Beyond ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’: Why Conservation Needs a Rethink

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Published on October 27th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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Of course this year’s Nobel Peace Prize got all the press — as that prize nearly always does. The Nobel Prize in economics, by contrast, went almost unnoticed.

That’s a double shame. First, because it was given to Dr. Elinor Ostrom of the Indiana University and Arizona State University — the first woman ever to win the economics prize.

And second, because Ostrom has devoted her career to demonstrating how a fundamental premise upon which most modern conservation strategies are built — the “tragedy of the commons” — is at times false.

More than 40 years ago, an ecologist from Texas named Garrett Hardin who had a gift for a well-turned phrase published an article called “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  His central thesis was that any common resource — say an open pasture or woodlot — will be subject to ever increasing exploitation by individuals unwilling to organize or impose a cost to manage the system, eventually leading to accelerated erosion of the resource.

This premise has so influenced the conservation movement that conservationists have focused their strategies on either advocating government interventions (say, creating a national park or wilderness area) or using private enterprise (privately buying land, easements, etc.) to avert death by a thousand cuts.

But Ostrom’s work has shown that this “tragedy of the commons” does not always have to happen.

Her research finds that communities can and will impose substantial costs to themselves to sustainably manage a common resource if (a) the expected benefits of managing a resource are greater than the cost of investing in the rules to govern those benefits, (b) loss of short-term economic gains are offset, and (c) the potential of cheating is eliminated.

Reading her recent paper in Science magazine — “A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems” — was like a flashlight being turned on during a night dive: My whole world was immediately illuminated.

In the piece, Ostrom outlines 10 key conditions or factors under which a local community will self-organize and impose rules or costs on itself in order to sustainably manage a resource for the long term — factors such as moderate territorial size, shared moral or ethical standards in the community, and an influential leader. (The full list of 10 is at the end of this post.) While achieving all 10 might seem daunting, I would bet that a broad survey of The Nature Conservancy’s field efforts would support her findings.

And here’s why those findings are revolutionary: Because conservationists have always worried about the long-term sustainability of our work — especially in poor places with little government presence and where money to fund our efforts will eventually tail off (and it always tails off — that’s the nature of fundraising).

But when we accept the applicability of Ostrom’s work to ours, then our theory of change — our job, if you will — has to change. Instead of defaulting to government intervention or private enterprise, we must now find ways to ensure that the key conditions of resource self-management are present…and where they are absent, to step in temporarily to fill the gap.

Ostrom’s Nobel Prize validates an approach that depends on empowering local communities, under some very specific conditions, to manage and care for nature — the true test of sustainability.  Without it, we will always be dependent on an ever-needier pipeline of funds to support far-flung efforts.

It is high time for the conservation movement to pay attention to a prize the rest of the world largely ignored.

(Image: Sheep in New Zealand. Credit: vtveen/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

Ostrom’s 10 conditions:

1.    Moderate territorial size — so there is an optimum size for the resource.  Too big and its tough to self-organize; too small and it won’t provide enough income.
2.    Scarcity or need must be present.
3.    System dynamics need to be sufficiently predictable (e.g., pastoralists may organize at a big scale but not a small one because of rain unpredictability).
4.    Stationary units of resources — e.g. trees or oysters are easier to deal with than highly mobile resources like an unregulated river.
5.    Size of the group or community has to be considered (optimum group size)
6.    An influential leader, previous organizational skills, and education are all necessary.
7.    Shared moral and ethical standards and thus norms of reciprocity.
8.    Knowledge of the socio-economic system — a common knowledge about the resources helps understand how a resource may generate slowly while a population grows rapidly.
9.    Users dependent on or who attach a high value to the sustainability of the resource.
10.   Collective-choice rules.

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Comments: Beyond ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’: Why Conservation Needs a Rethink

  •  Comment from RKB

    Interesting article, with some interesting applications. (BTW: The link under “Tragedy of the Commons” is broken.)

    •  Comment from Robert Lalasz

      Thnx — link is now fixed.

  •  Comment from Thinks-Too-Hard

    Her research finds that communities can and will impose substantial costs to themselves to sustainably manage a common resource if (a) the expected benefits of managing a resource are greater than the cost of investing in the rules to govern those benefits, (b) loss of short-term economic gains are offset, and (c) the potential of cheating is eliminated.

    I am not convinced that this is different from Hardin’s “Mutual Coercion, Mutually Agreed Upon.” A careful reading of what Hardin actually argues in that paper reveals a surprisingly robust framework (even if some of his later work is downright xenophobic).

  •  Comment from Brigitte

    Very nice post Sanj!

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