Rachel Eberius, Krystal Yhap, Suzi Spitzer
Man’s tendency to overharvest and exhaust communal goods was first recognized in Garret Harding’s classic 1968 article The Tragedy of the Commons. It is our nature, Harding believed, to act in a rational, self-serving manner and because of this tendency we will inevitably deplete communal environmental resources. In preparation for this week’s discussion, we read the book Sustaining the Commons which provided an alternative perspective to Harding’s Tragedy of the Commons; that, while tragedies of the commons occur, there are many instances of triumphs of the commons where humans are able to self-govern their use of resources. Throughout Sustaining the Commons the authors alluded to design principles identified by Dr. Elinor Ostrom in her book Governing the Commons.
While the text contained a large quantity of material, our class discussion largely focused on 3 topics:
- What are the Commons?
- Examples of Triumphant Commons
- Socio-Normative Dilemmas and the Commons
What are the Commons?
Our dialogue began by clarifying conflicting definitions and uses of the term ‘commons’. The expression originated in Medieval European communities to describe a shared resource with communally developed guidelines for its use. Harding’s ‘commons’ took on a slightly different meaning; an ‘open-access’ resources with no property rights or rules for its use associated. Today we often misuse the term commons based on the definition delivered in Harding’s analogy.
We discussed many examples of open access resources, both natural and manmade –the Chesapeake Bay, Wikipedia, and free WIFI. We concluded that the resources at risk of Harding’s tragedy are those that are subtractable and excludable, because when one individual exploits the resource, other individuals suffer consequences.
Triumphant Commons: We are not all ‘Full-Steam Ahead’ fishermen
So how can the commons be sustainably utilized? Harding theorized that our only options are to privatize land or regulate the use of resources. Must formal institutions intervene in order to successfully manage resource use?
We discussed a small village in Nepal where an atypical practice helps govern the use of irrigation by citizens. If several adults in the village agree that an individual is abusing the system, one of the offender’s cows is confiscated and put into a public ‘cow jail’. If your cow is in ‘cow jail’, the entire community is made aware of your unfair use of water AND the community will milk your cow as payment for the resources you unfairly sequestered.
Is this ‘public humiliation’ tactic plausible for use in the Chesapeake Bay? We decided that ‘cow jail’ is not fundamentally different from being ostracized by the media for environmentally negligent activities. However, being victimized by the media does not (directly) take away your means of survival, as would cow imprisonment.
Another successful commons discussed was the Maine lobster fishery. Though other factors could be involved, much of the fisheries success is attributed to the strict social norms put forth by local communities. In this fishery, as well as many other triumphant commons, one must be immersed in the community in order to learn their unwritten rules and gain acceptance. If you partake in unfair fishing practices, you may find your fishing pots were opened and your catch set free by another member of the community. An interesting feature that was noted in our discussion was the adoption of informal rules into state legislation. Originally a casual practice, reproductive females are marked with a tail notch and thrown back to ensure population growth. This has now been institutionalized by the state government as a law.
Social rules are not to be underestimated. They can entice people to act sustainably, even if it means less personal capital gain.
Socio-Normative Dilemmas and the Commons: We are constrained by things other than our morality
After the (almost) failure of our simulated class fishery in last week’s Fish Banks game, despite my team’s sustainable business tactics, I began questioning the purpose of socially-conscious actions. Can my refraining from certain products or activities really make an impact? This question was posed to the class and the prisoner’s dilemma and free rider problem were reoccurring themes in our discussion.
The basis of these dilemmas is simple; one individual’s selfless actions can and will be exploited by another’s selfish actions. Some argued that after many years of socially-conscious actions one can make a big difference, and it is still worthwhile to act in a socially-responsible way. Others noted that companies respond to the demands of consumers, so if enough people take part we can make a difference. For example, Perdue Farms are producing more organic and hormone free meat because of consumer demand.
However, as a group we still felt that our societal norms and pressures make it difficult to act sustainably. If your cell phone still works, why buy the newest version? If Pennsylvania does not reap any of the benefits of Chesapeake Bay restoration, why should they raise taxes?
One of the most powerful comments made was that ‘we are constrained by things other than our morality’. We need certain goods for survival, we want certain goods because of social drivers. Sustainable consumption is hard because ‘as a consumer we are weak‘ and often succumb to pressures other than sustainability.
So what have we learned? The delicate system surrounding an open-access good is complex and difficult to manage. Having a better appreciation for the principles of self-sustained systems is a crucial first step in better managing the commons.
Anderies, J.M., Janssen, M.A. (2013). Sustaining the Commons. Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment Arizona State University, ECA 307
Harding, G. (1968). Tragedy of the Commons. American Association for the Advancement of Science: Science. Volume 162; 2242-2248.
Ostrum, E. (2015). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 9781107569782