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Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons

Must the commons inevitably degrade in tragedy and loss or can we find a way to sustainably maintain our shared resources (our commons)? Garrett Hardin explored the difficulty of the problem but proposed no solutions in his famous 1968 essay in the journal Science. Elinor Ostrom helped analyze an enormous collection of case studies of successes and failures in governing the commons. This led to a theory of governance for the commons. Briefly her theory advises that "panaceas are not to be recommended" but with a polycentric engagement of stakeholders it is possible to govern the commons as numerous examples demonstrate. This work led to her 2009 Nobel prize in economics.

We will critically examine Ostrom's theory and her evidence to assess whether Humanity has finally acquired the know-how to solve the problem of the commons so that we can move beyond the tragedy that Hardin so eloquently framed. Can the commons be governed? Can we move beyond the Tragedy of the Commons? How can we put into practice the wisdom of Elinor Ostrom, the late great student and scholar of the precarious complexity of sharing limited resources?

I read/watched these resources in preparing for this discussion:

In addition, I have skimmed these resources:

Due to strong interest in this topic, it will be repeated on Saturday 24 August. Please RSVP to the meeting that works best for you.

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  • Will B.

    C.J. I have to congratulate you on your work on this topic. As usual your preparation was thorough and well beyond my personal inclination to read Elinor's book! You did a fine job of integrating what you knew with an open attitude with things you felt less qualified. The group ran very well-especially given the difficulty of the topic. You have a real gift for moderating and teaching without the dogmatic attitudes of some who can't accept criticism and don't show up for meetings.
    Thank you for a educational heuristic experience. I look forward to more!

    August 13, 2013

  • Andrea

    Sorry I couldn't make it. Unforeseen circumstances this morning.

    1 · August 11, 2013

    • Tee C.

      sorry you couldn't be there. Tee

      1 · August 13, 2013

  • Sandy C.

    CJ,
    I'd like to add to what Sidney said. You did an excellent job on a complicated but interesting and important topic. By the end of the session, I felt I had a general understanding of an issue that I know nothing about prior to reading and watching materials you selected. The meeting pulled it all together very well for me, even if it didn't go exactly according to your agenda.

    1 · August 12, 2013

  • Sidney

    CJ: I want to make sure to give you credit where is due for yesterday's meeting. You clearly do a lot of preparation for the meeting, which I respect a great deal. Yes, the topic was a complicated one, for sure. But I think with you as the "coach" and the rest of us as the "players" that we did a really good job of working as a team to steer the discussion in the directions it went. Thanks again for your time and effort!

    1 · August 11, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Boiling Elinor Ostrom's work into an easy to communicate form was harder than I thought it would be. I'm glad that others found the 8 minute video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByXM47Ri1Kc was helpful.

    I misjudged the difficulty in explaining the 2 dimensional matrix of goods. But thanks to a thoughtful group we worked through it and I think everyone understood the issues at the end. Panaceas also proved a more complex subject than I anticipated. Good, now I know better where my limits are!

    If anyone finds a video or book that explains these concepts better, I'd be interested in exploring the subject more deeply. I'm going to refrain from reading any more abstruse academic articles for awhile :)

    August 11, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Elinor Ostrom's profound 28 minute Nobel Lecture surveys her life's work: http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1223

    These are the key ideas from the lecture that we will discuss on Sunday: In order to understand "common pool resources" (which is the good at issue in the tragedy of the commons), we need to understand how she doubled the number of goods in economics by using two dimensions: subtractability of use (meaning the good degrades in value as it is used) and difficulty of excluding potential beneficiaries. She discusses the tragedy of the commons and reviews her results in the lecture. Finally, her ideas about polycentric governance are surprising and important.

    I wrote a longer summary of the lecture on Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/104222466367230914966/posts/BgDgJkB8sdj

    Nobel video lecture: http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1223
    Nobel slides: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/2009/ostrom-lecture-slides.pdf

    August 7, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Ironically, I think my comments on this topic fall into category 3. I am trying tshockingly blunt

      August 11, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      I am using shockingly blunt and cynical language in order to draw attention on the hipocracy that I think informs many discussions of commons issues by people who consider themselves liberals. We need an honest appraisal of our own complicity in selling snake oil (more public programs without paying for them) if we want to gain credibility with the mass public whose policy preferences have distorted by accumulated nonsense presented in the news and entertainment media.

      August 11, 2013

  • CJ F.

