Listen to this article
While delivering his Nobel lecture in 2007, Al Gore declared: “Today, we dumped another 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer.”
It’s a powerful example of the way we tend to argue about the impact of the human race on the planet that supports us: statistical or scientific claims combined with a call to action. But the argument misses something important: if we are to act, then how? Who must do what, who will benefit and how will all this be agreed and policed?
To ask how people work together to deal with environmental problems is to ask one of the fundamental questions in social science: how do people work together at all? This is the story of two researchers who attacked the question in very different ways – and with very different results.
“The Tragedy of the Commons” is a seminal article about why some environmental problems are so hard to solve. It was published in the journal Science in 1968 and its influence was huge. Partly this was the zeitgeist: the late 1960s and early 1970s was an era of big environmental legislation and regulation in the US. Yet that cannot be the only reason that the “tragedy of the commons” has joined a very small group of concepts – such as the “prisoner’s dilemma” or the “selfish gene” – to have escaped from academia to take on a life of their own.
The credit must go to Garrett Hardin, the man who coined the phrase and wrote the article. Hardin was a respected ecologist but “The Tragedy of the Commons” wasn’t an ecological study. It wasn’t really a piece of original research at all.
“Nothing he wrote in there had not been said by fisheries economists,” says Daniel Cole, a professor at Indiana University and a scholar of Hardin’s research. The key idea, indeed, goes back to Aristotle. Hardin’s genius was in developing a powerful, succinct story with a memorable name.
The story goes as follows: imagine common pasture, land owned by everyone and no one, “open to all” for grazing livestock. Now consider the incentives faced by people bringing animals to feed. Each new cow brought to the pasture represents pure private profit for the individual herdsman in question. But the commons cannot sustain an infinite number of cows. At some stage it will be overgrazed and the ecosystem may fail. That risk is not borne by any individual, however, but by society as a whole.
With a little mathematical elaboration Hardin showed that these incentives led inescapably to ecological disaster and the collapse of the commons. The idea of a communally owned resource might be appealing but it was ultimately self-defeating.
It was in this context that Hardin deployed the word “tragedy”. He didn’t use it to suggest that this was sad. He meant that this was inevitable. Hardin, who argued that much of the natural sciences was grounded by limits – such as the speed of light or the force of gravity – quoted the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote that tragedy “resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things”.
Lin Ostrom never believed in “the remorseless working of things”. Born Elinor Awan in Los Angeles in 1933, by the time she first saw Garrett Hardin present his ideas she had already beaten the odds.
Lin was brought up in Depression-era poverty after her Jewish father left her Protestant mother. She was bullied at school – Beverly Hills High, of all places – because she was half-Jewish. She divorced her first husband, Charles Scott, after he discouraged her from pursuing an academic career, where she suffered discrimination for years. Initially steered away from mathematics at school, Lin was rejected by the economics programme at UCLA. She was only – finally – accepted on a PhD in political science after observing that UCLA’s political science department hadn’t admitted a woman for 40 years.
She persevered and secured her PhD after studying the management of fresh water in Los Angeles. In the first half of the 20th century, the city’s water supply had been blighted by competing demands to pump fresh water for drinking and farming. By the 1940s, however, the conflicting parties had begun to resolve their differences. In both her PhD, which she completed in 1965, and subsequent research, Lin showed that such outcomes often came from private individuals or local associations, who came up with their own rules and then lobbied the state to enforce them. In the case of the Los Angeles water producers, they drew up contracts to share their resources and the city’s water supply stabilised.
It was only when Lin saw Hardin lecture that she realised that she had been studying the tragedy of the commons all along. It was 1968, the year that the famous article was published. Garrett Hardin was 53, in the early stages of a career as a campaigning public intellectual that would last the rest of his life. Lin was 35, now Ostrom: she had married Vincent Ostrom, a respected political scientist closer to Hardin’s age, and together they had moved to Indiana University. Watching Hardin lecture galvanised her. But that wasn’t because she was convinced he was right. It was because she was convinced that he was wrong.
