Colin Knowles (detail) \ CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr

Colin Knowles (detail) \ CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr

Aristotle nailed it when he said, “What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care.” He elaborated that people “pay most attention to what is their own; they care less for what is common.”1 One wonders whether the ancient teacher could have foreseen the day when his words would provide warning of global commons problems.

Many of our shared natural resources – fisheries, forests, groundwater – as well as large parts of our life-giving environment – the oceans and atmosphere – are held in common and are called “commons.”2 Successful, sustainable management of the commons is therefore one of the greatest imperatives of our time. But our short-term, individual, “rational” self-interest tends to trump long-term, mutual interests. In his classic 1968 article, Garrett Hardin describes this paradox as “the tragedy of the commons.” Although Hardin confused “common property” with “open access,” two very different arrangements, the tragedy of the commons is still useful as a metaphor.3

Much can be learned from the management of local and regional commons to gain insight into managing global commons.

Many articles in this issue of A\J and much current public attention are focused on one overriding commons concern: the atmosphere, a global commons heading toward tragedy. Atmospheric pollution is a big, unwieldy problem, but it’s neither unique nor isolated as commons problems go. Much can be learned from the management of local and regional commons to gain insight into managing global commons.

To avoid Hardin’s “tragedy,” commons have been typically managed in one of four ways: as state property, as private property, through community management or as a mixture of the three approaches.

Until recent decades, the state property approach was most prevalent throughout Canada, and was characterized by top-down, centralized management and regulation; essentially, leave it to the government experts. However, our government’s record on managing the commons fails to impress. Newfoundland cod disaster? Enough said.4

If the results of top-down management fall short, how about allowing market forces to work their brand of magic? Many resources can be privatized – agricultural land, for instance. Others, like oceans, cannot because they’re simply not ownable. However, rights to use some ocean resources can be bought and sold. For example, the individual transferable quota in commercial fisheries allows buying and selling of government-allocated harvesting rights among fishers.5

The community management approach – collective management of commons under locally designed rules – offers a third model. Such community-based solutions have been successful with irrigation systems and lagoon fisheries around the world, as well as First Nations land and resource use in Canada.6 Collective management solutions have also been successfully scaled up and applied regionally, nationally and internationally.

Political scientist and economist Elinor Ostrom demonstrated that the community management approach was quite workable under conditions of good communication, trust and reciprocity. She developed principles for collective action, detailed in her 1990 book Governing the Commons, and became the 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences.7 Ostrom notes, however, there is no panacea, no blueprint solution. The approach most likely to succeed is hard work on a case-by-case basis, involving a mix of government regulation, market forces and community-based management as appropriate to the situation.8

These approaches to managing common resources have implications for managing the global commons and, in particular, for reducing greenhouse gases currently emitted by all nations. To date, international agreements (which can be considered a kind of top-down arrangement) have been ineffective to even slow the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Canada’s own track record of emissions is a national embarrassment: We have failed to meet even the most basic targets agreed upon by the global community of nations. Moreover, we continue to increase emissions by pursuing a policy of developing and exporting fossil fuels, as politicians in power continue to argue that this approach is economically rational – precisely the kind of short-term, self-interested thinking that leads to the tragedy of the commons.

Canada’s next opportunity to restore standing as a good environmental citizen comes later this year at the 21st Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris. Countries and other jurisdictions such as provinces will be encouraged to adopt new measures to reduce emissions for the post-2020 period. However, international agreements are only binding on sovereign states like Canada when those states pass their own legislation to make it so. If Canada and the provinces prove willing to take action on climate change (and that would require a major shift in policy) we can look to the past for lessons on how to move forward.

For instance, the Montreal Protocol of 1987, signed on by the global community, banned ozone-depleting chemicals from industrial use. This ban, along with changing technology for refrigeration, resulted in a long-term solution to atmospheric ozone depletion. Acid rain was brought under control – but not quite solved – through a mix of international agreements, emission markets (capping total emissions and trading polluting rights), technology change and improved national standards. In both cases, pressure from scientists and citizens provided the impetus for national-level action followed by international agreements.

A similar mix of innovative approaches could begin to rein in the problem of greenhouse gases. Carbon taxes hold promise as part of a cluster of solutions and are being introduced by some governments in North America. British Columbia’s carbon tax, which applies to all fuels and is relatively simple to administer, is one model. Some governments in Europe, as well as California and Quebec, have chosen to use a carbon market approach, a great solution if all greenhouse gas sources could be brought into the market process.

