By Patrick Pompili
Patrick Pompili’s essay reflects on the work of Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. This essay was awarded second prize in the 2009 CUNY Nobel Science Challenge, which asks students to explain both the science and significance of the 2009 Nobel research.
Imagine for a moment that you are far away from your CUNY campus, living as a member of a distant tribe whose survival depends on farming a specific resource. As time goes on, the emergence of new tribes threatens your sole ownership of this resource. How are you to peacefully divide this necessity to best benefit your tribe and others? The answer to this is an economic principle that has dwindled over time. Collective ownership has been instrumental in the survival of many different types of ecological resources and will continue to be for years to come. It is the method dividing control of a resource by the fact of participation in it and was once the principle system of economic governance.
This process of governance has slowly declined, as governments evolve and increasingly assert more control over the natural resources that we share. Scientists, politicians, and even great thinkers of our time have argued against collective ownership, fearing that their people were not capable of cooperation without government supervision and authority. Elinor Ostrom, the American political scientist and recent Nobel Prize winner, is not one such thinker. She is an advocate of collective ownership, especially among social-ecological systems, and believes that it is the best option of management for some resources. She has extensive knowledge of this field of economics, drawing upon the concepts from many scientific theories, such as social dilemmas, game theory—especially the ideas of Garret Hardin—and of course, ecological science. These are infused with the base disciplines of economics and political science.
A social-ecologic system (SES), such as a coastal fishing area, is a great point of reference to describe the practicality of collective ownership because it is one of the oldest settings in which this has been applied. Natural resources are presumably available to all peoples, but the need for some form of control over these resources is significant. Overuse and poor management of these resources can rapidly deplete them. Cooperation among those who depend on them makes for a crucial, yet fragile, relationship.
A model in economics called game theory attests to this fragility, focusing on the ever-encompassing position of self-sustainment. At its core, game theory is an in-depth look at strategic decision making, with each “player’s” actions affecting another’s. In the case of a SES, the interest in a resource for an individual is, at its most basic, one of survival: to use this resource to benefit him- or herself (and family). When cooperation among others is necessary, it may be hard to find a common road. Individuals will be very distrusting among themselves because their knowledge of the others’ actions is limited. “Tragedy of the Commons,” by Garret Hardin (1968), describes a theory that closely relates to Dr. Ostrom’s work, and although its conclusion may be the complete opposite of what she pursues in her research, it is a very important thought process that must be recognized when considering collective ownership in a given situation. Dr. Hardin applied game theory to issues such as the overuse of our natural resources, concluding that each user will eventually choose to maximize profits, which will eventually lead to the destruction of their resources, leaving them with nothing.
What place does collective ownership have in today’s world? It can be most effective when regulating common-pool resources, as Dr. Ostrom points to in her writings. These resources are largely considered unallocated, open to all and owned by no one. These are the resources that must be assessed for the ability of self-governance among those who depend on them. It would not be wise to determine too quickly whether a government-controlled system would be successful or that collective ownership is the best solution. In an interview with Adam Smith, the editor-in-chief of nobelprize.org, she said, “…we can’t just now be naïve and think, ‘Oh, well, just leave it to the people, they will always organize.’ There are many settings that discourage self organization.” Dr. Ostrom points out that many variables must be evaluated within a specific resource to determine if collective ownership will be beneficial. She lists these variables in her Science magazine article (Vol. 325, July, 2009), some of them being the resource size, migration of the resource units (stationary like plants or minerals, or migratory like most animals and fish), the population of the users (the number of fishermen, for example), and users’ knowledge of the resource.
Knowledge of the individuals who rely on the resource is one of the most important variables. They may be very skilled at, say, catching fish, but they may lack ecological knowledge that would give them insight into the fragility of sustaining their resource. Overproduction, detrimental fishing techniques, and damaging sailing methods (like the negative effect of motorized boats and their propellers on fish environments) can devastate a resource. By spreading knowledge among the many users of a resource, it will be easier to be able to convince them that group maintenance is necessary, including rules and regulations, collective supervision, and agreement on penalties. They must acknowledge that the costs they will endure by working together—for instance, money for supervisory materials; losing profits by attending meets when they could be working; and the costs of having this legislation accepted by the local government—will outweigh the costs of inevitable destruction of their shared resource.
This notion is important not only among the users of the resource, but also those involved in devising a collective ownership system for the resource. Scientists who are investigating resource management must make their data accessible to one another. A social-ecologic system is so diverse that it affects many disciplines of science, and the results of one discipline can greatly aid the research of another. It is all too common that one science will arrange its data in such a way that is only comprehensible or useful to those within its field. This only limits the ability of a field of science to get the big picture, to take into account factors that it may not commonly anticipate. Dr. Ostrom explains that a uniform system of research, such that each field of science involved will follow the same formula for organizing and presenting its data, will benefit the process of developing a plan of governance. In this way it will be easier for each field to understand and use the data, thus increasing the likelihood of a successful solution of management.
When these variables, along with the others Dr. Ostrom suggests, are investigated, collective ownership can work. It has been successful since the beginning of time and it will continue to be an important and relevant method of governance in the future as well. There are many benefits to shared governance, including reduced costs, maintenance of a resource by those with firsthand knowledge and dependence on it, and strong community bonds among those who use the resource.
Applying what we know about collective ownership and the lasting effects of a disorganized system of governance shows us that long term effectiveness depends on several key measures: cooperation among the sciences (i.e., that data and research are accessible to and can be comprehended by all the involved disciplines); education of the users (so that they are clearly aware of the long-term benefits of cooperation); and limitations of governmental rules and regulations (which tend to be blanket rules that may apply to all sectors of a resource).
As the world becomes increasingly smaller and as resources slowly are used up, collective ownership will actually become more and more important. A broad governmental policy would be an arbitrary one that individuals will continue to attempt to undermine and ignore. Yet, when individuals work together, they will be more likely to hold one another accountable. This is because they invest their own time and energy in the management of the resource. Every minute spent on maintaining adequate group governance will represent money that they could have made from the resource. This will guide their energies to following the system appropriately.
A system of collective ownership is complex, with many intricate overlaps in the many variables that account for a single resource. A lot of research and energy must be given to find the perfect system for a specific resource. Yet, in the end, if a collective ownership relationship can be utilized, it can make the difference in sustaining the environment and the lives that depend on its resources. It is an underdog in today’s world of capitalism and government authority, but it is time tested, it is sustainable, and it is important. It rests upon the overarching value that many people have been raised on: to sustain a profitable resource, all we need to do is play well with others.
Hardin, Garrett. (1968). Tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.
Ostrom, Elinor. (2009). A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science, 325, 419-422.
Published December 14, 2014