a. summary


Elinor Ostrom: The myth of the Tragedy of the Commons


The dilemma is often in which the commons are ‘being transformed by the incursions of capital and state, and the ways in which they are becoming the locus of struggle for those who depend on them to survive’. Garrett Hardin’s (1968) tragedy of the commons’ in which ‘users compete with one another to appropriate commons resources, thus beggaring one another to exhaust the commons,’ was completely dismantled by Elinor Ostrom (1999) documenting that for ‘thousands of years people have self-organised to manage common-pool resources, and users often do devise long-term, sustainable institutions for governing these resources’.

What happens when markets become so powerful that they disrupt natural ecosystems, reorder how people conduct their lives and claim ownership of life-forms? This process is often called enclosure of the commons. It’s a process by which corporations pouch valuable resources from their natural contexts, often with government support and sanction, and declare that they be valued by market prices. The point is to convert resources that are shared and used by may to ones that are privately owned and controlled, and treat them as tradeable commoditites. (David Bollier: Think like a Commoner, 2014: 37)

The real aberration in human history is the idea of Homo economicus and our globally integrated market society. Never before in history have markets organized so many major and granular elements of human society. Never before has the world seen so many societies organized around the principles of market competition and capital accumulation, which systematically produce extremes of selfish individualism, inequalities of wealth and crippling assaults on natural ecosystems.(David Bollier: Think like a Commoner, 2014: 81)

Garrett Hardin: On the Tragedy of the Commons and Resources

The tragedy of the commons is one of those basic concepts that is drilled into the minds of every undergraduate, at least in economic courses. The idea is considered a basic principle of economics – a cautionary lesson about the impossibility of the collective action, the virtues of private property and free markets. This absurdity, unfortunately, is the basis for a large literature of “prisoner’s dilemma” experiments that purports to show how ‘rational individuals’ behave when confronted with ‘social dilemmas’, such as how to allocate a limited resource. Should the ‘prisoner’ cooperate with other potential claimants and share the limited rewards? Or should he or she defect by grabbing as much for himself as possible.

Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy (read: comedy) of the Commons’ scenario sets forth a system that has no boundaries around the pasture, no rules for managing it, no punishments for over-use and no distinct community of users. But what if it could be shown that human cooperation, reciprocity and non-rational behaviour are just as significant a force as “competitive rationality” and “utility maximisation”?

One of the first scientists to explore this possibility was the Russian zoologist Petr Kropotkin in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Kropotkin surveyed the animal kingdom and concluded that it “was an evolutionary emphasis on cooperation instead of competition in the Darwinian sense that made for the success of species, including the human.” Animals live in association with each other and mutually aid each other as a way to improve their group fitness. (David Bollier: Think like a Commoner, 2014: 82)

Elinor Ostrom’s answer was Governing the Commons, a landmark 1990 book. Her focus has been how communities of the resource users develop social norms – and sometimes formal legal rules – that enable them to use finite resources sustainably over the long term. (TLC p 28) It’s about a community’s ability to develop its own flexible, evolving rules for stewardship, about commoners being able to create or influence the rules that govern a commons.

Author and essayist Rebecca Solnit showed in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, members of communities beset by catastrophes such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1907, the German Blitz of London during World War II and the 9/11 terrorist attacks generally show incredible self-sacrifice, joy, resolve and aching love toward each other. The communities such disasters create are truly “paradises built in hell.” Her book is an answer to the economists and political leaders who believe that the world is made up of isolated, selfish individuals who must be governed through authoritarianism and fear.

The complex, overlooked history of the commons tells a different story. It is an account of how human beings have learned new and ingenious ways to cooperate. It is a story of building new types of social institutions for shared purposes despite systems of power (feudalism, authoritarianism, capitalism) with very different priorities. Commons tend to be nested within other systems of power and institutional relationships, and therefore are not wholly independent. There is often a deep “creative tension” between the logic of the commons and the imperatives of its host environment (whether feudal lords, technology markets or national laws. This is why many commons thrive in the interstices of power, in “protect zones” tolerated or overlooked by Power, or accidentally remote from it. (David Bollier: Think like a Commoner, 2014: 80)

A commons has boundaries, rules, social, norms and sanctions against free riders. A commons requires that there be a community willing to act as a conscientious steward of a resource. Hardin was confusing a commons with “no-man’s-land”. (David Bollier: Think like a Commoner, 2014: 24)

One of the most insidious things about enclosures is how they eradicate the culture of commons and our memory of them. The old ways of doing things; the social practices that once bound a people together; the cultural traditions that anchored people to a landscape; the ethical norms that provided a stable identity — all are swept aside to make room for a totalizing market culture. Collective habits give way to individualism. (David Bollier: Think like a Commoner, 2014: 79)

Whether through crisis or choice, it is virtually inevitable that the human race (or at least the industrialised West) will need to rediscover and reinvent institutions of human cooperation.  (David Bollier: Think like a Commoner, 2014: 81)

“Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of evolution,” writes Harvard theoretical biologist Martin A. Nowak, “is its ability to generate cooperation in a competitive world,” adding, “Thus, we might add ‘natural cooperation’ as a third fundamental principle of evolution beside mutation and natural selection.” It bears noting that the popularity of “individual selection theory” during the latter half of the twentieth century coincided uncannily with the heyday of market culture and its ethic of competitive individualism. A case of culture affecting scientific observation?(David Bollier: Think like a Commoner, 2014: 83)