Chris Maser

A discussion of governing the commons has a minimum of four interactive components:  (1) recognizing perception as truth, (2) the degree to which a commons is isolated, (3) the changing biophysical environment, and (4) the need for adaptive principles of governance.


Perhaps the major challenge to governing the commons wisely and unselfishly for all generations lies in fact that every person sees and understands the world differently because each person is imbued with a unique story based on individual circumstances. One's interpretation of that story is informed by personal perception—and that perception is unarguably one's sense of the truth. This being the case, the notion of right versus wrong can exist only metaphorically because the reality of everyone's perception is right, right, and different.

The Indian spiritual leader, Mahatma Gandhi, said that, "A votary of truth [a person fervently devoted to truth] is often obliged to grope in the dark." Our challenge therefore lies in our blind spots, not in our vision. Unlike correcting a blind spot in the rear view of an automobile, which can be rectified simply by adding a different kind or a supplemental mirror, we cannot correct our personal blind spots so easily. To correct them, we must grow in our perception and in our acceptance of what is. "Perceive" is from the Latin percipere, which means "to seize the whole of something, to see all the way through." Perception, therefore, is the act of seeing in the mind, of understanding.

Although our perceptions grow and change as we mature, not everyone's perceptions mature at the same rate, which accounts for the widely differing degrees of consciousness with respect to cause-and-effect relationships. This disparity is neither good nor bad; it simply means that each of us have different gifts to give at different times in our lives as we see different versions of the truth.

Truth is absolute, whereas perceptions of truth are relative. Therefore, facts, which are perceptions of truth, are relative. Consider the following statement:  The world functions perfectly; our perception of how the world functions is imperfect. What does that mean? We don't know because our perception is constantly changing as we increase the scope of our knowledge.

Trying to understand this concept is the essence of science. Yet even having worked as a scientist for 40 years or more, I would not know a "scientific truth" derived from testing a hypothesis if I stepped on one, because all science can do is disprove something. A scientific fact is therefore a fact only by consensus of the scientists, which means that a scientific fact or truth is only an approximation of what is. It represents our best understanding of reality at this moment and is constantly subject to change as we learn.

Perception is learning, because cause and effect are always connected. Gandhi had reached this conclusion when he said, "My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements, but to be consistent with the truth." He was consistent in his changing perceptions of what the truth was at different stages in his life. He grew from "truth" to "truth" as his vision cleared and he could see greater and greater vistas. So he said that if one found an "inconsistency" between any two things he wrote, the person "would do well to choose the latter of the two on the same subject."

As I have grown, I am increasingly struck by the way my perception of what is continues to unfold, like a many-petalled flower. As each petal matures, I see the world anew, and thus perceive it differently. My reality is therefore different.

Truth is perfect understanding of that which is. It is neither the spoken word nor the written word, although these may have a ring of truth to them. Truth cannot be defined; it can only be experienced and lived.

With respect to governing the commons, the flawed assumption made during policy debates is that everyone involved has a similar level of understanding of the problem being discussed. In reality, however, vast differences in knowledge and understanding underpin the resource problems confronting the commons because those in charge are either not understood the issue or ignored it through "informed denial." When religious, political, or other special-interest ideologies are added to the milieu, uncertainty and contestation over potential solutions is a virtual certainty.1

In addition to differences in knowledge, understanding, and ideologies, men and women intuitively perceive their respective worlds differently. Men tend to be relatively direct, linear, quantitative, and short-term oriented in their approach to problems, whereas women are predominantly interrelationship oriented based on a familial sense of multiple generations and thus a greater propensity for simultaneously considering an integrative approach in successive time scales.


In the early days of shared use, governance of a commons was a jointly assumed responsibility of everyone in the hunter-gatherer group who used it. Although most such commons were sustainably used over centuries, that likely began to change with the advent of herding and the beginning of competition for grazing and a more sedentary way of life that led to local increases in human populations. Nevertheless, it took the onset of agriculture to effectively seal the fate of long-term sustainability with respect to Nature's commons. The rapidly increasing numbers of people and domestic animals in the agricultural areas not only incited and fostered growing inter-tribal competition for arable land and water but also the conflicts it engendered. These conflicts grew in scale and intensity as various tribes coalesced into larger and larger societies, which spread across the landscape and conquered smaller, weaker groups of people. What becomes evident from history is that sustainable governance of a commons collapses more often due to unfavorable influence from without than from within. Ancient Greece is a case in point.

