Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges

Summary of: Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges

The empirical and theoretical research stimulated by Garrett Hardin's 1968 conclusion that users of a commons are caught in an inevitable process that leads to the destruction of the resources on which they depend indicates that while tragedies of the commons are real, they are not inevitable.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Science, Vol 284, Issue 5412, 278-282
April 9, 1999


  • Institutional diversity may be as important as biological diversity for our long-term survival. Centralized government (socialism) and free enterprise aren’t the only soultions.
  • Management of CPR resources depends on the cooperation of appropriate international institutions and national, regional, and local institutions. The characteristics of the specific CPRs affect the problems of devising governance regimes to manage them.
  • Solving CPR problems involves two distinct elements: restricting access and creating incentives (usually by assigning individual rights to, or shares of, the resource) for users to invest in the resource instead of overexploiting it.
  • Four broad types of property rights have evolved or are designed in relation to CPRs. Empirical studies show that no single type of property regime works efficiently, fairly, and sustainably in relation to all CPRs.
  • The prediction that resource users are led inevitably to destroy CPRs is based on a model that assumes all individuals are selfish, norm-free, and maximizers of short-run results.
  • However, predictions based on this model are not supported in field research or in laboratory experiments in which individuals face a public good or CPR problem and are able to communicate, sanction one another, or make new rules.
  • Whether norms to cope with CPR dilemmas evolve without extensive, self-conscious design depends on the relative proportion of specific behavioral types in a particular setting.
  • Modern technology and the news media now enable large groups to monitor one another's behavior and coordinate activities in order to solve CPR problems.
  • Perceived benefits are greater when the resource reliably generates valuable products for the users.
  • Attributes of resource systems and their users affect the benefits and costs that users perceive.
  • If users have some initial trust in others to keep promises, low-cost methods of monitoring and sanctioning can be devised.
  • Setting whether people are able to self-organize and manage CPRs also depends on the broader social setting within which they work.

The central fault with Hardin’s conclusion is that it presents a disempowering, pessimistic vision of the human prospect. Users are pictured as trapped in a situation they cannot change, and thus it is argued that solutions must be imposed on users by external authorities. In fact, for thousands of years people have self-organized to manage common-pool resources, and users often do devise long-term, sustainable institutions for governing these resources.

For most of history, the use of CPRs has been at the local level. Irrigation, grazing land, etc. have been successfully managed as CPRs. However, as the pace of population growth continues and globalization increases there is a corresponding strain on resources beyond local areas. Ocean fisheries, groundwater basins and the atmosphere are some of the more obvious examples of resources that transcend local boundaries.

Designing an effective management system requires that each CPR be examined individually to determine such properties as the size and carrying capacity of the resource system, the measurability of the resource, the temporal and spatial availability of resource flows, the amount of storage in the system, whether resources move (like water, wildlife, and most fish) or are stationary (like trees and medicinal plants), how fast resources regenerate, and how various harvesting technologies affect patterns of regeneration.

Additionally, an effective management system must deal with the relationship between the resource and the users. It is critical that the system results in sufficient benefits to the users to justify the cost of maintaining the resource and monitoring its use to ensure compliance with accepted norms.

Traditional methods of CPR management combined with new insights resulting from research in social science and advances in technology will be key to designing management systems able to meet the challenge.

Research in social science offers new understanding in determining what social values need to be in place in order for diverse groups to reach agreement on how to profitably and safely use the resource. New technology offers better ways to measure the properties of a resource and enhanced ways to monitor the maintenance and use of the resource.

The rules and norms that make any CPR management system operate well are often not visible to external observers, so efforts by well-meaning outsiders (whether in the form of central government or private companies) often result in reduced rather than improved performance. Thus, it is most important that the actual users of the resource play a key role in developing the management system.