Ostrom's Framework for Tragedy of the Commons as Employed to Global Climate Change

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 There is a common understanding that whenever many individuals have access to and use a certain resource, there will undoubtedly be deterioration of this resource (Hardin 1968). The dire consequence of the over-usage of common resources has been coined, the tragedy of the commons. A commons is by definition rivalrous and non-excludable. These two components are regarded as a fatal combination which causes their inevitable destruction. As no guarantee exists that the resource will be around for much longer, there’s a “rush” to ruin, everyone thinking of their own self-interest, disregarding the common well-being (Hardin: 1968). Hardin even goes so far as to say that a tragedy of the commons is the result of rational behavior.

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We find ourselves in a state of scarcity with a growing global population putting greater pressure on the environment. Since most of the world depends greatly on common resources in order to fulfill their most basic needs, there has been lots of debate in academia and in politics on how to avoid a tragedy of the commons. Hence, a response is becoming more and more urgent.

Conventionally, there are two opposing theories on how to govern the commons in order to avoid a tragedy, which Ostrom (1990) summarizes in her first chapter. One side calls for the imposition of a strong central authority, a Leviathan in the Hobbesian sense, thinking that coercive force is the only way to avoid environmental ruin. On the other side are the proponents of privatization, claiming that turning commons into private property and thus making them excludable is the only way to save common resources. The commonalities of the two suggestions are two-fold. Firstly, both intend to a certain degree to change the non-excludability criterion inherent to a commons. Secondly, they both depend on an external governmental power to impose their institutional changes on the involved individuals in order to efficiently achieve their goals.

Currently, policy analysts in general assume individuals once trapped in a commons problem are unable to change their situation themselves and must rely on outside governance (Ostrom 1990).

Ostrom (1990) unmasks both the centralizers’ and the privatizers’ claims as being oversimplified, idealistic and short-sighted theories. The institutions they advocate are assumed to run perfectly, without there being any evidence that this would be the case empirically. Important factors, which would dismantle the theories are left out, chiefly, the consequence of possible social injustice due to incomplete information or unequal distribution of property.

As an alternative to the conventional dichotomy, Ostrom presents a solution to the commons issue in which the individuals involved represent the key actors. With her suggestion, she challenges the assumption that individuals are helpless in freeing themselves from a dilemma situation. The key element of her theory is that participants make binding contracts themselves based on the information disposable to them. Her assumption is that participants in direct contact with the common resource will have more exact information than an external central authority. For the contract to be enforceable, there must be unanimous consent of all involved individuals. If desired a private agent can be put in charge of enforcing the contract, this enforcer however has no say in the composition of the contract. As those who negotiated the contract have an incentive to keep it intact, they will monitor each other and report any breach of the contract.

By comparing empirical examples of local commons in which a version of Ostrom’s suggestion is successful, she was able to sum up the most important similarities into eight design principles for governing commons (Ostrom 1990: 90-102).

Since Ostrom has solely looked at local examples, it would be interesting to contemplate whether her framework can be applied on a global level as well.Many global commons are essential for our survival on earth and the speed at which they are deteriorating is frightening. Currently, global warming is seen as one of the biggest threats to preserving life on earth. Uncovering solutions for sustainably governing global commons could greatly contribute to halting the rapid progression of global climate change.

By means of two of Ostrom’s examples, the meadows and forests of Törbel (Ostrom 1990: 61) and the fishery in Alanya (Ostrom 1990: 18), as starting points, I will compare the different characteristics of local and of global commons. Then I will try to illustrate the issues that arise when trying to apply Ostrom’s eight principles to global commons.

