Commons thinking has had a profound influence on how we understand sustainability, land rights, and natural resource management. This school of thought traces its origins most notably to Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and believes that under the right circumstances communities can and do organize themselves from the bottom up to effectively manage shared resources. Influenced by the work of Ostrom and others, many people, myself included, have devoted their careers to understanding and promoting common property regimes.
Pastoralists and common property regimes
Mainstream commons thinking, however, tends to have a difficult time with mobile livestock keeping societies—pastoralists. Simply put, the traditional land and resource governance systems of many pastoralist communities are not commons. They often lack some of the hallmarks of common property systems: clearly defined communities administering clearly defined collective property rights over a clearly defined resources. Mark Moritz and co-authors have written a very insightful analysis of how people trained to appreciate traditional common property systems and community-based natural resource management are conditioned to see these systems in pastoral communities even when the pastoralists themselves say, “No, that’s not how it works here.”
In some traditional pastoral systems, norms and institutions legitimize free movement across large borderless landscapes for anyone who owns livestock. These are not common property regimes but open property regimes . Some other pastoralist societies have complex, unbundled and overlapping property rights of varying degrees of strength over different resources in governance systems that can be described as complex mosaic regimes  rather than common property regimes. Mainstream commons thinking would suggest that in such conditions—in the absence of clear private, community, or state property rights—we should expect to see a so-called “tragedy of the commons” (or, more accurately, a “tragedy of open access”): each individual maximizing their own benefit to the detriment of the collective good. And yet many pastoralist systems avoid the tragedy and sustainably manage their resources without clear borders and clear property rights, sometimes without much of any discernable management at all .
Collective action problems
I’ve heard from students of the Elinor Ostrom that one of the ideas that she drilled into them was to avoid thinking in terms of panaceas. Nevertheless, some of the ideas of commons scholarship are often applied quite simplistically. And if a panacea is a prescription that is meant to work in any situation, a panpathology is a diagnosis that can be applied to any situation. For those of us concerned about sustainability and protecting nature, the collective action problem has become a sort of panpathology.
In philosophy and social science, a collective action problem is a situation in which the individuals in a group would benefit from cooperating but they fail to do so because individual interests don’t align with collective goals. One of the ingredients in any collective action problem is a resource or benefit stream that individuals can deplete. This is sometimes called subtractability—each individual is able to subtract from the well-being of others. Some resources are shared but not subtractable: for example, an uncongested highway or a beautiful view. Your taking in the view has no impact on my ability to also enjoy it.
A shared woodlot on the other hand is a subtractable resource. Each tree that a woodcutter harvests is no longer available to the other woodcutters. And if collectively, the woodcutters are cutting trees faster than they can regrow, everyone loses. Yet because each individual woodcutter receives the benefit of the trees they harvest, they each have an incentive to keep cutting those trees. This is a collective action problem.
Pastoral rangelands and collective action problems
The logic of the collective action problem might seem to similarly apply to pastoralist herders and their pastures. Indeed, in the original “tragedy of the commons” argument, individual herders each maximizing their own self-interest was the archetypical example. But if, as I’ve said above, many traditional pastoral systems are not common property regimes, does this mean that they have not solved the collective action problem—that they are inevitably creating a tragedy of overuse?
Research on rangelands over the past couple of decades has suggested that for many rangelands, the key driver of vegetation dynamics is not the population of grazing animals, but rainfall. The extreme climatic variability of many rangelands results in a situation in which drought periodically reduces the size of the grazing herd, whether wild herbivores or domesticated livestock, and in which there is no such thing as equilibrium. For rangelands that fall in this non-equilibrium category, the population of grazing animals seldom grows large enough for long enough to have a negative, long-term impact on the rangeland ecosystem. In other words, the forage that livestock graze is not a subtractable resource. In non-equilibrium rangelands, forage is more like a panoramic view or an uncongested highway. And if the resource is not subtractable, then there is no need for cooperation to limit livestock numbers. Without subtractability, there is no divergence between individual and collective interest, and no collective action problem.
When environmental social scientists, policymakers, conservationists and development workers look at pastoral rangelands, we often assume that there is a collective action problem. We assume that without some kind of mechanism to solve the problem—privatization, or a common property regime, or community-based natural resource management, or something of this sort—there will be unsustainable resource use and an open access tragedy. But trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist—trying to fix something that isn’t broken—is a recipe for making a mess.
The reality, of course, is more complex than what I’ve described. The degree to which a highway is or is not congested is not a permanent condition nor is it linear thing. If one more car enters the highway, no one is adversely affected. Another car… fine. One more care… no problem, the highway has plenty of room. But as more cars take the on-ramp and enter the highway, eventually the highway becomes congested, the non-subtractable resource becomes subtractable.
