Ending the Tragedy of the Commons

It is becoming increasingly common knowledge that our world is on the brink of an unprecedented environmental crisis. However slow the reaction has been, it is beginning to take tangible form and, from petroleum to water, the need to preserve and reduce is becoming a mainstay of the global conservation. One of the essential—and painfully under-acknowledged—factors in this discussion is the question of just how collective societies deal with a scarcity of resources. As the work of Big Think’s recent guest Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel laureate for economics, demonstrates, our understanding of this question appears to have been woefully misguided.

The common assumption in the field is that humans, when faced with a dwindling resource, will continue to act out of a sort of Hobbesian self-interest and consume it until depletion—all eventually having to suffer the dire consequences. Dr. Ostrom, whose research incorporates political theory, economics and field work in a variety of resource-starved regions, believes this theory, commonly known as the “tragedy of the commons”, to be fallacious, arguing instead that humans can carve peaceful solutions to effectively manage shared assets.

Not only is the theory erroneous, its totalizing approach to ecological problems is also deeply flawed. As Dr. Ostrom explains, there is no universal way to understand or cope with shared resources, as the dynamics underpinning a culture's interaction with its resources varies greatly between realms and societies.


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