Greece, flourishing under wise agricultural use during the beginning of the Iron Age (12th century BCE), had nevertheless greatly altered its landscape, in spite of its apparently sound agricultural ethic. But all the human-caused changes, including deforestation, do not appear to have caused the collapse of the agricultural system. It was sustainable in fact, and it might have continued to be so had not been for the effect of outside influences.

Although the Greeks modified their landscape, making it ecologically fragile, their agricultural system was sustainable as long as there was a full human population to tend the terraced fields. The destruction of their agricultural system was not a consequence of the system itself, but rather of Romans raiding the Greek countryside for slaves that reduced the population of workers and left the vulnerable landscape increasingly untended, thereby allowing the terraces to collapse and the soil to wash into the Aegean Sea.

As long as the Greeks maintained adequate cover crops that functioned to hold in place the soil as the forests had once done, their agricultural system was sustainable. Unfortunately, as Roman slavers continually reduced the Greek's working population, there came a threshold beyond which this labor-intensive agriculture simply could not be maintained, and the system collapsed with the loss of the topsoil. 2

Prior to the advent of Greek agriculture, the land had been forested for millennia, making sustainability a moot point. Sustainability arose as a problem not because of deforestation, but because of the inability of a society debilitated by slaving to continue performing the function of the forest, namely soil conservation.

This same kind of dynamic is occurring today in many other parts of the world, but for another reason. While working in Peninsular Malaysia, I observed a number of abandoned rice paddies, some of which were being reclaimed by young-growth jungle, while others were simply eroding away. When I asked why this was happening, I was told that many of the younger people were migrating to the cities, such as Kuala Lumpur.

Growing rice without modern machinery is labor intensive. As long as there are enough young people in the villages to augment and eventually replace the old people in the labor pool, the rice paddies will be sustainable. But as the young people leave the villages for the cities, they diminish the village labor pool just as surely as the Romans did when they captured and removed Greek peasants as slaves. When a village labor pool falls below a certain threshold minimum, the rice paddies are no longer sustainable as part of the village commons.


Today every aspect of the commons is increasingly under attack from the global-scale growth in the human population; rampant, wasteful use of resources in the industrialized countries; competition in the global-market money chase, which fosters deployment of advanced technologies for resources exploitation worldwide; the virtually unlimited human access to the once-isolated commons of indigenous peoples, as well as compounding effects of polluting the global ecosystem.3

We humans have jointly inherited the commons, which is more basic to our lives and well-being than either the market or the state. We are "temporary possessors and life renters," wrote British economist and philosopher Edmund Burke, and we "should not think it amongst [our] rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance."4

Despite the wisdom of Burke's admonishment, the commons is today almost everywhere under assault, abuse, and degradation in the name of economic development as corporations are increasingly hijacking (euphemistically termed "privatizing") both Nature's services and every creature's birthright to those services. Pollution despoils the air, defiles the soil, and poisons the water. Noise has routed silence from its most protected sanctuaries. City light hides the stars by night. Urban sprawl, the disintegration of community, and the attempts to control, engineer, and patent the very substance of life itself are all part or the economic raid on the commons for private monetary gain. "Corporations," says author David Korten, "are pushing hard to establish property rights over ever more of the commons for their own exclusive ends, often claiming the right to pollute or destroy the regenerative systems of the Earth for quick gain, shrinking the resource base available for ordinary people to use in their pursuit of livelihoods, and limiting the prospects of future generations."5

This is not to say that all corporations are bad or that the market is inept. It is to say that both corporations and the market must have boundaries to keep them within the realm of human competence and moral limits. "The market economy is not everything," asserted conservative economist Wilhelm Ropke in the 1950s. "The supporters of the market economy do it the worst service by not observing its limits."6 And it's by ignoring the moral limits of the market economy that we, the adults of the world, create poverty and increasingly mortgage all the generations of the future—beginning with our own children and grandchildren.

