Commons and Environmental Regulation in History: The Water Commons Beyond Property and Sovereignty

Alice Ingold


Do commons outline a different way of considering historical forms of environmental regulation? Might they represent a sort of alternative, apart from the usual model of environmental law which rests on public authorities and forms of restrictions of private rights? In order to grasp the complex relationship between environmental law and history, it is essential to pay attention to the state’s radical transformation in the nineteenth century, especially the separation (and separate definition) of administration and the judiciary. This article aims to historicize the commons, but also the state in order to escape the projected shadow of public administration in considering environmental regulation. It looks into the commons’ ambiguous relations with history. A first point is to critically reconsider the opposition between commons and enclosure, inherited from Hardin’s thesis. A second point consists in deconstructing mythical accounts of stateless commons. This is done by relying on water commons — which are also a key example in Ostrom’s theory. Early histories of water commons by commoners provided the opportunity for a first version of commons’ history without the state. This ‘discovery’ of the water commons presented them as a pertinent response to the aporia of the private property system, but also to the dangers of keeping resources available to the administrative state, which appeared ill-suited to managing scarce natural resources. This positive development translated into a series of fascinating inquiries, undertaken from the 1800s to the 1880s in several places across Europe. They gave rise to the very first ethnogeographic descriptions of the commons’ functioning. It was in the context of very acute conflicts over access to the resource that this use of history became enshrined. The historical longevity of these irrigators’ communities was highlighted in order to defend their historical and customary rights against the administrative state’s will to regulate all water courses, which was more favorable to new users in water sharing. The resource’s ecological limit thus served to set boundaries to the administration’s intervention. Scarcity was a way to conceive of the resource as unavailable both for property and for state sovereignty. Protecting environmental resources through the courts was a way of conceiving a regulation based on the resource’s specific status, rather than on the will of subjects — whether private, collective or public.

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