Population Matters

Moving Beyond Elinor Ostrom

October 12th, 2009

Few people in this world have given as much thought to the “tragedy of the commons” as Elinor Ostrom, the Indiana University political scientist who shares this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for Economics with Oliver E. Williamson.  Her work has shown how humans working together can forestall the collapse of “common pool resources” such as forests, fisheries, and underground aquifers.  For that alone she may deserve the Nobel Prize, but with the rapid and ongoing depletion of so many of the world’s shared resources, one has to wonder whether it’s too little, too late.

Forty-one years ago, the ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote a seminal paper, entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he argued that individuals acting in their own self-interest can easily destroy common pooled resources, even though it’s in everyone’s interest for this not to happen.  And that’s essentially what’s happening today, as an ever growing number of humans on the planet, all acting in their own self-interest, are altering the climate, destroying tropical forests, collapsing ocean fisheries, and depleting underground aquifers.

Hardin argued that there are only two ways to prevent the tragedy of the commons: 1) convert the “commons” to private ownership; or 2) let the government seize and manage the “commons” for the collective benefit of society.

In an article published earlier this year (“The Core Challenges of Moving Beyond Garrett Hardin”) Ostrom argues–contrary to Hardin–that humans, acting independently of government regulation, can join together, and work out their own solutions for managing commonly shared resources.

She notes that, “Field settings do exist where Hardin is correct. Overharvesting frequently occurs when resource users are totally anonymous, do not have a foundation of trust and reciprocity, cannot communicate, and have no established rules.” But she argues, “To move beyond Hardin’s theory, we need to draw on both general theory related to causal processes and learn how to identify key variables present or absent in particular settings, so as to understand successes and failures.”

There’s nothing wrong about learning from our successes and failures.  There have been circumstances where the relevant stakeholders have come together in an atmosphere of “trust and reciprocity” and worked out an effective strategy for regulating a shared resource, such as a tropical forest or an ocean fishery.  The problem is that those successes are the “exception” rather than the “rule.”  Meanwhile, we are losing the race against time, as aptly demonstrated by our failure to address the threat posed by climate change.

Yes, we need better solutions to the “tragedy of the commons.”  But more than anything we need a greater sense of immediacy and urgency. In an earlier paper on this subject, Ostrom acknowledged in passing that there are circumstances where “population growth may exceed the carrying capacity before participants have achieved a common understanding of the problem they face.”  But in reading Ostrom’s papers, one gets the strong sense that this is more of a theoretical problem, than a practical one. She appears to lack what Hardin never lacked when it came to population and the preservation of the commons:  a sense of urgency.

Ostrom, in her words, may have “moved beyond Hardin.”  We need to move beyond Ostrom…to action.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

One Response to “Moving Beyond Elinor Ostrom”

  1. black hattitude Says:


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