Introduction to The Commons

Ecologies of the sea are quite different than ecologies of the land, as is the policy and regulatory framework, with very different legal rights structures, and very different ecosystem impacts. Therefore it is critical that those working in the marine environment, as harvesters involved in local harvest, those interested in cultivation, education, policy, economy, or ecology emphasize and undertake theoretical understandings of ‘the commons’ and the ‘precautionary principle’.

In doing so, those of us along the coast will stand on common ground from which to negotiate the future of Maine’s seaweed economy and ecology. Commons-based thinking establishes community trust, enabling a more generous collective imaginary.


Commons Systems

Understandings of commons vary; ranging from communal landholdings to open-source knowledge platforms to creative housing arrangements. Something like a quality of relations among people and place, commons systems emerge as means to self-tended governance and use of shared resources. Relational and iterative, they hold negations and fluctuations in a nature-culture continuum. Commons are scaffolded by social infrastructures, some insurgent and subversive, others managerial and tedious.

While the commons can simply be imagined as shared resources, they have also come to represent a conceptual framework for thinking about ideologies, community, sustainability, and governance. Generally, commons frameworks function with minimal dependence on the market or state; for and by commoners. Equitable access to commons implicates shared community value and identity. Generative value creation in the form of knowledge, infrastructure, institutions, wealth, ecological and social resilience.

In robust commons systems, human and non-human flourishing is co-constitutive; we make the world and the world makes us back. Through the seaweed commons praxis, we are keen to think with commons frameworks as we negotiate the ecological and economic shape of seaweed use along Maine’s coast.





Economists of the commons have suggested that what Hardin referred to as the ‘tragedy of the commons’ would be better referred to as a ‘free-for-all’ or ‘open access regime’, in which anyone can take what they want without concern for collective consequences: what David Bollier calls ‘the tragedy of the market.’ Global supply chains for seaweeds /alginates means there is almost limitless demand for Ascophyllum—where there is abundant growth, harvesters do not concern themselves with the actions of others.  

As pressures on the ecosystem are further understood, an adaptation to overharvesting would be greater transparency and coordination between harvesters (who, among them have harvested and where?)  or the emergence of either formal or informal territoriality or sector allocation to ensure that each seaweed ledge is harvested only once during a season. 

Our understanding of the framework of the commons comes from Elinor Ostrom, who first compiled, contextualized, and theorized the notion of “The Commons” from an economic perspective in the 1980s. Her observations across people and place pointed to eight points of reference or design principles for commoning. In other words, the rules and norms required for effective management of collective resources, listed as follows:


Framework for Governing the Commons


  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing the use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers
    from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.


Governing the Coastal Commons in Nova Scotia 



The precautionary principle, proposed as a new guideline in environmental decision making, has four central components: “taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making.”


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