What are not the Commons? The myth of the “tragedy of the Commons”

Conventional economists have long seen the Commons as an inventory of resources that are free for the taking, or that can potentially be owned and shared by all, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, outer space, the Internet. The focus is on Commons as a resource or property, and not on commoning. This way of seeing the Commons reflects the worldview of market economics, which distorts biophysical and social realities. It sees human beings as separate from each other and existing independently of earthly systems. This is the economic view of life: humans as autonomous individuals constantly striving to maximize their “personal utility” through competition in Darwinian Markets. This point of view implies that living systems are best managed through individual property rights, and that our relationship with the Earth should be extractive and market-based.

In a short but influential essay published in the journal Science in 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin invited readers to picture a shared pasture open to all, on which no single herder has a “rational” incentive to limit his cattle’s grazing. The inevitable result, Hardin concluded, is that each farmer will use as much of the Common resource as possible. This overuse inexorably leads to its ruin—the so-called “tragedy of the Commons.”

Over the past five decades, Hardin’s essay has become one of the most cited essays in scientific literature. It is treated as a self-evident truism by economists and politicians. Unfortunately, Hardin was not describing an actual Commons. He was depicting an open access regime without constraint in which everything is free for the taking. That’s something very different.

In a Commons, there is a distinct community of people who govern the shared wealth. Everyone works to negotiate terms of peer governance, resolve group conflicts, and monitor and enforce rules.

Until today, the “tragedy of the Commons” story is used to affirm the virtues of private

property. It also helps to distract attention from the self-organized cooperation that occurs throughout the world every day. 

A very important figure in debunking the myth of the “tragedy of the Commons”, was political scientist and political economist, Elinor Ostrom. She was the first woman to win the Nobel prize in economics. She received this prize for her extensive research on patterns of successful Commons governance. Throughout her career, she documented more than 800 cases from around the world and developed the “8 rules for managing the Commons”.
It is these design principles which we now invite you to examine, to further deconstruct this myth. They are illustrated in parallel to the Eight Points of Reference for Commoning which were elaborated by the participants of the German Sommerschool on the Commons in 2012, and which reflect on Elinor’s design principles from the perspective of a commoner. These principles can come in handy for people who are interested in forming a Commons, or for people who are already active within a Commons and would like to reflect on their ways of working.

A short film explaining the myth of the tragedy of the Commons: