Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Nobel Prize and the Tragedy of the Commons

Elinor Ostrom, Indiana University, won the Nobel Prize for Economics (along with O. Williamson) for her work of supplanting the "tragedy of the commons" with a more rigorous understanding of managing natural resources.

Garrett Hardin's 1968 article "The Tragedy of the Commons" proposed that a "commons," typically a natural resource such as grazing lands, could not be managed by local individuals, e.g. local cattle grazers, because the users would not share the commons fairly or sustainably; they would overgraze the commons with their own stock at the expense of others who use it, and thus destroy the commons. Hardin proposed that the only way to avoid the tragedy of the commons was to place it under the management of central governments or convert it to private property, managed by the owners. The Tragedy of the Commons became a sort of unquestioned mantra that governments, corporations, and certain NGOs used to justify policies that barred local people from using land and natural resources. Hardin even used the concept to justify population control, warning that "freedom to breed will bring ruin to all."

Elinor Ostrom demonstrated empirically that many local users of a commons have found ways to both share the commons and use it sustainably as a collective. In some cases, they were not able to do so, and her research identified why some commons were well-managed by locals and others were not. The factors she identified were the kinds of "social capital" that enabled people to manage it well on their own: well-defined boundaries, a strong community tradition, and the absence of government interference.(Leal). She found that small groups of people who develop their own rules for using the commons are able to get immediate feedback on their use of the commons and adjust their uses as needed. Rules devised by one group are "error checked" by rules developed by another small group using the same commons. Ostrom called this process of local rule-making "polycentric governance."

"The strength of polycentric governance systems is each of the subunits has considerable autonomy to experiment with diverse rules for a particular type of resource system and with different response capabilities to external shock. In experimenting with rule combinations within the smaller-scale units of a polycentric system, citizens and officials have access to local knowledge, obtain rapid feedback from their own policy changes, and can learn from the experience of other parallel units."

What's even more interesting about Ostrom's work is her empirical method. She developed and tested her theories by living with local communities, studying their relationships and use of natural resources.


  1. Ostrum's contribution is major and its nice to see a political scientist winning a Nobel prize in economics. Perhaps we can get one for a sociologist!

    I agree entirely with your take on the importance of Ostrum's work: where abstract theorists argued that common property resources were unsustainable and to avoid the tragedy of the commons such resources had to be translated into another type of good (either a public good through government management or a private good through private ownership), Ostrum's empirical studies showed that people could cooperate and successfully manage common resources under the right conditions.

    The open question, however, is whether or not such solutions can be scaled. Ostrum's cases all involve relatively small scale phenomena where local communities have developed successful strategies for coping. But our common property problems have grown dramatically in scale -- they are now at the global level -- and it is not at all clear that humans will be able to develop the institutions necessary to cooperate at that scale in the time frame that is required. We currently have, in Homer-Dixon's terms, an ingenuity gap.

  2. I think that's an important distinction. I hadn't thought of scale. One could say that the Kyoto Protocol process is a kind of polycentric governance, although it involves nations, not local communities. It has a kind of "error check" rule-making process. As each country works out their own rules, they have to error-check with other countries because all GHG emissions go into the same global commons. However, unlike her model, this involves rule-making at the highest global levels, not in local communities.

  3. There is a nice quick video summary by Ostrom of her work at: