The Commons in History

From History for a Sustainable Future

The Commons in History

Culture, Conflict, and Ecology

By Derek Wall

An argument that the commons is neither tragedy nor paradise but can be a way to understand environmental sustainability.





An argument that the commons is neither tragedy nor paradise but can be a way to understand environmental sustainability.

The history of the commons—jointly owned land or other resources such as fisheries or forests set aside for public use—provides a useful context for current debates over sustainability and how we can act as “good ancestors.” In this book, Derek Wall considers the commons from antiquity to the present day, as an idea, an ecological space, an economic abstraction, and a management practice. He argues that the commons should be viewed neither as a “tragedy” of mismanagement (as the biologist Garrett Hardin wrote in 1968) nor as a panacea for solving environmental problems. Instead, Walls sees the commons as a particular form of property ownership, arguing that property rights are essential to understanding sustainability. How we use the land and its resources offers insights into how we value the environment.

After defining the commons and describing the arguments of Hardin's influential article and Elinor Ostrom's more recent work on the commons, Wall offers historical case studies from the United States, England, India, and Mongolia. He examines the power of cultural norms to maintain the commons; political conflicts over the commons; and how commons have protected, or failed to protect ecosystems. Combining intellectual and material histories with an eye on contemporary debates, Wall offers an applied history that will interest academics, activists, and policy makers.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262027212 184 pp. | 5.375 in x 8 in


$20.00 X ISBN: 9780262534703 184 pp. | 5.375 in x 8 in


  • This is a terrific book. The first book in MIT Press's History for a Sustainable Future Series and written by English Green Party politician Derek Wall, the Commons in History is aimed less at scholars, I expect, than at a general audience of people who want to change the world by embracing common and collective forms of property.

    Environmental History


  • The major contests of our times—intellectually, materially, politically, economically, ecologically—are the new enclosures of the commons. Commons are being privatized and turned into commodities. Biodiversity and traditional knowledge are being enclosed through patents, water commons are being enclosed through privatization, ecosystem functions are being enclosed through financialization. Recovery of the commons is at the heart of creation of earth democracy and the creation of living economies in times of economic collapse. Sustainability and survival rest on the human capacity to defend and reclaim the commons. Derek Wall's The Commons in History is an important contribution to the recovery of the commons and the creation of the future based on sustainability and justice.

    Vandana Shiva

    author of Earth Democracy and coauthor of The Enclosure and Recovery of the Commons

  • The commons paradigm challenges economic orthodoxies while traversing diverse cultures and disciplines. No wonder it is so frequently misunderstood! Derek Wall's richly layered history of the commons is a welcome antidote. It provides a fresh, accessible synthesis that is useful to activists and academics alike.

    David Bollier

    author of Think Like a Commoner and cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group

  • In The Commons in History, Derek Wall creatively investigates the commons as a historical place, a theoretical concept, and a practical tool for resource management. By deploying history, Wall deftly grounds the commons in concrete ways, a signal contribution for a topic too often considered ahistorically. As such, readers in multiple fields with myriad interests will be forced to reconsider how the commons might contribute to sustainable practices and will need to reckon with history's lessons before moving forward.

    Adam M. Sowards

    Associate Professor of History, University of Idaho