In 1968 Garrett Hardin published his infamous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons”. In likening the Earth to a common pasture where numerous herdsmen all bring their cattle to graze, Hardin forcefully uncovered the problems that arise when rational individuals all pursue their own self-interest in a limited space with finite resources. Today, Hardin’s metaphor remains extremely relevant, and now, like then, we seem unable to resolve the tragedy that “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”
Although we have yet to transcend the problems of the commons, many scientists, theorists and practitioners have dedicated their lives to overcoming this tragedy. Dr Elinor Ostrom was one such individual, and her recent death has left a hole in not only the political science and economic communities but also in the world at large. As a tribute to her life and work, the following briefly discusses her influential ideas about “common-pool resources” (CPRs) and reiterates her message that despite the difficulties associated with addressing environmental degradation in today’s international political arena, there is evidence (and consequently hope) that the people of the world can overcome “the tragedy of the commons” through cooperation and collaboration.
Ostrom took the “tragedy of the commons” head on by debunking the long-standing assertion that individuals, when placed within CPR situations, will act rationally but be helpless to the “collectively irrational outcomes” that lead to the eventual destruction of the common resource. In other words, Ostrom directly confronted the theoretical understandings of the prisoner’s dilemma game (which is oftentimes recognized as the formalized version of Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” scenario), and she determined that “the theory of rational but helpless individuals has not been supported.” In her magnum opus, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, and numerous other publications, Ostrom used case studies and empirical data to prove that individuals within CPR situations can in fact act rationally, collaboratively and cooperatively to overcome the dilemmas that arise from resource sharing. With examples ranging from Swiss cattle owners sustaining communal grazing lands to farmers in Nepal successfully using and maintaining shared irrigation systems, Ostrom demonstrated that that there is a way for people to transcend the tragedy of the commons while also maintaining the vitality of the CPR.
Looking more closely at her study of irrigation systems in Nepal, one can clearly see where individual farmers succeeded in devising a system in which communication, cooperation and trust allowed multiple parties to use the same water resource. Furthermore, these farmers were able to monitor, maintain and manage their immigration system much more successfully than the government irrigation initiative that was simultaneously taking place across the region. When analyzing the data of both systems, it is clear that “irrigation systems governed by the farmers themselves perform significantly better on all performance measures. On the farmer-governed systems, farmers communicate with one another at annual meetings and informally on a regular basis, develop their own agreements, establish the positions of monitors, and sanction those who do not conform to their own rules. Consequently, farmer-managed systems are likely to grow more rice, distribute water more equitably, and keep their systems in better repair than government systems.” This example, and many others like it, highlight the fact that government run initiatives are oftentimes less effective, poorly maintained and more costly than the locally grown projects carried out by the directly impacted users of the CPR.
In the macro picture of academia and politics, Ostrom’s findings are highly significant because the success of decentralized, locally initiated programs have forced the world’s political scientists, economists, political theorists and practitioners to rethink their conceptions of CPR situations. Historically, the vast majority of economic and political theories describe “a world presided over by a government, and sees this world through the government’s eyes. The government is supposed to have the responsibility, the will and the power to restructure society in whatever way maximizes social welfare … private individuals, in contrast, are credited with little or no ability to solve collective problems among themselves.” In this sense, the traditional understanding – the idea that the only reliable way to cope with CPR situations is to have a powerful governing body (imagine Hobbes’ Leviathan) to enforce a standardized set of rules and regulations – is forcefully challenged. Ostrom’s evidence directly opposes this older notion, and her work demonstrates that decentralized, locally initiated programs can be tremendously successful where governments have seen endless failure. Thus, Ostrom has forced theorists and practitioners to seriously reconsider how they conceive the world, and thus ultimately how they develop solutions to the environmental degradation.
By demonstrating that individual people can collaborate and resolve CPR situations, Ostrom’s research serves to infuse a bit of optimism into the global discourse about the environment. As a bright light in the field of economics and political science, Ostrom’s work should not only be continued, but we should also heed her word by “facilitating the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans. We need to ask how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.”
Dr. Elinor Ostrom died on Tuesday, June 12, but her work and ideas will continue to live on as we struggle to transcend the tragedy of the commons. Rather than continue to be limited by traditional, top down and government centric theories, “it is high time that both investigators working out of her tradition, and students of international relations in general, paid more attention to the implications of her work for the study of world politics.” Although there is much political and economic work to be done before we resolve the tragedy of the commons, Ostrom’s efforts provide is a tremendous foundation to build upon, and she is a teacher that we should continue to follow in the years to come.
 Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1243-1248.
 As defined by Ostrom, a “common-pool resource” refers to a natural or man-made resource system that is sufficiently large as to make it costly to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use … examples include fishing grounds, groundwater basins, grazing areas, irrigation canals, bridges, parking garages, mainframe computers, streams, lakes, oceans, and the Earth’s atmosphere.” [Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 30.]
 Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 5.
 Ibid., 3.
 Elinor Ostrom, “Prize Lecture” (Video), Nobelprize.org, 16 Jun 2012 http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1223.
 Elinor Ostrom, “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” in Les Prix Nobel: The Nobel Prizes 2009 (Nobel Foundation: Stockholm, 2010), 427.
 Richard Sugden, The Economics of Rights, Co-operation, and Welfare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 3.
 Elinor Ostrom, “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” in Les Prix Nobel: The Nobel Prizes 2009 (Nobel Foundation: Stockholm, 2010), 435-436.
 Robert Keohane, “Review Symposium: Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons,” Political Perspectives 8 (2010), 579.