    What is the commons? Wikipedia says "the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth."

    Is the commons important? The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) was a UN initiative by more than 1000 international scientists to assess human impact on the ecosystems that provide our natural resources, our commons. They found that Humanity is destroying our commons with distressing haste. Therefore finding a way to manage our commons sustainably may be critical to maintaining our civilization at current population levels (7 billion on track to reach 10 billion by 2100) without a big die off. This topic is, therefore, of vital interest to our future.

    You can read the 155 page General Synthesis report of the MA published in 2005 here: http://www.millenniumassessment.org/documents/document.356.aspx.pdf

    August 10, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Again preaching is not enough. You and your audience already think the commons matter. But the reason why the commons is a tragedy is precisely because most other people on the planet do not. And they do not because their rational choices are wholly consistent with the prisoners dilemma. So i would suggest you take the cynicism I have expressed here to heart. And then use it to work on a realistic effort to change the parameters of the prisoners dilemma so as to get your desired outcome. And then decide if the huge personal sacrifice that will be required to execute on that strategy is something you are interested in. And then observe, via revealed choice, why the commons may be a ubiquitous and mostly insolvable problem.

      August 11, 2013

    • CJ F.

      Frank, if most other people on the planet didn't care for the commons, I suspect our ecosystems would have totally collapsed by now and you and I would have long since died of starvation. OK, so clearly my claim is speculative, but so is yours. Asserting causation of complex systems like human beings or ecosystems or their interactions is fraught with difficulties.

      As an alternative hypothesis to the result that the commons have degraded **as if** people did not care, I assume that our ignorance about how to govern the commons is vast and so inadequate.

      So are the bad results we are seeing due to 1) people inherently not caring, or 2) ignorance of the subtleties of managing complex systems? Neither you nor I can know for sure. What kind of evidence can we look for that might settle the dispute? What evidence would falsify your claim? Mine?

      1 · August 11, 2013

  • CJ F.

    I first learned about Elinor Ostrom's work from Scott E. Page's exquisite course on "Model Thinking" (https://www.coursera.org/course/modelthinking). That course begins again on October 7th and I highly recommend it. Although this 6 minute lecture in which Page talks about Ostrom's work mentions words that you may not know without studying the lectures on the Prisoner's Dilemma (and others), I think you can get the gist from this course preview lecture: https://class.coursera.org/modelthinking-004/lecture/preview_view/103

    August 10, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    @CJ. Apologies for taking so long to respond. I have had a lot going on. I will not be able to attend this weekend. But I have something to say in response to the literature you cite. Perhaps you and the group can give it some thought.

    Let me start with something offensively controversial. Statistically, no one cares about the commons. I think this is a fact, statisticially. Sure, the Greens do. But the person on the street across this planet does not. And this is readily apparent in voting patterns across time and across cultures. No amount of preaching about the hubris of panceas (I will get to this) will change this fact.

    This means that empricial arguments (meaning those grounded in the world in which we live) need to accommodate themselves to this reality.

    August 8, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Nobel prizes don't impress me. Obama has one for peace. He got it six months or so after entering office. What, exactly, had he done at that point to warrant one? If he had any brass, he would have turned it down. (FYI. I have voted for him twice now). He then spent the next 4+ years as a a war president who has signed off on the Nanny Security Agency's ongoing practice of tucking us in every night on the claim the body politic as a whole must be treated as an object of ongoing suspicion.

      August 9, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      You want to talk about revealed preferences and values in public choices. Well consider the Nanny Security Agency's giant data center in Utah. The New York Times reported on this about a year ago. We all were wondering what it was for. Now we know. All those bed time stories they are collecting from our personal meta data. That is a whole lot more important than personal liberty or solving homelessness or fixing the commons.

      August 9, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    forgot family reunion!

    1 · August 8, 2013

  • CJ F.

    There is another good video (1 hour) of Elinor Ostrom talking about "Collective Action and the Commons: What have we learned": http://www.cornell.edu/video/elinor-ostrom-collective-action-and-the-commons. From this video we will discuss some of the factors that contribute to or inhibit cooperation in the management of public goods and common pool resources.

    Ostrom reports that Trust, communication and reciprocity are key factors. Work in the lab (like psychology studies) and in the field (sociological studies of what happens in real situations) is starting to clarify the kind of diagnostic framework necessary to engineer institutional designs that may better conserve our commons.

