Comedy of the commons

New research shows that commonly held resources can be shared in a sustainable manner, overturning theoretical models that have dominated since the late 1960s. John Dyer reports.

Shepherds and herders have shown that they are able to share commonly held resources in a sustainable manner. (Image credit: Patrick Schneider via Unsplash)

American ecologist Garrett Hardin painted a dismal picture of human nature in 1968.

In his essay entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Hardin showed how shepherds who had access to a field would logically buy as much sheep as possible to maximize their profits even if, ultimately, they overgrazed the land, ruining it for everyone, including themselves.

The idea took hold among environmentalists and others who used Hardin’s model to argue that governments needed to regulate consumption of the world’s resources in order to protect them.

Blinded by theoretical models

But new research says Hardin might have been too pessimistic about people.

“We’ve been told that if there is open access, then there must be tragedy, but that’s simply not true,” said Ohio State University Anthropologist Mark Moritz in a press release. “We’ve been blinded by the theoretical models. Using a new approach has helped us see from a different perspective.”

Publishing his findings in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Moritz and his coauthors argued that Australian foragers, Ecuadoran fisherman and others successfully shared commonly held resources in a sustainable fashion.

Cameroonian herders, for example, live nomadically, moving before their herds eat too much vegetation in any given place. Traditions in the herders’ community have developed that allow seasonal rains to help new grass grow before they return to old grasslands.

“The inappropriate way to use the resources would be to put up a fence and keep the animals there throughout the year, even during periods when there is no rain and the grass isn’t growing,” said Moritz.

Self-regulating, bottom-up traditions

He noted that the traditions were self-regulating from the bottom of society, not a top-down solution imposed by politicians or elites.

“There is no central decision making or collective decision making about resource use. Individual users decide when and where to move or harvest resources,” he said. “The system self-organizes so that the distribution of resources matches the distribution of the users.”

He emphasized that freedom of movement was essential to the process. Land needed to be commonly held and herders needed to be able to move across vast tracts in order for the system to work.

“The standard approach is to protect the resource. But you can’t see the resource in isolation. We have to look at the social-ecological system as a whole,” Moritz said. “People are part of the ecosystem. They are not managing the ecosystem, they are using it. You can’t separate people from resources they are use.”

Greater freedom protects against climate change

Scientists at the University of Exeter in Britain and the University of Melbourne in Australia recently reached similar conclusions in a study published recently in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources. Those researchers studied climate change explicitly, but their findings could apply to any situation where humans faced an unsustainable situation.

“Many of the people most at risk from environmental changes have the fewest freedoms and therefore the least ability to adapt in the face of such difficulties,” Jon Barnett, a geographer at the University of Melbourne, said in a press release. “Policies that give greater freedoms – especially freedom of movement – reduce the impact of these changes on vulnerable populations.”

Moritz and his co-authors felt as if they had tapped into other, deeper truths about humanity, though.

Among their revelations were that communities that don’t trigger a tragedy of the commons often live in low-population-density areas that contained products – like shellfish – that were not especially profitable in the first place. In other words, the people often lived near-subsistence level existences where they didn’t seek to gain more than the share of the resources they needed for survival.

Moritz suggested that anyone interested in sustainability consider his subjects’ lifestyles rather than seek grand solutions that might ultimately constrain the natural processes that result in sustainability and avoid the tragedy of the commons.

“Management implies conscious intent to shape ecological interactions to support a unique human value and sets humans apart as stewards of nature rather than agents whose actions belong there,” Mortiz wrote in his study.

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