The Tragedy of the Commons: Hardin v Ostrom

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is a key driver of economic activity without regard to ecological constraints. In view of its importance, it is necessary to answer claims that it is refuted by Elinor Ostrom’s work.

The original essay

“The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin, Science, 162(1968):1243-1248.

used to be available on the internet, but it seems to have been relegated to frequent references. The first four paragraphs of the book résumé page on this blog explains the basic case, but even more briefly, if economic activity is expanding within a limited environment, the first to rein back their actions to preserve that environment put themselves at a disadvantage. The worst behaved gain, so that they are the ones in control when the ecological crisis occurs.

At first sight, the ‘Tragedy’ is contradicted by the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’

Robert Axelrod goes into more detail in his book The Evolution of Co-operation

The example given is of two individuals who will gain marginally if they can trust each other, but each will gain more if the other keeps her/his word, and they renege. Axelrod shows that if the two individuals expect to meet in future, then co-operation is the best strategy, hence the evolution of co-operation. But what if there are hundreds of individuals, who must all trust each other? If anyone thinks that what happened on Rapanui (Easter Island) is not relevant for us, the real life situation for the Easter Islanders was the same as it is now globally: a large number of separate individuals or groups must all be able to trust each other to stop destroying the ecosphere due to our competitive, consumerist culture. Globally the problem is far worse than on Rapanui, where there were only 11 separate clans. All independent nation states, and countless private companies must unanimously show restraint in the face of ecological limits. A minority who continue to ignore limits, or renege on agreements to observe limits gain at the expense of the rest – in the short term –  and  are therefore in a stronger position when the inevitable crunch comes. The Easter Islanders failed this test dismally.

Elinor Ostrom and Vandana Shiva are also quoted as providing evidence against the ‘Tragedy’ thesis.,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.&fp=a0efe76d35983d56&bpcl=37189454&biw=1366&bih=583

They seem to have been misled because the ‘Tragedy’ was used as a pretext for the privatization of former commons, notably the Highland clearances in the Eighteenth century. Hardin did, I am told, express the opinion that his thesis justifies privatization, but all he advocates in his ‘Science’ article is ’mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’. Ostrom and Shiva rightly point out that there are countless examples of the successful management of commons, but what they miss is the cultural context. The validity of the ’Tragedy’ as forcibly illustrated on Rapanui remains. Over five centuries the Easter Islanders had developed a culture which could depend on expansion. Even there, by the time Captain Cook took an interpreter in 1774 the hungry and impoverished descendants of their desperate, and hence briefly cannibal ancestors were beginning to develop strategies that Ostrom and Shiva would recognize. They and Axelrod are right – in the long term. Hardin himself seems to have missed the significance of a growth based culture, and to have been unaware that his thesis had been accurately demonstrated, but due to its small size and total isolation, Rapanui was a classic fulfilment of what Hardin accidentally predicted the first time a society with a culture which has evolved to take maximum advantage of the capacity to expand meets eco-limits. Hardin and Ostrom are both right.

I make no apology for repeating that I am terrified of the implications of the retreating arctic ice sheet. Much faith was pinned on the Copenhagen conference in December 2009. But we can no more stop economic growth before it is too late than the Easter Islanders could stop felling trees. Or can we? Privatization is the worst possible course as long as the culture remains growth  based. I am indebted to Richard Wilkinson for a proposal more specific than ’mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’, based on actual precedents:

“The more equitable the system for the distribution of necessities, the greater the identity of interest within the society when faced by ecological problems.”

What Elinor Ostrom and Vandana Shiva illustrate will become the norm, but their in due course valuable contributions are currently doing more harm than good. The End of the World as we know it need not be at hand, but on current trends, it is.

I am not aware of any outrages this week to which the CI is relevant. Population will be the subject of a full post at some point, but for now I regard other aspects as having higher priority.

Oh yes, Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Ex oil magnate, iffy on gays – not the most hopeful signs for taking the CI on board. But you never know.


4 responses to “The Tragedy of the Commons: Hardin v Ostrom

  1. Clive, it seems from the above that you are basing your claim to the validity of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ on the statement that this is the first time this culture has met ecological limits. I think that would be very hard to justify.
    Firstly we do not know what went on on Easter Island, why they did not realise, or ignored the fact that they were destroying their own resources. We can only speculate. But that knowledge is everywhere available to our culture

    • Anna, Professor Jared Diamond produces a wealth of evidence that there is a pattern. Wherever humans moved into uninhabited territory, they either de-forested it, exterminated game that could have been hunted sustainably, or both. Easter Island is simply the best documented, (mostly archaeology, but also some verbal evidence). Yes we do know what went on. How could they not realize that they were chopping trees down? How could they fail to realize the consequences? As I say in my book, my worry is the bit we can’t be certain of – that they were probably as intelligent as us.

  2. Moreover the prisoners could not communicate with one another, so could not know what the other would choose. If they were able to communicate as we are, it is most likely that they would negotiate as we are able to do. What prevents us is the power politics which dominates the world which clings to the possibility of using force as the ultimate way to get what you want. That belief system has actually worked so far unfortunately and the dominant powers see no reason to give it up. For the same reason they would not countenance the CI. Why should they? That would mean giving up control, sharing power with others, and learning to live as equals.

    • Ability to communicate misses the point being made in the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’. It is I think clearer in my ‘shepherds’ example in my book and résumé: if 10 shepherds each have 10 sheep, in a meadow which will support 100, if 8 exercise restraint and 2 continue to expand (and the others can’t stop them), the 2 gain at the expense of the rest, in the short term. So when the resource crunch comes, they are the ones in control.
      Those battening on us may not like the CI, but in my naivety, I am blogging because I want to see what happens when millions world wide take up the cry in unison.

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