Is the 'Tragedy of the Commons' a Myth?

Examples from around the world showing that the popular theory often doesn't hold up present powerful implications for commons management.

May 11, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


The concept of the "tragedy of the commons," developed in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, goes like this: "humans, when left to their own devices, compete with one another for resources until the resources run out." Writing in Aeon, Michelle Nijhuis argues that this popular theory, which has since "provided a temptingly simple explanation for catastrophes of all kinds," is "a false and dangerous myth."

Political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009—decades after her pioneering research—found examples from around the world that contradicted Hardin's hypothesis that "[f]reedom in a commons brings ruin to all."

"While Hardin speculated that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided only through total privatisation or total government control, Ostrom had witnessed groundwater users near her native Los Angeles hammer out a system for sharing their coveted resource. Over the next several decades, as a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, she studied collaborative management systems developed by cattle herders in Switzerland, forest dwellers in Japan, and irrigators in the Philippines. These communities had found ways of both preserving a shared resource – pasture, trees, water – and providing their members with a living."

The successful communities, Ostrom observed, featured some similarities: "clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions."

Ostrom's research has powerful implications for the field of commons management, an increasingly important aspect of a globalized world facing the threat of destabilizing climate change and other conservation challenges. "While conservation almost always carries at least some short-term costs, researchers have found that many community-based conservation projects reduce those costs and, over time, deliver significant benefits to their human participants, tangible and intangible alike."

Tuesday, May 4, 2021 in Aeon

Indian Trail, North Carolina

Four ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ Zoning Reforms

An excerpt from the latest book on zoning argues for four approaches to reform that can immediately improve land use regulation in the United States.

June 26, 2022 - M. Nolan Gray

Car Traffic

San Francisco Just Ended Single-Family Zoning

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to Tuesday to eliminate single-family zoning, but pro-development advocates say additional changes are needed to unleash a wave of construction.

June 29, 2022 - San Francisco Chronicle

Rent

U.S. Rental Market Crosses a New Threshold of Affordability

In a first for the country's rental market, most U.S. apartments are asking for more than $2,000 to rent, according to data recently published by Redfin.

June 21, 2022 - Redfin

New Jersey Power Plant

Supreme Court Guts the U.S. EPA’s Ability to Limit Carbon Emissions

The consequences of this ruling have long been foretold. With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now officially barred from the fight against climate change, Congress will have to act to reduce carbon emissions.

June 30 - Yahoo News

Central Los Angeles

California Approves Revised Los Angeles Housing Element

State officials officially approved the city’s housing plan, which was initially rejected for not doing enough to enhance housing equity.

June 30 - Urbanize LA

A fly fisher casts on a fog-covered river.

Lawsuit Could Open Public Access to Colorado Rivers

Colorado is one of few U.S. states that has decided that private property owners supersede the public when it comes to access to rivers and streams.

June 30 - High Country News

New Updates on The Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

International Real Estate Strategies and Deal Negotiation

Harvard Graduate School of Design Executive Education

Affordable Housing: Principles for Changing Domestic and Global Markets

Harvard Graduate School of Design Executive Education

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.