The season for trooping off into the forests to pick mushrooms is upon us. And the signs telling people that they will be prosecuted if they do so are even now being nailed up. For there really is a reason that we invented farming, along with that concept of private property, all those millennia ago. That reason being something that Garrett Hardin made rather a fuss of and Elinor Ostrom gained her well deserved Nobel for.
Marxian access to a common resource only works up to a point:
Twenty years ago, no commercial fungi foraging was carried out in Britain. By 2013 it had risen to such a scale that there were 20 successful prosecutions for illegal fungi-picking in Epping Forest alone, with one person being caught with 20 sacks of mushrooms. Those found guilty were fined sums of around £200.
But many foragers insist that their handiwork does no harm. Carried out in a responsible manner, it causes no damage. It is the equivalent of the blackberry gathering that many families enjoy at this time of year, they argue.
But this is rejected by fungi expert Professor Lynne Boddy, of Cardiff University. “People say picking fungi is just like picking blackberries off a bush. But it is not,” she said. “Plants like the blackberry bush evolved to produce fruit that contain their seeds, which birds and animals eat and transmit through their droppings. These berries exist to spread seeds.”
By contrast, most fungi transmit their spores in the wind.
Hardin made the more basic point - as demand rises on such a common, open, resource we end up with a problem. With no limitation upon who may take what or how much the resource will be exploited beyond its capacity to regenerate.
Take, for example, fisheries. When technology is simply a line and a hook, then all who wish can fish the seas. When technology is vast nets which scoop up everything then some limitations must be placed upon extraction. The economic imperative for each individual player is to go get some while there is some left. This leaves none to regenerate for the next season.
It doesn't matter what the resource is. When demand is low then that Marxist, open for all to fill their boots, access is just fine. When demand starts to meet the limits of what the resource can provide then some form of regulation is necessary. Hardin tells us that we must either have private property or government regulation - what he called capitalist or socialist methods of resource management.
Either works, dependent upon the specific resource we need to manage.
Ostrom proved that a third possibility exists- communal management. Voluntary cooperation that is - and it does work, up to a certain size. When the group doing the managing, and self-limiting extraction, rises above a couple of thousand people then that system to breaks down. The group is too large to be self-regulating and we are back in the economics of the hunter gatherer and the stripping of the resource before someone else comes along.
Going off foraging is fun - the mushroom hunt is a central part of the folk and family experience in many parts of central Europe, just as the blackberry thing is in rural England. But all depends upon the volume of people descending to do it and the volume they wish to take when they do.
There really is a reason we invented this exclusionary clause in private property and farming. Simply because there's too many of us to be able to maintain that open access to that common resource. If we do try to maintain that Marxist access then the resource will disappear. Just as the cod did from the Grand Banks.