Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Shows the Commons Doesn't Always End in Tragedy

boston commons photo

Cattle used to graze in Boston Commons until 1830... photo: David Berkowitz via flickr.

If you've been around the environmental movement for more than a week you've surely heard someone toss out the notion of the tragedy of the commons. It's fully established as conventional economic and environmental wisdom at this point. But should it be? Cool Green Science is highlighting an article in Science by none other than newly-Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom, which shows that a commonly-held resource doesn't always mean ecological tragedy:The original post goes into more detail on what this means for conservation and resource management, but here's the gist of it.

In certain situations communities will impose restrictions upon themselves to sustainably manage commonly-held resources if 1) the benefits of managing that resource and greater than the costs of governing the resource, 2) loss in short-term economic gains are offset, and 3) cheating potential is eliminated.

Ostrom goes on to describe 10 key conditions under which enable this, but at first glance these seem to be the big ones:

Moderate territorial size -- large areas are difficult to self-manage, or really have a chance at some of the other conditions present throughout; small areas don't provide enough income to make management worthwhile.

Stationary units of resources -- it's easier to manage trees than it is a river, is the example Cool Green Science gives.

Size of community -- there is an optimal community size for self-management...again, too large and commonality across the group is less likely.

Shared moral and ethical standards -- this sets up norms of reciprocity... you don't have to worry about someone else over-exploiting the resource and therefore are probably less likely to take more than you yourself need.

Dependence on the resource -- people who are dependent upon of place high value on the resource.

Strong leadership, previous organizational skills, education -- all required.
Read more: Conservation and The Tragedy of the Commons

Want a real-world example of all this?

peru rainforest photo

photo: Eduardo Zárate via flickr.
Tropical Forests Fare Better Under Community Control
Recent research from the University of Illinois bears out that community management doesn't lead to a tragedy of the commons situation -- in fact, at least in this case, exactly the opposite: Looking at tropical forests around the world it was found that the most robust forests were ones under local management, rather than government control.

One reason cited for this is that the local communities had a greater stake in preservation of the resource, as compared to governments which might be more likely to allow wholesale logging, not being directly dependent upon the forest.

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