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22 SEPTEMBER 2016

Elinor Ostrom and the solution to the tragedy of the commons

Elinor Ostrom's "research concerned the governance of common resources (also known as commons). The commons are natural resources, like land for grazing, fishing areas, forests for timber, water for the irrigation of farmland, and also more intangible resources, like knowledge, for which it is very expensive to control and fence in 'user' consumption. The problem with these types of resources, as shown in 1968 by Garrett Hardin (but Aristotle had already observed a similar phenomenon) is that they are over-exploited, or at least their care and sustainability is overlooked by users. The reason is that people behave opportunistically (like free-riders) and consider the resource they are accessing, without the possibility of being excluded, as a free resource, and they therefore maximize their private benefits but neglect, or collectivize, the costs.

Hardin coined the phrase 'tragedy of the commons' to describe this phenomenon and gave social sciences one of the most evocative metaphors after Adam Smith’s 'invisible hand'. These two metaphors are effective because they capture two essential social situations in marked contrast to one another. When social interactions are guided by an invisible hand, they reconcile individual choice and socially desirable results, whereas in the tragedy of the commons, individuals pursuing their private objectives cause disastrous consequences for themselves and others. The solution to the tragedy of the commons, before the contribution of Ostrom and her studies, was to privatize resources or, in a diametrically opposite view, to form a Leviathan state in order to manage them.

Instead, Ostrom demonstrated that, within communities, rules and institutions of non-market and not resulting from public planning can emerge from the bottom up to ensure a sustainable, shared management of resources, as well as one that is efficient from an economical point of view. Besides the village of Törbel, Ostrom shows examples of common lands in the Japanese villages of Hirano and Nagaike, the huerta irrigation mechanism between Valencia, Murcia and Alicante in Spain, and the zanjera irrigation community in the Philippines. Also, the property in the form of 'vicinale', neighborhoods, typical of regions of Italy like Emilia, the Belluno and the Ticino, are also collective institutions, although not investigated by Ostrom. The argument then has a more modern example if one notices that even the 'Wikipedia community' is a form of successful collective institution of a communal resource (knowledge)."

(Flavio Felice, Massimiliano Vatiero, 27 June 2012)

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TAGS

Adam Smith • American political economist • assets • Belluno • bottom-up organisation • collective institutions • collective interests • common pool resources (CPR) • common propertycommons • communal resource • economic governance • economic science • Elinor Ostrom • Emilia • English Industrial Revolution • exploitationfencing • Flavio Felice • Garrett Hardin • governance of common resources • Hirano • huerta irrigation mechanism • individual choice • invisible hand • Karl Polanyi • land management • Massimiliano Vatiero • Nagaike • natural resourcesopportunism • over-exploitation • political economics • political economist • political economyprivate control • privatisation • privatisation of land • public government • public planning • resource managementsocial interactionssocial situation • socially desirable results • sustainabilitysustainability thinking • Ticino • Torbel • tragedy of the commons • vicinale • Wikipedia • Wikipedia community • zanjera irrigation community

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
24 MAY 2010

Digital Commons: a shared social-ecological system

"With the Internet nurturing the sharing spirit inherent in people, 'commons' has taken on a new meaning. Free software proved spectacularily that the commons is a viable alternative to commodification. The term 'Digital Commons' is widely used but only losely defined. Still, it has an obvious evocative power, and the potential to reconceptualize our knowledge environment and to unite those fighting for its freedom.

Charlotte Hess will give an overview of the historical and contemporary uses and meanings of the 'commons,' 'common–pool resources,' and 'common property' as they apply to both natural and digital resources. The challenge she takes up is to build shared understandings and definitions in this rapidly emerging area of scholarship which will give rise to appropriate collective action."

(Wizard of OS, 12 June 2004)

[2] Hess, C. and E. Ostrom (2006). Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, MIT Press.

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TAGS

2004 • Charlotte Hess • commodificationcommon property • common-pool resources • commonsdigital • digital commons • digital culturedigital resources • information commons • information in contextintegrationInternetknowledge commons • knowledge environment • sharingtechnology

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
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