In his essay, Hardin explained that there was no way to manage communal property sustainably. The only solution was to obliterate the communal aspect. Either the commons could be nationalised and managed by the state – a Leviathan for the age of environmentalism – or the commons could be privatised, divided up into little parcels and handed out to individual farmers, who would then look after their own land responsibly. The theory behind all this is impeccable and, despite coming from a biologist, highly appealing to anyone with an economics training.
But Lin Ostrom could see that there must be something wrong with the logic. Her research on managing water in Los Angeles, watching hundreds of different actors hammer out their messy yet functional agreements, provided a powerful counter-example to Hardin. She knew of other examples, too, in which common resources had been managed sustainably without Hardin’s black-or-white solutions.
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.
This is not to deny the existence of the tragedy of the commons altogether. Hardin’s analysis looks prescient when applied to our habit of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or overfishing the oceans. But the existence of clear counter-examples should make us hesitate before accepting Hardin’s argument that tragedy is unstoppable. Lin Ostrom knew that there was nothing inevitable about the self-destruction of “common pool resources”, as economists call them. The tragedy of the commons wasn’t a tragedy at all. It was a problem – and problems have solutions.
If Garrett Hardin and Lin Ostrom had reached different conclusions about the commons, perhaps that was because their entire approaches to academic research were different. Hardin wanted to change the world; Ostrom merely wanted to describe it.
That goal of description, though, was a vast project. Common pool resources could be found all over the planet, from the high meadows of Switzerland to the lobster fisheries of Maine, from forests in Sri Lanka to water in Nepal. Hardin’s article had sliced through the complexity with his assumption that all commons were in some sense the same. But they aren’t.
To describe even a single case study of governing a common resource is a challenge (Lin’s PhD was devoted to the West Basin water district of Los Angeles). Vincent Ostrom, Lin’s husband, had developed the idea of “polycentricity” in political science: 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.
Complicating the problem further was the narrow focus of academic specialities. Lin was encouraged that many people had been drawn, like her, to the study of common pool resources. But they were divided by discipline, by region and by subject: the sociologists didn’t talk to the economists; the India specialists didn’t talk to the Africanists; and the fishery experts didn’t know anything about forestry. As Ostrom and her colleagues at the University of Indiana looked into the problem they discovered more than a thousand separate case studies, each sitting in isolation.
Undeterred, they began to catalogue them, seeking to explain the difference between the successful attempts to manage environmental resources and the failures. There were the Swiss farmers of the village of Törbel, who had a system of rules, fines and local associations that dated from the 13th century to govern the use of scarce Alpine pastures and firewood. There were the fishermen of Alanya, in Turkey, who took part in a lottery each September to allocate fishing rights for the year ahead.
Over time, Ostrom developed a set of what she called “design principles” for managing common resources, drawn from what worked in the real world. She used the phrase hesitantly since, she argued, these arrangements were rarely designed or imposed from the top down; they usually evolved from the bottom up.
These principles included effective monitoring; graduated sanctions for those who break rules; and cheap access to conflict-resolution mechanisms (the fishermen of Alanya resolved their disputes in the local coffee house). There are several others. Ostrom wanted to be as precise as she could, to move away from the hand-waving of some social scientists. But there were limits to how reductive it was possible to be about such varied institutions. Lin’s only golden rule about common pool resources was that there are no panaceas.
Her work required a new set of intellectual tools. But for Ostrom, this effort was central to her academic life because knowledge itself – when you thought about it – was a kind of common pool resource as well. It could be squandered or it could be harvested for the public good. And it would only be harvested with the right set of rules.
Ostrom’s research project came to resemble one of the local, community-led institutions that she sought to explain. In 1973, the Ostroms established something called the “Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis”. Why not a school or a centre or a department? It was partly to sidestep bureaucracy. “The university didn’t know what a workshop was,” says Michael McGinnis, a professor of political science at Indiana University and a colleague of the Ostroms. “They didn’t have rules for a workshop.”