As long as humanity is motivated by fear, of which "greed" is a part, every market economy will be destructive. Although money, which is seen as personal security, is the true object of competition, the ultimate battlefield is the global environment—the commons. The only possible solution for human survival with any sense of dignity and well-being is a conscious reduction of and cap on the human population. Even then, the market economy would remain destructive, but the biophysical carrying capacity for human life would be in better balance with the long-term availability of natural resources.


Although there is increasing emphasis on the significance of mutual trusteeship of our natural resources, generalized social bounds—while essential—are not enough to shift the entrenched patterns of interactions toward new, adaptive forms of cooperative caretaking and governance of a commons in response to ongoing environmental change. In fact, the more complex a commons is biophysically and the more diverse the segment of humanity that uses it, the more contentious the interactions are likely to be. Under such circumstances, sound, often-strict, local enforcement of predetermined social behavior is necessary to protect and maintain the potential biophysical productivity of the commons.7

On the other hand, I have found that the level of consciousness that causes and problem in the first place is not the same level that can fix it. For this reason, I have over the years facilitated the transformative resolution to environmental conflicts, which raises the level of the participants' consciousness of cause and effect with respect to their decisions and actions. The outcome of this transformative conflict resolution is a shared vision based on the heightened level of awareness whereby the participants negotiate a new standard of behavior—inevitably a personal constraint of some kind—in order to achieve a greater collective freedom with respect to a future condition.8

As environmental problems become more complex, however, it is good to identify a complement of guiding principles that touch the heart and soul of people even as they protect the productive capacity of the commons for all generations—present and future. Whereas an interdisciplinary group of 16 people engaged in a discussion that promulgated six principles for the sustainable governance of the oceans as a global commons, it is with humility that I add the seventh:  (1) responsibility, (2) matching scales, (3) precaution, (4) adaptive caretaking, (5) full-cost allocation, (6) participation, and (7) shared leadership. As the authors state it, "The [seven] Principles together form an indivisible collection of basic guidelines governing the use of all environmental resources, including, but not limited to, marine and coastal resources."9

I have rewritten the principles in order to engage them as fully as possible in the care we take of all aspects of the global commons:

Principle 1:  Responsibility. Access to environmental resources carries with it attendant responsibilities to use them in a manner that is ecologically effective, economically sensitive, and socially just to ensue the continued productive capacity of the commons in question. Individual and corporate responsibilities and incentives must be aligned with one another and with the broad goals of social-environmental sustainability.

Principle 2:  Matching Scales. Ecological problems are rarely confined to a single scale in time or space. Therefore, decision concerning environmental resources must:  (i) be assigned to institutional levels that maximize their ecological contribution, (ii) ensure the flow of ecological information among all appropriate institutional levels, (iii) be inclusive and take all concerned citizen into account, and (iv) internalize costs and benefits. Appropriate scales of governance are those with the most relevant information, can respond quickly and effectively, and are able to integrate within and among scales in time and space.

Principle 3:  Precaution. In the face of uncertainty and the irreversibility of environmental impacts, decisions concerning their use must err on the side of caution. The burden of proof is thus shifted to those whose activities could potentially damage the environment.

Principle 4:  Adaptive Caretaking. Given that some level of irreversibility always exists in caring for environmental resources, decision-makers must continuously gather and integrate appropriate—monitoring—ecological, social, and economic information with the goal of adaptive improvement.

Principle 5:  Full-Cost Allocation. All of the internal and external costs and benefits of alternative decisions concerning the use of environmental resources, including social and ecological, are to be identified and allocated. For the sake of transparency, education, and social-environmental sustainability, markets must continually be adjusted to openly reflect full costs. As history demonstrates over and over, true economic transparency is the road to social justice within and among generations.

Principle 6:  Participation. All stakeholders must be engaged in the formulation and implementation of decisions concerning environmental resources—which means someone must speak for the children of all generations. Full understanding and participation on the part of affected citizens is necessary for credible, accepted rules that appropriately identify and assign the corresponding responsibilities.

Principle 7:  Shared Leadership. The sustainable governance of the commons will require an ongoing, participatory, and open process involving all the major stakeholder groups—including someone speaking for the children of all generations. It will also require integrated assessment and shared leadership and to accomplish fully adaptive caretaking.

