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Outside/In: The Miracle of the Commons

Photo by Max Murauer on Unsplash
Oryx, Namibia

In 1968, ecologist and biologist Garrett Hardin published “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and to this day the idea has currency in environmental and conservationist circles. But what if the idea is wrong?

Michelle Nijhuis is a project editor at The Atlantic, and the author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction. She recently published an essay titled “The miracle of the commons,” and we spoke with her about alternative ways of looking at the commons that don’t end in tragedy.

Beloved Beasts book and Michelle Nijhuis headshot
Credit Courtesy Michelle Nijhuis

This interview has been condensed for clarity and brevity.

Sam Evans-Brown: What do we mean when we say the tragedy of the commons? What is that referring to?

Michelle Nijhuis: Well, it's referring to a 1968 paper by an ecologist named Garrett Hardin. And it was an essay published in Science. It wasn't based on any data. It was an essay, and Garrett Hardin's argument was that given free access to resources, a group of people would use up those resources until they were gone, and that the only way to prevent what he called the “tragedy of the commons” was either to privatize those resources for people to own them individually, or for there to be some kind of external intervention, some kind of government control of those resources. And for him, those were the only two options to prevent tragedy.

Sam: And the term “the commons,” what is that referring to?

Michelle: Well, he took that term from a very ancient system in Europe of sharing pasture for livestock. Ironically, there have been systems in place throughout Europe that have allowed people to share the commons more or less sustainably for hundreds and hundreds of years. So even when Garrett Hardin wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons,” tragedy was not inevitable.

Sam: What can we say about Hardin himself and how his views were shaping both that idea of the tragedy of the commons, but also how he saw humans themselves?

Michelle: Hardin’s central concern throughout his career was human population growth. He was writing at a time of real anxiety about population growth within the environmental movement and the conservation movement. And this was often delivered with a real overtone of racism -- that the population growth was happening in poor countries; it was happening because people had this sort of insatiable appetite to breed; [and] he worried that certain groups of people reproduce faster than other groups. I think most people who refer to the tragedy of the commons aren't aware of Hardin's biases, and Hardin’s motivations in articulating the idea of the tragedy of the commons. And, you know, it is an attractive and, in some ways, useful idea because it does happen, and it happens in people's daily lives all the time. But Hardin neglected to mention that the tragedy of the commons is anything but inevitable. It doesn't have to happen.

Sam: Can you tell us about Elinor Ostrom, and her work?

Michelle: Elinor Ostrom was a graduate student in political science at the time that Garrett Hardin published his paper in 1968. She was quite surprised by Garret Hardin’s gloomy conclusions about the capability of humans to manage their own resources because she was observing the opposite in her study of water management in the Los Angeles basin. She was watching water users, who were arguing over this very scarce resource in Los Angeles, work out a messy but workable system for sharing this resource. And they hadn't had to resort to privatization or government control. They had managed to work it out among themselves. And so she thought -- this argument that Garrett Hardin is making, that can't be right. I know from experience that humans are capable of this. And she set out to find and document other examples.

Elinor Ostrom
Credit Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikimedia Commons

Toward the end of her career, she identified what she called design principles for communities who managed to share their resources effectively. And her principles included things like good boundaries; they had to define their resources well; they had to have an escalating system of punishments for people who cheated the system; they had to have good relationships with different levels of authority, like household heads or larger scales of authority like states and national governments. But she always emphasized that there were no panaceas. So when she laid out her general design principles, they were always delivered with a warning that these are not rules; these are common features that she noticed as she looked at these systems. But each system has to be tailored in a very particular way.

Sam: Do you have any favorite examples of places that are managing resources particularly well?

Michelle: So in Namibia, the system is that each community organizes what's called a conservancy, and they elect local people to lead it. And a lot of people participate in game surveys to set quotas for each animal that is hunted, and they can then hunt the animals they need for sustenance for their families. They also hire game guards from the community, usually to patrol the area for poachers, and that's often very effective because the local people know the area so well. They have eyes and ears on the ground, and they can often intervene before someone even attempts to poach an elephant or a rhino. They can make sure that the populations of wildlife are healthy enough to allow continued low levels of hunting for the long term. And, you know, when we talk about hunting, we're talking about very occasional hunting of large, charismatic animals, but mostly hunting of antelope, sort of the equivalent of our deer and elk here in North America.

Sam: I'd love to dwell just for a moment on this idea of big game hunting being a tool for conservation, because when you see the trophy photo of a white hunter having shot, say a rhino or a lion, it seems like colonialism. But there's another way to see that, right?

Michelle: There is another way to see that photo. When you speak to people in Africa who are involved with community-led conservation, they will say yes, there are places in which trophy hunting is abused, in which it is exploitation of both wildlife and people. But in certain cases, when it's well controlled, it can be a way of eliminating individual problematic animals and giving back to conservation. So just one recent example from Namibia, a trophy hunter paid the equivalent of four hundred thousand dollars to hunt an older male rhino who was actually interfering with the ability of younger rhinos in the area to mate. It had become aggressive and was causing problems within the herd. And that four hundred thousand dollars was many times what any individual community conservancy might make in a year. Arguably the rhino population was made healthier. It was able to reproduce more because this older male was killed. You know, if someone wants to come from North America or Europe and play the big game hunter and give us four hundred thousand dollars that we can then use for conservation, we'll take that deal. And so, again, I would just point back to Elinor Ostrom who says there are no panaceas. Certainly trophy hunting is not a solution that anyone would recommend applying everywhere and anywhere, but used in this very precise, targeted way. It can be a powerful tool.

Sam: So this critique of the tragedy of the commons has been around for a while now, that I have been aware of it for about ten years. And I want to know, is there a way that we can help to repackage Elinor Ostrom’s ideas into a snappy, “Elinor's Law” or “Ostrom’s Law” that can counteract this really outdated idea?

Michelle: People have tried. People have said it's not a tragedy; it's more like a comedy because you don't know the outcome of a comedy, while you do know the outcome of a tragedy. It's maybe the miracle of the commons. But, you know, I think Elinor Ostrom rightly so, but perhaps to her own disadvantage, resisted these kind of bumper sticker summaries of her own work by always saying there are no panaceas, there's no one solution. It's very complicated. I mean, I think the best and most accurate answer perhaps that there is to the tragedy of the commons is to say [that] it's complicated.

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