Debates - Commons

Can common property regimes can be ‘sustainable’ and ‘efficient’, or are they instead always doomed to over-exploitation?


A substantial body of theoretical literature has examined the questions of whether common property regimes can be ‘sustainable’ and ‘efficient’, or instead are doomed to over-exploitation. It was the article written by the American biologist Garrett Hardin, and published for the first time in Science in 1968, that provided the impetus for these discussions in the 1970s and which remains the best known formulation of what might be termed the orthodox position. This states that common property is inherently inefficient and results in the over-exploitation of the resources concerned; but recent literature has countered this viewpoint by providing empirical evidence for a more positive view (Netting, 1976; Ostrom, 1990; Feeny, 1990; Gibson, 2000).

It has been stressed that it is possible for groups of users to develop institutions that monitor the behaviour of individual users in such a way that free-riding behaviour is suppressed. Formulated more positively: one needs institutions (rules and their implementation) which foster co-operation between individuals in such a way that they obey the rules, thus making an optimal (efficient) use of the commons possible. It has been argued that under certain conditions stable institutions of self-government can arise and function in a way which guarantees the sustainable use of resources subject to the common property regime.

Though Hardin’s article kick-started the debate, he was of course not the first to discuss the relationship between population pressure, ‘carrying capacity’ and sustainability. In fact the negative opinion may be traced back as far as Aristotles’ Politics (1995): ‘What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. Men pay most attention to what is their own: they care less for what is common’. Closer to the present day, during the 1830s William Forster Lloyd described in his Lectures on population, value, poor-laws, and rent the embryo of Hardin’s parable (Lloyd, 1832; 1833; 1834; 1835; 1836). Gordon and Scott added a fishery-variant to this in his ‘The economic theory of a common-property resource : the fishery’ (Gordon, 1954; Scott, 1955).

The debate continued in 1977 with Managing the Commons, by Baden and Hardin, and by the 1980s had reached several scientific disciplines. Political scientists studied the way that commons work all over the world in the present day. A landmark in the history of the debate was a conference held in Anapolis (Maryland, U.S.A) in 1985. A number of researchers working on different parts of the world used a framework designed by Daniël W. Bromley to standardise the collection and assimilation of ‘case-by-case analyses’ (National Research Council, 1986; Bromley, 1992). Some of the results of this subsequent research were published in the book Making the Commons Work. Theory,Practice and Policy (Bromley, 1992).

In 1989 an ad hoc group of scholars including political scientists, anthropologists, economists, historians and natural resource managers founded the International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP), a non-profit association devoted to understanding and improving institutions for the management of environmental resources that are (or could be) held or used collectively by communities in developing or developed countries. Foremost among the advocates of the possibility of effective common property regimes has been Elinor Ostrom. Her book Governing the Commons, published in 1990, proposed a list of design principles which can be found in long-enduring ‘Common Pool Resource’ (CPR) institutions.

However, this ‘Tragedy’ debate has come to be focused primarily on the commons of today, ranging from local to global commons such as air, water, fisheries and even the internet. Although originally based on a historical example, the relationship of the ‘Tragedy’ thesis to the many historical commons, even within the relatively narrow bounds of Europe, has received little attention.

(De Moor, 2001, 22)



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