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Governing the Commons: how communities can look after their environment

  • by JW

One of the most popular reads in academia is Garrett Hardin’s ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’:

The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users, by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action. The theory originated in an essay written in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (also known as a “common”) in Great Britain and Ireland.[1] The concept became widely known as the “tragedy of the commons” over a century later due to an article written by the American biologist, philosopher, and eugenics supporter Garrett Hardin in 1968.[2][3] In this modern economic context, “commons” is taken to mean any shared and unregulated resource such as atmosphereoceansriversfish stocksroads and highways, or even an office refrigerator.

The only woman to gain the Nobel Prize for Economics is Elinor Ostrom:

Although common resource systems have been known to collapse due to overuse (such as in over-fishing), many examples have existed and still do exist where members of a community with access to a common resource co-operate or regulate to exploit those resources prudently without collapse.[4][5] Elinor Ostrom was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics for demonstrating exactly this concept in her book Governing the Commons, which included examples of how local communities were able to do this without top-down regulations.[6]

Tragedy of the commons | Wikipedia


Here are a couple of recent looks at her book:



The Futures Forum blog has looked at these issues over the years:

Futures Forum: Elinor Ostrom: sustainable development…. and the ‘tragedy of commons’

Futures Forum: Neighborhood Environmentalism: protecting biodiversity … … and defining ‘the environment’

Futures Forum: The triumph of the commons

Futures Forum: “The quiet realization of Ivan Illich’s ideas in the contemporary commons movement “

Futures Forum: Transition to the knowledge commons

Futures Forum: Towards a commons-based society

Futures Forum; Transitioning to a post-scarcity world

Futures Forum: Brexit: and life after the Common Fisheries Policy >>> >>> or: food sovereignty and the commons

Futures Forum: The Commons: ‘it’s very much now’ in Cumbria and Exmoor

Futures Forum: Transition and the Commons

Futures Forum: Building a new social contract

Futures Forum: Transition to a new society … a new economy … a new way of life

Futures Forum: “Making the case for affordable housing on public land” >>> Or: Why doesn’t the District Council build affordable housing on its own land?


Over the last couple of weeks, these ideas have been raised once again – but within a rather ominous if not ugly new context:

First as Tragedy, Then as Fascism | The Baffler

Why White Supremacists Are Hooked on Green Living | New Republic


“The Tragedy of the Commons”: how ecofascism was smuggled into mainstream thought


Garrett Hardin’s 1968 Science essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” is one of the most widely assigned readings in the past ten years’ worth of university syllabi; notionally, it describes how property that is held in common is prone to overuse and exhaustion, while privatization creates an owner who has an incentive to serve as a wise steward over the resource.

Hardin was an ardent nativist and eugenicist, and the “The Tragedy of the Commons” was Hardin’s jumping-off point for full-blown ecofascism: a strain of ecological thinking that treats humans as a kind of cancer on the Earth, doomed to grow out of control until they trigger a mass die-off…

“The Tragedy of the Commons”: how ecofascism was smuggled into mainstream thought Boing Boing








Here is comment from earlier in the year:

Eco-fascism is undergoing a revival in the fetid culture of the extreme right | Gurdian

The “Tragedy of the Commons” was invented by a white supremacist based on a false history, and it’s toxic bullshit | Boing Boing


With an excellent thread from a prof at Santa Barbara: