The University of Massachusetts Amherst

SPP Faculty, Students Organize International World Commons Week

Still from World Commons Week video

The UMass Amherst School of Public Policy was a sponsor of the recent international World Commons Week, a series of conferences, webinars, and other events focused on the concept of “the commons,” defined as natural, cultural, or knowledge resources shared by a community. World Commons Week was an event of the International Association for the Study of the Commons, an organization of academics, policymakers, and practitioners focused on governance of shared resources.

World Commons Week kicked off with a conference at Georgetown University and continued with dozens of locally organized events—such as teach-ins, talks, and workshops—on five continents, as well as a twenty-four-hour series of webinars led by speakers from across the globe.

World Commons Week marked the fiftieth anniversary of ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin’s famous article in the journal Science, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he argued that natural resources—pastures, water, forests, fisheries—that are shared in common will undoubtedly be overused and ultimately destroyed. “From a policy perspective, Hardin argued that in order to preserve these resources, we need to either privatize them or make them government managed,” said Professor Charlie Schweik of the School of Public Policy and the Department of Environmental Conservation, a WCW organizer. “While tragedy indeed occurs—think of what is happening to our climate, or plastic in oceans—Hardin failed to realize that people, collectively, can develop their own governance arrangements for managing resources.

“Hardin’s article spawned fifty years of scholarly research and practice pushing back on his policy prescriptions and investigating the work that communities put in place, all over the world, to govern and manage shared resources,” Schweik continued. “World Commons Week was the first online global collective effort to celebrate that research and draw attention to the wonderful research and practice happening in thematic commons areas, such as empirical studies on forests, fisheries, water, climate, or urban commons, as well as ‘new commons’ such as information shared on the Internet.”

Schweik organized both the local events and the webinars, with assistance from School of Public Policy graduate students Ainsley Brosnan-Smith, Dillon Coutinho, and Cobi Frongillo and Department of Environmental Conservation student Bia Dias. The students helped train participants on the technologies and moderate the webinars during the twenty-four-hour event. “This team of very capable students not only ran many of the webinars, they were willing to do the late-night shift, when the webinars were in the Indian and Asian noon-hour time zones,” Schweik said. “I won’t lie—it was grueling. But thanks to the SPP students we pulled it off.” Smith College student Maxine Gunther-Segal also helped Schweik with developing the event website and managing the local events.

The webinars looked at topics ranging from the commons as a mean of democratic governance to its role in addressing climate change. Professor Brenda Bushouse of the School of Public Policy and the Department of Political Science co-led a webinar on “Connecting the Commons to Voluntary Action and Nonprofit Research.” The local events included, in Amherst, a roundtable discussion on the notion of creating a “Chamber of Commoning” in the Pioneer Valley, with Schweik, David Bollier of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, and Marilyn Billings, scholarly communication and special initiatives librarian at the UMass Libraries.

The success of the event has organizers already looking ahead to a second World Commons Week in 2019, possibly including an online conference component. “I can’t think of another topic that deserves to have an annual effort to encourage global collective action than the study and practice of commons-related issues,” Schweik said. “We need to embrace and encourage global dialogue on what works and what doesn’t and to explore alternative ways to govern and sustain our shared resources.”

UMass Amherst and the university’s School of Earth and Sustainability were also sponsors of World Commons Week.

Watch a short video on the commons, culled from World Commons Week webinars, created by student organizers Brosnan-Smith, Frongillo, and Gunther-Segal.

About the School of Public Policy: Established in 2016, the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy is a hub for research and teaching, preparing students for leadership in public service. The program’s focuses include social change and public policy related to science and technology.

— Maureen Turner, communications manager, School of Public Policy





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