The themes of change and emergence organize the three chapters in Part IV. First, change and emergence are central themes in each of the chapters. Second, the chapters reflect change in the character of theory of the commons and the emergence of new questions and new theoretical approaches. Thus they are not a dénouement in the sense of a resolution for the drama of the commons. But consider that “denouement” is derived from the French “to untangle.” These chapters offer innovative perspectives that deconstruct some of the knottiest questions regarding the drama of the commons—How can we deal with complexity and uncertainty? How do the institutions that we use to manage commons emerge? What are the processes shaping cultures that manage or mismanage commons? These chapters don’t answer these questions. They offer new ways of thinking about these issues, allowing us to see the threads that compose the knot and thus take the first steps toward unraveling it.
Wilson (Chapter 10) begins with a classic tale of mismanagement—the collapse of oceanic fisheries. This tragedy of the commons is so familiar that it might seem it doesn’t bear retelling. But Wilson offers a fresh lens. He focuses on the scientific uncertainty that is inevitable when dealing with complex ecosystems and asks how that uncertainty interacts with the institutions for commons management to produce dire ends. Wilson’s contribution is to suggest ways to think beyond the mismatch between scientific understanding and institutional dynamics. He suggests that we can learn to manage in the face of great uncertainty by developing institutions that are scaled to the systems they are intended to manage. Complex adaptive systems such as fisheries do not behave randomly even if they cannot be adequately modeled. Rather, drawing on notions from chaos and complexity theory, Wilson suggests that such systems shift from one
state to another and that within each state, the behavior of the system is relatively predictable. The trick is to predict the state shifts. He argues that this can be accomplished by matching the span of control of management and monitoring institutions to the scope of the system. If the complex whole is composed of less complex parts, then the behavior of the system might be understood by developing institutions focused on the understandable parts rather than the impenetrable totality. As Wilson notes, we can’t know in advance that any particular institutional arrangement will work. Indeed, presuming we know what will work is part of the hubris that led to the tragedy of the commons in marine fisheries. But he offers some design hypotheses that should prove useful in guiding both institutions and researchers.
McCay (Chapter 11) examines why commons institutions might emerge in some circumstances and not in others. She outlines the many conditions that must be in place for an institution to emerge and engage commons users. This provides a rich set of hypotheses for future research. In addition, she notes that in many cases, commons management institutions may emerge for reasons that are quite distinct from any desire to manage the commons in a sustainable way. She offers the provocative idea that groups may learn to manage commons more to minimize conflict than to conserve a resource. In the last half of the chapter, she examines theoretical stances in human ecology. Students of the commons should not take this as an academic exercise. McCay notes that researchers who go to the field with strong preconceptions about what they are studying and what might explain it may miss what is really happening. She acknowledges that theory and problem selection are essential parts of the research enterprise. But epistemological naïveté can lead to research designs that yield far less than could be obtained by deeper theoretical thinking at the outset. Ideas drawn from the economics of flexibility and event ecology provide the base for a more sophisticated approach to conceptualizing research problems around the commons.
Richerson, Boyd, and Paciotti (Chapter 12) draw on recent work in the Darwinian theory of cultural evolution to suggest why human groups may be able to manage commons and what the limits to such efforts may be. The approach they advocate, contra sociobiology, suggests that in organisms with culture, altruism may be quite common. Rather than the tragedy of the commons, we would expect a comedy of the commons in which people cooperate. But concern for the common good may not extend to all others—there is reason to believe that altruism may extend only to individuals perceived as members of the same social group. Culture determines who is “in” and who is “out.” So the problem in designing institutions to manage commons is a problem of creating a shared definition of the “in” group and eliciting solidarity toward it. Like Wilson and McCay, the arguments in this chapter draw on some rather deep currents in contemporary theory. The ideas that emerge are not esoteric but provide guidance for both empirical research and institutional design.
These three chapters reflect the growing maturity of research on the commons. From the start, commons research was addressing core issues in social theory by examining the balance between altruism and self-interest and the alternative ways in which people might be rational. The rich theoretical and empirical work that followed allows even more complex questions about emergence, transformation, and dynamics to be raised. This entrains some theoretical approaches at the cutting edge of the social sciences: complexity theory, event ecology, and cultural evolutionary theory. Although these chapters are only the opening lines, they hold promise of a very exciting next act in the drama of the commons.