The Tragicomedy of the Commons
27 Pages Posted: 13 Dec 2015
Date Written: December 31, 2014
Scholarship on the commons focuses on a diverse set of problems, ranging from crashing fisheries to crowded court dockets. Because we find commons resources throughout our natural and cultural environments, understanding old lessons and learning new ones about the commons gives us leverage to a wide range of resources. Because the list of resources identified as commons resources continues to grow, the importance of gleaning lessons about the commons will also continue to grow.
That being said, while the resources that make up the commons are certainly diverse, so too are the ways scholars depict it. Even when just considering the classic scholarship on the commons, the faces of the commons are so different they are nearly unrecognizable. Consider, for example, how three of the most prominent commons scholars capture the likeness of the commons: Garrett Hardin, a celebrated ecologist who gave us the concept of the tragedy of the commons, spoke of the commons as an all-out free-for-all. Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Prize winner and a world-renowned political scientist, devoted much of her career to helping us understand how to govern the commons to avoid this tragic end. She showed us that in the commons we often find ways to keep our consumption and that of others at bay. Ostrom made famous a number of case studies that provide examples of where use of the commons is sustainable for long periods of time, even centuries. Carol Rose, a giant within legal academia, helped us see that sometimes an additional user of the commons leads to positive rather than negative ends. She explained that sometimes we face a comedy of the commons, as opposed to a tragedy. In such a case, the picture of the commons focuses not on imposed diets and a trimmed guest list but rather on the challenge of drawing additional people into a commons feast. Echoes of these characterizations of the commons are found throughout the commons literature.
This Essay tries to unify these three stories that we tell and retell about the commons. To do so, it focuses on the strands that bind these stories together into a single narrative. Quite coincidentally, the overarching theme of this larger narrative very much follows the storyline of an extended tragicomedy. And, like any tragicomedy, this narrative has two dominant strands. One strand is plagued with challenges, most of which can be traced back to the internal characteristics of the commons - the nature of the resource, the traits of its users, the way the commons is governed, and the value placed on the commons resource. The second strand is one of hope - that through governance we can overcome these internal challenges and this inertia. However, hope in this context is fragile. It depends on not only guarding against the push toward tragedy but also assuring that the way we govern the commons changes to both take into account surprises and shifts in the way we value the commons. Fortunately, even though the storyline is difficult to alter, the end of each commons story is ours to write.
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