Closed Access

A necessary condition for the management of a commons. With limited numbers of people within its boundaries, the demands made on it, too, are limited, making them realistic and sustainable.

The members of a managed commons must undertake to comply with the rules necessary for its maintenance; it follows that they must exclude others who do not comply with those rules, or whose demands would exceed the limits of what it can supply.

The principle underlying this is known as “subtractivity”, or “rivalness”—the idea that what one person harvests from a resource subtracts from the ability of others to do the same. There is a simple recognition here of the objective reality of the resource: it has its limits, and no amount of technical trickery or emotional pleading can make that fact go away. Recognising subtractivity is a case of growing up—as in realising that the powers of your parents to provide are not unlimited; moving on from the child-think of unqualified confidence that the political economy you live in can provide.C130

And a second principle follows from this. If the resource is limited, then there has to be some way of excluding people who, if their access were unlimited, would destroy it. That is, there has to be a way of defending it, which may be relatively straightforward in the case of, say, farmland, but is harder in the case of a fishery, or a forest, or a river, or a culture, or an atmosphere with a limited ability to absorb waste; it is also harder when the damage caused by exceeding the limits will only become evident in the future, by which time it may be too late to repair.C131

This is an especially difficult problem for a super-scale civic society such as our own. Our size, growth and technical powers insulate us for a time from having to think about the limits to the resources we depend on. There therefore seems to be no need to think about the cost of protecting them. Maybe we can all be free riders, benefiting from assets which we have done nothing to produce or protect: we can affirm a liberal right to be a free rider. It is an attractive, inclusive philosophy. It would be immoral to disagree with it—until, that is, it comes face-to-face with the laws of physics.

For the human societies to which the laws of physics are more immediately evident, closed access is the determining and shaping property of their culture. This does not by any means imply a Scrooge-like hoarding of an underused resource without regard for the needs of other people who could make use of it. Closed access, once established as the enabling condition for the sustainable management of the commons, can provide the foundations for an extensive and rich culture of sharing and generosity: it can be expected to allow access to others for particular purposes, such as harvesting medicinal plants, or hunting a prey across the territory; it is able up to a point to share the proceeds on a regular basis.C132 Sometimes a softening of strict closed access extends to “sleeping territoriality”, in which, say, a Pacific island reserves the right to exclusive access of a fishing-ground, but applies it only at times of scarcity.C133 What we might see as uncaring exclusion is seen by the participants in a closed-access commons as responsibility, as belonging to the land:

Expression of worldview through respect, patience and humility; and people being viewed as a part of nature are common in traditional communities. The Lax’skiik and Gitksan of British Columbia, in general, have a personal and spiritual identification with their territories and resources, which form the basis of their cultural and economic life.C134

But, in order for qualities of sharing and altruism to happen, the responsibility of a particular group, and their ability to sustain the commons and determine access to it, must be unambiguously defined:

. . . the management of common property is impossible unless the land is owned by a well-defined community.C135

The alternative is the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, the destruction of a common resource as individuals make ever-greater demands on it, benefiting from what they can get individually, but not seeing as their problem the damage done by those ever-greater demands to the commons as a whole.

In a society used to cheap travel, and to the idea that destruction—when it comes to boundaries and the rhetoric about “tearing-down barriers”—is a good thing, the idea of closed access at first invites unease; there is a sense both of being locked-in, and of unfairly locking-out. But in fact it works the other way. Almost wherever you go in the market economy, you find yourself in the same place—in the globalised market with its shared banality, its fullness; at the end of every lane is a busy road and a housing estate like the one at the beginning of it.

You cannot get out of a globalised world, because there is no out. Closed access does not mean closed-in, it means the protection of distinctiveness: when you are out, you are somewhere else, in a different in.


Related entries:

Boundaries and Frontiers, Open Access Fallacy, Closed-Loop Systems, Climate Change.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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