The challenge to this group is to develop a model of the tragedy of the commons that applies to a broad range of dwindling resources in different cultural and environment contexts and suggest a range of social or institutional solutions to the problem specifying the conditions under which they are likely to be effective. What do we know about potential solutions from various disciplines and what are their limitations? What problems have yet to be solved and how would we go about understanding them (i.e., what additional research needs to be done)?
A variety of factors have been identified as important to understand in the context of common pool dilemmas, including the nature of the resource, the effectiveness of incentives in altering behavior (either rewards for constraint or punishment for exploitation), strategic behavior, size of the community affected, networks and norms, the culture of the group, etc. Thorough consideration of the conditions under which these factors matter, when and how they might be linked, and which ones are the most critical when considering solutions to common resource problems should provide new insights and policy prescriptions. Given the range of domains in which these problems arise some comparative assessment would also be useful. How do solutions under consideration for renewable and nonrenewable resources differ? When do specific solutions to common pool problems generalize across types of resource? Examples include clean air, fish, coal, oil, water, etc. What are the limits to our knowledge in these domains about
what works and what does not work? What do we know about social behavior in these contexts and how it can be modified to contribute to solutions?
Despite over three decades of work on this general topic there are still many unanswered questions about common pool resource dilemmas. Ostrom and her colleagues (e.g., 1990) and others have documented various institutional solutions to the problems involved but no general conclusions have yet been reached about the specific conditions under which various solutions emerge or how they are sustained over time. These solutions range from self-organizing efforts to coordinate activities that provide constraints on resource use to more institutionalized efforts in which those involved give over some autonomy to an authority or policing agent who manages the resource pool and monitors behavior to promote the collective good. In these situations individual self-interest conflicts with the good of the collective in restraining use of the resource that might lead to overuse and depletion of the resource over time.
Why not solved yet? There are general game theoretic models of the underlying collective action problem and empirical research in particular domains of what solutions have emerged in specific cultures to address the problem of the provision of a common good (or common pool resource). However, it does not appear that anyone has attempted to bring this work together across domains to see what we know about general solutions to these problems under specific conditions. An effort to synthesize this work across disciplines is timely and may have important implications for work on climate change and other environmental issues. One reason this has not yet been done seems to be that the work is located in disparate places and disciplines.
What is the current state of the theoretical work on the tragedy of the commons?
What do we know from empirical research about what solutions work in which domains where (which cultures)?
What specific conditions lead to resolution of the problem when? How are they sustained over time?
Axelrod R and Dawkins R. The Evolution of Cooperation. Basic Books: New York, 1984.
Hardin G. The tragedy of the commons. Science 1968;162(3859):1243-1248.
Hardin G and Baden J, eds. Managing the Commons. WH Freeman, San Francisco, 1977.
Ostrom E. How types of goods and property rights jointly affect collective action. Journal of Theoretical Politics 2003;15(3):239-270.
Ostrom E. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K., 1990.
Thompson, Jr. BH. Tragically difficult: The obstacles to governing the commons. Environmental Law 2000;30:241-278.
Strassmann JE and Queller DC. Privatization and property in biology. Journal of Animal Behavior 2014.
IDR TEAM MEMBERS
Sara E. Carney, Texas A&M
Joel E. Cohen, Rockefeller University & Columbia University
Hanna Kokko, University of Zurich
Philip R. LeDuc, Carnegie Mellon University
LeighAnne Olsen, National Academies
Ashlynn S. Stillwell, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Boleslaw K. Szymanski, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Joshua S. Weitz, Georgia Institute of Technology
IDR TEAM SUMMARY—GROUP 5
Sara Carney, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar Texas A&M University
IDR Team 5 was asked to solve the question of the tragedy of the commons, which refers to the eventual exploitation of a common good because each individual is looking out for his or her own interest. This phenomenon has wide-reaching, often global, implications on resources such as fisheries, agriculture, and fresh water. The idea was popularized by Garett Hardin in 1968. Hardin noted that the tragedy of the commons is a problem with “no technical solution.” Instead, he suggests that human morality must be collectively changed, so that maximizing individual rewards are not prioritized over the well-being of the group. Tragedy of the commons has been widely discussed since Hardin put forth the concept. Some institutional solutions have been proposed, notably by American political economist
Elinor Ostrom, but the sustainability and emergence of such solutions is poorly understood.
The example that Hardin used to illustrate the tragedy of the commons is livestock grazing on a shared pasture. To maximize profits, each farmer will graze as much livestock as possible, depleting the resource. The system “collapses” because the resource is exhausted to the point where nobody can benefit. Hardin’s example became one of many used to describe tragedy of the commons. In fact, the phenomenon has primarily been described in terms of examples, often specific to a particular field. A unifying definition of the tragedy of the commons that is generally accepted across disciplines has not yet been developed. In keeping with the goal of the conference, which was to study collective behavior, the IDR team proposed that identifying the idiosyncrasies of different disciplines would be the first step toward understanding the conditions under which tragedy of the commons occurs and proposing methods for preventing collapse.
Defining Tragedy of the Commons
To first reach an initial understanding of tragedy of the commons, the IDR team came up with a “T-shirt slogan” that captures the issue in lay terms: “We can do better without hurting anybody, (and yet we don’t).” Essentially, what this means is that tragedy of the commons may happen only if short-term individual goals are at odds with the ultimate goal of the collective or common good. While we could all collectively be better off by cooperating, we choose not to cooperate because we, as individuals, would not receive the maximum payoff that is possible through acting selfishly. Unbridled self-interest may benefit individuals in the short term, but it will lead to unfavorable results in the end. In addition, some economies, especially capitalism, incentivize such self-interest.
