The fundamental point of the Ostroms’ research on the commons is the distinction between “open-access” conditions—such as Hardin’s tragic pastureland—and careful, rule-bound management of natural resources, examples of which are found the world over. Governing the Commons showcases a series of these. Some are of ancient origin, such as Spain’s Tribunal de las Aguas, “a water court that has for centuries met on Thursday mornings outside the Apostles’ Door of the Cathedral of Valencia.” A whole chapter is dedicated to the de novo creation of the Central and West Basin Water Replenishment District in Los Angeles in 1959, the subject of Elinor’s dissertation. Yet another chapter is devoted to analyzing “several cases of outright failure,” including the acrimonious negotiations that continue to undermine good management of the San Bernardino County water supply adjacent to LA.
The cases in the book were selected from among the hundreds that the Ostroms had examined over the years. Although heterogeneous in other ways, all the examples were based in grassroots organizing, as exemplified by a Turkish inshore fishing ground threatened with collapse from overuse. By the early Seventies, competition for the most productive trawling spots had become violent. Faced with social and economic breakdown, the fishers began to experiment with ways to share the catch more fairly. A decade of trial and error resulted in an ingenious set of rules for rotating boats throughout the season, spacing the trawling grounds far enough apart so that production is optimized, and giving every boat an equal chance at the highest-yielding spots. A list of fishing grounds is endorsed by every fisher at the beginning of the season, and shared with the local mayor and gendarme. Despite the power of local officials to impose fines for violations, monitoring and enforcement of the rules ended up being carried out primarily by the fishers themselves.
In their pursuit of practical guidelines for organizing commons management regimes, the Ostroms derived some abstract models and rules from their observations of real-world success and failure. Like Hardin, they deployed game theory to this end. Their version of game theory was more variegated, generous and sophisticated than his, but it still featured the autonomous, self-interested individuals of classical economics, figuring out how to solve collective problems for the sake of ecological sustainability.
For some on the left, the fact that the Ostroms base their models on the assumption of individual self-interest is enough to condemn the approach as hopelessly neoliberal. I submit that this is precisely the strength of their commons governance research. As Elinor Ostrom put it in one of her syllabi: “How can fallible human beings achieve and sustain self-governing ways of life and self-governing entities as well as sustaining ecological systems at multiple scales?” The assumption of selfishness is a critical analytical tool for answering this question. Without it, it is all but impossible to implement strategies for overcoming such perennial difficulties as the free-rider problem. If you’ve ever lived in a communal house and noticed how dirty dishes pile up in the sink during the day, you will know what I mean. With apologies to Audre Lorde, this is one case where we can and must use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.
As it happens, the Ostroms’ research has yielded such a wealth of information about what works and what doesn’t that psychologists have begun to formulate some practical wisdom from the data. One group, for example, has identified “four core motives for decision making in social dilemmas: understanding, belonging, trusting and self-enhancing.” None of this is particularly utopian. It turns out that we needn’t be selfless communards in order to escape the trap of Hardin’s “rational” herdsmen. The portrait of human nature that emerges from work on commons governance is that of a species fundamentally self-interested, incorrigibly social and perfectly capable—under the right conditions—of rational, bottom-up stewardship of commonly owned resources.
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