Managing Resources in the Global Commons

By Ostrom, Elinor | Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview
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Managing Resources in the Global Commons

Ostrom, Elinor, Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis

This paper addresses a series of fundamental issues relating to the governance of common-pool resources at multiple scales. Perhaps the most important question is whether the "tragedy of the commons," as first articulated in Hardin's 1968 Science article, is inevitable. For many policy analysts the answer to that question is usually "no." Avoiding the tragedy, however, is contingent on "their" policy prescription being adopted. The range of preferred approaches includes government ownership or private property. Some scholars will recommend community property. In the main, simple solutions are posed for complex problems. "One best way" is proposed by many analysts to a wide variety of problems.

Ecological diversity is something that many of us feel strongly should be protected. There is considerable interest in preserving biodiversity as one form of global commons. On the other hand, a frequent way of maintaining ecological diversity has been to reduce or eliminate institutional diversity at a variety of scales including indigenous local institutions as well as institutions at other scales. I would argue that we need as serious attention to the problem of understanding institutional diversity as we do understanding ecological diversity. We need to build on that understanding rather than presume that there is a single, best way.

At the current time, a large gap exists between policy recommendations about the commons and findings from empirical research. Underlying contemporary policy recommendations are three basic assumptions. One of the basic assumptions has to do with individuals using resources, e.g., fishermen, grazers, irrigators, farmers, users of the radio spectrum, and those of us who send smoke into the air, etc. All of these users are appropriating from a resource. We will use the term "appropriator" as the general, technical term for users or harvesters.

A common assumption is that appropriators are trapped in tragic overuse of most resources. Thus, whatever the solutions to overuse are, they must come from the outside. This perception is based on a series of assumptions. This first one emerges from training in economics--which offers a narrow model of the individual that is useful for many purposes. When it is applied as a general theory, however, it leads to a presumption that all appropriators are norm-free, short-term maximizers of selfish gains. In the same policy analyses, government officials are assumed to be people who maximize the public interest. Do public officials have different genes? How come individuals are narrow and selfish and government officials seek out the public interest? We need to reflect on how we arrived at these two disparate assumptions.

Secondly, there is a shared belief that it is feasible to design optimal rules by modelling and analysis. Models are useful, but it is unlikely, if not impossible, that one can get to optimality for a complex system through modelling. The third assumption that is frequently made is that to be organized you have to have a central direction. Unless the policy analysis finds a single central authority, an assumption that organization is lacking is made.

These three basic assumptions underlie a good deal of our current policy thinking. I will argue that all three are incorrect. All three are a poor foundation for public policy. The management and governance of the commons at multiple scales is a cogent example of how these assumptions are in error.

What are Common-Pool Resources?

Common-pool resources generate limited amounts of resource units that can be fish, mushrooms, timber, water. A variety of resources exist that have a finite stock at any particular time. One person's use subtracts from the corpus or stock. Thus subtractibility is a core concept in defining a common-pool resource. Secondly, it is difficult to exclude individuals who might benefit from using common-pool resources.

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