The IDR team cited a number of examples to illustrate how tragedy of the commons is represented across a number of fields, one such example being antibiotic resistance. Motivated by their own self-interest, in this case health, individuals may take antibiotics prescribed by a doctor or farmers may use antibiotics in their livestock, which are eventually consumed by people. Over time, this increases the chance that bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics survive and proliferate, creating a new generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The antibiotic that was once useful in keeping the individual healthy is no longer useful to the population as a whole.
Tragedy occurs when nobody benefits from antibiotics any longer, and the population is faced with diseases it cannot treat.
The IDR team also considered the tragedy of the commons in the context of economic theories. The group explored the relationship of the tragedy of the commons to Pareto’s optimum, in which no participant can maximize its interests without hurting someone else, and Nash Equilibrium, in which individuals do not benefit from changing their strategy. Attempting to reach Nash equilibrium with the current payoff matrix does not favor cooperation. To combat this, the IDR team said, a new system in which there is a collective agreement to cooperate must be in place.
Tragedy, Collapse, and Resilience
A distinction that the IDR team agreed is important to make is between tragedy of the commons, collapse of the commons, and resilience of the commons. Collapse of the commons, the IDR team determined, refers to the complete depletion or destruction of a resource, whereas tragedy of the commons, as described by Garrett Hardin, is the process that may ultimately lead to collapse. In contrast, resilience refers to the increasing value (including economic or psychological value) of the commons over time. Optimistically, the IDR team took the stance that “tragedy is not destiny,” meaning that we can redirect a path from tragedy to resilience, as shown in Figure 1. The IDR team noted than understanding factors that influence this redirection could potentially allow us to understand how to prevent collapse and perhaps turn tragedy into resilience.
Determining the Variables that Affect Tragedy of the Commons
Because tragedy of the commons has largely been defined through examples, the IDR team turned their attention to identifying the variables that lead to tragedy of the commons and the influence of each variable on the outcome of sharing commons. Identifying these variables, the IDR team said, would contribute to better cross-disciplinary understanding of tragedy of the commons. The factors the IDR team came up with are seen at both the individual and collective levels. The IDR team described eight main categories (resource demand, resource supply, scale, time, uncertainty, heterogeneity, implementation, and interactions/institutions). Hypothetically, many of these variables could be summarized in a mathematical equation, but it would need to be determined how influential each of these factors is.
FIGURE 1 Tragedy of the commons can lead to either resilience of the commons or collapse of the commons depending on how the value of the commons changes over time.
While tragedy of the commons cannot be solved at the individual level, the IDR team mentioned that the effects of tragedy of the commons can be seen in the individual and individuals can take steps toward a solution. The IDR team said that a shifting memory scale among generations may contribute to the tragedy. What this means is that though resources are being depleted, an individual grows up with this issue, becomes used to current conditions, and does not realize what was lost. While the resources become progressively depleted, individual attitudes do not change within a generation. In addition, the team mentioned that education or marketing of behaviors that promote commons resilience may influence individual actions. The IDR team referenced systems that allow people to see their water consumption throughout the day. Given this information consumers can determine what activities are using too much water and adjust their habits accordingly.
The IDR team also recognized the importance of interactions among individuals in solving matters that create a tragedy of the commons. In particular, the group focused on trust in human systems (institutional trust, trust among relatives, etc.) and repeated interactions among individuals. The group believed that these two factors, which are not necessarily independent, play a vital role in motivating individuals to act in the interest of the collective rather than the individual. For example, a rancher may not want to overgraze a shared pasture if he or she knows and trusts the individuals sharing this pasture.
On a larger scale, the team noted that certain institutional changes might be effective in solving the tragedy. One such solution is the idea of using financial disincentives to prevent overconsumption. If the cost of depleting resources is prohibitive, to the point that the cost of using the resource outweighs the benefits, individuals will be less likely to deplete the resource to the point of collapse.
Understanding Tragedy of the Commons Across Disciplines
A central question present through IDR Team 5’s discussion was how the concept of tragedy of the commons is represented across disciplines and how the variables that the IDR team came up with are assessed in the literature of those disciplines. The IDR team recognized that there are a number of these variables that will vary conceptually across fields. Perhaps a particular variable is irrelevant to a certain field. IDR Team 5 discussed the need to understand if these gaps are purposeful or if they show potential for further study. This would ultimately bring the scientific community a step further to understanding how variables within tragedy of the commons are weighted and if a unifying mathematical definition can be achieved.
The Next Step
IDR Team 5 conducted a preliminary literature search via Web of Science, looking at the distribution of the citation of the Hardin (1968) article, which the group considered the latest highly cited iteration of the concept, across fields. As would be expected, the search showed that some fields, such as environmental law, were citing this concept more frequently than others, such as criminology. This also illustrates the diversity of the conversation
on tragedy of the commons and the need to bridge these gaps. The IDR team plans to publish a commentary to address these gaps and stimulate dialogue among the fields. The intention is that this commentary will bring interdisciplinary collaboration, as seen in NAKFI, to the rest of the scientific community to collectively address and solve tragedy of the commons.