The great service of Ostrom and her colleagues has been to contest this unattractive view, and to offer a powerful set of counterexamples of conservationist social institutions. Ostrom and others have pointed out that the problem that Hardin called “the commons” was really a problem of “open access,” whereas a common resource that is limited to a particular group of users may suffer no such decimation. Indeed, Hardin’s dominating example of the medieval common fields was not tragic at all, but was rather an example of a set of community-based sustainable agricultural practices that lasted for centuries, if not millennia (Cox, 1985; Dahlman, 1980; Ostrom, 1990; Rieser, 1999; Smith, 2000).
As the first chapter of this book notes, there has been considerable variety in the nomenclature that refers to such limited common resources and the community governance processes that manage them,1 but for purposes of this chapter, I will refer to community-based management regimes for common property resources as “CBMRs.” I use this term to convey what I hope is a subtly greater attention to governance institutions and practices, rather than to the common-pool resources that underlie them; obviously, however, the physical and the institutional are intertwined—no doubt giving rise to the difficulties in nomenclature.
Whatever the names and emphases, institutions for managing common resources have become the subject of a growing and rather affectionate literature. This literature includes descriptions and analyses of un-tragic community resource management practices all over the world—Turkish fisheries, Japanese and Swiss grazing communities, ancient and modern Spanish irrigation systems, communal forestry in India and Indonesia, wetlands management by medieval English “fen people,” fishing and hunting practices among northern Canadian clan groups, lobster fishing communities in Maine (Berkes, 1995; Bosselman, 1996; Ostrom, 1990).
Obviously, there is a great deal to be said simply for setting the record straight about what the “commons” really mean and have meant over time. But there are larger lessons implicit or explicit in the CBMR literature as well, and they are lessons of a somewhat more political nature. First is the lesson that voluntary social action is possible, and in particular that it is possible as a means to solve resource-related problems. That is to say, contrary to some of the more pessimistic presentations of the dismal science, human beings are not always individual maximizers, getting themselves stuck in the endless repetition of n-person PDs. Instead, quite ordinary people have the psychological, social, and moral wherewithal to arrive at cooperative arrangements on matters of common interest. A second lesson is that bigger is not always better. More particularly, the CBMR literature offers numerous examples in which larger governmental forays into resource management are distinctly inferior to community-based solutions, and in which governmental intervention has badly damaged perfectly workable community systems (Higgs, 1996; Ostrom, 1990; Pinkerton, 1987). In short, the ever-expanding CBMR scholarship argues strongly that nongovernmental, commu-