Shared or revolving leadership comes about in two ways:  first, when "subordinates" break custom and become leaders, and second, when someone's particular expertise is needed and they temporarily assume leadership. Revolving leaders are indispensable in our lives because they take charge in varying degrees, as circumstances require.

Such leadership relies on three things:  (1) inclusivity, which presumes that lasting solutions require the participation of all affected parties, including someone speaking for the children of all generations; (2) mutual accountability, which presumes that sustainable solutions depend on all sides taking responsibility for answers (which means mutual blaming is not enough); and (3) cultivating the skills of democracy, which presumes that we are not born knowing how to be effective within a democratic system of government and must be taught the art of participation—from active listening to negotiation and evaluation.10 When, however, we view government as distinct from civil society, we exempt it from practicing inclusive, participatory approaches to interpersonal relationships.11

Revolving leadership is the basis of day-to-day of the participatory democratic process required in all contexts of social-environmental sustainability. Such participation is both one's opportunity and responsibility to be accountable through the example of one's personal behavior, by participating in the democratic process and thereby extending a willingness to accept ownership in the resolution of it society's problems.

Because no one person can be an expert in everything, the person in the official position of overall leadership must have the common sense and good grace to support and follow the lead of a person whose expertise is momentarily in demand. It is difficult for many people to be open enough to recognize what is best in a given circumstance and to step aside when specific leadership—other than theirs—is required.

In the last analysis, leadership must be shared (but neither given away nor sold) because a time will arise when we must count on someone else's special competence. If we think about the people with whom we share the commons, it becomes apparent that we must be able to count on one another if our commons is to meet our needs while protecting our deepest values. By ourselves, we are severely limited, but together we can be something truly awesome.

But, you might say, I'm only one person, what can I do? My actions account for so very little. Because so many people feel this way, it might be instructive to consider snowflakes.

When snowflakes begin falling, those coming down first land on the warm soil and melt, entering the ground without a trace. One after another, they come into view out of the sky, fall past our faces, and land on the ground, only to disappear as rapidly as they appeared—or so it would seem.

But each snowflake does something as it touches the soil. Its coolness dissipates the soil's heat. As flake after snowflake touches the ground and melts, the collective coolness of their beings creates a cumulative effect by which the soil is eventually cooled enough that falling snowflakes melt progressively more slowly until some don't melt at all. Now, snow begins accumulate, gradually at first, until the land is covered in a blanket of white.

Is one snowflake more important than another? Is the one you see sparkling in the sun more important than the one that melted upon landing? Neither is more or less important than the other. Without those that melted and cooled the soil, the ones that ultimately formed the blanket of winter white would not have survived to do so. Therefore, just as every snowflake (individually and as part of the collective) is important to the whole of winter, so is each person (individually and as part of the collective) important to the whole of a commons.

Just as no two snowflakes are exactly alike, no two people are identical. Thus, each individual has a unique gift to offer, a special talent that in the collective of a democratic council is complementary rather than competitive. Each person's belief, being a little different from all the others, helps a democratic council of caretakers to see itself when that person's voice is raised in expressing their particular point of view.12

Although I recognize that flawless, ecologically sound, democratic governance of any aspect of the global commons is a wishful illusion, such as the elimination of air pollution, we come closest to achieving our goals by aiming for the ideal. And if we fall short of achieving the ideal, we will at least have accomplished more than if our aim had been lower.

There is a land in the imagination, however, that some call "Utopia," a land much written about through the centuries as people struggle to find peace and equality in a world that seems designed and governed by conflict. Like the Utopias imagined by philosophers, the Idyllic Isle of my dreams, the possibility I hold fast in my heart, is today still surrounded by a brooding sea of strife and thus difficult to reach, although long ago I touched its shore.

Throughout the years of middle-life, I used to get glimpses of the Idyllic Isle from time to time after strenuous, focused effort. But as I get older, I succeeded more easily in making the journey to that shore of possibility—a land where people choose to love one another; where work is transformed into labors of love that some would call "play;" and where social-environmental problems are untangled with patience, compassion, and ease. Earth, too, could be like this, so the story goes, if only. . . . But here, today, it is one thing to envision a better future, and quite another to pry people loose from their entrenched, habitually negative thinking and drag them, in full resistance, into that better future.

