The Commons: Not Always A Tragedy

An April 9, 1999, paper published in Science refutes Garrett Hardin's thirty-year- old assertion that users of common resources will ultimately destroy the resource on which they depend. Dr. Elinor Ostrom, with the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change at Indiana University in Bloomington, spearheaded the work, which grew from a symposium organized by the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE). Collaborators include Joanna Burger of Rutgers University, Christopher B. Field of the Carnegie Institution of Washington's, Department of Plant Biology, Richard B. Norgaard of the University of California at Berkeley, and David Policansky of the National Research Council.

Hardin's original thesis was presented in a 1968 paper entitled, " The Tragedy of the Commons." In that, he claimed that the issues surrounding the use of common resources could be solved only by "either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise." Humans were painted as selfish and shortsighted. This thesis has been used as a justification for central government control of diverse types of common- pool resources over the last three decades.

The Science article, " Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges," explores ways that common-pool resources are managed. It discusses lessons to be learned from successes at local and regional levels and it examines the challenges of sharing resources globally.

Common-pool resources (CPRs) are diverse. They include natural resources such as terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and man-made resources as varied as irrigation systems and the World Wide Web. According to the research effective solutions for management depend on the characteristics of the resource, but all cases of successful management involve incentives for users, rules that limit access and define duties and rights of participants, and methods for monitoring and enforcement.

The research found that the most suc

Contact: Christopher Field
650-325-1521 x213
Carnegie Institution

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