Comparisons of historical Dutch commons inform about the long-term dynamics of social-ecological systems

Anders Forsman, Tine De Moor, René van Weeren, Mike Farjam, Molood Ale Ebrahim Dehkordi, Amineh Ghorbani, Giangiacomo Bravo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Human societies and natural ecosystems are under threat by growing populations, overexploitation of natural resources and climate change. This calls for more sustainable utilization of resources based on past experiences and insights from many different disciplines. Interdisciplinary approaches to studies of historical commons have potential to identify drivers of change and keys to success in the past, and offer advice about the management and use of shared resources in contemporary and future systems. We address these issues by applying an ecological perspective to historical data on social-ecological systems. We perform comparisons and time series analyses for nine successful Dutch commons for which high-resolution data on the regulatory activities and use of shared resources is available for on average 380 years (range 236 to 568) during the period 1300 to 1972. Within commons, institutional developments were oscillating, with periods of intense regulatory activity being separated by periods of low activity, and with the dynamics of regulations being largely independent across commons. Ecological theory posits that species that occupy similar niches should show correlated responses to environmental challenges; however, commons using more similar resources did not have more parallel or similar institutional developments. One notable exception was that sanctioning was more frequent in commons that directed more regulatory activities towards non-renewable subsoil resources, whereas there was no association between sanctioning and the use of renewable resources. This might indicate that commoners were aware of potential resource depletion and attempted to influence freeriding by actively trying to solve the underlying social dilemmas. Sanctioning regulations were more frequent during the first than during the second part of a common’s life, indicating that while sanctioning might have been important for the establishment of commons it was not key to the long-term persistence of historical commons.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e0256803
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Aug 27

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Other Social Sciences
  • Earth and Related Environmental Sciences


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