The Science of Cooperation

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Ric Cradick

This article is part of a series of articles on the commons. For more, readThe Case for Commons, andA New Political Dawn. For more writing on the commons from the alternative press,

Elinor Ostrom was an unusual choice for the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. She is the first woman to receive the prize, and her doctorate is in political science, not economics (though she considers herself a political economist). And while standard economics focuses on competition, her work is about cooperation.

Ostrom’s influential book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action was published in 1990. But her research on common property goes back to the 1960s, when she wrote her dissertation on groundwater in California. In 1973 she and her husband, Vincent Ostrom, founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, which has produced hundreds of studies of the ways in which communities self-organize to solve common problems.

Fran Korten, Yes! magazine’s publisher, interviewed Ostrom shortly after Ostrom received the Nobel Prize.

Many people associate “the commons” with Garrett Hardin’s famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” He says that if, for example, you have a pasture that everyone in a village has access to, then each person will put as many cows on that land as he can to maximize his own benefit, and pretty soon the pasture will be overgrazed and become worthless. What’s the difference between your perspective and Hardin’s?I don’t see the human as hopeless. There’s a tendency to presume people act just for short-term profit. But anyone who knows about small-town businesses and how people in a community relate to one another realizes that many decisions are not made just for profit, and that humans do try to organize and solve problems.

If you are in a fishery or have a pasture and you know that not destroying it is to your family’s long-term benefit, and if you can talk with the other people who use that resource, then you may well figure out rules that fit that local setting and organize to enforce them. But if community members don’t have a good way of communicating with each other or the costs of self-organization are too high, then they won’t organize, and there will be failures.

So are you saying that Hardin is sometimes right?      Yes. People say I disproved him, and I come back and say, “No, that’s not right. I’ve not disproved him. I’ve shown that his assertion that common property will always be degraded is wrong.” He was addressing a problem of considerable significance that we need to take seriously. It’s just that he went too far. He said people could never manage the commons well.

At the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis we’ve done experiments where we create an artificial form of common property–such as an imaginary fishery or pasture–and we bring people into a lab and have them make decisions about that property. When we don’t allow any communication among the players, they overharvest. But when people can communicate, particularly face to face, and say, “Well, gee, how about if we do this? How about we do that?” then they can come to an agreement.

But what about the “free-rider” problem? Some people abide by the rules and some people don’t. Won’t the whole thing fall apart?If the people don’t communicate and get some shared norms and rules, you’ll have that problem. But if they get together and say, “Hey, folks, this is a project that we’re all going to have to contribute to. Let’s figure it out,” they can make it work. If it’s a community garden, they might say, “Do we agree that every Saturday morning we’re all going to go down to the community garden, and we’re going to take roll and put the roll up on a bulletin board?” A lot of communities have figured out subtle ways of making everyone contribute, because if they don’t, those who don’t contribute are noticeable.

Do you have a favorite example of people self-organizing to manage property in common?One that I read early on that just unglued me, because I wasn’t expecting it, was the work of Robert Netting, an anthropologist who had been studying the Alpine commons. He studied Swiss peasants and then studied in Africa too. He was disturbed that people were saying that Africans were primitive because they used common property so frequently and they didn’t know about the benefits of private property. The implication was that we’ve got to impose private property rules on them. Netting said, “Are the Swiss peasants stupid? They use common property also.”

Let’s think about this a bit. In the valleys, they use private property [for pasturing animals], while up in the Alpine areas, they use common property. So the same people know about private property and common property, but they choose to use common property for the Alpine areas. Why? The Alpine areas are spotty. The rainfall is high in one section one year, and the snow is great, and it’s rich. But the other parts of the area are dry.

If you put up fences for private property, then Smith’s got great grass one year–he can’t even use it all–and Brown doesn’t have any. So, Netting argued, there are places where it makes sense to have an open pasture rather than a closed one. Then he gives you a very good idea of the wide diversity of the particular rules that people have used for managing that common land.

Why were Netting’s findings so surprising to you?I had grown up thinking that land was something that would always move to private property. I had done my dissertation on groundwater in California, so I was familiar with the management of water as a commons. But when I read Netting, I realized that when there are spotty land environments, it really doesn’t make sense to put up fences and have small private plots.

If you were to sit down with someone with a big influence on natural resources policy–say, Robert Zoellick, head of the World Bank, or Ken Salazar, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior–what would be your advice?No panaceas! We tend to want simple formulas. We have two main prescriptions: Privatize the resource or make it state property with uniform rules. But sometimes the people who are living on the resource are in the best position to figure out how to manage it as a commons.

Is there a role for government in those situations?We need institutions that enable people to carry out their management roles. For example, if there’s conflict, you need an open, fair court system at a higher level than the people’s resource management unit. You also need institutions that provide accurate knowledge. The United States Geological Survey is one. They don’t come in and try to make proposals as to what you should do. They just do a good job of providing accurate scientific knowledge. I’m not against government. I’m just against the idea that it’s got to be some bureaucracy that figures out everything for people.

Do you have a message for the general public?           We need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house. Some of the homes that have been built in the last 10 years just appall me. Why do humans need huge homes? I was born poor and I didn’t know you bought clothes anywhere but at Goodwill until I went to college.

Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life in which we help one another in ways that also help the earth.

Excerpted from Yes! (Spring 2010), which takes a positive but not Pollyanna approach to creating a more just and sustainable

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