Last year I postponed a rant about the ill-named “the tragedy of the commons” concept. I can contain myself no longer.
Since Garrett Hardin published his influential 1968 paper of that name, decades of scholarship has shown that he got it wrong. In the right circumstances, communities organize themselves to collectively manage resources that that they hold in common: game theory has explained abstractly, economic experiments have demonstrated practically, and innumerable case studies have documented empirically, how people can and do cooperate to govern themselves and manage shared land, ecosystems and other resources; analysis has identified elements that contribute to well-governed commons, and social, political and other drivers that can undermine commons; fact-checking has shown that Hardin’s archetype of a mismanaged English commons was historically inaccurate; Elinor Ostrom, the godmother of commons scholarship, won a freakin’ Nobel Prize!
The so-called “tragedy of the commons” has been thoroughly refuted, debunked, and replaced with a huge and still growing body of scholarship and experience.
Yet, for most people, if they have any association at all with the word commons, it’s still the phrase “the tragedy of the commons”.
If this was simply a case of the average citizen being unaware of the terminology used in a particular academic discipline, it would get over it. But the “tragedy of the commons” (and lack of appreciation for the possibilities inherent in well-governed commons) still informs economists, policymakers, and politicians.The... “tragedy of the commons” has been thoroughly refuted, debunked, and replaced with a huge and still growing body of scholarship and experience. Yet, for most people, if they have any association at all with the word commons,… Click To Tweet
A very brief primer…
The tragedy of the commons is the notion that where there is a shared resource of some sort, individuals each acting in their own self-interest will undermine the collective interest. Hardin used the example of herders sharing a pasture. Each herder concludes that their best course of action is to add another animal to their herd, and another, and another. Overgrazing ensues and the inevitable result is collective tragedy. “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all,” Hardin wrote. The conclusion which follows is that to avoid the tragedy, we must privatize shared resources or put them under the control of a powerful state.
One of the problems with this logic is the assumption that private property, hegemonic state control, or chaos are the only three possibilities. Another problem is that the tragedy which Hardin describes has little to do with actual commons. Commons, in fact, are a fourth possibility: the users of the shared resource organizing themselves from the bottom up to collectively manage themselves and the resource. The situation which Hardin describes was not commons at all, but a situation of open access.
An imperfect alternative?
Environmental social scientists, practitioners of community-based natural resource management, and many other folks in related disciplines and fields know this. We know that the tragedy is not a tragedy of the commons but of commons being destroyed. We see in commons the potential for addressing many of our collective problems. In some practical fields of endeavor and some academic sub-disciplines, commons thinking has become the mainstream. However, it’s still not mainstream in the mainstream.
So why is that? How is it that the tragedy of the commons narrative still persists and the potential of commons is still underappreciated?
To be clear, mainstream commons thinking is not without its flaws. Elinor Ostrom’s work, and that of mainstream commons scholarship generally, have attracted criticism for a variety of reasons, including most frequently for making naïve assumptions about power, for making naïve assumptions about “community”, for adopting a utilitarian, rational-choice model of human decision-making and behavior, and for ignoring history and culture.
Throughout my career, I have danced on both sides of the fence of mainstream commons scholarship, often using it, sometimes criticizing it. As a graduate student investigating land and resource governance in communities of mobile livestock keepers—pastoralists—, I began seeing various ways in which some of the central ideas of commons scholarship don’t seem to work in pastoralist societies. Then, after my field research, I began to write up my analysis, linking it intellectually to some of the usual criticisms of Ostrom and her work. Repeating some of those criticisms, I wrote the first scholarly paper of my PhD and prepared to send it off to a journal.
And then my PhD advisor, Fikret Berkes, drew a red line beside a few paragraphs where my version of the critique of Ostrom’s work was laid out, and he made it clear that he thought those paragraphs should be deleted (implying at the same time that otherwise his name should not be on the paper as a co-author). In the end I deleted the paragraphs (although I must admit that this owed more to the fact of the paper being too long than it did to my embracing of Professor Berkes’ advice).
Then, about a year and a half later, Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.
