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An Alternative to Worrying About The Tragedy of the Commons November 28, 2022

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By Paul H. Betancourt

For over forty years environmental policy has been driven by the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons. In 1968 UC Santa Barbara professor Garret Hardin wrote a piece for Science magazine outlining his concerns about population growth. The population bomb was a huge issue at the time.

Hardin used the image of the English common pastures to illustrate that what is held in common can be used by individuals for personal gain and the possibility of plunder in the process. Hardin’s followers have used the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons, for decades now, as the rationale for government control of natural resources.

There is an alternative. Dr. Elinor Ostrum was the co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her work showing how to harness private use of natural resources for more effective management.Brandt

We have learned the wrong lesson from the Tragedy of the Commons – What is owned by all is cared for by none. Which would you rather use, a restroom in a public park, or a restroom in a private business? Me too. Restrooms in public parks are usually pretty nasty. Why? Because what is owned by all is cared for by none.

Ostrum’s work focuses on Common Pool Resources (CPR’s), and the government institutions to manage these resources.Phytech

Ostrum’s work is not limited to the Western world or merely to our time. In her 1990 book Governing the Commons she also studies institutions that manage Common Pool Resources in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Turkey and Japan. She also studies groundwater management in Southern California in the 1960’s as well as historic irrigation management in Spain and historic timber management in Switzerland. Ostrum’s conclusion is there are significant structures and policies that can be entered in to voluntarily by resource entrepreneurs. These agreements can be monitored internally and/or by governments.Conterra

Ostrum’s “Design Principles and Institutional Performances” for successful use of Common Pool Resources include three key considerations;

Clear boundaries and memberships-individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.Technoflo

Congruent roles-Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology and/or quantity of resource units are related to local conditions and to provision rules requiring labor, material and or money.Northwest Pipe Company

Collective choice arrangements– Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules.

Betancourt is a semi-retired farmer based in Kerman, California. He currently he teaches political science part time at Fresno State University and has taught at Fresno City College and the University of Phoenix. Betancourt served on the Central Valley Regional Water Board (2005-2008). His book, Ten Reasons; Finding Balance on Environmental Issues, was published in 2012. His other books include This Week on the Farm: Stories About a Boy, His Dog and His Truck, and a book on local history, Images of America: Kerman.

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