Existing policies have struggled to find adequate solutions to the so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ – when individual users tend to act in their own self-interest, contrary to the common good of all users, by depleting or spoiling shared resources through their collective action.

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Scholars reimagine Ostrom’s vision for collective action to confront the climate change challenge

12 March 2019

Earlier this week, a panel of scholars reviewed Elinor Olstrom’s groundbreaking book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, a decade since she became – and remains – the only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, awarded for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.

The governance of natural resources used by many individuals in common is an issue of increasing concern to policymakers and analysts, especially in response to environmental degradation and climate change. Existing policies have struggled to find adequate solutions to the so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ – when individual users tend to act in their own self-interest, contrary to the common good of all users, by depleting or spoiling shared resources through their collective action.

Emeritus Professor Denis Galligan, Emeritus Professor of Socio-Legal Studies and Director of Programmes, Foundation for Law, Justice and Society, Oxford, opened the panel discussion by outlining the two dominant models – state control and privatization of resources – which have been advocated. Since neither the state nor the market have been uniformly successful in solving common pool resource problems, Ostrom introduced a third option: civil society institutions of self-government in which individuals develop their own rules and systems for governing resources shared by the whole community.

Professor Galligan noted the importance of the element of trust between individuals in such a community, and questioned the scalability of the model, based as it was on the undeniably rich case studies of, for instance, small fishing communities, offered in the book.

Dr Chris Decker, Economist and Research Fellow at the Faculty of Law, Oxford took up the question of how people organise themselves when there are opportunities to freeride, agreeing that neither state nor market is the solution to all such ‘tragedies of the commons’. He also expressed reservations about the micro-scale of the analysis, arguing that to move beyond the small-scale (50–100 people) case studies causes complications – and limits what insights we can draw and apply more generally.

Dr Decker postulated what effect individuals adopting contingent strategies, in which they modify their behaviour based on their judgement of how others around them will behave, would have on the theory. He concluded by considering the impact of modern-day technological advances on Dr Ostrom’s theory, surmising that collating and monitoring information from multiple, worldwide, small-scale studies may be easier now with big data analysis – and that it would be much easier to organise collectively through online platforms.

Dr Kevin Grecksch, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford, assessed the book from the perspective of the climate change debate, noting the timeliness of Ostrom’s vision, at a time when the problems associated with the scarcity of resources was far less widely recognized.

He acknowledged the importance of multiple solutions at different scales in fighting climate change – a toolkit of local, national, regional, and international interventions – yet cautioned that it would be almost impossible to mobilize Ostrom’s theory at the global level that climate change ultimately demands of us.

The event was the latest in a termly series of FLJS Book Colloquia. To suggest ideas for future titles to be discussed, please email: info@fljs.org.