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Managing the Global Commons of a Liveable Planet

A colleague spoke recently of the “tragedy of the commons” in relation to why so many African drivers prefer to use cumbersome gas-guzzling 4X4 vehicles as opposed to the more modest hybrid vehicles that I was advocating. The quality of public roads in Africa is so bad that people need robust vehicles, the argument went. These heavy vehicles with chunky tyres, in turn damage the paving even more. This leads to a vicious circle of deteriorating road conditions in which it is impossible to introduce more environmentally friendly modes of transportation. Short of introducing tolls on all roads in a user-pays system, which would exclude the majority of road users, and effectively privatise the roads, or imposing modest means of transport by coercive governments (can you spot the problem?), it seems inevitable that the common good of serviceable road networks on the continent will eventually be eroded. This, at least, is what Garrett Hardin would conclude.[1] In his view, people make intelligent decisions regarding their self interest, but are incapable of restraining themselves in their use and abuse of what does not belong to them personally, and of which ownership is held in common. As the number of users increases, the commons become exhausted from overuse, and are then useless for anyone.

Hardin correctly points out that the earth is a finite space, with limited resources, but he draws racist conclusions about which populations should not be permitted to increase. In line with Meadow’s et al., we cannot deny that there are Limits to Growth,[2] but these limits should not then be transformed into policies based on race or ethnicity, as Hardin would have liked. We should also interrogate more closely the assertion of Pope Francis that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.”[3] Of course, “extreme and selective consumerism” is one side of the coin of the “present model of distribution where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in such a way that can never be universalised.” The other side of the same coin is the fact that our common home does actually have limits, and the present industrial modes of production and consumption are stretching the earth to its limits. Or as Baronsky et al. warn, we are “approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere meaning that: “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”[4]

In 1990 Elinor Ostrom gave a more optimistic, evidence-based alternative theory to Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. In Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Ostrom proposed eight generalisable design principles following which common pool resources (CPR) can continue to serve their users without depletion or exhaustion. These rational principles presuppose the buy-in of all the users of the CPR, and rely on reciprocal trust, communication and mutual concern of all the users. Enlightened self interest leads people beyond a Hobbesian “each one for himself” attitude towards a concern for the common patrimony of our fellow citizens. The design principles are generally listed as:

  • Well defined boundaries
  • Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs
  • Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions
  • Monitoring
  • Graduated sanctions
  • Conflict resolution mechanisms
  • Minimal recognition of rights (to organize)
  • For groups that are part of larger social systems, there must be appropriate coordination among relevant goups.[5]

But this is not meant to be a theoretical essay on collective self governance or how to overcome pessimism. What I’d like to highlight is that biodiversity loss, global climate change, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, etc., are not necessarily inexorable calamities that loom over the whole world. They can be averted, or at least moderated, if we follow the eight principles of Elinor Ostrom. The care that she observed people taking on a local scale, for example with Swiss meadows and pasturing of cattle, has been observed on greater scales in Africa. For example, if communities have a say, and some level of decision making in the maintenance of biodiversity and landscapes, then in some cases they are willing to forgo their agreed rights to exploit the natural resources at their disposal. Michelle Nijhuis offers a very good example of this in Namibia, where community-governed conservancies cover tens of millions of acres.[6] In contrast to government-owned and managed wildlife reserves, the conservancies benefit from the goodwill of the local populations despite these populations sometimes being directly harmed by rogue animals that destroy crops, or prey on livestock or people. Members of the conservancies find ways to deal with problem animals, including, but not limited to selling hunting licences for these animals. (But that is another whole article.)

The eight design principles to mange the CPR have been seen to work in practice – on local and regional scales. The principles can be applied to the use of motor vehicles, to the preservation of biodiversity and biomes, to the population question, etc. The challenge facing our world is to apply the principles on a global scale to preserve the global common goods of climate, fish stocks, ocean acidity, biodiversity, wetlands and forests, etc. This requires global political collaboration, and mechanisms to ensure that nations are not allowed to “cop out.” Without the commitment of every social system, our common home will certainly suffer the “Tragedy of the Commons.”

[1] Cf. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 162, No. 3859 (13 Dec, 1968) 1243-1248.

[2] Cf. Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The Limits to Growth. New  York: Universe Books, 1972. available online at: and Meadows, Donella H., Jørgen Randers, and Dennis L Meadows. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Burlington, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004

[3] Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, 50.

[4] Anthony Baronsky, Elizabeth A. Hadly, et al. “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere.” Nature 486 (7 June 2012): 52-58.’s_biosphere 57.

[5] Cf. for example, Michael Cox, Gwen Arnold and Sergio Villamayor Tomás, “A Review of Design Principles for Community-based Natural Resource Management” Ecology and Society¸15 No.4 (2010)

[6] Cf. Nijhuis, Michelle. “The Miracle of the Commons.” aeon  (4 May 2021).