Why Honeycomb Commons?


CSIRO ScienceImage 7113 Honey bee comb showing cells

Last night I shared a campfire with a Floridian, an Israeli, and a Frenchman, all of whom have traveled and now live in other parts of the world, and the thought occurred to me: I could pick no more an exciting time in all of human history to be alive than right now, in this moment. In this globalized, interconnected world, we have never had more possibilities available to us and yet, I believe, our problems have never been more complex. It is this tension that I hope to enter into with this blog and organization, with the motivation that is encapsulated in the following question: How can we move into the future as a society globally (but especially locally) with both an awareness of our mistakes and fallibility as a human species and a sense of collective optimism about another world that is possible?

But what makes today’s problems so complex?

The Tragedy

Many who have interests in economics or environmental issues will have heard of Garret Hardin’s, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  In development, it is a powerful perspective both metaphorically and practically.  For those who are familiar with this concept, feel free to skip to the next section.  For those who are not, I will explain it briefly, with my own slight tweaks:

Imagine a small village centered around an open pasture.  This pasture is shared in common between all of the members of the village, who are free to graze their animals upon it as they please.  Initially, this is a great benefit to all; each person has a few sheep or goats or cattle and has the opportunity to feed their animals while sharing the upkeep of the land with their neighbors. However, as economic theory goes, we as humans are not content with just a little of a good thing. Because the costs of each additional animal are dispersed among all members of the community, everyone has an incentive to increase their herd.  Over time, incentives turn to action and herds do grow, eventually to the point that the animals are eating faster than the pasture can regenerate itself.  With now an abundance of mouths to feed and an ever-decreasing supply of food, chaos ensues: the stock of fresh grass decreases rapidly, animals die, and mistrust or even violence abounds among the community members. Everyone is left off worse than they began. Herein lies the tragedy of the commons, that in the face of an unregulated shared resource, humans are unable to restrain their own selfish desires indefinitely and so the commons is doomed.

The Implications

This is not just a cute pastoral example, commons are everywhere in our lives.  Any natural resource was at one point a commons, and many still are.  Ocean fish stocks, national forest lands, and even access to clean air (global warming anyone?) are commons that remain mostly unregulated today.  In our cities, basic amenities like roads, sidewalks, parks, and central plazas function largely as a commons as well.  And while many of these things listed are not true commons, as they have been privatized or publicly-owned in some way, commons exist outside of natural or public resources as well.  One could describe internet message boards, group dinners, or social events as a sort of commons.  In each situation, a conversation, meal, or social environment is produced and held in common by all involved.  An excessive helping of potatoes, a snide remark, or a party-foul can pollute the common good for everyone else, and if many people do these things the whole entity will become depleted. And so, whether we are aware of them or not, commons are everywhere in our lives, and our decisions to nurture or abuse them impact the lives of everyone with whom we share them.  In today’s world the stakes of these minute decisions are higher than they ever have been before.  We are more populous, more powerful, more connected, and more impactful than we’ve ever been before, which makes commons problems like global warming or wars driven by natural resources more dangerous than any problems we’ve ever seen in human history.

So what can we do?

The Solutions

The primary two solutions for commons problems are privatization and authoritarian (government) control.  These two options can be very effective and even necessary in some cases, but Honeycomb Commons is founded on the principle that neither is the theoretically ideal response to a commons problem.  The first reason for this is that they have built in inefficiencies: rules require some type of enforcement for compliance.  For example, if we privatized a forest, dividing it into parcels, we would also have to build fences along each property line to delineate the parcels.  Not only would these fences be costly to build, they would also destroy the continuity of the forest itself, disrupting animal habitat and decreasing the worth of the forest as a whole.  If we go the route of authoritarian control, letting the government control the forest, we run into a different set of inefficiencies. To avoid a commons problem, the government must regulate the forest in some way, and whether they choose to enforce hunting quotas, access permits, or fines for overuse they must spend resources to enforce these regulations and risk compromising the easy access to the forest that everyone formerly enjoyed. The second reason these options are not ideal is that they trade the mutuality that comes from relationships for the separation and formality that comes with fences and regulations.  I recognize that this is a complicated topic, and I will address it more in the future, but no matter how much one might want to dismiss the value of relationships, there is no denying that humans are social beings.