In both the example of Törbel and of the fishery in Alanya, the number of the involved individuals is overseeable, neither example counts over 1000 participants. Clearly, also the extents of the commons in the examples are of local and manageable scale. Furthermore, the actors are connected through various factors. Firstly, the participants share a cultural background. They share a “joint ownership” of the common resource, since all of the members are non-owners and rules regarding the use must be discussed and agreed upon by all of the participants (Penner 2006). Secondly, the appropriators interact with the resource directly. All of the participants own what Penner would call “proprietary rights”, as they all “realize a particular value by engaging with a thing in a particular way” (Penner 2006: 167), fishing in the case of Alanya, keeping cattle and forestry in the case of Törbel. Thus, the appropriators can be certain that the deterioration of the resource is due to this particular activity. As their livelihood depends on using the common resource the participants have a collective interest to maintain it. Additionally, it can be said that the deterioration is immediately perceived by the involved individuals and as the scope is small, only they will be affected by it (Stern 2011). Considering that in these two examples Ostrom analyzed renewable resources, the individuals are able to correct previous errors, without having caused irreversible damage.

Now let us compare these characteristics to global scenarios. On a truly global scale, the number of involved individuals would extend to several billion. The surface areas of global commons reach millions of square kilometers, some even encapsulate the whole planet, such as the atmosphere. The interconnectedness found on the local scale is either weak or absent on the global scale. Naturally, different cultures, ideologies and institutions would collide. For most of the involved individuals the distance to the common resource is too far for them to directly interact with it. The consequences of their actions will not be visibly connected to the degradation they cause as many indirect factors, such as travel, play into the destruction of common resources (Stern 2011). There can be chain reactions which ultimately lead to dire degradation. For example, in the case of waste disposal leading to water pollution and thus to a change in the ecosystem, the root cause and where the ensuing effect of degradation is felt can be found in very distant geographical locations. There is an imbalance between those at fault and those who feel the effect. Stern (2011) insists the main users of resources are mostly not the main bearers of the loss due to degradation. Thus the effects of their actions are easily ignored by the causers. As, interests in global commons diverge, a single collective pursuit does not exist as it does on the local level. Stern further claims that the main users, such as large corporations, actually have an incentive to deny global climate change, because they draw benefits from deteriorating global common resources. Contrary to Ostrom’s examples, where resources are renewable, many valuable global resources are non-renewable, therefore once they are depleted it is impossible to revert the mistake, as it will be too late.

Next, we shall attempt to apply Ostrom’s eight principles to global commons.

The first principle calls for the clear definition of group boundaries and of resource capacities, which implies a mechanism for excluding non-members of the group as well as establishing boundaries of the common resources (Ostrom 1990: 91). Regarding global commons this principle is null, as by definition “global” includes the whole planet, thus prohibiting exclusion of any kind.

Principle two states that the manner of governing common resources must be adapted to local conditions (Ostrom 1990: 92). To fulfill this principle globally would be impossible, since needs vary across different geographical locations. There can be no one set of rules to satisfy all of them. However, one could argue that climate change is a global condition and rules concerning the use of the commons must be adjusted in order to reduce it.

It must be ensured that most individuals who are affected by the rules for governing the commons may participate in rule modification (Ostrom 1990: 93). This third principle is inapplicable already solely for the fact that we declared principle 2 as infeasible, as a consequence of which there would be no rules for governing the commons. Yet even if there was a set of universal rules, seeing that there are multiple billion people who would be affected, the sheer number makes it impossible for all to partake in the decision-making process. Nonetheless, Stern (2011) suggests that rephrasing the third principle, such that only a certain range of affected individuals might participate in developing rules, may be an effective solution for applying the principle globally. Here the challenge lies in choosing participants in a fair manner in order to secure an equal representation of interests as far as possible.

Finding an efficient solution for monitoring is a key element of governing commons effectively. As Ostrom explains, monitoring, along with commitment, is a major issue. Her fourth principle suggests developing a system for monitoring member’s behavior, either through the members themselves or through an independent agent assigned by the members (Ostrom 1990: 94). Once again, the sheer number of appropriators to monitor and the extent of the global commons pose a great challenge to this principle. What is more, there is a conflict of interest, since large appropriators, who have the most information on the resource and thus would be ideal monitors have an incentive to cheat as they gain from overusing resources (Stern 2011). It is thus questionable whether on a global scale appropriators are ideal monitors. Furthermore, assigning an independent monitor is challenging, since everyone has stakes in the global commons.

