Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons LO26939

From: Don Dwiggins (
Date: 07/04/01

Replying to LO26919 --

Seeing this thread has been useful to me, in that it's caused me to do
some active exploration of the limits of Hardin's model, and
counterexamples in human society.

In particular, I remembered reading sometime back an article by some
anthropologists who cited several cases of commons that had come to be
well managed by groups of people. Trying to firm up my memory has led me
to a Google search, which has turned up some interesting results (among
about 40,300 hits on the term!).

One is that the vast majority of the web pages in the retrieval results
that I looked at (no, I didn't look at all 40,300) were reprints,
abstracts, etc. of the original article, or applications of it to
particular (perceived) commons. It seems to be a very healthy meme.

It's also been used to argue the virtues of private ownership of
resources, as well as the virtues of strong governmental control,
depending on the political bent of the writer.

Only a very few of the pages actually looked at or for real historical
examples of commons that have been managed non-tragically over a
considerable span of time. In fact, there are many such examples around
the world.

A recurrent theme among the cases that are presented in the articles I
read, is that the commons in question were local, and were managed in a
flexible, communally agreed-on manner by local communities. In
particular, the solutions have avoided the extremes of privatization and
external control. Here are two papers that present the examples:

"How Inexorable is the 'Tragedy Of The Commons'? Institutional
Arrangements for Changing the Structure of Social Dilemmas", By Elinor
Ostrom ( Professor
Ostrom looks at the structure of the ToC game in relation to the
Prisoner's Dilemma game, and points out some of the underlying assumptions
that don't hold in the examples she gives. It's the best overall critical
analysis of the meme that I've found.

"Community-Run Fisheries: Avoiding the 'Tragedy of the Commons'", by
Donald R. Leal ( This article focuses on one
type of commons, the fishery, and presents several successful cases. The
conclusion, which is similar to Ostrom's, is worth quoting:
     Community-run fisheries challenge the notion that fishers will always
     be locked into the tragedy of the commons unless there is state
     control. The examples sketched on these pages illustrate that
     communities can avoid the tragedy of the commons. They offer hope for
     many coastal fishing areas around the world. They offer some lessons
     that can be applied to the more complicated question of curtailing
     overexploitation of offshore fisheries. Given the failure of government
     to regulate fishing successfully, a self-regulated fishery is an idea
     whose time has come.

In a couple of Leal's examples, the successful local management strategies
were interfered with, either by regional governments or by colonizers
overriding the natives' structures. The results, not surprisingly, were

Something that I've read into the examples (perhaps incorrectly) is that the
communities in question were acting as learning organizations. Either the
structures they used arose over considerable time as social institutions, or
the people affected came together and explicitly worked out viable
structures. It'd be fascinating to see someone revisit these examples
applying a LO perspective (something the SoL might want to support?).


Don Dwiggins "Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex, intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple, stupid behavior." Dee W. Hock, "The Sheep's Second Law of the Universe"

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