Drama of the Commons (Introduction)

Summary of: Drama of the Commons (Introduction)

Institutional arrangements embedded in a complex social context of rules and norms such as trust can overcome the deterioration and depletion of common-pool resources arising from individuals' rational self-interest; specific arrangements tailored to the inherent characteristics of a common-pool resource and the users can provide the optimal sustainable management of that resource.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
National Academy Press


  • Agrawal and Kopelman, Weber and Messick, in summarizing the research on design principles and psychological factors respectively, both maintain that various commons dilemmas each have a different set of most applicable factors. To successfully study or generate collective action in the instance, one must identify out of the large group of variables presented in the research literature the ones that are most relevant.
  • Technological and economic evolution has accelerated throughout the past centuries; we must equip our institutions for governing the commons with mechanisms for adapting to rapid, often unpredictable changes in the biophysical and social environment.
  • While local-level common property institutions do not guarantee sustainable use of resources, local groups do not have the incentive of mass exploitation of resources that politically powerful multinational corporations have. A broad look at the commons research suggests that positive, responsive interplay between national or sub-national regimes and local institutions cannot be missing from the equation.

Hardin's 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," drew attention to the problem of coordinating sustainable use of common-pool resources (e.g., grazing pastures, fisheries, watersheds, etc). Rebuttals to his article argued that successful management of shared resources where humans value the interests of the whole group can and does emerge, for example in village communities. In the successful cases, the designation of a resource as common property does not entail a simple open-access regime, but instead complex arrangements of usage rights and maintenance duties legitimated through local customs and individual interactions. Social scientists studying common-pool resource management insist on the importance of the initial and local conditions in determining the emergence and sustained vitality of institutional arrangements. Rules must be appropriate to the local conditions, enforced consistently, understood and considered legitimate by the members of the group, and be subject to change by the people they are imposed on. Common-pool resources are always subject to the free-riding problems of overuse and underprovision (people who benefit from the resource but do not help pay for it). Researchers also associate a set of second tier obstacle to creating arrangements for use of these resources, including free-riders who benefit from but don't contribute to setting up the rules governing the institution, participation in monitoring and punishing those who break the rules. The optimal arrangement will depend on, among other factors, subtractibility, whether one user's consumption of the resource diminishes the possibility of use for others.