The pathway most likely to succeed, as Ostrom noted, is a combination of community management with support from government regulation and market forces. Starting at the local level, community management can scale up to create sustainable cities, transportation networks and sustainable agriculture. This approach would question (among other things) short-sighted forestry and fisheries policies, mines that pollute large areas, and energy projects that increase (rather than decrease) Canada’s carbon footprint.9

Canadians need to think globally and act locally, using our votes to deliver a clear government mandate: Stop playing the tragedy of the commons. Make Canada a good global citizen. Heed Aristotle’s warning and join the community of nations for collective action.10

Sources and notes

  1. The Aristotle quotation comes from Politics, Book II, Chapter 3.

  2. Commons or common-pool resources are defined as those “in which (i) exclusion of beneficiaries through physical and institutional means is especially costly, and (ii) exploitation by one user reduces resource availability for others” (Ostrom et al. 1999, p. 278). See: Ostrom, E., J. Burger, C. B. Field, R. B. Norgaard, and D. Policansky 1999. Revisiting the commons: local lessons, global challenges. Science 284: 278–282.

  3. Hardin used the example of an imaginary pasture in Medieval England to which cattle herders had free and open access. Each herder received a direct benefit (say +1) from adding one more animal to graze in the pasture, but the costs of degrading the pasture were shared by all (a fraction of -1). Thus, each herder had the incentive to put as many cattle on the pasture as he could.  Adding more animals was the economically rational choice for the individual; yet everyone exercising their rational choice led to the degradation of the pasture, and produced a “tragedy” (in the sense of ancient Greek tragedies) for all. See: Hardin, G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162: 1243-1248.

    The tragedy of the commons, as a metaphor, is still valid. But as a theory of the commons, it has been rejected because Hardin confused “common-property” with “open-access”, two very different arrangements. See: Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.

  4. The “experts” are usually government scientists and decision-makers. There are a number of shortcomings of top-down and centralized management: it stifles local stewardship and the ability of people to solve their own problems; it often does not take into account local needs; it results in too few and too narrow interests in decision-making; and it is expensive. See: Bocking, S. 2004. Nature’s Experts. Science, Politics and the Environment. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.

  5. The individual transferable quota (ITQ) may be economically efficient where it can be enforced. But it often leads to the dumping of under-sized fish and increasing by-catch (incidental catches of non-quota species). ITQs can also have negative effects on independent small-scale fishers, households and communities. Socially inequitable outcomes may include redistribution of access to fishing opportunities, favoring some enterprises and communities and disadvantaging others. As a neo-liberal option, ITQs shift the management responsibility from governments (supposedly accountable to people) to corporations. Economic efficiency becomes the resource allocation criterion, and societal objectives are assumed to coincide with corporate objectives. Colin Clark and colleagues have shown that many resources, especially those that replenish themselves slowly, cannot be safely entrusted to complete private control; there are limits to private resource ownership. See: Clark, C.W., G.R. Munro and U. R. Sumaila 2010. Limits to privatization of fishery resources. Land Economics 86: 209-218.

  6. Historically, beaver and other species important for Canada`s fur trade came under community-based management. Communities controlled geographic areas in which families of fur trappers were the stewards who harvested the land, and looked after it on behalf of the community. After the 1930s, governments became involved in management, supporting the community-based system but also distorting it by formalizing it. See: Feit, H.A. 1991. Gifts of the land: hunting territories, guaranteed incomes and the construction of social relationships in James Bay Cree society. Senri Ethnological Studies 30: 223-268.

  7. These principles for collective action were tested against the findings of a large number of empirical studies and updated accordingly by Cox, M., G. Arnold, and S. Villamayor Tomás 2010. A review of design principles for community-based natural resource management. Ecology and Society 15(4): 38. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss4/art38/

  8. Co-management is a special case in using a mix of ways of managing. Typically, co-management involves the sharing of power and responsibility between the government and local resource users. It may be about a particular resource, a set of resources, or an area. Some co-management involves communities and businesses, as in forestry co-management in British Columbia. In general, co-management is about shared decision-making with stakeholders, including First Nations. For example, each of the contemporary northern aboriginal land claims agreements has co-management provisions for wildlife, marine mammals, fisheries and land use. See: Armitage, D., F. Berkes and N. Doubleday, editors 2007. Adaptive Co-Management: Collaboration, Learning, and Multi-Level Governance. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver.

  9. Why is this approach of combining community management, government regulation, and market forces more effective than the current feeble approaches to climate change? Because that is the lesson from local and regional commons management. But also because such an approach makes it more likely that a broader diversity of interests are represented, and because solutions would then start closer to home, with a tighter feedback loop between action and outcome. See: Levin, S.A. 1999. Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons. Perseus Books, Reading MA.

  10. How this would work in practice is not for us to say; it requires collective action, starting with a clear mandate to the government for policy change. Who precisely will do the “hard work” is not easy to determine, but a broad range of groups of people from community associations to provincial and federal governments, and industries need to be involved, representing various sectors from agriculture and forests to urban transportation. Towards a Canadian Climate Action Plan, prepared by Sustainable Canada Dialogues provides examples of concrete steps that can be taken, and some prescriptions for policy and action.

Fikret Berkes is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Community-Based Resource Management, and winner of the 2014 Sustainability Science Award of the Ecological Society of America.

Taysha Palmer has served in both the private and public spheres, for not-for-profit organizations and science/research teams. She focuses on knowledge transfer and facilitating multi-disciplinary teams.

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