Imagine a village with a green pasture, held in common, on which all the villagers can graze their sheep. The common land has a peak carrying capacity – fewer sheep than the optimal number means the village isn’t taking full advantage of the meadow, but more than that level will eat too much of the grass, leaving the land barren.
This was the problem that demographer Garrett Hardin posed in a classic 1968 paper in Science magazine called “The Tragedy of the Commons,” posing a depressing conundrum for the millions of college undergraduates who have found it on their reading lists ever since, the way I did.
What does each rational villager do, asks Hardin? The answer: Each adds more and more sheep, heedless of the common good. Why not? The benefit of the next sheep goes wholly to its owner, while the damage from too many sheep is shared. And so rational actions by individuals lead to inevitable catastrophe for everyone. As Harden sunnily put it: “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush. . .”
So most economists agreed, until Elinor Ostrom came along. In 2009 Ostrom became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, and she won it by showing that the commons not only can be saved, but often is. For three decades, she sought out, found, and studied dozens of communities that had some “commons” they could choose to ruin or not — fish in a lake, trees in a forest, a limited supply of irrigation water. Ostrom called these “common pool resources” and found that, against Hardin’s dire prediction, they could be managed sustainably.
She studied how such communities succeeded, and found a recurrent set of norms and behaviors, whether among fisherman, foresters, or farmers. The successful groups acknowledged the limits explicitly, set up mechanisms for shared decisions, established rules of behavior for each member, monitored the resource and behaviors openly, and enforced their rules, sometimes severely.
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