The Struggle to Govern the Commons

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Thomas Dietz, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul C. Stern, “The Struggle to Govern the Commons,” Science, 2003.

Hardin’s oversimplification was twofold: He claimed that only two state-established institutional arrangements-centralized government and private property-could sustain commons over the long run, and he presumed that resource users were trapped in a commons dilemma, unable to create solutions. He missed the point that many social groups, including the herders on the commons that provided the metaphor for his analysis, have struggled successfully against threats of resource degradation by developing and maintaining self-governing institutions. Although these institutions have not always succeeded, neither have Hardin’s preferred alternatives of private or state ownership. …

Effective commons governance is easier to achieve when (i) the resources and use of the resources by humans can be monitored, and the information can be verified and understood at relatively low cost; … (ii) rates of change in resources, resource-user populations, technology, and economic and social conditions are moderate; (iii) communities maintain frequent face-to-face communication and dense social networks – sometimes called social capital – that increase the potential for trust, allow people to express and see emotional reactions to distrust, and lower the cost of monitoring behavior and inducing rule compliance; (iv) outsiders can be excluded at relatively low cost from using the resource; … and (v) users support effective monitoring and rule enforcement. Few settings in the world are characterized by all of these conditions. The challenge is to devise institutional arrangements that help to establish such conditions or, as we discuss below, meet the main challenges of governance in the absence of ideal conditions.

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