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?

CJ found these resources useful to better understand this topic:

• An exquisite 8 minute video of Elinor Ostrom explaining how to move Beyond The Tragedy of the Commons.

• Going beyond panaceas by Elinor Ostrom (3 page PNAS article).

• Ostrom's Nobel Lecture (28 Minutes). Her Nobel Lecture Slides.

• Collective Action and the Commons: What have we learned (1 hour CornellCast video).

• A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems (4 page article in Science).

• A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas by Elinor Ostrom (7 page PNAS article).

• The Drama of the Commons (2002) (534 page National Academies Study).

• "Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons" by Xavier Basurto & Elinor Ostrom (a 40 page double-spaced paper). The exquisite slides accompanying that paper.

• Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems by Elinor Ostrom (33 page paper).

• A Polycentric Approach For Coping with Climate Change by Elinor Ostrom (38 page paper).

• Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action by Elinor Ostrom, 1990.

This topic is a repeat of the August 11th discussion. To allow as many folks as possible to participate, we request that you only attend one of the two sessions.

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  • Ahngelique D.

    got the word i was off the waitlist too late. c u all at the next event. this one really sounded interesting.

    August 24, 2013

  • Phil M.

    Last min change in plans

    August 24, 2013

  • Martin C.

    Having gone through much of this material, I find that the polycentric approach is overly simplistic. What works for small fishing villages is not sufficient for tackling global problems.

    Here is a good counter-example. The problem of CFC's and ozone depletion has been solved by international cooperation See for example,

    Action at the local level can certainly be beneficial, but that is not enough. Governments can help by doing things like providing incentives for research in renewable energy and requiring cars have a minimum miles per gallon.

    Contributions from the private sector should also not be ignored. The ultimate solution to the overfishing problem that Ostrom mentioned may be in the growing number of commercial fish farms. Making solar energy less expensive will certainly increase the number of people using it.

    August 8, 2013

    • Brian

      (by "the last paragraph" I meant the last paragraph on page 90 --- I know this is all a lot to read, the part I'm referring to is just the one page, though you can also read some other parts of the paper for free)

      August 22, 2013

    • CJ F.

      I like the idea. It occurs to me as "polycentric wholes": implying yes we must accommodate and value each of the special interests PLUS the whole. The government which presumably has the interest of the whole in mind fails until it adopts a governance structure that is as complex as the ecological and social systems that use the resource.

      This is a very subtle point: the reason that markets fail to manage systems sustainably is they give too much weight to the special interests and ignore the whole. The reason that government fails to manage systems sustainably is they run rough-shod over the special interest participants imposing rules from above that the special interests can neither appreciate nor live with.

      To me Ostrom's BIG idea is that we need more complex governance systems than the market vs. government dichotomy provides. It is a profound idea.

      1 · August 23, 2013

  • Gerald

    Wish I could attend, but I am on vacation. Best

    August 23, 2013

  • Carole and Bill M.

    Sorry, this one "Commons Tragedy" is too deep for me. Sounds like Al Gore..I'm Organic but this analysis of case studies seems unsustainable....haha

    August 19, 2013

  • Michael

    Sorry, friends in town visiting now. Enjoy the conversation.

    August 19, 2013

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