    If you want a deeper dive into our topic this Sunday, this video will provide a lot of material to chew on: http://www.cornell.edu/video/elinor-ostrom-collective-action-and-the-commons

    August 8, 2013

  • CJ F.

    This short 8 minute Elinor Ostrom video "Beyond The Tragedy of the Commons" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByXM47Ri1Kc) is rich and poignant. On Sunday we will explore it in depth.

    First, Ostrom outlines the problem of the Commons as Garrett Hardin posed it. She then outlines the traditional economic model that "explains" that overharvesting our commons is "inevitable". She concludes that with Trust and institutions that are as complex as the resources they seek to manage, we can move beyond the tragedy of the commons and maintain our common pool resources over long periods of time.

    But is she right? Isn't simpler always better? Don't markets always work? Isn't central government control the best solution to the problem of the commons?

    Regardless, her message is exquisite: it may be possible to escape the trap of the "Tragedy of the Commons". I highly recommend watching this video once or twice before Sunday's discussion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByXM47Ri1Kc

    August 5, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      See my comments from last night. A false dichotomy is being raised here. When people care about each other, complex variables enter into their cost-benefit analysis. This results in rationally chosen empathetic behavior. Such behavior is not part of the standard market model to be sure. But that is because the standard market model covers instances of human interaction in which people have very little empathetic feelings for each other -- consumer markets, labor markets, and public policy questions spanning millions -- if not billions -- of people. In such cases, simple is a better explanatory model precisely because decision making criteria related to empathy have close to zero explanatory effect in these cases.

      August 8, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    You will need to read my comments in reverse. A limitation of a thousand character limit on posts. My apologies. But I do not think much of anything important regarding anything of interest can be expressed within that character limitation.

    August 8, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    A word of caution to those on the Left.  Remember Marx and Lenin.  While both had a pretty good understanding of capitalism, they both (Lenin more so) also had an irresponsbile hubris about the capacity of a few "wise" intellectuals to overcome the trajectory of empirically relevant human behavior.  The historical crimes that came out of that effort to supercede human nature should give all of us on the Left great pause.

    When you react against the conclusions I have drawn here, I urge you to reconsider the lemonade example.  If you understand why a consumer would walk away from an over-priced gallon ot lemonade when sold by a nondescript grocer but not when sold by his or her little girl, then you will need to reconcile that understanding with your repudiation of the conclusions I have drawn.  I am deeply committed to Western notions logic and evidence.  If you are too, then any potential counter arguments will need to adhere to the standards of Western logic and Western empiricism.

    August 8, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    provide incentives for self-interested aggrandizers to produce socially useful innovations.

    August 8, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    The game theoretic model applies here.  And it applies to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  And a whole lot else.

    This is why cases of social injustice normally require the victims to threaten mayhem against everyone else in order to get anyone to listen.

    The irony is that this rationaltiy may make the entire planet uninhabitable for all us. 

    Good luck preaching.  My guess is that necessity will produce a market solution (meaning some smart and innovative people will figure out technologies that make them money regardless of social consequence) that leads to off-planet travel.  Not my idea of an ideal solution.  I like this world.  But, unless you know how to reprogram our rationality, then we would be better off looking at solutions that

    August 8, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    So when does the simple model of economic rationaltiy -- and its simplicistic policy panceas acquire relevance?  In all cases in which people really do not care about anyone else.  And this is just about all cases in which public policy comes into question.  This is harsh.  But you all live in or frequent Philadelphia.  This means we all come across unhappy human situations.  Street people come to mind. Maybe some of us give such people a few bucks.  Maybe some of us do not.  I will bet most of us know that a few bucks will, at best, buy just a few moments of happiness.  It will not solve the underlying problem for that person or for the larger population.  And to solve it, maybe for just one person, will require a tremendous personal financial sacrifice.  And statistically, we do not do this.

    Mother Theresa was a statistical outlier.  You cannot make public policy on the assumption that people are statistical outliers.  

    A commons.  A tragedy.

    August 8, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Do people make complex decisons?  Yes.  Do they make simple decisions? Yes.  What determines when they adopt more or less complex criteria?  I think the answer lies with the degree of emotional proximity.  In the main, meaning statistically relevent, people don't much care empathetically about anyone outside of an immediate circle of family and close friends.  For those who fall in that category, the rationality attending the purchase of lemonade from the daughter obtains.  Yes, I can get it cheaper elsewhere.  But I will deeply hurt my daughter if I do so.  So I don't.

