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Commoning in Rural North America: Conflict, conservation,
and collaboration in more-than-human landscapes 

Photo credit: Katie Epstein


Jennie Durant, University of California, Riverside
Katie Epstein, Montana State University
Jeff Vance Martin, University of California, Berkeley

The rural landscapes of North America have long been home to tensions between environmental complexity and dynamism, on the one hand, and hegemonic forms of capitalist private property and state territory on the other. These tensions are amplified in our contemporary context of unprecedented socio-ecological transformation, with climate and land use change resulting in at times intense political polarization surrounding the future of these regions. At the same time, long histories of conflict around lands and resources have also given rise to novel experiments in adaptive, landscape-scale, and collaborative governance around these complex systems (Jones, et al. 2019; Martin, et al. 2019).

Theories related to the commons and, more recently, commoning provide potent analytical frames for patterns and practices of regional environmental governance, including the formation of institutions, norms, and relationships around resource use and access (Ostrom 2015; Bollier 2016). Although a commoning framework is frequently deployed to examine relationships external or oppositional to capitalist economic processes, this moment of unprecedented global socio-ecological change and the need for radical sustainability transitions motivates our interest in highlighting commoning approaches in geographies otherwise overlooked.
This Special Feature will leverage insights on commons and commoning to analyze, assess, and intervene in the more-than-human challenges of environmental governance in rural North America. Our aim is to demonstrate the utility of a commoning frame for explaining collaborative experiments in environmental management, while clarifying how ongoing and emergent socio-environmental processes, relations, and institutions articulate with and in spite of the region’s settler colonial legacies and largely-capitalist contexts (Fortmann 1990; De Angelis 2004). We hope these conversations will illuminate the possibilities and limitations for sustainability transitions that foster thriving and conviviality in times of dramatic social and ecological change.

This Special Feature will explore the following questions:

  • What are the limitations of a private property framework (predicated on settler colonialism and enclosure) for navigating contemporary resource management challenges in rural North America?
  • How do new forms of governance respond to tensions between dynamic natures, static territorial boundings, and North American political-regulatory regimes?
  • How are experiments in collaboration circumscribed by extant logics and concentrations of political, economic, and cultural power?
  • Given the libertarian leanings of many rural American peoples and places, what political and relational alternatives does a commoning framework provide?
  • What can we learn from commoning experiments for making sustainability transitions?
We currently have seven contributing authors and welcome further submission. Authors interested in submitting should send an extended abstract (250-500 words) to Jennie Durant (

Bollier, D. 2016. Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm. The Next System Project.

de Angelis, M. 2004. Separating the Doing and the Deed: Capital and the Continuous Character of Enclosures. Historical Materialism. 12(2): 57-87.

Fortmann, L. 1990. Locality and Custom: Non-Aboriginal Claims to Customary Usufructuary Rights as a Source of Rural Protest. Journal of Rural Studies. 6(2): 195-208.

Jones, K., J. Abrams, R. Travis Belote, B. J. Beltrán, J. Brandt, N. Carter, A. J. Castro, B. C. Chaffin, A. L. Metcalf, G. Roesch-McNally, K. E. Wallen, and M. A. Williamson. 2019. The American West as a social-ecological region: drivers, dynamics and implications for nested social-ecological systems. Environmental research letters: ERL. 14(11): 115008.

Martin, J. V., K. Epstein, N. Bergmann, A. C. Kroepsch, H. Gosnell, and P. Robbins. 2019. Revisiting and revitalizing political ecology in the American West. Geoforum. 107: 227-230.

Ostrom, E. 2015. [1990]. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.

Photo credit: Jeff Vance Martin

Photo credit: Jennie Durant

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