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” -Acts 2:44-45

The Honeycomb Commons

Fortunately, there is a third way. It is common cooperation, and honey bees are a perfect example of it. Honey bees are incredibly social, efficient, and interdependent insects, relying completely on each other for every aspect of survival.  Workers build a comb together, a design which reflects both maximizing resources and cooperative effort; they rely on the combined effort of workers, drones, and a queen to lay eggs and bring them to maturity; they work in groups to find food; and they even rely on bees from other colonies to mate.  Finally, perhaps the best example of honeybees being greater than the sum of their parts is their tactic for winter survival.  From wikipedia:

The worker bees huddle around the queen bee at the center of the cluster, shivering to keep the center between 27 °C (81 °F) at the start of winter and 34 °C (93 °F) once the queen resumes laying. The worker bees rotate through the cluster from the outside to the inside so that no bee gets too cold.

It is my belief that in the same way bees are most efficient when they work together sharing their skills in mutually beneficial ways, so must humans work together in intelligent ways to solve the complex problems of our day. Issues like global poverty, climate change or depression cannot be solved by putting up fences or enforcing fines; these problems are beyond the control of a single government or the power of privatization.

So Where Does That Put Me?

“Look,” you might say, “This is all well and good, but it’s also a pipe-dream.”  Absolutely.  We cannot flip a switch and have everyone suddenly get along and love each other. To put that forward as a solution would be utter foolishness. But that’s exactly why this discussion is so important. The beauty of common cooperation as a third solution to the commons problem is that it’s not mutually exclusive from the other two options. Property-holding residents can still tear down their fences and share a commons without removing ownership, and national parks visitors can still be respectful of the ground they tread upon. Even in the case of the honey bees, the queen may be said to be an authoritarian dictator (though it would be stretching), but it is not because of her leadership but rather the cooperative environment of the hive that the colony succeeds. In such a way, common cooperation can often ease the inefficiencies that are caused by privatization or governance without changing any rules. In our own political system, this approach could be said to be not Republican/private or Democrat/governmental (nor communistic) but rather a-political.

Common cooperation is hard, even impossible, work. It won’t always succeed, but it is the only option for the toughest problems in our world, and the best, if hardest, solution for the simpler problems as well.

So the goal of Honeycomb Commons isn’t to fix the world, because I recognize that I can only play a small part in improving it. To truly fix the world we need the skills and contributions of everyone and, while this is impossible, any step in the right direction is an improvement.  What this looks like in practice at Honeycomb Commons is encouraging action by everyone in their local contexts towards understanding and alleviating the toughest problems in our world. Realistically, these solutions require working within the frameworks of governance and private ownership as well as cooperative action, but I will stand by my assertion that communal solutions should always be the ideal.

The goal of Honeycomb Commons, then, is to apply economic and academic insight towards recognizing the commons problems in our world and, through writing and analysis, affirm the real solutions to those problems that we can collectively be working towards in our lives and communities right now within the constraints that we currently face.

This will never be straightforward. There are no easy solutions to these problems and I certainly don’t have all of the answers myself.  However, I do think there are steps we can take. I do not advocate for anarchy, but I do advocate for social systems which affirm people rather than control them and economies and technologies which are built with a human and local scale in mind. I also believe that we cannot solve all problems by acting like the rational economic man; we are in fact better off collectively and individually when we exhibit generosity and self-restraint.

We may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, but how does a campfire start if a Frenchman, Israeli, Floridian, or Hoosier doesn’t at least attempt to light it?

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