Fifty years ago, in December, 1968, Garrett Hardin published his seminal article “The Tragedy of the Commons” in Science. The article has been incredibly influential in a variety of academic disciplines as well as in public policy. It’s read annually by legions of high schoolers and undergrads. You probably read it yourself and have almost certainly heard it discussed. Remember, there’s a bunch of sheep herders who share a pasture openly. Each individual rationally expands the number of sheep in his flock, but since they all do it, they exceed the carrying capacity of the land, leading inevitably to ruin
Hardin described a social dilemma that arises under special conditions. Unconstrained consumption of a shared resource—a pasture, a highway, a server—by individuals acting in rational pursuit of their self-interest can lead to congestion and, worse yet, the depreciation, depletion and even destruction of the resource. To avoid tragedy, we need governance to constrain consumption and ensure sustainability. According to Hardin, possible solutions might be government regulation or private-property–enabled markets, either of which would eliminate the commons.
As many scholars recognized, however, Hardin blurred the idea of a resource system (the pasture) with resource governance (open access), and at the same time, confused open access (no constraints) with commons (sharing among community members on terms set by the community). As a result, he significantly underestimated the power of commons as a form of governance.
In the three decades that followed, Elinor Ostrom and colleagues around the world engaged in rigorous, interdisciplinary social science to diagnose social dilemmas and understand commons as a mode of governing access to and use of shared resources. They focused mostly on natural resources. In 2009, Ostrom, along with Oliver E. Williamson, shared the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (colloquially known as the Nobel Prize in Economics), in large part for demonstrating how communities can effectively govern themselves and their shared resources.
Her approach stressed context and was grounded in empirical study, not ideology. Studies of real communities demonstrated that commons governance works in some contexts and fails in others (Ostrom 1990; Ostrom 2005). Communities may develop their own governance institutions, but communities still are embedded in government and market systems. Ostrom’s work provided insights into how and when effective commons can be implemented.
Commons governance is one way to avoid Hardin’s predicted tragedy, but its practical and normative potential must be evaluated contextually and in comparison with alternatives. There are no silver bullets, and the myopia of searching for panacea-like solutions only makes things worse. Figuring out how best to successfully cooperate in governing ourselves and our shared environments remains one of the core questions studied in law, economics, political science, sociology and many other related fields today.
Over two decades, I’ve worked with many collaborators studying infrastructure commons and knowledge commons. We developed the Governing Knowledge Commons framework, adapting Ostrom’s empirical approach to the special characteristics of knowledge resources. Understanding how communities share and develop knowledge is crucial in today’s “information society.” And, of course, sharing and developing knowledge is critical to successful governance of natural resources, especially on a global scale. Using the GKC framework, we’ve made substantial progress toward an empirical picture of knowledge-related commons governance. But it’s not nearly enough. Here’s why.
Human civilization faces at least two threats to our shared existence that resemble Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. The first is climate change, a wicked social dilemma that threatens the planet—our natural environment. The second is humanity’s techno-social dilemma, an equally wicked social dilemma that threatens humanity—who we are and are capable of being within our built environment.
Both dilemmas demand governance, including collective action at multiple levels and structural changes to the underlying socioeconomic systems that depend on incrementally rational consumption of cheap fuel (e.g., fossil fuel; personal data and human attention). In our modern digital networked world, public trust in governments and markets as sources of governance seems tenuous, at best. Ostrom showed the potential of a third option, grounded in commons. But many researchers and policymakers understood its scope as narrow, limited, for example, to small communities managing local resources.
Now more than ever, we need trusted governance of our shared environments, natural and built. We need to explore if, when and how commons governance can scale. Yet we don’t have decades to wait for social scientists to pursue isolated research projects in loosely connected academic networks. We don’t have time for a piecemeal approach. We need a broad, interdisciplinary, international and coordinated research effort focused on commons governance.