Managing shared resources, addiction, and the best coffee in town: musings at the bus stop

John Powell and Chris Short from the CCRI have travelled to Japan for the 14th Global Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons.

As a colleague of John’s, he and I have a routine that normally occurs at between 10am and 10:20am. Coffee. Not instant, ground ‘proper’ coffee. Making it is something of a mini-ritual. In the hot beverage department, Japan does tea, and it does it well. As for coffee…

Japan is the land of green tea.  Coffee can be found in Tokyo but out here in the rural areas it is a rarity.  For those of us gathering every morning at the Hirano bus stop at the far end of Yamanakako Lake, the coffee machine in the 7-11 is the place to meet.

 It’s only one small machine and it’s slow as it grinds the beans first before dribbling the steaming hot nectar through into the cup, to make the best coffee (perhaps the only coffee) in the whole area.  For a West European coffee addict it’s a great source of pleasure and relief! 

 7-11 is a US chain of small convenience stores that are ubiquitous throughout Japan but this one goes above and beyond the call of duty – it always seems to be open.  We head out of the hotel by 6.40 in the morning, walk down the road with Fuji looming over us, today with  dab of a cotton wool cloud partially obscuring the summit.  We get to the bus stop and head straight into the 7-11.  Inside the shop assistant sells a paper cup for 80 yen and you take it to the machine and put it in, then wait.  It’s important to get there early as up to 40 conference delegates are gathering here to take the bus into the IASC International Commons Conference venues at Jibasanyo, Oshirin or the Citizen’s hall in Fujiyoshida. 

 The cup itself (and by inference the coffee grounds) are clearly market goods, fully excludable and allocation is by price.  But the coffee machine is different – it is a shared resource and like any form of common good needs some form of institutional arrangements to ensure benefits are allocated in a fair and equitable manner.  Time is the constraint as the bus is punctual and waits for no man (or woman). 

 We resort to the standard prior appropriation rule – first in time, first in right – or as the English would understand it – we form a queue.  With such a big crowd and so little time Game Theory might demonstrate that we could possibly optimise benefits through sharing cups of coffee between two or even three people, thus reducing total time required to satisfy all those demanding the dark, black liquid, and ensuring the maximum numbers get some coffee before the bus leaves.  But, the addict, like any large corporation addicted to a single aim – the pursuit of profit – doesn’t think like that and does not share vital resources.  So, we all line up one behind the other and wait, each hoping he or she has long enough to satisfy their craving.  Addiction creates a single focus at the expense of all others and, in terms of sustainable development it is ultimately fatal, resulting in negative or even fatal consequences on the addict and the society around him, or her.  This was much more succinctly put by one of the winners at today’s awards of the Elinor Ostrom Prize: ‘we need to manage our common resources more effectively in order to work against the most destructive force of possessive individualism which, if left unchecked, will ultimately destroy society’.  There’s a lesson here for all of us junkies at the bus stop. 

…and here are said junkies! 🙂