Governing commons still a struggle, but fight not without hope, according to new report

December 11, 2003

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Thirty-five years after biologist Garrett Hardin issued his prophetic essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," which warned that human beings would ultimately destroy commonly shared resources, a re-examination of the state of common pool resources by three researchers, including Indiana University Bloomington political scientist Elinor Ostrom, offers an urgent yet hopeful message.

The authors of a new report, "The Struggle to Govern the Commons," which will appear in a special Dec. 12 issue of Science, say they are "guardedly optimistic" about mankind's ability to govern such critical commons as the oceans and the climate. They point to systematic multidisciplinary research showing that widely diverse adaptive governance systems have been effective stewards of many resources.

"In many areas of commons governance, we have witnessed significant improvement," said Ostrom, the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis and the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change. "Certainly the world is not uniform, but there are signs of some resources improving even though others are deteriorating. People have devised ingenious ways to manage and govern the commons."

"Of course, we also recognize that human beings still have an incredible capability to harm themselves," she added.

In Hardin's 1968 essay, which appeared in Science and launched an entire field of ecological research, he claimed that only two institutional arrangements -- centralized government and private property -- could sustain commons such as air, groundwater and forests over the long run. To illustrate his point, he used a little-known pamphlet written in 1833 by mathematician William Forster Lloyd about the use of public lands by herdsmen. In Lloyd's story, a pasture is open for grazing to all herdsmen. This arrangement works for a while, even for centuries, until each herdsman realizes he can make a profit by adding more and more cattle to his herd. Ultimately, in a world in which resources are limited, human greed "brings ruin to all," Hardin concluded.

But Ostrom and colleagues Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University and Paul C. Stern of the National Academies in Washington, D.C., say that Hardin presumed resource users were trapped in a commons dilemma, unable to create solutions. "He missed the fact that many social groups -- including the herders on the commons that provided the metaphor for his analysis -- have struggled successfully against threats of resource degradation by developing and maintaining self-governing institutions. While these institutions have not always succeeded, neither have Hardin's preferred alternatives of private or state ownership," the authors write.

The authors argue that governing the commons will always be a struggle, and that ideal conditions for governance are increasingly rare, but that sustaining Earth's resources is made easier when humans work to establish and enforce rules that are changeable, engage in well-structured dialogue with all interested parties, design complex institutional arrangements that are nested in many layers, and consider local information that can help identify future problems and develop solutions. People also must be prepared to deal with conflict, because there are bound to be sharp differences in power and values across interested parties, and to allow for adaptation, because some current understanding is likely to be wrong, the scale of organization can shift, and biophysical and social systems change.

In an online supplement to the article, remotely sensed images from five countries illustrate that either forest stability or deforestation can occur under all forms of ownership. Instead of ownership being the key -- as Hardin and many others have argued -- the processes for gaining agreement on a legitimate set of rules and their enforcement are far more important.

The authors cite several examples of successful commons governance. These examples range from smaller-scale efforts, such as the Maine lobster fishery, which is governed by formal and informal user institutions that have strongly influenced state-level rules that restrict fishing, to large-scale efforts such as the Montreal Protocol on stratospheric ozone, which has helped stabilize the atmospheric concentration of ozone-depleting substances. In contrast, the authors write that international efforts to reduce greenhouse gases have yet to have impact.

Too often, "strategies for governance of local commons are designed in capital cities or by donor agencies in ignorance of the state of the science and local conditions," the authors write. "The results are often tragic, but at least these tragedies are local."

The authors conclude that the challenge is for humans "to develop and deploy understanding of large-scale commons governance quickly enough to avoid the large-scale tragedies that will otherwise ensue."

Is the challenge too great? Ostrom is concerned, but she remains positive.

"It would be unwise to just be optimistic, but I'm hopeful that people will realize that, while certainly not easy, effective commons governance is possible," she said. "There is no blueprint, no one way to solve things, but that's not to say we can't learn from one another. It's all about the concept of learning."
-end-


Indiana University

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