I emphasize negative thinking because Utopias are not imagined perfection, but rather imagined cures for imperfection, and herein lies the problem with most "solutions." Namely, a solution is conjured in an attempt to move away from an unwanted circumstance rather than moving toward a desired outcome. Put another way, instead of moving toward the ideal, most solutions attempt to cure an imperfection by moving away from it, an action that is neither physically nor psychologically possible because we not only become but also create what we focus on—in this case, the imperfection.

Regardless of how it may seem, I am not intimating the kind of Utopia described by Sir Thomas More, that imaginary isle of perfection in human relationships. But, I am suggesting an ideal because an ideal is all that is worth striving for and thus writing about.

To solve our social-environment problems, we must have a destination in the form of an idealized vision toward which to journey. This ideal can then define an agenda resting firmly on the bedrock of a shared vision that incorporates the collective wisdom, personal courage, and political will needed to inspire true social progress. Although this sounds good, where, in a practical sense, do we go from here?

Despite the usual elusiveness of an ideal, we can each begin our personal journey toward wholeness, toward "psychological maturity," which, upon attainment, will allow us to both envision our ideal and work toward it as an unconditional gift of love to bestow on the generations of the future by leaving the world a little better for having been here. To those who doubt this is possible, I offer an admonishment by the aforementioned Edmund Burke:  "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little."13

I know from experience that achieving psychological maturity is no easy task. It requires discipline, self-reflection, a willingness to admit and learn from mistakes, the courage to change with each new insight, and, above all, the courage to purposefully struggle within oneself toward an ideal of being that has as its reward an inner freedom and peace unparalleled in the outer world. "We actually live today in our dreams of yesterday," mused aviator Charles Lindbergh, "and living those dreams, we dream again."14 Thus begins the journey toward the Idyllic Isle.

The extent to which each person achieves psychological maturity is the extent to which society as a whole approaches the shore of the Idyllic Isle—the Isle of Possibility. There is but one time to set sail. And that time is now!15


  1. William M. Adams, Dan Brockington, Jane Dyson, and Bhaskar Vira. Managing Tragedies: Understanding Conflict over Common Pool Resources. Science, 302 (2003):1915-1916.

  2. The preceding discussion of ecosystem fragility, and the example from ancient Greece, is based on:  Fritz M. Heichelheim. The effects of Classical antiquity on the land. Pp. 165-182. In:  W. L. Thomas (Editor). Man's role in changing the face of the Earth. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 1956.

  3. Thomas Dietz, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul C. Stern. The Struggle to Govern the Commons. Science, 302 (2003):1907-1912.

  4. Jonathan Rowe. 2001. The hidden commons. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, Summer (2001):12-17.

  5. David C. Korten. 2001. What to Do When Corporations Rule the World. 2001. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, Summer (2001):148-151.

  6. Jonathan Rowe. 2001. The hidden commons. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, Summer (2001):12-17.

  7. Per Olsson, Carl Folke, and Terry P. Hughes. Navigating the transition to ecosystem-based management of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (2008):9489-9494.

  8. Chris Maser. Resolving Environmental Conflict:  Towards Sustainable Community Development. St. Lucie Press, Delray Beach, FL. (1996) 200 pp.

  9. The foregoing discussion of principles of sustainably governing a commons is based on:  Robert Costanza, Francisco Andrade, Paula Antunes, and others. Principles for Sustainable Governance of the Oceans. Science, 281 (1998):198-199.

  10. The foregoing two paragraphs are based on:  Chris Maser. Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. (1998) 235 pp.

  11. Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Du Bois. A Place for Democracy. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, Winter (1997):37-38.

  12. The foregoing discussion of shared leadership is based on:  Chris Maser. Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. (1998) 235 pp.

  13. Edmund Burke. (accessed on March 23, 2009).

  14. Charles A. Lindbergh. (accessed on March 23, 2009).

  15. The forgoing discussion of utopia is based on:  Chris Maser. Of Ditches And Ponds:  A Journey Through The Metaphors Of Childhood And Maturity. Woven Strings Publishing, Amarillo, TX. (2006) 282 pp. E-Book. 2505KB.

©Chris Maser 2009. All rights reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection