Tragedy of the Commons

Week 4 in Howard Rheingold’s  Towards a Literacy of Cooperation course focuses on The Commons and Institutions for Collective Action.

The Tragedy of the Commons is the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long-term best interests. In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin explored this social dilemma in “The Tragedy of the Commons”, published in the journal Science.

For an understanding of what this means, play this simple game which emphasizes the occurrence of Tragedy of the Commons in a public setting.

Hardin believed in the inevitability of people despoiling common pool resources through self-interest and argued strongly for population control, ending his paper with the following sentences:

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity” — and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

But Elinor Ostrom did not agree. Through extensive research into examples of the use of common pool resources such as fishing, water and forestry, she concluded that a significant minority of groups will find ways to manage the commons and overcome social dilemmas. Humans do not have to be prisoners of the Prisoner’s Dilemma – they can break out of becoming their own jailors.

Ostrom identified eight design principles of stable local common pool resource management

  • Group boundaries are clearly defined.
  • Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
  • Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  • The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
  • A system for monitoring member’s behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
  • A graduated system of sanctions is used. (Shame and rewards  have been found to be effective in policing the commons.)
  • Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
  • For common-pool resources that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

Ostrom also came up with a simple matrix to explain the relationship between private goods, public goods, common goods and club goods and defines what she means by the commons in this short video

Excludable Non-excludable
Rivalrous Private goods
food, clothing, cars, personal electronics
Common goods (Common-pool resources)
fish stocks, timber, coal
Non-rivalrous Club goods
cinemas, private parks, satellite television
Public goods
free-to-air television, air, national defense

Peter Kollock believed that a Prisoner’s Dilemma is a result of mistrust.  An assurance of trust can transform a social dilemma into a stag-hunt

Some people are, by nature, more likely to trust others. In order to solve both the first-order dilemma (how to agree to organize collective action) and the second order dilemma (who’s going to police the agreement), you need both kinds of people: the more trusting people are necessary in order to make an agreement, and the less trusting people are necessary in order to police the agreement.

A wonderful example of a how a group of students used their understanding of these principles and game theory to get the best exam result for the whole cohort has recently been published by the New York Times

So it seems that Elinor Ostram’s faith in the ability of humans to cooperate was not misplaced.