Principle five expresses the need for graduated sanctions for rule violators, which are applied proportionally to the gravity of the offense (Ostrom 1990: 94). Being the follow-up to monitoring, this principle will be affected by the issues raised for the fourth principle. Incomplete or false information may lead to disproportional sanctioning. Furthermore, as it is unclear who has the right to monitor on a global scale, it is equally undetermined who might rightfully impose sanctions. There can however be no question that both monitoring and sanctioning are vital for dealing with the climate crisis.

Low-cost and rapidly accessible means to resolve conflicts must be granted to all parties involved (Ostrom 1990: 100). Looking from the global perspective, the involved parties can often be situated at opposite ends of the world, causing an international conflict. Although there are institutions of international environmental law in place, they are mainly for resolving conflict among States. No one could argue that this is an accessible or low-cost option for conflict resolution. Hence, smaller actors are automatically excluded from the discussion about the use of the commons, as they do not possess the means to defend their position.

The seventh principle requires outside authorities to minimally respect the right of appropriators to self-organize, allowing them to enforce their own rules (Ostrom 1990: 101). In the global context, there can be no external authorities since all authorities are involved participants and are influenced by how the global commons are used.

In the last principle Ostrom presents the condition that all the above principles must be organized in nested levels, to establish rules from lower-levels up to higher-levels that complement each other in order to create a long-term interconnected system (Ostrom 1990: 101). The implementation of this principle globally can be even be counterproductive claims Stern (2011). Firstly, as it gives lower-level appropriators the opportunity to externalize costs of degradation. Secondly, contrary to local commons, smaller actors lack the knowledge and the means required to preserve global commons.

Although Ostrom’s framework constitutes a compelling solution to the governance of commons on a local scale, her eight principles are unable to be applied effectively to global commons. Her argument that individuals should be the key actors in preserving commons fails in the global context. The assumptions supporting her theory, self-imposed binding contracts agreed upon unanimously, complete information and mutual monitoring driven by self-interest, do not hold already simply due to the size of the human population and the vastness of the commons in question.

We have seen that actions have indirect effects on global resources which can cause their degradation. In this area, the climate movement has been instrumental for building awareness. Still, as participants are not directly confronted with the damage they are causing, the feeling of responsibility can easily be pushed aside. The common interest to preserve the commons, is undeniably a necessary condition for the success of Ostrom’s framework. While many large and powerful appropriators still gain from the degradation of global commons it will be challenging to make progress in the preservation of common resources. Especially, if monitoring can be corrupted and sanctioning is thus based on incomplete or biased information. On a global basis, it seems smaller actors will always be disadvantaged, as they neither possess the knowledge nor the means to fend for themselves. Moreover, the causality between a certain action and a specific damage is complicated to prove, as many indirect factors have an impact on the global commons. Consequently, major appropriators cannot be directly punished for their actions and will continue depleting global resources.

Positively, it has been recognized internationally, notably in the preamble of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, that “change in the earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern for humankind” (UNFCCC 1992). Climate change is thus classified as a universal condition, which could theoretically be used in Ostrom’s second principle. However, as this framework applies to states and not to individuals it does not align with Ostrom’s.

On a local scale Ostrom’s theory ticks all the boxes, as the members of the concerned community are able to experience both social justice and sustainability of their common resource. Thus, fulfilling the Lockean proviso (1690), in that depletion is avoided and that “there is enough, and as good” still available to others. Per contra, globally the infeasibility of complying with her principles, leaves her framework confronted with similar issues arising with the conventional solutions of the centralizers and the privatizers presented in the introduction. Exposing Ostrom’s principles to global problems, while trying to keep them as pure as possible may lead to a trade-off between social justice and protection of the commons. Contrary to the local scale, the involvement of all concerned parties may counteract progress in the direction of global resource preservation.

In conclusion, Ostrom’s principles in their strictly original form cannot be applied to global commons. However, there might be alterations which could be undertaken in order to make the principles applicable to global commons, yet elaborating on these alternatives would exceed the scope of this essay (see Stern 2011).

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