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Posts Tagged ‘Elinor Ostrom

“So distribution should undo excess, and each man have enough”*…




What makes a person healthy, wealthy, and wise? The UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) measures this by one’s life expectancy, average income, and years of education.

However, the value of each metric varies greatly depending on where you live. Today’s data visualization from Max Roser at Our World in Data summarizes five basic dimensions of development across countries—and how our average standards of living have evolved since 1800…

While there’s absolutely no room for complacency, the details are encouraging: “How the Global Inequality Gap Has Changed In 200 Years.”

* Shakespeare, King Lear (Act 4, Scene 1)


As we mind the gap, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that Science published Garrett Hardin‘s influential essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  Hardin was building on an argument from an 1833 pamphlet by economist William Forster Lloyd which included a hypothetical example of over-use of a common resource– cattle herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze, as was the custom in English villages.  Lloyd postulated that if a herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing could result.  For each additional animal, a herder could receive additional benefits, while the whole group shared the resulting damage to the commons.  If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.  Hardin generalized this example to all natural resources in arguing that population should be controlled: that left to their own devices, humans would deplete all natural resources, leading to a Malthusian collapse.

Elinor Ostrum received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her work demonstrating that humans can, in fact, share– and in so doing, be effective stewards of commonly-“held” natural resources.

3859.cover source


“What is common to many is least taken care of”*…



As an evolutionary biologist who received my PhD in 1975, I grew up with Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in Science magazine in 1968. His parable of villagers adding too many cows to their common pasture captured the essence of the problem that my thesis research was designed to solve. The farmer who added an extra cow gained an advantage over other farmers in his village but it also led to an overgrazed pasture. The biological world is full of similar examples in which individuals who behave for the good of their groups lose out in the struggle for existence with more self-serving individuals, resulting in overexploited resources and other tragedies of non-cooperation…

Unbeknownst to me, another heretic named Elinor Ostrom was also challenging the received wisdom in her field of political science. Starting with her thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles: 1) Clearly defined boundaries; 2) Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; 3) Collective choice arrangements; 4) Monitoring; 5) Graduated sanctions; 6) Fast and fair conflict resolution; 7) Local autonomy; 8) Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance). This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009…

David Sloan Wilson on the design principles that can solve the tragedy of the commons: “The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas.”

For more on the tragedy of the commons, see here— also the source of the cartoon above.

* Aristotle


As we share and share alike, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that we– the entire population of the earth– narrowly avoided total obliteration, as the 500,000 ton asteroid/planetoid 69230 Hermes failed to collide with our planet.  It missed by twice the distance of the Moon… but that’s only three seconds.  (In 1989, the earth had an even closer approach, but by the smaller 4581 Asclepius.)

69230 Hermes




Written by LW

October 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

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