Open access public pool resources refer to resources generated or existing naturally, which can provide natural materials and conditions for human survival, development and enjoyment. The ownership of these resources is shared by all members of society. The commons is a relative, not an absolute. For example, we can consider the ocean, the forest and the air environment as common pool resources, or we can consider a company, a city and a tourism industry as common pool resources. Different tragedies are happening in different orders of magnitude, such as over-fished oceans, overcut forests, over-polluted air, smaller ones such as overexploitation of tourism resources of ancient culture, random destruction of shared bikes and so on.
Garrett Hardin gives a case to explain what the tragedy of the commons is: a group of users together in a public pasture, one or more users want to maximize their profits, so they chose as far as possible that have more sheep on the land. Even though they knew that this would eventually lead to degradation to the land, they continued to do so. As the quality of the pasture kept facing decline, one day all the grass in the pasture was depleted by the sheep, the shepherds became impoverished at the end. The tragedy of the Commons is a metaphor for those limited resources that are destined to be overexploited through free use and unrestricted demands. The cause of the tragedy of the Commons is mainly caused by the conflict between individual interests and public interests on the distribution of resources. And it’s tragic because there’s nothing we can do about it except for watching it unfolds even though we know it’s terrible and wrong.
Hardin points out two reasons why common pool resources are vulnerable to a tragedy of commons. First is that the unlimited growth of the population increases the demand for resources. Second is that unlimited freedom in the use of resources and in the free choice of individual needs and uses. He offers two solutions: privatization which private property will be better used and cherished, and coercion such as laws, taxes or social responsibilities and rules that most people agree with and enforce on. Different from the traditional approach of external government coercion, Ostrom suggests that the way to solve institutional problems, credible commitments and mutual oversight is for a group of interdependent people to organize and govern themselves.
Ostrom believes that as long as people communicate with each other regularly, they will know who to trust and how their actions will affect others. She lets the public pool resources users monitor the activities of others by self-motivation to maintain compliance with the rules of the sanctions instead of the external force that often used as a method to solve the problem of commitments. She assumes that people would supervise each other to ensure that most people follow the rules as long as producing precious commitments to abide by the rules. However, society is now facing other unpredictable challenges for the tragedy of the commons. They cannot be completely solved until today.