Similarly, the findings of rangeland ecology do not mean that any pasture can hold an infinite number of cows. In non-equilibrium rangelands overgrazing is rare, but not impossible. As livestock numbers go up (or as land grabbing reduces the amount of available pasture, or as a drought arrives), at some point the non-subtractable resource can suddenly become subtractable.
Sustainability in traditional pastoral systems has tended to result not from mutually agreed rules to limit grazing and access to pastures, but from complex emergent dynamics related in part to the ways in which resources are and are not subtractable. In pastoral rangeland systems, some resources are more in demand and more subtractable than others, and some resources are subtractable at one time and not at other times. In these kinds of systems with complex dynamics, a CBNRM panacea to solve a collective action panpathology is not what is needed. In a complex, non-linear system that is not functioning the way we want, solutions may be difficult to identify but will typically involve nurturing some kinds of feedbacks and undermining others to nudge the system in the right direction.
The collective action problem as panpathology
Classical collective action problems arise where individual interests and collective interests diverge. Many of the challenges for achieving sustainability are collective action problems. But there are plenty which are not. There are also problems of power, of knowledge, of capacity, and of complex systems.
The excessive suppression of natural wildfires over the years, leading ultimately to far more devastating fires was not primarily a problem of individual interests and collective interests diverging. It was a knowledge problem: for many years, most experts, administrators, and political leaders thought suppressing wildfires is always a good thing. The Atlantic cod fishery is another example. Its collapse in the 1990s may be aptly described as resulting from a collective action problem. But after that, restoring the fishery was primarily a resilience problem. After the collapse, the system entered a new, perversely resilient state with feedback loops creating a situation in which simply removing the fishing pressure was not enough to allow cod stocks to recover.For those of us concerned about sustainability and protecting nature, the collective action problem has become a sort of panpathology…. It’s not always a collective action problem. Click To Tweet
The big environmental challenge of our day, climate change, is also often considered to be a collective action problem. The atmosphere is described as a global commons and the task before us is described as the creation of a global common property regime that will limit greenhouse gas emissions. The collective action problem can be described like this: it is in our collective interest at a global level to limit consumption of greenhouse gases, but the interests of individual actors—countries, corporations and individuals—is to keep on doing what they’ve been doing. But this is an incomplete and misleading description of the problem. It’s not that everyone agrees what our collective interest is but that we don’t trust each other, can’t figure out how to prevent free-riding, or can’t decide on a form of cooperation that can work. Among those with the power to influence decisions, there isn’t agreement as to what constitutes the collective interest. There isn’t even agreement about whether there is actually a problem. Climate change, in other words, is not a classical collective action problem.
With climate change, there is a problem of power in that there are powerful interests who see themselves as having a lot to lose from serious action on climate change, and who are willing to accept climate change if the alternative is to have their wealth and power challenged. There is also a problem of culture and identity in that in the countries most to blame for global climate change, a cultural identity has been created that does not trust science or any narrative that might suggest a larger role for governments or for cooperation among governments. And lying underneath this, there is a deeper problem of culture and identity in the fetishizing of conflict and division which prevents meaningful dialogue and which drives people to choose between one of two, diametrically opposed identities.
If we can address these problems, interests may shift and then we may have a collective action problem to address. Turning the climate change problem from one of power, culture and identity into a collective action problem would, in fact, be a step in the right direction. In the meantime, those of us working for sustainable development need to stop diagnosing panpathologies.
 Moritz M, Scholte P, Hamilton I, Kari S. 2013. Open Access, Open Systems: Pastoral Management of Common-Pool Resources in the Chad Basin. Human Ecology, v.41(3):351–65. URL: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257568821_Open_Access_Open_Systems_Pastoral_Management_of_Common-Pool_Resources_in_the_Chad_Basin.
 Moritz M. 2016. Open property regimes. International Journal of the Commons, v. 10(2): 688–708. URL: https://www.thecommonsjournal.org/articles/10.18352/ijc.719/
 Robinson LW. Open Property and Complex Mosaics: Variants in Tenure Regimes Across Pastoralist Social-Ecological Systems. 2019. International Journal of the Commons, v. 13(1): 805–827. URL: https://www.thecommonsjournal.org/articles/10.18352/ijc.903/.
 For a discussion of “emergent sustainability”, see Moritz M, Behnke R, Beitl C, Bliege Bird R, Chiaravalloti R, Clark JK, et al. 2018. Emergent sustainability in open property regimes. PNAS, v. 115(51): 12859-12867. URL: https://www.pnas.org/content/115/51/12859.