The Canon: Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. By Elinor Ostrom

April 8, 2010

It is more than 20 years since the United Nations' Brundtland Commission made the optimistic claim that "humanity has the ability to make development sustainable", and it has to be said that, at the global level, the evidence for this assertion can be characterised as thin. Since the publication of the commission's report in 1987, global inequalities and environmental problems have increased. The failure of the Copenhagen summit at the end of last year to broker binding international agreements to mitigate climate change is just the latest in a sequence of depressing developments that seem to confound Brundtland's assessment of the human species' abilities and prospects. Fortunately, those seeking more hopeful signs can turn to Elinor Ostrom's analysis of community-scale governance. Governing the Commons tells us how cooperation can deliver sustainable outcomes.

I had always been suspicious that Garrett Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" model was more of a theoretical construct than an inevitable empirical reality. In Hardin's model, rational actors race to destruction, each appropriating as much as they can from common resources whose imminent exhaustion serves only to accelerate this process. What they do not do is sit down and talk over the problem. I started asking my classes "What sort of people end up in this situation?" and each time got the same list of negative qualities back - ignorant, selfish, silent, greedy, short-sighted and stupid. Re-run the story with people who are wise, altruistic, communicative, content, future-oriented and intelligent, and you get a different outcome. This told me and the students that if humanity was trapped in an unfolding environmental tragedy, it was not through lack of choice.

So discovering Governing the Commons was both a revelation and a confirmation for me. Ostrom shows that the "tragedy of the commons" model does not have general applicability and is therefore a dangerous basis for policymaking. Game theory unpacks the model's underlying assumptions and shows it to be a special case - that of an open-access resource in which no one talks and everyone can take what they want because no rules exist. Games designed with different assumptions lead to cooperation. Empirical examples from around the world of "long-enduring, self-organised and self-governed" common-pool resources such as forests and irrigation systems show that management regimes work best when designed and controlled by local users; and worst when government or large-scale private owners impose rules from outside.

The ideas in this book generated a multitude of studies of natural-resource management, leading to growing knowledge about the underlying characteristics of successful management regimes. They have been extended to other types of commons, such as intellectual property. They tell us that humanity is not trapped in its predicament; we have agency. We may even be able to measure up to Brundtland's aspiration. Accepting the Nobel Prize for Economics last year, Ostrom emphasised the importance of trust, of rules that fit and of devolved responsibilities. In the aftermath of Copenhagen, these are lessons not just for policymakers, but for each of us.

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