25 March 2010
The Commons and common property regimes have recently become all the rage. The government is implementing ecosystem management based on common property systems in a variety of cases (i.e. NOAA and fisheries management), and Elinor Ostrom, who has pioneered research on common property regimes and heads the Center for the study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change (CIPEC), recently won the Nobel Prize in economics. I personally, think that common property regimes have the potential to revolutionize the way we interact with the environment and one another - if they're implemented properly.
So just a little background:
Common property refers to any resource that is managed for the public good. In the case of fisheries, for example, everyone has equal access to the fish and, assuming they have the means, can go out on the water and extract what they need. Garrette Hardin wrote a famous essay on the "Tragedy of the Commons" demonstrating that, when everyone has equal access to a resource, it is in the best interest of an individual to extract as much as possible as quickly as possible before others do the same. He argued, that this would draw down the resource quickly leading to collapse of the commons. However, his research has come under criticism from Ostrom and others. They say that what Hardin described is not a common property regime, but an open access regime. In practice, common property is effectively managed through cultural norms and consensus, so that individuals are not allowed to extract beyond a certain limit. As a result, the commons is maintained from generation to generation without collapsing.
Common property regimes have proven effective in a number of cases including the lobster fishery of New England, and provide a viable alternative to privatization schemes which limit access to resources and often cause more harm than good (i.e. Bolivia's water crisis). I believe that using common property regimes as well as other locally based, self-organized management systems will create a more equitable and sustainable economic future.