And as it turns out, since that time, every time that I’ve found some way in which a concept of mainstream commons scholarship seems like a black box or doesn’t apply in the communities and systems that I’m working with, I find some other, different bit of Ostrom’s work that unpacks the black box or provides me with some other set of concepts that does help me make sense of things.
So thanks, Fikret.
I did publish that paper, and I’ve published a few since that point out ways in which some of the ideas that are assumed to be at the core of scholarship on commons don’t fit very well in pastoralists societies[i]. And I’m not the only one[ii].
In a recent post, I explored one of the assumptions that is often unthinkingly applied to pastoralist systems: namely, the collective action problem. Another relates to the idea that there are four main categories of property rights: private property, state property, open access (essentially non-property or a condition where rules and defined property rights have broken down), and commons, but many traditional pastoral systems don’t seem to correspond to any of these four.
Another lesson of commons scholarship is that well-governed commons require that clearly defined communities have clearly defined property rights over clearly defined resources. The logic of this idea is clear: as long as ownership of the resource is straightforward and clear, ownership by a community can avoid the tragedy just as well as private or state ownership. Yet, unlike indigenous communities in many other kinds of ecosystems, traditional pastoralist communities tend to avoid creating resource governance systems based on neat bundles of property rights over pastures. Pastoralists have found different ways of organizing themselves, but one of the options involves unbundling property rights and allocating different rights to different users and decision-making institutions in complex, flexible and sometime messy ways.
If you’re interested in exploring ideas on how property rights can be bundled, or unbundled, in ways that go beyond simplistic categorizations of property as private, state, commons or open access, one of the seminal papers is by co-authors Edella Schlager and …
(Take a guess.
That’s right…) Elinor Ostrom[iii].
Some of the criticisms of commons thinking may well be valid. Some of these principles and conceptual models don’t work very well in some situations. But it seems to me that the problem is not with Ostrom’s work itself, or even with the central concepts of commons scholarship, but rather with a simplistic and habitual application of these concepts.
Simple but not simplistic
So that’s part of the answer to my question as to why the tragedy of the commons narrative still has more traction than a narrative of the potential of commons: too often those of us who prefer the latter narrative apply the concepts of commons thinking unthinkingly and simplistically. As I said recently, we are often too quick to prescribe panaceas and diagnose panpathologies.
The classification of property types into private property, state property, commons and non-property (open access), for example, is a model. And we need to remember that conceptual models are just models; they are not reality itself. In some circumstances they don’t work. Social reality is messy, complex, and multidimensional, and no model will accurately reflect all dimensions of a social situation.
On the other hand, recognizing contingency, complexity and messiness doesn’t mean that our messaging should be messy and complex. One of the reasons that the tragedy of the commons concept persists is that it’s a straightforward and intuitive idea, simply expressed. It feels like common sense. And it communicates a useful idea, as far as it goes. It just doesn’t tell the whole story.
Those of us who think that commons can help us overcome some of the problems we’re facing today also have straightforward, intuitive ideas, but we need to do a better job of expressing those ideas. We need to clearly communicate a common sense idea: that empowered people joined together in community can cooperate to care for what they share in common.
* * *
[i] Robinson LW. 2009. A Complex Systems Approach to Pastoral Commons. Human Ecology, v.37: 441–51. URL: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10745-009-9253-2.
Robinson LW, Ontiri E, Alemu T, Moiko SS. 2017. Transcending Landscapes: Working Across Scales and Levels in Pastoralist Rangeland Governance. Environmental Management, v. 60(2): 185–99. URL: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00267-017-0870-z.
Robinson LW. 2019. Open Property and Complex Mosaics: Variants in Tenure Regimes Across Pastoralist Social-Ecological Systems. International Journal of the Commons, v.13(1): 805–827. URL: https://www.thecommonsjournal.org/articles/10.18352/ijc.903/.
[ii] See, for example:
Swallow BM. 1990. Strategies and Tenure in African Livestock Development. Land Tenure Center paper no. 140. Madison, Wisconsin: Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin. URL: http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1793/34146.
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: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10745-012-9550-z.