what we have at hand regarding the asymmetric bargaining power of actors in a series of what Ostrom rightfully called action arenas (Ostrom 2005). But again, there are more variables affecting these action arenas than she proposed, including, for instance, the path-dependent developments of local and immigrating people in a specific topography, the power forces that shape commodification processes in a specific context, and the local and external actors, who again have different bargaining power. As our comparative research on Swiss commoners’ organisations shows, it is the history of the emerging commons and conflicts that triggered the formation and adaptation of common property institutions, and not just collective actions. We argue that what is needed is a detailed historic ethnography of the commons in a specific context, and then, as a next step, a comparative approach that includes power relations within commoners’ organisations and their power relationships with non-commoners, the market and the state. Questions need to be asked such as: did elites and market conditions exist before what we call the structural adjustments following industrialisation? How did they shape the structure of commoners’ organisations? We also argue that the way Ostrom was trying to leave the simplicity legacy with her design principles, and also later on with the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework (Ostrom 2005), did not really help to further commons studies. It did not help us to understand the way local actors react to internal and external changes, and how this furthermore shaped the future of the governance of these resources. We need studies that tell the story of social interactions and negotiation processes in the sense of looking at power relations under conditions of change. This is important in order to understand the balancing act of governing the commons and who values what in which context, how this valuation needs to be negotiated (who has what power to do so) and how the subsequent selection process of institutions, their shaping and the production of legitimacy for the final choice, is determined, and by whom, and on which narratives and discourses it is based.