The (False) Tragedy
of the Commons

November-December 2012

We all want the best, for ourselves and for our loved ones. We all want to create wealth, protect our natural resources and enjoy a good quality of life. It’s natural. But when the time comes to organize our lives within society, we tend to go to extremes. It’s either left or right. We ask for more government involvement or conversely for more private enterprise and individual freedom. However, from a slightly less radical perspective, why don’t we ever ask for a model in which groups take charge of their own potential?

Back in 1968, Garrett Hardin published what we now refer to the tragedy of the commons, which did nothing to help promote collective management. Providing the example of a hypothetical common field in which farmers could let their cattle roam freely, Hardin believed that each farmer would overuse the resource to the detriment of the common good and that would lead to the irreversible depletion of the environment. He therefore concluded that groups could not sustainably manage their common goods. The solution, he surmised, had to be nationalization or privatization. This is what is now called the tragedy of the commons, which, I must specify, is still popular with several economists.  

Man would therefore be so dumb that He could not adequately manage, in collaboration with others in his group, the resources on which he and his group depend upon. Doubtful. But local players have been pushed to the forefront, especially since Elinor Ostrom’s work has received international acknowledgement and she was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009. Her works show that the tragedy of the commons does not in fact reflect reality. She revisits the communal systems throughout history (pastures, forests, irrigation systems) and factually demonstrates how and why these systems, when managed by the collective, were stable and efficient.

These common systems have never been vacant spaces where anarchy was set free. Quite the opposite, these collectively managed environments were highly organized. The nature and the scope of the environment were clearly and accurately delineated and the locals, who maintained frequent social interactions, joined together with respect and trust. Rules were implemented, defined and approved by the collective. They made sure that wrongdoers were duly sanctioned. And finally, individuals outside of the collective were not allowed free access to the resource. That’s how these communal systems, as studied by Ostrom, survived through the centuries.
Allow me to make a parallel with the cooperative system, which presents similar features: The purpose of the cooperative is clearly defined in its statutes, we foster associative life, and all members gather for the general meeting to establish rules and regulations. However, there are few sanctions for wrongdoers; although there is a provision that allows for the exclusion of a member if the latter does not respect his or her contract, it is seldom enforced. In fact, we allow people who are not members of our cooperatives to take advantage of the cooperative’s services. Is this not something we should think about?

During a recent lecture, Ostrom further elaborated. She encouraged polycentric governance that would rest on subsidiarity. What this translates into is a model in which independent local decision centres would ensure the collective’s agreement and improved adequacy of its needs, these centres would be assembled by higher level entities that would be in charge of monitoring performance, providing access to information and managing resources on a large scale. How interesting since it bears a strong resemblance to the vision that was the basis of our wide-reaching Chrysalide project!

La Coop network seems to be on the right track, since it has already integrated the characteristics that lead to sustainability. As for Ostrom, she was supposed to be one of the prestigious guest speakers invited to Quebec last October, but sadly she passed away over the summer. Let’s hope that her work will continue and that the huge potential of collective management will finally be acknowledged, valued and put into effect.


Colette Lebel, agr.
Director Cooperative Affairs
and Board Secretary Assistant
La Coop fédérée
Fax: 514 850-2567


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