But there was more behind the name than administrative guile. Vincent and Lin believed that the work they did was a kind of craft. (The couple had built their own home and made much of their own furniture, under the guidance of a local craftsman – the experience made an impression.) The students who attended didn’t call themselves students or researchers. They called themselves “workshoppers”.
The workshop under the Ostroms seems to have been a remarkable place, brightened up by Lin’s sparkling laugh and garish tops. (The laugh was a reliable sign that she was in the building, available to be buttonholed by students.) At reunions, Ostrom would lead the singing of folk songs; it was that kind of place. The Ostroms never had children but the workshoppers did – and those children called Lin “Grandma”.
The logic of Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay is seductive but to read the text itself is a shock. Hardin’s policy proposals are extreme. He believed that the ultimate tragedy of the commons was overpopulation – and the central policy conclusion of the article was, to quote Hardin, that “freedom to breed is intolerable”.
In a 1974 essay, “Living on a Lifeboat”, he argued that it was pointless sending aid to starving people in Ethiopia. That would only make the real problem worse – the real problem being, of course, overpopulation.
Hardin robustly defended his views. In a 1987 interview with The New York Times, he opined, “There’s nothing more dangerous than a shallow-thinking compassionate person.
God, he can cause a lot of trouble.” But perhaps it was Hardin who was the one failing to think deeply enough. The logic of “The Tragedy of the Commons” worked well to frame a class of environmental problems. The danger was when Hardin leapt to drastic conclusions without looking at how other, similar-looking problems were being solved, again and again, by communities all over the world.
Nor has Hardin’s needle-sharp focus on overpopulation stood the test of time. When he published “The Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, the growth rate of world population was higher than it had ever been – a rate at which population would double every 30 years. No wonder Hardin was alarmed. But birth rates have fallen dramatically. The world continues to face some severe environmental problems. However, it’s far from clear that “freedom to breed” is one of them.
There was no great public showdown between Lin Ostrom and Garrett Hardin, but Hardin did return to speak at Indiana University in 1976. The Ostroms invited him and some graduate students to dinner. Barbara Allen, now a professor at Carleton College, was one of them. She recalls that “the conversation was vigorous” as Hardin laid out his ideas for government-led initiatives to reduce the birth rate in the US, while Lin and Vincent worried about the unintended consequences of such top-down panaceas.
Allen recalls two other details: the way that Lin made space for her students to enter the argument and her joy in a new kitchen gadget she was using to make hamburgers for everyone. She loved “the odd delights of everyday life”, Allen later wrote, and loved to celebrate what worked.
Hardin, by contrast, seems to have been more of a pessimist about technology. “Technology does solve problems,” he told an interviewer in 1990, “but always at a cost.”
Lin Ostrom was a more optimistic character altogether. When she won the Nobel memorial prize for economics in 2009, she was the first woman to do so. She was quick to comment: “I won’t be the last.”
Some of her most recent research addressed the problem of climate change. Scientifically speaking, greenhouse gas emissions are a global pollutant, and so efforts have focused on establishing global agreements. That, said Ostrom, is a mistake. Common pool problems were usually too complex to solve from the top down; a polycentric approach was necessary, with people developing ideas and enforcing behaviour at a community, city, national and regional level.
Ostrom barely slowed down when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011. She kept going until the final days, leaving voicemail messages for Vincent who, at the age of 90, was deaf and beginning to become confused. (Her students would type them up and print them out in large fonts for him to read.) When Lin died last June, at the age of 78, she was reviewing a student’s PhD thesis. She’d been annotating the text, which lay on the table beside her hospital bed. Vincent died two weeks later. The couple left almost everything to the workshop.
Garrett Hardin and his wife Jane also died together, in September 2003. After 62 years of marriage, and both suffering from very poor health, they killed themselves. Perhaps strangely for a man who thought overpopulation was the world’s ultimate problem, Garrett Hardin had four children. But there may be a certain kind of logic in that. Hardin always felt that overpopulation was inevitable. He died the way he lived – a resolute believer in the remorseless working of things.
To comment on this article, please email email@example.com
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published