What if there is no "tragedy of the commons?"


The idea of a tragedy of the commons is deeply rooted. It suggests that any communal resource will ultimately be depleted by the selfish actions of individuals. Common pasture is inevitably overgrazed. 

The theory was encapsulted in a 1968 article by Garrett Hardin. But the logic and facts behind it turn out to be questionable - well articulated in Tim Harford's article, Do You Believe in Sharing? :

"The problem with Hardin’s logic was the very first step: the assumption that communally owned land was a free-for-all. It wasn’t. The commons were owned by a community. They were managed by a community. These people were neighbours. They lived next door to each other. In many cases, they set their own rules and policed those rules."

Harford describes the work of political scientist, Lin Ostrom, who found many examples of communities where rules evolved to manage shared resources. The systems that evolve are not simple, but are "polycentric":

"Polycentric systems have multiple, independent and overlapping sources of power and authority... By their very nature, they are messy to describe and hard to compare with each other. Unfortunately for any tidy-minded social scientist, they are also everywhere."

The whole article makes fascinating reading. We see important parallels for our work as facilitators. If we go along with being tidy-minded, we end up with meetings that fail to bring out the potential of the group. Instead, we prefer to embrace the apparent messiness that goes with allowing participants greater agency in the process, rather than trying to control everything from the centre. 

(Thanks to our friend Jon Husband for pointing us towards this.)