The Commons

In trying to understand the solution to the problem of the commons, the fisheries off the coast of Maine offer a tale both cautionary and instructive.

The ?tragedy of the commons? is exemplified by the community pasture. The community as a whole benefits if grazing is restricted, so there is enough fodder for all of our cows. But if any one person defects and grazes an extra cow, he or she enjoys a singular disproportionate benefit, while the suffering is spread among all. This is the tragedy of the commons.

In the village this is most often dealt with by the fact that we all live in the same neighborhood, and we glare darkly at and ostracize the people who cheat. That is a time-tested and well developed strategy. We all understand the collective value of our pasture, and if we all have history in a place, and knowledge of its workings, this tends to work well.

Imagine the globe as the commons, however, where the benefit occurs in one place among one group of people, while the tragedy is spread wide. Think greenhouse climate change, where the benefit is disproportionately enjoyed by the industrialized world, while the people who live on low-lying islands stand to be screwed. Their glaring at us has not seemed to change our behavior.

Which is where the Maine fisheries example comes in. In their piece ?The Struggle to Govern the Commons?[1], Thomas Dietz and his colleagues wander through a litany of examples, in which both top-down, governmentally imposed solutions for the management of the commons have been suggested, as well as those applied from the bottom up. The fish catch, managed by a governmental top-down approach, has largely collapse. The lobster catch, in comparison, has flourished, as the lobstermen themselves worked together to impose the necessary institutions to ensure that the commons can be sustained.

Inshore fisheries are similarly degraded where they are open access or governed by top-down national regimes, leaving local and regional officials and users with insufficient autonomy and understanding to design effective institutions. For example, the degraded inshore ground fishery in Maine is governed by top-down rules based on models that were not credible among users. As a result, compliance has been relatively low and there has been strong resistance to strengthening existing restrictions. This is in marked contrast to the Maine lobster fishery, which has been governed by formal and informal user institutions that have strongly influenced state-level rules that restrict fishing. The result has been credible rules with very high levels of compliance. A comparison of the landings of ground fish and lobster since 1980 is shown in. The rules and high levels of compliance related to lobster appear to have prevented the destruction of this fishery.

Hard to imagine how this insight might be applied to greenhouse gas emissions, but it does suggest that part of the framework required is an empowerment of the local. We know best how our own pastures work.

1. Dietz, T., E. Ostrom, and P.C. Stern, The Struggle to Govern the Commons. Science, 2003. 302(5652): p. 1907-1912.