POSTED: August 2, 2017

Commons, capabilities and collective action. A response to Ingrid Robeyns

Ingrid Robeyns’ essay on capabilities makes a valuable contribution to the discussion of the ethics of sustainable prosperity. I want to comment particularly on what she says about the boundary of the public and the private, global commons, and collective action.

Robeyns extends the liberal ‘harm’ principle, that “our liberties may be restricted only when we cause harm to others”, beyond its usual application to the protection of individual private property. She argues that “our lifestyles are and should be a matter of collective concern”. In liberal democracies, “we regard a family’s investment in solar panels on the roof of their house as a private decision, not a decision that affects all of us”. However, if climate change is seen as a phenomenon affecting a global commons, human activities that might help mitigate climate change, such as the decision to install solar panels on a roof, are of public, not just private concern.

Bringing something from the private to the public domain raises questions about privacy. Robeyns gives the example of installing solar panels as a matter of collective rather than individual concern, but if we take this logic a little further, when and how much we use energy is also a matter of public concern, as this also affects the amount of GHG emissions from the energy system. However, this begins to touch on that which is intimate and personal – when and how often we wash our bodies and clothes, how much we watch TV, how many times a day we boil the kettle. Whilst it is important to protect commons, privacy is also of value. Privacy is the right for certain activities and decisions to be the concern of the individual, rather than the concern of others, and the public domain is that which is common, and where our actions impact others. For Solove (2002), privacy gives us protection from being seen, and from being interfered with. It protects intimacy, trust, freedom, autonomy, reputation.

Robeyns frames her argument in terms of global commons, using climate change as an example. She links this to an ethical position, that “there is no clear reason why anyone should be entitled to a larger share of natural resources than anyone else”. However, this notion of global commons, although it reminds us of the global dimensions of inequality, is abstract. It is a long way from Roger Scruton’s human scale concept of love of place as a central element of sustainable culture. Elinor Ostrom, the great theorist of the commons, considers that we need to work on multiple scales in order to effectively address climate change, by aligning local incentives with the actions needed to protect the global commons (Ostrom, 2010). Air quality, landscape and the local economy are all local commons that relate to the way we use and produce energy, and these local matters are easier for people to connect with and feel they have agency in relation to.

This leads to the third point I would like to discuss – the nature of collective action. Robeyns suggests that this could be a key part of the solution to making our use of the world’s resources more equitable. The literature on commons (see for example Ostrom, 1990) is a rich source of thinking about collective action, which draws on field observation of current commons management practices in traditional fisheries, forest, pasture and irrigation systems; research on historical collective action institutions such as guilds; and game theoretical experiments on social dilemmas; and theorising management of modern urban commons such as community gardens and energy co-operatives. Good communication, trust, and shared dependence on a resource and each other are important factors for successful collective action. In the long term, accountability and aligning individual and collective interests through institutional rules is also important.

Robeyns’ essay opens an interesting space for reconsidering what should be of public and of private concern. She suggests collective action as part of the solution. This is something that can be effective if it can take place at multiple scales, including the local, and if it can nurture the love of place suggested by Scruton as well as a sense of global responsibility and sharing.


Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, E. (2010). A Multi-Scale Approach to Coping with Climate Change and Other Collective Action problems. Solutions, 1(2), 27–36. Retrieved from

Solove, D. J. (2002). Conceptualizing privacy. California Law Review, 90(4), 1087–1155.

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