    But when I refuse to buy a $20 gallon of lemonade from my local grocer, I am hurting him or her.  But I do  it anyway.  And I do it without thought.  Why?  Because the consumer in that situation has no empathetic connection to the grocer.

    August 8, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Now reconsider the lemonade example.  This time,  the consumer is looking to buy the same lemonade from his or her daugher's lemonde stand.  The pricing is still unreasonable.  But this time, the parent/consumer buys the lemonade rather than look for an alternative and cheaper vendor.  Is this consumer/parent any less rational?  No.  Is this consumer/parent taking into consideration factors other than price when make his or her decision?  Absolutely.  Does this mean that the standard cost-benefit rationality -- with all its simplicity and all its simple panceas -- has no relevance in a complex world?

    I don't think so.

    August 8, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Now to the argument I wish to make. Consider a consumer who wishes to buy a gallon of lemonade at a local grocery store. Suppose the grocer wishes to charge $20 for this gallon. Not surprisingly, the consumer balks and buys his/her lemonade elsewhere.

    This is an example of the standard model of rationality (effiicient pursuit of rational self interest). It infuses all mainstream Western economic and political theory. In its sophisticated form, it leads to the game theoretic points I made earlier in this thread. It leads to the panceas that CJ's references take to task -- including the the black and white prescriptions regarding government regulation versus decentralized cooperation versus property rights as solutions to the problems of the commons.

    August 8, 2013

  • CJ F.

    One of the most important elements of Elinor Ostrom's work on the commons is the idea that "panaceas are not to be recommended". "Going beyond panaceas" is an accessible three page paper published in 2007 in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America): http://www.pnas.org/content/104/39/15176.full

    After defining panaceas as universal solutions or "abstract cure-all proposals", she explains the panacea recommended by Garrett Hardin in his essay "The Tragedy of the Commons". She cites literature documenting the prevalence of panaceas and how they often fail. She briefly discusses how we can move beyond panaceas. Should we move beyond panaceas? How do we do so?

    I plan to devote considerable attention to panaceas in the discussion on Sunday. I will take a lot of my talking points for Sunday from this good short article. So if you can afford to read six screens of text tonight, read these: http://www.pnas.org/content/104/39/15176.full

    August 6, 2013

  • Mici

    I'm switching to the other date - on the 24th

    August 3, 2013

  • CJ F.

    Since this topic has filled beyond capacity (our goal is 12 people at each discussion) and thanks to Tee Conroy there will be a second discussion "Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons" on Saturday 24 August. If that date works better for you, you can RSVP at http://www.meetup.com/thinkingsociety/events/132905412/

    To allow as many folks as possible to participate, we request that you only attend one of the two sessions. If the topic is of particular interest to you, we may permit some exceptions but please ask.

    August 3, 2013

  • Joe C.

    I am interested in the shared common good concept and am curious about others takes on the topic.

    August 3, 2013

    • CJ F.

      Joe, what do you mean by the shared common good concept?

      August 3, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    I would love to attend, but I will be away at the time.

    1 · July 28, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    The tragedy of the commons is rooted in game theory's Prisoner's Dilemma. We last encountered this in our earlier debate about the necessity of government. And I will say it again. As population size increases, the probability of large numbers of that population placing significant value on the future benefits of voluntary cooperation in the present diminishes significantly. Yet without a population of far-sighted individuals, rational self-interest cannot sustain cooperation in any area of human interaction. In such instances of collective action failures, governmentally-enforced rules become necessary to achieve the gains attending collective cooperation.

    July 22, 2013

    • CJ F.

      Frank, Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues have compiled a huge body of research which suggests that the time-honored panaceas of government (centralized) and private enterprise (decentralized) BOTH provide very fragile management schemas for governing common pool resources.

      One goal for me with this topic is to explore whether Elinor Ostrom's vision for governing the commons can transcend the traditional bickering between liberals and conservatives over the role of government and private enterprise. Ostrom's work suggests that both sides promote panaceas that DO NOT WORK. A new way is called for and Ostrom has a vision for the path forward.

      Her work is extraordinarily significant, but mostly unknown. This discussion will help to change that!

      Frank, might I suggest that you review the paper and videos that I cited above? I think you will find Ostrom's perspective to be very interesting.

      July 22, 2013

    • CJ F.

      Note: Ostrom's book cited above is steeped in the game theory of the commons. However, we will probably not discuss that aspect in any depth.

      July 22, 2013

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